These Urban Indians are the narrators, each chapter named for a different character. At first, the characters seem to be telling standalone short stories: Here is Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, who recalls living with her mother and sister on Alcatraz during the Native American occupation in 1969; and here is Orvil Red Feather, a pre-teen who’s learned most everything he knows about his heritage from YouTube, including how to dance.
Gradually, their stories begin converging, leading them all to a big powwow at the Oakland Coliseum. As readers, we intuit that things will not go well when a few of the characters concoct plans to rob the powwow of its dancing competition prize money with 3-D printed guns. The pacing is like a thriller in spots, making us dread what awaits at the powwow but anxious to get there.
Orange’s title comes from Gertrude Stein’s famous proclamation of Oakland: “There is no there there.” But as one of the narrators explains, Stein wasn’t complaining of a lack of defining character or sense of place, but rather how the Oakland of her childhood had changed drastically over years of development. It’s the same for Native people:
“But 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.”
This, then, is Orange’s attempt to define the “there” that’s here, now, through a variety of modern Native voices and experiences that often don’t make it to page.
Upon second reading, the phrase also serves as a soothing affirmation—a parent comforting a stricken child with “There there.” In the first chapter, a man born with fetal alcohol syndrome and resulting learning disabilities talks about being raised by his Cheyenne grandmother. He recounts how, despite his protests, he appreciates her insistence that they read “her Indian stuff that I don’t always get”:
“I like it, though, because when I do get it, I get it way down at that place where it hurts but feels better because you feel it, something you couldn’t feel before reading it, that makes you feel less alone, and like it’s not going to hurt as much anymore.”