HHow to rewrite the history of a people? This question shapes Tommy Orange’s sad and beautiful debut novel. Orange is a registered member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma. There there is both the story of a small group of “Urban Indians” living in Oakland and the story of “American Indians and Indians, American Indians and North American Indians, American Indians, North America, Native people, NDND and Ind’ins, Status Indians and Non-Status Indians, First Nations Indians and Indians, so Indians, either we think about it every day or we never think about it at all. And telling the story of its small group of Orange characters gives its readers a feel for the grand sweep of history that was initiated when a group of settlers showed up and took a continent from the people who lived there.
The prologue to the book does not begin with a character but with the Indian head. The image of a capped head was used as a TV test card after the end of the day’s programming. He appeared on American televisions until the 1970s. The chef had no name. He had no body. He didn’t have a tribe. It was just the Indian chief. Orange goes from that glowing TV head to the severed head of the Wampanoag chief, which was kept on a spike outside of Plymouth Colony. The prelude continues by describing how European settlers murdered Native Americans. “They ripped unborn babies out of the womb, took what we were meant to be, our children before they were children, babies before they were babies.”
Why all this fuss? Because Orange cannot count on its readers to find out. Too many people have learned their story through sweet Thanksgiving parades and cowboy movies in which Native Americans are played by an “Italian named Iron Eyes Cody”. When they appear, the Orange characters look nothing like their Hollywood avatars. They live in Oakland, cycle and drive postal vans. As if anticipating a reader who is waiting for a book on mythical figures who communicate only with trees and grass, the prologue laughs: “Buildings, highways, cars, are they not Earth ?
Various characters make their way to the Big Oakland Powwow, where there will be a dance competition with a big cash prize. Everyone wants something different from the event. Orvil Red Feather aims to win, despite a poor costume. Edwin Black wants to meet his real father. Blue works for the festival and the job is her chance to escape an abusive partner. Tony Loneman plans to steal the prize using a 3D printed gun, and the reader is aware of this threat of violence. Loneman’s weapon is reminiscent of Chekhov’s rule that a gun in the first act of a play must surely explode at the end: anticipation keeps the novel tight and fast.
The brilliance of the book lies in what Orange does with this tension. With the powwow plot device that holds the book together, it has the freedom to tell many different stories with many different voices. We learn how to tear the fur of a living badger in order to create a pharmacy. We also learn about Oakland gentrification, the excitement of buying a drone, of meeting the man who raped you. We learn that many Native American names are colors because they did not have a surname before the arrival of the settlers: the names were invented or poorly translated or imposed. The Indian word has imposed itself. His white mother’s use of “Native American Indian” makes Edwin Black cringe. He does not know his tribe but he has learned that on Facebook the common term is “Native”.
The novel grants each character the gift of complexity. It is possible to love and be selfish, to limp and to walk arrogantly. These people have been hurt by history, but are also capable of causing injury, either with a 3D printed gun or by walking away from their families in the haze of drinking.
The theme of drug addiction is recurrent. For many characters it’s alcohol, but drugs, Pepsi, and even the computer also provide a way out. Orange refuses the common amalgam between being Native American and drug addict. Instead, he describes the heartache that drives each character to their individual obsession. In the words of one, “Some of us have this feeling stuck inside, all the time, like we’ve done something wrong. As if we ourselves are something wrong… We drink alcohol because it helps us feel that we can be ourselves and not be afraid. But we punish ourselves with it.
The force that pushes against this injustice is history. Sometimes it takes the form of AA confessions, sometimes it is the hope of writing a short story collection or compiling video testimonies after the loss of a family member. The word “story” pops up over and over again, weaving its way through the various narratives. As Opal’s mother says, “You must know that we should never not tell our stories.” The prologue describes how untold stories can turn into a wound and how fake stories hurt. Maybe telling your own story is an attempt at healing, at least a little.
But a lot of the characters don’t know how to tell their story. Knowing what you are not is not the same as knowing what you are. The characters are not sure what it means to be Native American. Some, like Dene Oxedene, are Métis. Blue was adopted and raised outside of the community. Edwin Black was raised by his single white mother and doesn’t feel “native” enough. Thomas Frank is half native and half white and thinks, “You come from a people who took and took and took and took. And of a people taken. You were neither. For Thomas this split is manifested in his white legs and brown arms and he wonders “what they were doing together on the same body, in the same bathtub”.
These characters are both Amerindians and learn to be Amerindians. Edwin Black studied Native Americans at university and went in search of his father. Thomas Frank immersed himself in the circle of Indian drummers. Blue feels white on the inside and therefore gets a job at the Indian Center to find a way to belong. Orvil Red Feather conducts his own research. His grandmother is too busy to teach him, so “virtually everything Orvil has learned about being Indian he has learned virtually.” He watches hours and hours of powwow footage. He even goes to Urbandictionary.com to learn the word “Pretendian”. But her grandmother argues: “You are Indian because you are Indian because you are Indian.
Eventually, Orvil puts that uncertainty into his powwow dance. In the locker room, surrounded by other men getting ready for the dance, he realizes that they “all needed to dress to look Indian too”. Although still uncertain of his status, he decides that “to cry is to spoil the feeling.” He needs to dance with it. Crying is when there is nothing else to do.
There there itself is a kind of dance. Even in its tragic details, it’s lyrical and playful, quivering and shimmering with energy. The novel delves into the smallest personal details and sweeps history. Orange, like Orvil, creates beauty out of tragedy. Yet the novel remains a warning about the desolation that results when you separate parents from their children and try to eradicate a people.