The search for Native identity on city streets

Tommy Orange deftly captures the urban-Indigenous experience in his debut novel.

 

Although the Native literary canon is wide in scope, relatively few Indigenous writers have tackled what it means to be Native American in an urban environment. Set in Oakland, California, and told through the eyes of a dozen Indigenous characters, Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, forces the reader to confront not just everyday casual racism, but also the misrepresentation of Natives in popular culture, the pain of missing legacies and the muffled hum of an ugly history, all against the backdrop of a thriving, pulsing city.

“An Urban Indian belongs to the city, and cities belong to the earth,” Orange writes in the prologue. Recognizing the rift between Native culture and life in a metropolis, he asks, why can’t Natives revere the city like they revere the earth?

“Buildings, freeways, cars — are these not of the earth? Were they shipped in from Mars, the moon? Is it because they’re processed, manufactured, or that we handle them? Are we so different?”

Many of Orange’s characters ended up in Oakland due to the federal government’s Indian relocation efforts, most notably in the 1950s, when it sought to dissolve tribal governments by offering to move tribal members into larger cities across the country. Although the move was intended to encourage assimilation, Orange told me recently, a lot of people saw it as a chance to start a new life.

Illustration by Ran Zheng

Leaving their homes and places of worship behind changed the lives of those people in countless ways, but Natives eventually left their cultural stamp on the city, even as the city left its marks on them. Yet the old way of life still tugs at many of Orange’s characters, beckoning them to learn more.

“Part of the point of the book is that we don’t necessarily know (where we came from),” Orange said. “And sometimes learning about what exactly all the language is, and the history, is a privilege. If you’re just surviving, there’s not history lessons, there’s not an official way to learn your culture.”

There There is a polyphonic novel, intertwining the stories of several urban Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, whose lives collide at a powwow robbery. Many of the characters are also woven together by another common thread: their search for a true identity, as they’re torn between the influence of the city and their Native heritage.

Take Tony Loneman, a 20-something Cheyenne who participates in the powwow robbery scheme. His ancestry is little more than a vague recollection, until Maxine, the Cheyenne woman he lives with and helps take care of, begins to make him learn it when he’s not out riding his bike through the Oakland neighborhoods listening to MF Doom and making drug deals.

“Maxine makes me read her Indian stuff that I don’t always get, I like it though because when I do get it, I get it way down at that place where it hurts but feels better because you feel it, something you couldn’t feel before reading it, that makes you feel less alone, and like it’s not gonna hurt as much anymore.”

While he was developing the novel, Orange worked with Native youth through an Indian health center in Oakland. He taught the kids how to capture the stories of their elders on film and edit together the narratives. He realized how many of these stories, just like his own, weren’t being told, or didn’t exist in popular culture. Orange wanted to write a new story, one in which other Natives could see themselves, a truly urban Native novel. And he succeeded.

Orange told me that each of his characters reflects him in some way, whether through their experiences, personal struggles or environmental surroundings. His life is glimpsed in characters like aspiring documentarian Dene Oxendene, with his sharp criticisms of the way Natives are represented and his desire to set people straight. And Orville Red Feather, the adolescent who sneaks away from his Cheyenne brothers to try on the powwow regalia he finds tucked away in a closet, squirming in front of the mirror in its ill-fitting pieces. And Blue, whose Oakland classmates used anti-Hispanic slurs to denigrate her because they didn’t realize that Native Americans still existed. The novel is very much shaped by Orange’s own life as an urban Native, and he says he’s been surprised to see such a wide, non-Native audience respond so eagerly.

“I think there’s something about the universality of specificity, why it’s connecting to so many maybe is related to how specific it is,” he said. Natives are inextricably linked to this country’s foundation, he said, and “that actual story and how it ties into people’s personal narratives of what it means to be an American, it has to include Native people.”

Graham Lee Brewer is a contributing editor for tribal affairs at High Country News. A member of the Cherokee Nation, he lives in Norman, Oklahoma. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....