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
  • PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a candidate with excellent communication skills and a commitment to environmental conservation for the position of Public Lands Program Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • 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.