Native American Heritage Month: Beauty and Sadness

The book cover depicts two feathers facing in opposite directions, sketched in brown ink against a bright orange background, with the title in yellow lettering.

By Eric L.

Native American Heritage Month is almost finished for this year, but you are free to let it go a little longer into December and check out some great related works of art from the library, including the distinguished debut novel by Cheyenne and Arapaho writer Tommy Orange and a modern classic from director Terrence Malick.

There There by Tommy Orange (available in a variety of formats) is not a traditional novel, in that many of the characters don’t interact with one another, nor is it a traditional collection of short stories. Each chapter is a deep character profile explicated from the character’s perspective and written in a small amount of space. There There is beautifully crafted, in my humble opinion, with these very short, somewhat disconnected chapters from a variety of characters’ points of view not being an easy way to tell a story. However, it works really well and I recommend reading it. 

The characters are Native American, or part, in ancestry. Although the larger narrative is about the experience of individual characters, the connecting plot device is an upcoming powwow at the Oakland Coliseum. Some plan to attend, some plan to dance in the ceremony, some are organizing it, others are working on grant-funded projects related to Native Americans, and some plan to rob it. 

I could broadly say that the book talks about identity, or the loss of identity and the confusion experienced by some urban Native Americans. I recall a friend telling me that There There is sad, and to be sure, it is; however, the stories are powerful, engaging, and beautifully written. In other words, it’s not a feel-good read, and it’s tough sometimes. 

Most of the younger characters feel confused and/or apathetic about being Native American in modern America. They’ve not lived, or their parents did not live, on the “rez,” as they call it. I think what makes this a great book is that it doesn’t so much concern the facts of the past, but rather their impact on the present. This is a very interesting and apropos topic in America right now, as some say we need to forget the past and move forward. I’d contend this may be easier for some than others. And perhaps a better understanding of how the past effects the present could benefit all of us. Prior to one part of the book Orange uses the profound James Baldwin quote, “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” 

I did learn some things about modern Native American history – for example, the red power movement and the occupation of Alcatraz Island. The occupation is an interesting moment in the recent past, and illustrative of Orange’s larger commentary about people’s place within America. 

One character has an interaction with a woman on public transportation in Oakland while he is in full dancing regalia on his way to the powwow. She asks him some innocuous polite questions, and he responds in part that he is going to a powwow at the Oakland Coliseum and that she should come check it out. He thinks to himself that she can now tell the story later over dinner about how she saw and spoke with a real Indian on the train today, and that that is as close as most Americans would like to get. 

Margaret Atwood called it “an astonishing debut.” And until I read this praise, I was not aware it was a debut, because it’s that good. I concur with Atwood’s opinion, and it makes me excited for his future books. 

This work brought to mind the film The New World on Kanopy, which if There There concerns the now, then the movie depicts colonial America and indigenous people. I’m a fan of the director Terrence Malick’s films. He makes impressionistic films, and although this may sound pretentious, simply put, it contains beautiful cinematography (mostly nature shots) and sparse dialogue. The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life, Malick’s popular and award-winning films starring Sean Penn and a bevy of other great actors, are also great (you can borrow these in DVD format). 

The New World concerns the arrival of the English and the settlement of the colony in Jamestown, Virginia. The cast features terrific actors (Colin Farrell, Christian Bale, Q’orianka Kilcher, and Christopher Plummer). It was filmed in Virginia, and Malick employed academics to recreate the villages and the extinct Powhatan language and used native actors. The film is partially based on John Smith’s account of Pocahantas, the verity of which is a bit suspect. Nevertheless, it succeeds in depicting very different groups with clashing motivations, and it’s visually stunning. 

In sum, both these works are beautiful AND sad.

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at the Elkridge branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.

 

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