“There There,” a novel by Tommy Orange, brings to life the stories of twelve Native Americans in Oakland, California, as they converge on the Big Oakland Powwow.
Through a masterful weaving of voices and experiences, Orange explores the complexities of Indigenous identity, the bonds of community, and the legacies of history in the urban landscape.
In the heart of Oakland, California, a vibrant and diverse community of urban Native Americans is drawn together by the promise of the Big Oakland Powwow, an event that is much more than a cultural gathering.
It is a nexus for the hopes, dreams, and struggles of twelve interconnected characters, each navigating the complexities of Indigenous identity against a backdrop of historical trauma and personal demons.
Tony Loneman, marked by fetal alcohol syndrome, battles with deep-seated shame and a desperate need for belonging.
His involvement in a dangerous scheme to rob the powwow is both a misguided attempt at asserting control and a tragic reflection of his internal turmoil.
The mastermind of this plot, Octavio Gomez, a drug dealer, sees the powwow as an opportunity to exploit, unaware of the profound connections that tie him to the other attendees.
Dene Oxendene, driven by a mission to honor his uncle’s legacy, aims to capture the essence of Oakland’s Native American community through a documentary project.
His work leads him to the powwow, where he hopes to share and celebrate the stories that weave the fabric of their shared heritage.
Amid these narratives are the stories of Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield and her half-sister Jacquie Red Feather, women of resilience navigating the complexities of family and identity.
Jacquie’s journey to reconnect with her children and battle her demons highlights the enduring impact of past traumas on the present.
The powwow becomes a focal point for these characters and more, each bringing their own histories, hopes, and fears to the event.
Fourteen-year-old Orvil Red Feather’s discovery of his cultural heritage through dance, Edwin Black’s quest for connection and identity, and Blue’s reflections on her tumultuous past all converge at the powwow, setting the stage for a dramatic climax.
As the day of the powwow arrives, anticipation turns to chaos.
A robbery gone wrong leads to a violent shootout, shattering the sanctuary of the powwow and leaving a trail of tragedy. In the aftermath, Tony Loneman’s final moments offer a poignant glimpse into the search for freedom from the burdens of the past.
Tony, a distinctive young man marked by fetal alcohol syndrome, navigates life in Oakland caught between his role as a drug dealer for Octavio and his more introspective moments of self-awareness.
His story frames the novel, highlighting his deep-seated struggles with identity and belonging as he grapples with his place both within and outside his community.
Dene embarks on a heartfelt project to capture the stories of Indigenous Americans in Oakland, inspired by his late uncle.
A young documentary filmmaker, he aims to weave together the diverse narratives of his community, finding his own path in the process. His work at the Big Oakland Powwow serves as a beacon of storytelling and memory.
Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield
In her fifties, Opal carries the weight of her past, from her activism at Alcatraz to her turbulent adolescence in foster care.
A letter carrier by profession, she now shoulders the responsibility of raising her sister Jacquie’s three grandsons, embodying resilience and maternal care in the face of ongoing challenges.
Jacquie Red Feather
Jacquie’s life is a tapestry of pain and recovery, marked by the trauma of her early experiences at Alcatraz, the loss of her daughter, and her battle with addiction.
Now sober and working as an addiction counselor, Jacquie’s journey is one of redemption and healing, underscored by her complex relationships with her family and her past.
Edwin, grappling with his Cheyenne heritage and an internet addiction, lives with his white mother while yearning to connect with his Native roots.
His search for his father leads him to more active involvement in the Native community and a role in organizing the Big Oakland Powwow, marking his transition into a more engaged and purposeful life.
A Vietnam War veteran and custodian at the Oakland Coliseum, Bill struggles with his past and his present, especially in his interactions with Edwin, his partner’s son.
Bill’s experiences reflect broader themes of conflict, redemption, and the generational divides within families and communities.
Entangled in debts to his brother Charles and, by extension, Octavio, Calvin’s life is a reflection of the pressures and dangers of his environment.
His involvement in the powwow’s robbery plot showcases the difficult choices and moral complexities faced by those caught in cycles of violence and retribution.
Orvil Red Feather
Dreaming of powwow dancing, Orvil, raised by Opal, secretly prepares to participate in the Big Oakland Powwow.
His story is a poignant exploration of cultural reclamation and the search for identity, as he steps into the dance arena with hopes and dreams that transcend his family’s troubled past.
A drug dealer with a plan to rob the Big Oakland Powwow, Octavio is also deeply connected to his Indigenous heritage through his grandmother’s teachings.
His actions, driven by desperation and ambition, set in motion a series of events that highlight the intersections of tradition and modern challenges.
Octavio’s cousin, a tech-savvy teenager who experiments with 3D-printing guns and operates a drone.
Daniel’s involvement in the powwow’s robbery underscores themes of innovation misused, the naivety of youth, and the unforeseen consequences of technology.
As the head of the powwow committee and an employee at the Indian Center, Blue navigates her journey of self-discovery.
Raised by a white adoptive family, her work and the revelations about her heritage offer a narrative of reconnection and the complex search for identity within the Native community.
Struggling with alcoholism and recently fired from the Indian Center, Thomas finds solace and a sense of purpose in his music.
As a drummer with Southern Moon, his participation in the powwow represents a chance for redemption and a connection to cultural traditions that offer hope and healing.
1. The Complexity of Indigenous Identity in Urban Settings
The book delves deeply into the multifaceted nature of Indigenous identity, particularly within the urban landscape of Oakland, California.
Tommy Orange explores how his characters navigate the challenges of connecting with their cultural heritage amidst the concrete and noise of city life.
The novel presents a spectrum of experiences, from Tony Loneman’s struggle with societal perceptions due to his fetal alcohol syndrome to Dene Oxendene’s quest to preserve Indigenous stories through film.
These narratives highlight the ongoing battle between preserving traditional customs and adapting to modern urban existence, showcasing the diverse ways in which Native Americans engage with and redefine their identities in contemporary settings.
This theme underscores the resilience of Indigenous cultures and the ways in which individuals seek connection to their heritage against a backdrop of historical displacement and assimilation pressures.
2. Interconnectedness and Community
The intricate web of relationships among the characters in the novel emphasizes the theme of interconnectedness.
Orange illustrates how bonds of family, friendship, and shared heritage create a complex network that supports, challenges, and defines his characters. Through the planning and eventual convergence at the Oakland powwow, these connections come to the fore, revealing the strength and vulnerability of community ties.
The powwow itself serves as a microcosm for the broader Native American experience, highlighting how collective histories and personal narratives intertwine. This theme speaks to the importance of community as a source of strength and healing, providing a counterpoint to the isolation and fragmentation experienced by many characters.
It also reflects on how shared cultural and familial legacies can act as a foundation for unity and understanding in the face of adversity.
3. Legacy of Trauma and the Path to Healing
One of the most poignant themes Orange addresses is the enduring impact of historical and personal trauma on Indigenous peoples.
The novel does not shy away from depicting the harsh realities of violence, addiction, and loss that many characters face, tracing these issues back to the broader context of colonialism, forced assimilation, and systemic racism.
However, “There There” also offers a narrative of resilience and the possibility of healing. Characters like Jacquie Red Feather and her journey towards sobriety, or Edwin Black’s quest to understand his identity, exemplify the difficult but necessary path toward reconciling with one’s past.
The powwow, with its tragic climax, serves as a catalyst for change and reflection, prompting characters and readers alike to consider how healing can occur in the aftermath of violence.
Through these stories, Orange articulates a hopeful vision for the future, one in which acknowledging and confronting trauma paves the way for renewal and reconnection.
“There There” is not just a story about a powwow; it’s an intricate maze of lives intertwined by fate, family, and the relentless pull of identity.
It’s a narrative that delves deep into the heart of what it means to be Native American in urban America, exploring the pain, beauty, and complexity of surviving and thriving amidst a legacy of historical violence and racism.
Through the lens of twelve unforgettable characters, Tommy Orange crafts a compelling tale of resilience, connection, and the unbreakable bonds of community.