Tag Archives: Native American issues

A Native American Novel

Yearly, my county library chooses a book for “Everybody Reads” month in February and schedules multiple related events, including an evening with the author as speaker. This year’s selection was unusually good.

There ThereThere There by Tommy Orange

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This novel tells of several Urban Indians whose lives converge in a pow wow in Oakland, CA. A thoroughly modern story, yet roots of the past appear in the Prologue. I was especially intrigued by the section, “Urbanity.” Instead of showing separation between city and rural, reservation life, the section presents unity: “An Urban Indian belongs to the city, and cities belong to the earth. . . . The process that brings anything to its current form–chemical, synthetic, technological, or otherwise–doesn’t make the product not a product of the living earth” (11).

At first each chapter felt like a random vignette. Gradually an overlap of detail became apparent. The pace continued to quicken till it was a page turner at the end.

The meaning of “there” changed throughout, for me culminating at the end, emphasizing the identity formation that was a struggle for some of the characters.

This novel is told from multiple perspectives. While each adds information, many show the same scene from a different perspective, a much more satisfying use of the technique. The number of characters with issues avoided becoming a soap opera. I have yet to put my finger on the source of this success, but success it was. Problems did not dominate, though they were present. There were also vivid moments of strength.

Getting to “know” so many characters, with rather short vignettes, left me amazed at how well I felt I knew them. The idea of being a person behind masks is made explicit in the tales of Tony Loneman; however, it is stated in the Javier Martas quotation in the headnote to Part I: “How can I not know today your face tomorrow, the face that is there already or is being forged beneath the face you show me or beneath the mask you are wearing, and which you will only show me when I am least expecting it”(13). I’m left feeling I should reread to see how it applies to others.

The ending, so often a problem, is here quite successful. It is motivated by all that has gone before; it is believable; it is satisfyingly ambiguous with hints of the future.

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Reading History

Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous ResistanceOur History Is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance by Nick Estes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book reoriented my thinking about what I thought I knew, revealed an international aspect I had not known, and made me more hopeful for the future than I have been in quite a while.

This book belongs to the genre represented by Howard Zinn’s Peoples’ History, histories written not from the perspective of the dominant. So, as one mostly aware of traditional tellings of Anglo-Indian relations, I was exposed to a Native telling and interpretation of Indian wars and treaties and land grabs. In this version, killing off the buffalo is about more than greed; it is about choking a people to extinction by taking away their food supply. It is about ending a land promise in a treaty that was premised on “as long as the buffalo shall roam.” Damming rivers became a way to remove arable land and force an impoverished relocation.

And stereotypes were challenged: “My ancestors were tribal historians, writers, intellectuals, and fierce Indigenous nationalists at a time when Indians weren’t supposed to be anything but drunk, stupid, or dead” (12).

I had heard the phrase “sovereign nation” earlier in a talk by a Native historian but not grasped its full meaning. It was explored in Estes’ long chapter, “Internationalism.” That history traced the ongoing process from implied national identity in treaty making (treaties are made between nations), through diminishment when US government shifted from treaty making with nations to managing individuals, and on to the UN declaration of the rights of Indigenous peoples.

I am always interested in the significance of a title, and this one was particularly enigmatic. One hint appears in this statement: “There is no separation between past and present, meaning that an alternative future is also determined by our understanding of our past” (14).

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