My dad likes to tell a story about the Thanksgiving prayer I said when I was four. Somebody must’ve told me the history of the first Thanksgiving: how the Wampanoag Natives taught the Pilgrims to hunt, fish and farm in their new land which kept them alive over the winter and led to the harvest feast we call Thanksgiving. Flash forward 300 years to the 1960’s. My family is living in Asheville, North Carolina, and my grandparents and cousins have joined us in our new house. Somebody asked me – or maybe I insisted – to lead the table in prayer. I kept it short, bowed my head and said, “Thank you, God, for the Indians.”
To this day, my dad repeats that story whenever he introduces me to someone new. I always thought he was saying something about the child I was or the adult I became. Then, recently, my parents and I were talking about the causes we most champion. “Native Americans,” Dad said, right away. “Wow, why?” I asked. “Because of you,” he said, “What you said when you were little.” I was surprised, but gratified – though I suspect his Quaker mother taught him to respect people long before I was around.
With that conversation in mind, I picked up Tommy Orange’s There, There. Orange is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes of Okahoma. His book is about a wide cast of urban Native Americans who are interwoven in ways they don’t know yet, and are all headed to the same powwow.
The book’s prologue recounts the history of Native American genocide and displacement with such dramatic irony that the real accounts sound absurd – until you realize they are true and caused immeasurable suffering. This sets up the back-drop for his impoverished characters who show up, one by one, each in the middle of his or her own dilemma. The multiple ways the characters are related becomes so clear that you either dread their meeting, or wish for it, and that pushes the story forward to its inevitable end. My heart broke for two sisters whose alcoholic mother drags them to the Native occupation of Alcatraz Island where conditions become less and less ideal. Among the portrayals of individuals trying to make a life in urban Oakland, there were also beloved grandmothers and aunts bringing up children with little support, trying to impart the traditional ways to young adults caught between cultures where they feel they don’t belong.
This was the third book by a Native writer I’ve read so far this year, after Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, and poet Layli Long Soldier’s award-winning Whereas. All three books gave me a new perspective on the lives, hopes and dreams of their Native American authors. I read a lot of #ownvoices books for children and teens, but am catching up on those by adult authors. For a list of other books written by Native American authors, click here. I encourage you to read one before Thanksgiving. It might change the way you understand the old story, as it did for me.