Past Made Present in ‘There There’

Tommy Orange’s debut novel opens with a look at the disturbing history of appropriation of Indigenous symbols as a means of entering the characters’ journeys.

indigenous american headdress
Aleksandar Nakic

Tommy Orange’s There There, the California Book Club choice for November, moves between a dozen points of view as it follows a group of Native people to the fictional Big Oakland Powwow. First, however, its lyrical prologue situates us. Through repetition and leaps through history, Orange establishes the bloody origins of mascots and other appropriated and warped symbols employed to dehumanize Native peoples in the wake of genocide.

The prologue opens with “There was an Indian head,” pausing on a comma just long enough for the reader to fill in the image with their own preconceptions before the language is inverted to the possessive “the head of an Indian” and then adorned as “the head of a headdressed, long-haired Indian.” By the end of the opening sentence, we discover that Orange is echoing the repetition of the Indian test pattern, a disembodied image of a Native person’s head broadcast across America each time a station went off-line from 1939 into the 1970s. A bull’s-eye sat below the bodiless head, reinforcing the trope of Native American as target.

Orange transforms the “test” head into flesh by recounting known beheadings and other vicious murders and violations of Native bodies. He tells us the story of Chief Metacomet, who is beheaded, dismembered, fed to the birds, his head put on a spike, his hand in a jar of rum. Orange pairs this with the story found in the first Native novel, by John Rollin Ridge, about the Mexican outlaw Joaquín Murieta, also beheaded, whose head was kept in a jar of whiskey and taken on tour across California with his sidekick Three-Fingered Jack’s hand. The price: a dollar a show. Even in death, Orange demonstrates, Native life is treated as a cheap commodity, each body used as a trophy and displayed repeatedly. That is, the “test pattern” carries on the show.

This ubiquitous sketch of the “Indian head” is now evidence of murder, of genocide. We are only three pages into the novel. Next in the recounting of real-life incidents will come the brutal massacre at Sand Creek.

Before sharing this particular history of the mutilation of mostly women, children, and elders, however, Orange deftly swerves back to an alternate vantage, to the Cheyenne myth of the rolling head driven by endless greed, much like the imperialist hunger to consume everything. He makes it clear where the greed originates and continues, capitalized on through stereotypes, including Hollywood’s representations of Native people: “Kevin Costner saving us, John Wayne’s six-shooter slaying us, an Italian guy named Iron Eyes Cody playing our parts in movies.” Novels, pennies, sports logos: “We’ve been defined by everyone else and continue to be slandered despite easy-to-look-up-on-the-internet facts about the realities of our histories and current state as a people.” This history Orange has compiled for the prologue, he pointedly reminds us, was available to everyone all along.

When There There was published in 2018, the Washington Football Team still clung to the name “Washington Redskins,” with a logo of a Native man in a headdress, and the Cleveland Guardians retained the moniker “Cleveland Indians,” their logo a caricature, a cartoon figure of a man in a headdress. The team only transitioned to the name Guardians in July 2021, with a winged-baseball logo, while the Washington Football Team, renamed in 2020, remains without mascot. Meanwhile, the National Congress of American Indians continues to track the removal of Native “themed” school mascots, which number over 1,000.

The collective voice of this sobering prologue, and the essayistic form, will return mid-novel, in the interlude chapter. (Interestingly, in a 2019 interview in the magazine Houstonia, Orange reveals that the interlude was once part of the original prologue.) But first we will be introduced to the characters who travel to the final destination, the powwow in Oakland.

Enter Tony Loneman, who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, his very body marked by the consequences of colonization. He is rooted in Oakland, and his line “It’s my only home” reinforces that the novel centers on the population Orange refers to as Urban Indians: those born into the city who “know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls” and fry bread, “which isn’t even traditional.” This understatement about fry bread allows the true history to reverberate, if you know it: fry bread was invented out of need by Native people, given provisions of white flour, sugar, and lard, on the “Long Walk,” the forced relocation from Arizona to New Mexico.

The journeys in this novel are driven by each of the characters’ needs, shaped by their collective histories and shared Oakland home, and, perhaps most interestingly, conveyed through their own particular approaches to storytelling. The characters include a filmmaker making a documentary and a woman who attends a conference to directly tell her story of abuse, trauma, and loss.

But here, in the opening pages of the novel, we first meet Tony Loneman, who, when he puts on his regalia, finally doesn’t see his “Drome,” as he has misheard his fetal alcohol syndrome diagnosis. When he dons the headdress, he no longer feels faceless. It empowers him to see himself as Indian, as dancer. He is embodied and alive.•

Join us on November 18, when Orange will be in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest. In the meantime, gather in the Alta Clubhouse to discuss the opening pages of There There with your fellow California Book Club members.

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