Tommy Orange’s Powwow: Stage or Symbol?

If you were writing a novel and you had something you really needed to say, from deep down in the marrow of your bones, wouldn’t you love to turn the setting for your story’s climactic moments into a perfect stage upon which your characters could play out their final scenes, while at the same time using it as a means to drive your theme home?  A setting symbolic of something greater, a way to point at a larger truth extending beyond the pages of your story?  While reading Tommy Orange’s highly-praised breakout novel of 2018, There There, I found myself wondering – on multiple occasions – did the author intend the Big Oakland Powwow to be a stage upon which to set his climax, or was he using it as symbolism?

                In the book’s prologue, Orange presents the idea of “Urban Indians”:

We did not move to cities to die. The sidewalks and streets, the concrete absorbed our heaviness. The glass, metal, rubber, and wires, the speed, the hurtling masses — the city took us in. This was part of the Indian Relocation Act, which was part of the Indian Termination Policy, which was and is exactly what it sounds like. Make them look and act like us. Become us. And so disappear. But it wasn’t just like that. Plenty of us came by choice, to start over, to make money, or for a new experience. Some of us came to cities to escape the reservation.

The Urban Indian characters in There There struggle with alcoholism, addiction, discrimination, depression, financial struggles and emotional trauma.  They each have their own unique difficulties and backgrounds, but they all have one issue in common: they all struggle with their identity.  Five of them (Blue, Orvil, Edwin, Calvin and Thomas) grew up removed from their Native American heritage, and feel disconnected from it.  A little boy (Orvil) feels like a fraud when he puts on his grandmother’s old regalia.  Calvin says he knows nothing about the culture, and consequently doesn’t feel like he should even call himself a Native American.  Yet all of these characters (and several more) are involved in the powwow – either through working there, planning to rob it, or (in the cases of Thomas and Orvil) wanting to perform in it.  The reasons for the collective characters’ going to attend the powwow are all very different, but at the same time they all share another reason in common: it’s a way to connect (or reconnect) with their heritage, and what it means for each of them, individually, to be Native American, regardless of blood percentage.

The word powwow in itself is from an Indian word that has been Anglicized.  It is derived from the Algonquian term “pau-wau”, referring to a gathering of medicine men and/or spiritual leaders.  “Pau-wauing” referred to a religious ceremony, typically one of curing.  In the 1800’s, European explorers observed religious gatherings and dances, and mispronounced the word as powwow.  Non-natives began using the term to describe any gathering of Native people.  Eventually, even the Natives began using the word. 

“As more and more Native Americans learned English, ‘powwow’ became the accepted standard for both Native and non-Native people.” ~ Chris Roberts (Powwow Country)

In the modern world, powwows have morphed into Native American gatherings (private or public) where the traditional rituals of dancing, singing, making music, and wearing detailed regalia are performed, displayed, described by commentators, and judged.  People sell their arts and crafts (clothing, jewelry, herbal remedies, sage for burning, art, etc.) and there are often “Indian tacos” among the food and drinks being sold, though the tacos are not a traditional Native dish.  But really it is a gathering, a meeting, a crossroads where people come to be together. 

In the context of the novel, it punctuates the characters’ lives with ritual.  It connects the personal to the ancestral, the individual to the group, and the group to its collective heritage.  One might argue that a sense of worship is felt at a powwow, a sense of the spiritual, because the expressions of the performances often appear to be pointing toward an acknowledgement of God (the Transcendent, the Creator, Great Spirit, etc.) through tradition and ritual.  It reminds me of the Latin term religio, the root of the English word religion, meaning to link back, to bind, connect, reconnect.             

To quote from There There’s ‘Interlude’section:

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 keep powwowing because there aren’t very many places where we get to all be together, where we get to see and hear each other.  We all came to the Big Oakland Powwow for different reasons.  The messy, dangling strands of our lives got pulled into a braid – tied to the back of everything we’d been doing all along to get us here.  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.

Tommy Orange’s Big Oakland Powwow could also be interpreted as symbolic of a massacre, reflecting the senseless violence suffered by Native Americans in their history of oppression inflicted on them by whites, and linking that historical trauma with Urban Indians.  Orange opens the novel by telling us about the “Indian Head Test Pattern”, making the extreme to which Indians were thought of as disposable targets clear to us from the start.  He then takes us through the fractured lives of his characters, showing us the present-day effects of historical trauma.  Finally, he sets his climax on a stage where more senseless violence plays out, but instead of whites killing Indians in the wilderness, he shows us Indians killing each other in his urban setting.  And he breaks our hearts as we once again witness death, hate, fear and ignorance, where there could have been life, peace, friendship, understanding and acceptance. 

Ultimately, it seems Orange intended the powwow to represent a chance for his Urban Indian characters with identity issues to connect with their heritage, while at the same time being symbolic of a massacre, as well as serving as the ideal stage for his novel’s finale.  Either way, it’s a beautifully written, powerfully orchestrated, brilliantly executed story that helps dispel the cultural myth around what it means to be Native American in present-day society, giving depth, range, and a broader scope to the so-often narrow, single-story that so many non-Native Americans have about Native Americans.      

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