The acclaim There, Thereby Tommy Orange has earned is well deserved. I would think that there is nothing quite like it in the catalogue of the literature of indigenous people. There have been successful books, both fiction and nonfiction, by Native Americans, but this has a very modern sensibility and form.
Native Americans for the most part do not occupy their ancestral lands and we all know why. Although we cannot change what our nation’s forefathers did through arrogance, their misguided assurance of their supremacy as white-skinned people, their social structure which favored populated cities surrounded by farms, and their fear of warriors who were trying to make these settlers leave for reasons we can well understand, when Tommy Orange exposes the way we have turned a multiverse of Native Americans into a single stereotype we see that we are guilty.
Tommy Orange keeps these guilty realities sometimes in the foreground and sometimes tucked away in the background. We arrive early in his novel at the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969. What seemed like a fine symbolic gesture and a bid for active resistance against being assigned to reservations without any choice proved to be an untenable situation, in terms of supply lines, the harshness of the island itself with its dilapidated prison, and interpersonal relationships that went off the rails without strong leadership.
Orange makes it a point to tell us that it was believed that Native Americans would either hate cities or be assimilated into American cities, but then he shows us that urban areas have actually allowed Indians to keep their culture alive. I use the word Indian only because the author does. In every city there are Indian Centers and the stories, songs, and dances are keep alive and shared. If they aren’t shared person-to-person, they are shared on the internet.
“But what we are is what our ancestors did. How they survived. We are the memories we don’t remember, which live in us, which we feel, which make us sing and dance and pray the way we do, feelings from memories that flare and bloom unexpectedly in our lives like blood through a blanket from a bullet fired by a man shooting us in the back for our hair, for our heads, for a bounty, or just to get rid of us.”
At first we seem to be reading a series of essays and short stories about Orange’s characters, but we can feel the pull of some event that ties all the elements together. Opal Viola Bear Shield and Jacquie Red Feather are sisters (to understand their non-matching surnames, read the book). Around these two revolve the stories of many other characters, mostly men and young boys. Overall looms the Pow Wow planned for the Oakland Coliseum towards which everyone moves to finally meet on a single fateful day.
I would have wished for a more upbeat ending, for more hope and the promise of positive outcomes. But this book, while it invites us all to read it, may not be something all of us can understand in a soul deep way, at least not without some time and thought. The ending, along with other factors, is what makes this book literature instead of just fiction. I may not belong at the pow wow, but we all may be headed for some sort of urban apocalypse, after which life will probably still go on, for good or ill.
Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – NPR