By Eve Marx
I belong to a book group; it’s natural and common for the membership to pass around books we’ve enjoyed. Not all the books make it to our scheduled discussions, which, yes, are all accompanied by food and drink. (Has there ever been a book group, except maybe bible study, that hasn’t included food and drink?) So when two of the book group members urged me to read “There There” by Tommy Orange, it was hard to say no, even though my night table was already groaning with piles of books.
“There There,” published in 2018, is a debut novel by Cheyenne and Arapaho author Tommy Orange, a graduate of the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. He is also a McDowell Fellow. The story is a contemporary tale of woe of violence and recovery as well as memory and identity of Native Americans. Told from the point of view of 13 intergenerational characters, all Natives, everything comes to a head at the gathering of the Big Oakland Powwow. Among them, Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober. Dene Oxendene struggles to pull his life together after his uncle’s death. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield only wants to see her nephew, Orvil, perform traditional Indian dance. Tony Loneman is the teenage product of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. At the Powwow, their lives converge in an afternoon of unspeakable loss, sacrifice, and heroism.
Although I like to think of myself as someone widely read, the sole Native American author I’m familiar with is Louise Erdrich. That doesn’t really speak that well of me. Reading “There There” I was forced to acknowledge how little I know about Native people, in no small part because everywhere I’ve lived, and I’ve lived on both coasts, east and west, Native people and their culture were systematically wiped out by white men.
After I finished the novel, I searched for more information about its author. In an interview with the American Booksellers Association, Orange said many Native Americans today struggle with authenticity. He said if you don’t look stereotypically Native, as soon as you say who you are, everyone thinks they have the right to ask you how Native you are, and how much right you have to claim your heritage. He said that’s a seriously destructive thing to experience.
The novel’s title comes from a 1937 Gertrude Stein reference to Oakland, “There’s no there there.” Stein was talking, even then, about urban sprawl and land developed to the point of unrecognition. Orange said he drew a parallel to the Native experience of there not being a “there there” for Native lands and the people who once inhabited it. This made me think of the Clatsop tribe and what has become of them.
In the early part of the 19th century, the Clatsop made their home on the Oregon coast from the mouth of the Columbia River south to Tillamook Head. The Natives shared their salmon, their berries, and their hunting tips with the white men but did not mingle socially; in 1851 the Clatsop tribe ceded by treaty 90 percent of their land to the U.S. government.
Today the Clatsop have no formal recognition, which means their people, like so many other Natives, struggle to maintain an identity. Two hundred or so Clatsop Natives formed an unofficial confederation called the Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes of Oregon. Some Clatsop also are enrolled with the Chinook Tribe.
I wonder if the popularity of genetic testing kits such as 23andMe and AncestryDNA can help them find more of each other and inspire interest in their heritage.
Meanwhile, if you want to get a taste of what it means to be an urban Native, read “There There.” It’s available at the Cannon Beach Book Company on North Hemlock Street.