While sheltering in place, I proofed the linked article on Tommy Orange’s There There (2018; link here), examining the way Orange uses Cheyenne and Arapaho epistemologies to challenge settler state separations of Indigenous and non-Indigenous spaces and to unwind linear time. He reveals that even cities such as Oakland “belong to the earth”: “Everything here is formed in relation to every other living and nonliving thing from the earth. All our relations.” Orange uses irony to confront what is said and unsaid, seen and unseen, making visible the way the United States is Indian country; the structure of his novel creates a convergence where historic massacres give rise to contemporary mass shootings in an inescapable reckoning. The novel closes with an open wound that is not separate from hope, nor from pain and rage.
To offer a very brief précis of the article, as well as invitations for further reading, Orange’s There There expands upon Thomas King’s pathbreaking circular vision of space in Green Grass, Running Water (1993), which evokes all the degrees of a circle by ending on page 360 and uses the four directions in Cherokee to structure the novel. There There includes even urban youth spaces in a circular configuration. The novel refuses settler-state frameworks of recognition as it shows twelve characters converging on the Oakland Coliseum, which becomes Indian space reimagined.
Orange explores in fiction a conflictual landscape also delineated by Wendy Rose and Deborah Miranda in poetry and essays. Orange was born in Oakland to a Cheyenne father and a white mother, with Rose born in Oakland of Hopi, Miwok and European descent, and Miranda born in Los Angeles to an Esselen/Chumash father and a mother of French ancestry. “Neither cast-offs, nor mongrels, nor assimilated sellouts, nor traditionalists,” Rose declares, “those who are like me are fulfilling in our way a certain level of existence, a pattern in the prophecy” (xii-xiii). Miranda reveals that Indians have all along actively employed Anglo storytellers or ethnographers to narrate their own stories for the future. In the 1930s Isabel Meadows, herself born of an English father and a Rumsen Ohlone mother, and considered the last fluent speaker of the Rumsen Ohlone language once widely spoken on the Central Coast of California, thus works against the grain of his expectations and frameworks to use ethnologist John P. Harrington as “a note-taker for communicating with future Indian communities” (Miranda 374). Contemporary writers such as Orange lift the torch high to now reveal space, time, and irony as aspects of knowing that map the whole continent as Indian country.
While sheltering in place in Baltimore, Maryland, I sent this photo to my students, who were smart and steady under difficult circumstances. Students here had to leave campus in March 2020 mid-semester; one student told me that when she was traveling on her way home to Texas, “the tears wouldn’t stop coming.” Involuntary travel and tears; chosen wisdom. This same student reflected on potential transformation impelled by confronting borders: “Geographical, psychological, religious, or cultural, a border is meant to be traversed and engaged with. Being willing to break borders and understand both sides of what individuals encounter is what helps foster a change.”
Shelter-in-place orders gave my classes and me an invitation to become more aware of the history that lives in the earth, that calls for responsibility and respect for the land, and overturns colonial models that suggest Indigenous sovereignty has been subsumed or destroyed. The past is still here because it never departed. Indigenous storytellers, writers, and artists have all along been creating their own stories and pathways for the future – ones that do not ask scholars and readers to add Indigenous epistemologies into existing models, but shift the mapping of the world to attend to what has been right here all along.
Resurgence: Irony and Urban Indian Knowing in Tommy Orange’s There There
Tommy Orange’s novel There There (2018) uses irony to immerse readers in a life-and-death confrontation of newly reciprocal time and space. Urban Indian ways of knowing unsettle national U.S. myths to reveal that Native epistemologies have been present all along, and are still here; the past is active in a circle of time that enfolds and confronts everyone who walks this land, and cities arise from and remain connected with the earth. As part of such knowing, irony is not just key to the mass shooting incident he depicts, it is also structural and national. Orange is an enrolled citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes; his novel reveals that history is still in progress. Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are targets of the epistemologies that urge respect, responsiveness, relationship. In such resurgence, tribal and non-tribal nations open to decolonial metamorphosis even in the face of ongoing violence.
Miranda, Deborah A. “’They Were Tough, Those Old Women Before Us’: The Power of Gossip in Isabel Meadows’s Narratives.” Biography, vol. 39, no. 3, 2016: 373-401.
Rose, Wendy. Bone Dance: New and Selected Poems 1965-1993. University of Arizona Press, 1994.
Juniper Ellis is Professor of English at Loyola University Maryland. She is the author of Tattooing the World: Pacific Designs in Print and Skin (Columbia University Press, 2008). Her articles have appeared in journals including PMLA, Mosaic, Ariel, Arizona Quarterly, and Journal of Postcolonial Writing. She is also a Contributing Editor to this project.