Posts Tagged ‘Tommy Orange’

‘There There’ by Tommy Orange – Being Indian Today


‘There There’ by Tommy Orange (2018) – 290 pages

If you are expecting a nostalgic look at Native American life from the past, don’t read this novel. ‘There There’ is an enlightening, sometimes endearing and humorous, sometimes brutal and heartbreaking take on modern urban Indian life. This does not take place on the reservation but rather in the apartments and on the streets of Oakland, California today.


“We know the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than we do the smell of cedar or sage or even fry bread—which isn’t traditional, like reservations aren’t traditional, but nothing is original, everything comes from something that came before, which was once nothing.”

We have all heard the legend of the first Thanksgiving of the white settlers and the Native Americans sitting down together to a Thanksgiving feast. Here is an account of a more typical Thanksgiving in American history:

In 1637 near present day  Groton, Connecticut, over 700 men, women and children of the Pequot Tribe had gathered for their annual Green Corn Festival which is our Thanksgiving celebration. In the predawn hours the sleeping Indians were surrounded by English and Dutch mercenaries who ordered them to come outside.  Those who came out were shot or clubbed to death while the terrified women and children who huddled inside the longhouse were burned alive. The next day the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared “A Day Of Thanksgiving” because 700 unarmed men, women and children had been murdered. – ‘The Real Story of Thanksgiving’, Susan Bates, Manataka American Indian Council

Today Native Americans are still struggling to survive in our cities and on reservations. It is a story of low pay, inadequate employment, excessive alcohol drinking, broken homes, drug use, suicides. Even if you have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome because your mother drank to much when she was pregnant with you, life goes on for you. Some of the men leave their wives and small children to fend for themselves.

But ‘There There’ is enlivened by Tommy Orange’s all-encompassing empathy for these people, his people. The stories of twelve people are interspersed in short chapters until the conclusion where all the characters come together at the Big Oakland Powwow. Powwows may seem like an anachronism today, but they draw thousands of dancers from hundreds of tribes and tens of thousands of visitors to watch.

The eleven year old boy Orvil Red Feather wished his mother had taught him something about being Indian, but she was too busy. Instead he tries to learn it on the Internet, by “watching hours and hours of powwow footage, documentaries on YouTube, by reading all that there was to read on sites like Wikipedia,, and Indian Country Today.” His stolen Indian regalia is ready for the big day and he worries that he might look ridiculous. He teaches his two younger brothers Loother and Lony what it means to be Indian.

The Bay Area American Indian Two Spirits Powwow

Two of the main characters are the half-sisters Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield and Jacquie Red Feather. They shared a tough childhood with a mother who was often beaten. “Home for Jacquie and her sister was a locked station wagon in an empty parking lot. Home was a long ride on a bus.”

This is a powerful debut novel by Tommy Orange which is sure to move you.


Grade :     A


%d bloggers like this: