Early in Tommy Orange’s first novel, There There (2018), an aspiring documentarian named Dene Oxendene is applying for a modest arts grant to complete a film project that his uncle began. An enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, Dene wants to interview members of the Native American community in his hometown—Oakland, California—and ask his people how they got there and what their lives are like. Outside the room where the grants panel has convened, he meets Rob, a smug white hipster who is also seeking funding, “probably working with kids on a garbage-art project.”

Their brief conversation gives Orange the chance to explore the implications of his novel’s title. Rob asks Dene if he knows what Gertrude Stein said about Oakland. In fact the quote is meaningful to Dene, who found it in Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography:

She was talking about how the place where she’d grown up in Oakland had changed so much, that so much development had happened there, that the there of her childhood, the there there, was gone, there was no there there anymore.

But Dene pretends not to get the reference and lets Rob quote Stein to him “in a kind of whisper, with this goofy openmouthed smile Dene wants to punch.”

Dene understands that the void or absence—the nothing there there—means something very different to his family and friends than to Stein or to Rob, to whom the phrase promises a cheap apartment in a gentrifying neighborhood. Dene knows that

for Native people in this country, all over the Americas, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.

There There and Wandering Stars—Orange’s second novel, which describes what happened generations before and immediately after the events in the earlier book—can be read as a densely populated, tightly plotted, and thoughtful response to Rob, to Gertrude Stein, and, more importantly, to the myths about and distortions of the history and the current situation of indigenous people in this country. In fact there’s plenty of there there. The neighborhood is a horror show of poverty, addiction, violence, and suicide all taking place in an immensely vital community with ancient traditions and customs, a network of extended families, neighbors, and friends connected in complex and surprising ways.

Dene’s pitch to the grants panel judges might almost seem like a précis of Orange’s literary project:

I want to bring something new to the vision of the Native experience…. We haven’t seen the Urban Indian story. What we’ve seen is full of the kinds of stereotypes that are the reason no one is interested in the Native story in general, it’s too sad, so sad it can’t even be entertaining, but more importantly because of the way it’s been portrayed, it looks pathetic, and we perpetuate that, but…the whole picture is not pathetic, and the individual people and stories that you come across are not pathetic or weak or in need of pity, and there is real passion there, and rage, and that’s part of what I’m bringing to the project, because I feel that way too.

But it soon becomes clear that Orange is doing something way beyond Dene’s reach, no matter how much grant money he gets. Deploying the capaciousness and elasticity of the novel form, Orange switches back and forth from the intimate to the panoramic, from the present to the past. He can probe deeply into each character’s psyche, revealing what that person would never have admitted on camera. Then he can pull back to give us an overview of the social, political, and economic forces that have helped shape their circumstances and identities, their connections to the wider world. He can shift from century to century, city to city, and call upon as many voices as he needs to tell his multilayered story.

One such voice is that of Edwin Black—isolated, rudderless, overweight—who has spent his entire college career as a Native American studies major, much of it trying to understand his own roots: “Dissecting tribal histories, looking for signs, something that…felt familiar.” Obsessed with his chronic constipation, he’s essentially retreated into his computer, scrolling, gaming, gambling, creating attractive avatars of himself. But at moments he still thinks about the nature and purpose of Native art:

The problem with Indigenous art in general is that it’s stuck in the past. The catch, or the double bind, about the whole thing is this: If it isn’t pulling from tradition, how is it Indigenous? And if it is stuck in tradition, in the past, how can it be relevant to other Indigenous people living now, how can it be modern?

That sounds like Orange speaking through nerdy, poor, sad Edwin, asking the important questions that Orange’s books set out to answer.


Surely some of Orange’s acclaim and popularity (There There was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, the copy on my desk is in its twenty-sixth printing, and Wandering Stars is also a best seller) has to do with his ability to make the reader care deeply about what happens to his numerous characters. Each book employs more than a dozen points of view or first-person narrators, and each chapter may introduce subsidiary figures. We move from one voice, one perspective, to another, registering the private histories, aspirations, and eccentricities that make each individual distinct, though at moments we may find ourselves wondering where exactly we’ve met that person before.

At the center of both books are two extended, multigenerational clans, the Red Feathers and the Bear Shields, a knotted web of grandparents, parents, distant relations, and former spouses and lovers. (Wandering Stars provides a helpful chart of the family tree.) Orange’s sympathy—his love—for his characters is infectious, generous, and forgiving. His refusal to condemn even the weakest, the most irresponsible or desperate human beings, recalls Chekhov’s advice on writing about horse thieves: “Let the jury judge them; it’s my job simply to show what sort of people they are.” The neglectful or absent parents, the relapsing addicts, the drug dealers, and the (accidental) killers have understandable reasons, however misguided, for their actions. Even a rapist, Harvey Little Thunder, is eligible for redemption, a process that begins in There There when he offers Jacquie Red Feather—whom he assaulted decades before, during the Native occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1970—a ride from Phoenix to Oakland.

In any case, the novels’ reprehensible characters can’t do anything remotely close to what was done to their ancestors. Wandering Stars is divided into three sections, preceded by a brief prologue. The first part, “Before,” begins with the story of a Cheyenne boy who survived the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, at which US soldiers brutally murdered more than two hundred Native people, most of them women and children staying in an encampment where they were promised they would be safe. Under the impression that he will be sheltered and fed by the same government that killed his family, the boy turns himself in at Fort Reno, only to learn that he has been convicted in absentia of “countless crimes committed by Southern Cheyennes against the US Army.” Incarcerated in the Fort Marion prison, he learns to bake bread, reads Twain and Whitman, and, forced to choose a non-Indian name, becomes Jude Star, partly because of a passage in the biblical book of Jude that contains the phrase “wandering stars.”

Sent back to Oklahoma, he becomes a heavy drinker when he finds a barrel of liquor in a basement, pries open the lid, and drinks so much that he hears himself quoting eloquently from Moby-Dick. He marries and has a son, Charles, who is sent to the notorious Carlisle Indian Industrial School, where Native children, some of them kidnapped, were harshly taught to be white, and where Charles suffers in ways that he later represses:

He suspects there must be something worse beneath the worst of what he knows happened to him at the school, the haircuts and the scrubbings and the marches, the beatings and starvation and confinement, the countless methods of shaming him for continuing to be an Indian despite their tireless efforts at educating and Christianizing and civilizing him.

Presiding over the school is its founder, the former warden of the Fort Marion prison, Richard Henry Pratt, who lived from 1840 to 1924. He is by far the most villainous figure in either of the novels, a military man who seems to have equated education with waterboarding: “I believe in immersing the Indians in our civilization, and when we get them under holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked.”

The second part of Wandering Stars, “Aftermath,” reintroduces us to the characters we met in There There, taking up their story from the point at which the previous novel ended. But now, reading about the events that preceded their move to Oakland, we more fully understand their history and the centuries of trauma that have formed them. Charles Star goes on to have a daughter, Victoria Bear Shield, who is the mother of Jacquie Red Feather. A recovering alcoholic who was homeless for much of her childhood, Jacquie works as a substance abuse counselor. She accepts the ride to Oakland from Harvey, whom she encounters at an AA meeting decades after he raped her on Alcatraz and fathered a daughter she gave up for adoption.


In both novels, Jacquie’s grandsons—Loother, Orvil, and Lony Red Feather—gradually upstage the adults around them. The boys are being raised by their great-aunt, Jacquie’s half-sister, Opal Bear Shield. They’re interesting, lovable, complicated kids, and Orange puts us so solidly on their side that it generates enormous anxiety when it seems, as it often does, that some harm may befall them. At the end of There There, Orvil is narrowly skirting disaster, and through much of Wandering Stars he’s coping (badly) with the fact that his best friend’s dad is batching fentanyl in the family basement. When Lony attempts to test the limits of his imaginary superpowers by climbing up a water tower and contemplating his ability to fly, we’re frightened on his behalf.

Our worries for the boys, their families, and their community are only part of what makes these novels suspenseful. Chekhov comes to mind again, specifically his remark that the presence of a gun onstage suggests that it’s going to be fired before the final curtain. In There There the weaponry is twenty-first-century: 3D-printed guns of white plastic, invisible to metal detectors. These guns—we learn early on—will be used to rob the Big Oakland Powwow, a joyous and significant festival that looms large in the novel and that most of its characters plan to attend. In a passage narrated in a collective voice that appears at various points in There There, we learn why the event is important:

We made powwows because we needed a place to be together. Something intertribal, something old, something to make us money, something we could work toward, for our jewelry, our songs, our dances, our drum….

We all came to the Big Oakland Powwow for different reasons….We’ve been coming from miles. And we’ve been coming for years, generations, lifetimes, layered in prayer and handwoven regalia, beaded and sewn together, feathered, braided, blessed, and cursed.

Orange’s books document the shifting balance between those blessings and those curses, most of which have been in operation since long before the characters were born. Their land was stolen, their ancestors massacred, their children forced into militaristic boarding schools designed to eradicate their culture and their spirit. Their families were confined to reservations, from which some migrated to inner cities. Even street-smart Oakland kids with confused or attenuated connections to their roots show the cumulative effects of one historical nightmare after another:

What we are is what our ancestors did. How they survived. We are the memories we don’t remember, which live in us, which we feel, which make us sing and dance and pray the way we do, feelings from memories that flare and bloom unexpectedly in our lives like blood through a blanket from a wound made by a bullet fired by a man shooting us in the back of our hair, for our heads, for a bounty, or just to get rid of us.

There There introduces us to the neighborhood through the character of Tony Loneman, who suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome, which he calls “the Drome,” a birth defect that—like many health problems—is widespread in Native communities:

There’s too much space between each of the parts of my face—eyes, nose, mouth, spread out like a drunk slapped it on reaching for another drink. People look at me then look away when they see I see them see me…. The Drome is my mom and why she drank, it’s the way history lands on a face.

As if the weight of that history isn’t enough, Orange’s characters must also struggle with the question of authenticity—how to feel part of their community, how to absorb their inheritance, and how to preserve and honor a culture that the dominant culture tried to wipe out, first by violence and then by reducing an entire population to stereotypes and clichés.

There There leads off with one especially egregious example of how images of indigenous people have been commodified:

There was an Indian head…drawn by an unknown artist in 1939, broadcast until the late 1970s to American TVs everywhere after all the shows ran out. It’s called the Indian Head test pattern. If you left the TV on…you’d see that Indian, surrounded by circles that looked like sights through riflescopes…. The Indian’s head was just above the bull’s-eye, like all you’d need to do was nod up in agreement to set the sights on the target. This was just a test.

I vaguely remember that test pattern, and it’s been a while since I—like many Americans—came to understand that it was a bad idea to name sports teams Indians or Braves. But not until I read There There did I realize how truly bizarre and inappropriate it is to decorate currency and sweatshirts with idealized images of the victims of a genocide our government committed. It would be like Germany issuing deutschmarks featuring portraits of Primo Levi.

Both of the novels start with historical prologues, each a litany of atrocities lightened by flashes of dark humor. (“One thing we should keep in mind, moving forward, is that no one ever rolled heads down temple stairs. Mel Gibson made that up.”) These prologues are so compressed and fast-paced that they seem almost chatty, perhaps because there are so many stories to tell, so many misconceptions to correct. Those who have yet to hear the bad news about Teddy Roosevelt’s racism or the first “Thanksgiving” dinner will find it here, along with the fact that after a similar Thanksgiving dinner two years later, “two hundred Indians dropped dead…from an unknown poison.” When we attempt, as we often do now, to understand how our country got the way it is today—violent, angry, divided—Orange reminds us that our forebears paid money to see decapitated Indian heads.

One often hears teachers complain about how little history their students know, but the luxury of ignorance is unavailable to Native Americans, who are very clear about what happened and the reasons why they can’t just let bygones be bygones:

When we go to tell our stories, people think we want it to have gone different. People want to say things like “sore losers” and “move on already,” “quit playing the blame game.” But is it a game? Only those who have lost as much as we have see the particularly nasty slice of smile on someone who thinks they’re winning when they say “Get over it.” This is the thing: If you have the option to not think about or even consider history, whether you learned it right or not, or whether it even deserves consideration, that’s how you know you’re on board the ship that serves hors d’oeuvres and fluffs your pillows.

It affects our view of the characters when we know (even if they do not) about the difficult lives of their parents and grandparents. The women in these novels have their hands full just surviving and trying to hold their families together. Opal Bear Shield is not only raising her half sister’s three grandsons but working as a mail carrier and suffering from cancer. The older men work menial jobs and focus on staying out of jail and managing their addictions. So it’s mainly the young men and boys who are trying to understand where, as Native Americans, they fit into the world they have inherited.

For Orvil Red Feather, the impulse to put on ceremonial regalia and dance at the powwow seems to come from some mysterious place inside him:

He likes the power the sound of a chorus of voices makes too, those high-pitched wailed harmonies, how you can’t tell how many singers there are…. There was even one time, when he was dancing in Opal’s room with his eyes closed, when he felt like it was all his ancestors who made it so he could be there dancing and listening to that sound, singing right there in his ears through all those hard years they made it through.

Loother would prefer to listen to the rap songs he writes, while in Wandering Stars Lony invents his own rituals to compensate for the ones to which he doesn’t feel connected:

He doesn’t even care about being Native or Indian and would rather just have a normal life and not have to always feel so heavy, have to carry more than it feels like he should have to carry. His sadness makes him feel so soft but also like he wants to harden. He tries to go for anger but he can’t, going for it just brings him more sadness and then he wants to feel normal again. And then he does. He returns to the simple joy of digging in the dirt, even if he is burying what amounts to a magical object using blood in a kind of ritual to gain a superpower to combat his feelings of powerlessness and other yet to be identified evils of the world.

At various points, Orange’s books reminded me of Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s brilliant TV series Reservation Dogs, the first show created entirely by Native writers and directors and played by an almost completely Native cast. At its center are four bighearted, funny, appealing teenagers—Bear, Cheese, Willie Jack, and Elora—so hip and ironic they briefly affect the skinny ties and jackets from Quentin Tarantino’s first film. They’re torn between their love for their families, for one another, for their traditions, and for their home (an unpromising patch of land in Oklahoma) and their fierce longing to escape the reservation, which they know is an open-air prison. California is Oz to them, it’s Paris in the 1920s. You want to give them Tommy Orange’s books as a reality check. The characters in Reservation Dogs are so engaging and fully drawn that after a while you imagine you can see the world the way they do.

Orange’s focus on authenticity reminded me of one episode in particular. The teenagers have been bribed with the promise of gift cards to attend the annual youth summit, a Native American Reclamation and Decolonization Symposium run by two hilariously self-promoting social media influencers, Miss M8tri@rch and Augusto Firekeeper—a pair of hucksters who presumably go around the country staging feel-good New Age “tribal” gatherings.

Miss M8tri@rch (“I am a PhD student at Dartmouth”) loses her audience almost instantly when she extends the now familiar land acknowledgment—the expression of appreciation for the Native people, the former caretakers of the land on which an event is occurring—and goes on to thank their predecessors, “our Neanderthal relatives, so acknowledge them, and before that, even, the Dinosaur Nation…. Before that, the Star People. Also, our reptilian relatives, above and below earth.”

I found it not only funny but oddly reassuring to see Native writers making fun of the land acknowledgment, which has always made me uneasy when I’ve heard it recited before poetry readings, Zoom classes, and so forth. In my part of upstate New York, we honor the Lenape without saying what’s become of them, which seems to me like thanking the owners of a house we’ve robbed even though we have absolutely no intention of returning the loot.

Reading There There and Wandering Stars, I imagined substituting a quote from Tommy Orange for the land acknowledgment. Perhaps we could read aloud a passage such as this one, about the Sand Creek Massacre:

They did more than kill us. They tore us up. Mutilated us. Broke our fingers to take our rings, cut off our ears to take our silver, scalped us for our hair…. Then they took our body parts as trophies and displayed them on a stage in downtown Denver. Colonel Chivington danced with dismembered parts of us in his hands, with women’s pubic hair, drunk, he danced, and the crowd gathered there before him was all the worse for cheering and laughing along with him. It was a celebration.

That seems more honest—more to the point—than thanking the dispersed or vanished residents of our country. Instead of reciting a blandly soothing statement, we could read those sentences and say: This happened. Our presidents and generals ordered and approved this. Our soldiers carried it out. The consequences are still with us in Oakland, in upstate New York, on the reservations. It’s the reason for the there that’s there, for what is there and what isn’t. And now, at a moment when our conscience and consciousness seem newly awakened to the horrors of mass slaughter, perhaps it’s time to ask ourselves: Isn’t there more we can do about the unresolved aftermath of the genocide that our own government committed?