The Unheard Stories of the 'Urban Indian'

A powwow in 2015 at the Institute for American Indian Arts.

A powwow in 2015 at the Institute for American Indian Arts. Jason S. Ordaz (Institute of American Indian Arts)

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Tommy Orange's debut novel “There There” was one of the big breakout books of 2018. The novel is a best-selling, multiple award-winning, genre-busting epic populated with a constellation of Native American characters from a multitude of different backgrounds and experiences, with each character eventually finding themselves at a powwow in Oakland.

Orange is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in Oklahoma, but he grew up in Oakland, and rarely read stories that reflected the breadth of experiences like his own. He told Steve that with his novel, he hoped to better represent modern Native Americans that have grown up living in cities. 

This extended version of the radio conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

SP: Your prologue is a 10-page tour-de-force sweep of history, from the old genocidal stories of absolute brutal massacres right up to the urban Indians of contemporary America. This is a pretty unusual thing to write at the beginning of a novel. Why did you want to include this prologue in your book?

TO: From a craft perspective, I just liked what other books have done with prologues and how they contextualize story. Because prologues aren't necessarily part of the book in the same way a first chapter would be, you can be experimental. You can almost be authorial in a way, there's a voice that you can have before the book starts and you don't want necessarily your author voice to bleed in. Also, because I thought my audience was just Native people, or Native people from the city, and even though a lot of people think that just because you're Native you're sort of born with knowledge – it's not true – I found out a lot about history while researching for the book.

SP: You did a lot of research going into this book?

TO: Yeah I did. So to understand what an urban Indian is, you have to go back to relocation and genocidal policy. And if you're going to go back there, there's other stuff you have to go back to: the beginning of the way this country has thought about Native people. And that goes all the way back to the beginning. I also wanted to include the Sand Creek Massacre because my dad grew up telling us that story multiple times - probably the story we heard repeated the most.

SP: So what is the story at the Sand Creek Massacre?

TO: So in Colorado, there was a group of militia. We had a deal with the U.S. government— we had an American flag flying above where we were camped at Sand Creek in Colorado. And the idea was that we were protected: we're not going to be attacked because we have that flag; we had a white one up too. The men went away to hunt. As my dad told it, about 600 men— they drank all night nearby, and early in the morning came with howitzers. Machine guns. And it was it was women, children, and elders — they just slaughtered them. Probably over 200 people. Also mutilated them. There's really horrific stuff.

People were crowded around that flag and a white flag because there was an agreement, but there was this idea that we need to be terminated. I mean, it's not that far from the way German people thought of Jews during the Holocaust. These are lesser beings and we need to wipe them out.

SP: You said your father told you this story.

TO: Yes. He was raised by his great grandparents. So he learned a lot of old stories. And that one was one that he was told. I think it was in the spirit of "never forget." Sort of like Holocaust survivors telling their story.

SP: What was it like for you to grow up hearing that story?

TO: I knew from a very early age that I was made up of two things that seemed to be in conflict: I knew there was a really dark and intense history of Native and white people and I was somehow supposed to make sense of being both.

SP: Because your father is Native and your mother is white.

TO: That's right. So it's confusing. I grew up going to school and when the subject of "what I am" came up, it was always saying "I'm Native" because there wasn't really anything cultural or story-wise on the white side. There's just a mixture of European. So it felt more Native as the thing that I was, but I was just always aware of being both and that was complicated.

SP: In that prologue, you talk about the rise of the urban Indian and that's sort of the story of this book: it's not usually the story that we tend to to read about from Native writers. Most — to my knowledge — are set on reservations. Are these two totally different worlds?

TO: Yeah. The reservation writing has its place — it's part of the canon and everyone knows it. But for at least 10 years, 70 percent of Native people in the whole country are living in cities. And to not have had any representation of what that story is was pretty mind-blowing to me. A little bit scary, but also I think it left me open to do what I wanted with it because I didn't see it out there anywhere. So I'm not necessarily writing against reservation experience. There was just a big void of story. We're already an invisible population in this country or were misrepresented, and the urban Indian doubly so because there's no representation in movies or literature or TV.

SP: Can you spell out some of those differences, the reservation story versus the stories of urban Indians?

TO:If you grew up on a reservation, most likely you grew up around a lot of people from your tribe. You may have grown up with your language — maybe not — but you probably heard it. You're on a land base, which isn't necessarily historically where your tribe originally was. But there's at least history there.

SP: You're very rooted to that piece of land.

TO: Exactly, a sense of belonging. I wanted to find a way for that to be true for people who were born and raised in the city and still have a relationship to the land that they were born on. So the difference is the land base and the language, and cities are very intertribal. You're not going around seeing one tribe — oftentimes, as it is with the youth that I've worked with in Oakland, people are from several tribes. So it's a whole different kind of complexity in regards to identity. Which tribe do you pick if you're one quarter of four tribes? If you're an eighth of eight tribes, you probably can't even enroll in any tribe — then you're not technically Native, but you're full blood. So it's a really tricky and complex system.

SP: The title of your book, "There There," is a reference to an old line from something Gertrude Stein wrote a long time ago. She also grew up in Oakland and said there's no "there there" anymore — as in the Oakland of her childhood no longer existed by the time she was writing. What does "there there" mean to you?

TO: I was doing research for the novel and I was trying to read as much about Oakland — and what people had written about Oakland — as possible. There's not that much. Ishmael Reed has a great book about Oakland called "A Blues Walk in Oakland." And you have Gertrude Stein — the only thing she had to write about Oakland was that there was nothing to write about in "Everybody's Autobiography." Jack London is known more for adventure stories in the wild; definitely not urban stories or Oakland stories. And if they were, they'd be in an Oakland that we wouldn't recognize anyway.

Immediately, I understood that there were layers of meaning in regards to Native experience and growing up in the city — the "there there" for Natives growing up in Oakland. When I read that line, I knew the title was in there somewhere, but I had a lot of clumsy versions on the way before it landed on "There There." It happens to be ironic because it's not a comforting book. It's also kind of a condescending way that people sometimes respond to Native experience in story, like "aww, there there." And in a great serendipitous moment for me, "there there" is a Radiohead song, and the lyrics to it very much match the novel. It was just total chance — I happen to love Radiohead like a lot of people, and that was just to a happy coincidence.

SP: You tell this story of your novel through 12 different characters. So each chapter is told from the perspective of one character. Why did you want to structure it that way?

TO: Again, at first, it was something that I loved in reading books that have a bunch of voices, and figuring out how they all are connected. So it's a craft thing that I loved, and I knew I wanted to do. I enjoy when you're reading a book and you shift to a different perspective or voice. It's the kind of book I wanted to write. It just so happens that also — coming from a voiceless people — to have a whole bunch of voices in one setting and having them all connect works really well against voicelessness. There's a historic, monolithic version of Native people that is still pretty prominent. "This is what it means to be or look like an Indian." And it's deeply damaging because people who struggle with identity — varying degrees of connection in blood — the stick they have to measure themselves by is a historical Indian in a headdress. No other people are asked to look one single way. I think it's a systematic tool for erasure.

SP: So by having so many different characters, you are basically saying there's no one quintessential Native person — it’s an approach to bust those stereotypes.

TO: Yeah, and explore the range and humanity through all these different lenses. What novels do really well is to build empathy in people. If you can have people go through the experience with these characters and see them for all their flaws, you know ways that they work through struggle. I think it does a lot of work for how to change people's perspective.

SP:Can you tell us about a few of your characters? Give us a sense of the range of the different kinds of experiences you wanted to write about.

TO: It ranges from young people to old people, and in between. The book opens up with a character who has fetal alcohol syndrome, and when his grandma tells him — one of many characters being raised by a grandparent — she says fetal alcohol syndrome, all he hears is “drone.” He's seen differently by society and he knows he's supposed to be stupid, and he's sort of smart about that.

We also have a filmmaker in the next chapter, and then we have a little girl on Alcatraz. We get a later chapter when that girl is older and she ends up being the grandmother of these teenage boys who ride their bikes all over Oakland. One of the boys learns how to dance watching powwow videos on YouTube.

There's a couple of guys in their 20s from a tougher part of Oakland, and there's a woman fleeing an abusive boyfriend in Oklahoma and trying to make her way back to Oakland.

SP: And they all come together in this climactic scene at a powwow in Oakland.

TO: Yeah. Actually, in 2010 the idea just popped in my head. That was the basic premise — none of the characters were there. It was to have all these characters converge at a powwow in Oakland at the Coliseum. And then I spent the next six years writing into that.

SP: Did you go to a lot of powwows when you were growing up?

TO: I didn't. I remember one when I was like five. But I remember hardly anything but a lot of dirt and an orchard — to get away from the dirt. And then when I was 18 or 19, after my parents had divorced, my dad came back into town and randomly took us to a powwow out at a Berkeley gymnasium. An old friend was dancing — it was the first time I saw a dancer — and it was a powerful moment. And then when I worked in the native community in Oakland at the Indian Center there, I was on a powwow committee, and I got more much more involved in powwows happening around Oakland. They're all small, there's nothing like the big powwow on Oakland. There is one called "Gathering of Nations" in New Mexico that's a stadium-size, massive thing. That's what I was trying to pull off.

SP: Part of the story is what it means to have this Native identity in the midst of a much bigger city where there are all these different kinds of people. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I’m guessing there aren’t many institutions in Oakland that signal here is something Native and I suppose the powwow would be one of those.

TO: Yeah. We didn't grow up getting services in the Bay Area. But there's a bunch of Native organizations in the Bay Area — I've worked for almost every single one of them. These are the different groups that put on these little powwows. But there certainly is no visible mark that Natives are there. When you visit places like New Mexico and Oklahoma and Montana, even Wisconsin to some extent, there is a visible Native presence — you're sort of aware of it, maybe through names of things or actual monuments or artwork — but in places like Oakland, not necessarily.

SP: One question that keeps coming up in your novel — from the perspective of a lot of different characters — is who is a "real Indian." And it has to do with what people look like, who their parents were — especially if there was a white parent— and how they were raised. Was that a question that you had to deal with when you were growing up?

TO: I don't feel like I struggled with it the same way that other people do. Having a dad that grew up with great grandparents in Oklahoma, speaks the language...

SP: Speaks Cheyenne?

TO: Yeah, it was his first language — he didn't speak English until he was five. He didn't even see another white person until he was five.

He told me this story recently: he was sitting on a sack of flour in the back of the grocery store while his grandparents went shopping. And it really struck him — it was his first time seeing a white person. It also struck him when he was counting the change for them that the guy spoke Cheyenne. It was a small town called Hammon, Oklahoma and it was pretty much only white people and Cheyenne. So there was enough that they knew basic Cheyenne at that time.

To some extent I struggled because people just got what I was wrong. I was often assumed to be Mexican or Asian in high school, even to the point of getting in fights because people would call me racial slurs. Maybe there's some kind of identity crisis around the way I think the world sees me and maybe other Natives see me. But I always felt pretty solid in knowing who I was. Then once I was working in the urban Indian community and spending a lot of time there, I felt very embraced by that community. I don't think I would have been able to start writing this if I didn't feel pretty solid in my identity. I've seen a whole of range of security and insecurity around the idea of who is Native — it's not something I'd seen written about in quite the way that I have. It's part of the Native experience in contemporary times: to be an authentic Native, you have to have questioned your authenticity. It's almost a part of the experience.

SP: This self-consciousness is built into the process.

TO: Yeah.

SP: You said your father actually grew up speaking Cheyenne - that was his first language. Did he pass any of that on to you?

TO: I wish. The time period was much more about assimilation. He worked full time, and my mom doesn't speak the language, so there's only so much time to do it. And if the parents aren't talking...he would have had to really go out of his way to make sure that we were speaking it from an early age. And like I said, the time was much more assimilation and there weren't other Cheyenne families around. We would go back and visit our relatives in Oklahoma fairly often over the years, but it was never enough. So we grew up learning phrases, or he would say certain things that we knew. Or my mom would say the inverse of them and then we'd learn it wrong. So it was a mixed bag.

SP: Have you ever wanted to learn the language?

TO:Yeah, my sister actually just got fluent. And I'm working on an autobiographical family novel that’s going to infuse Cheyenne in ways that have made me very interested in understanding it more. I don't know that I have the time or discipline to become fluent — it would be a dream come true, though. It would be amazing to talk to my dad in Cheyenne.

SP: I'm curious about how you became a writer. I’ve talked with writers who’ve said they knew from an early age — at 10 years old or as a teenager —that they were going to be writers, that this was their destiny. Was that true for you?

TO: Not at all. I wasn't a writer or a reader, did not do particularly well in school. One of these "if only he applied himself" cases. I knew I was good at sports. Nobody encouraged me to do anything in school. No conversations about college. I got really into roller hockey, started playing on the streets in Oakland, and then eventually indoor roller hockey. Then the tournament level, and there was a pro league — they played at the Oakland Coliseum, actually, a pro team in the 1990s.

Then I became a musician when I was 18 and went to school for sound engineering. It wasn't until after graduating that I realized there were not very many good job prospects. I got a job at a used bookstore — there was an opening and I was interested in philosophy books. And maybe this is embarrassing to admit, but I think I was reading New Age books too at the time, just sort of searching for meaning in my early 20s. I think she probably hired me because she thought I could carry a lot of books and she wanted to move two warehouses into one.

SP: You brought the brawn factor.

TO: Yeah. So in carrying all these books, and moving the whole fiction section from one part of the store to another...titles are interesting, you know. I don't remember exactly which books first got me. Borges and Kafka really caught my attention early on because they're the bridge between philosophy and fiction. And I completely fell in love with it.

SP: So you're in your 20s? I mean, this is a pretty unusual story for a writer to discover the world of books not until your 20s, even as a reader.

TO: Yeah. And because of how behind I knew I was, and how I convinced myself immediately that that's what I wanted to do, I knew how much work I had to do. So I read as much as I could. And I wrote as much as I could.

SP: Did you just do this on your own, or did you join writing workshops?

TO: No, I just did it on my own. One time, I moved to New Mexico for a year and just waited tables, and went really hard at reading and writing. Another time, I quit my job, left for another half a year, went to Oregon. I got into an artist-in-residency in Montana. I gave my first crack at a novel there and came away with nothing usable after 30 days.

SP: I have to say, this is just an amazing success story to hear you describe it. Without any background of reading as a kid and then basically teaching yourself how to write. Given all the acclaim that you've gotten for this book, it's kind of stunning.

TO: Yeah, I became pretty obsessed and I knew people who’d been learning to read and write by reading since forever. I resisted the MFA for a while, but then I found the Institute of American Indian Arts. So about halfway into writing the novel — this is probably around 2014, so it's like nine years after I made the decision that I wanted to write, and three years into writing this novel — I'd gotten into the MFA program. And it's a pretty atypical MFA program because it's mostly Native students and a lot of Native faculty. The ideas behind what makes good writing are not as entrenched as in a university system. They're not like pointing to Hemingway and Raymond Carver as THE pinnacle of writing. It's just taught in a different way. .

I loved the program so much, I wanted to teach in it. And so I rushed to finish this book because the director had told me "if you publish a book, I'll give you a teaching job." So I was thinking I might get it to a university press and then get a teaching job — that was sort of the goal going into it. So everything that's happened very much exceeds what I had envisioned.

SP: There is a lot of talk now about a new generation of Native writers and what's been called a "Native renaissance," and you are put into that group of of younger writers. Do you see this happening? Is there something new going on now?

TO: What I would want most from my success, and I think the writers that you're referencing - like Terese Mailhot and Billy-Ray Belcourt and Tommy Pico and Layli Long Soldier all getting a lot of respect amongst readers and critics alike - I would hope that this opens more doors to other Native writers, and that publishers see that not only do people like it, but it actually can sell.

I mean, me and Terese graduated from the same class in 2016, sold our books within two weeks of each other. We were sort of racing to the finish line — both for teaching jobs, she did the same thing —and both became national bestsellers. So I would hope that for editors and people who are gatekeepers to getting books out there, that this affects them in some way and it allows for more voices to come.

This is another one of the renaissances is that people have talked about. There was one during the Civil Rights movement, and there was one in the 1990s. I think there were like 19 Native writers being published major publishers.

SP: There was this whole period — N. Scott Momaday, Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko — that was incredibly vibrant. And then later, Sherman Alexie seemed to dominate Native writing for at least a couple of decades. Now it seems like there's a new generation. Do you see what you and some of your fellow writers are now doing as very different from those earlier writers?

TO: I think it's different in that we're all wanting to write in a modern, contemporary way that challenges the form. I think we are all aware of not wanting to be "that Indian.".

SP: "That Indian" being what?

TO: That we're resisting — the one that is out of date.

SP: The reservation Indian?

TO: Just the stereotype. Everyone's trying to do something that's not been done before. I wouldn't say we're in resistance to Erdrich or Alexie — I would hope that it's more than just another wave that comes and goes.

We're all products of our time, and we're writing very much with the times in mind. And that automatically makes us different, because we're living in a very different time than what they lived through, the time that inspired them to write what they wrote.

SP: You said that one of the projects of your book "There There" is chronicling the lives of Native people who live in cities. Do you see particular issues that are especially relevant to the experience of city life?

TO: A lot of it's the same. There's poverty and there are staggering health statistics. And the idea of not having community — a sense of belonging — is deeply damaging to somebody’s psyche, to their health and well-being. That's why a lot of Natives from the city have these identity and belonging issues. But we're afflicted by a lot of the same stuff that people living on reservations are too. We still have the lowest life expectancy, for men anyway. Some of the highest poverty rates. Highest suicide rates. That goes for both the city and reservation.

SP: You said you’re starting to work on a new novel. Can you give us a sense of what it might look like?

TO: So the autobiographical family one — I'm going to be interviewing everyone in my family and creating fictional versions of them. I'll follow a general guideline of our lives as a family, but it's going to divert all over the place into fiction because that's what I like to do.

I'm also working on a book that's coming out in March. It just sort of came to me, I did not expect it to, but it's what happens to all these characters [from "There There"] after the powwow, and how to come back from something like that and how each one has a different relationship to that experience, and what it does to them.

SP: So we're going to get a sequel?

TO: Yeah.

SP: Good.

TO: I'd like to say "Book Two" whenever I hear a sequel.