There There focuses on urban Native experience

By BRANDI DOUGLAS

The urban Native experience is familiar to the Puyallup people. The reservation, one of the most urban in the nation, affords members the unique and often challenging experience of existing within the concrete jungle.

Which is why Mayor Victoria Woodards’ choice for the 2019 Tacoma Reads literary selection of Tommy Orange’s There There was fitting.

The novel encapsulates the lives of 12 urban Natives’ intergenerational experiences, which all converge in Oakland, California. Orange himself, from the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, grew up in Oakland.

As part of Tacoma Reads, Woodards and Orange sat down for a casual, on-stage chat Sept. 20 at the Rialto Theater in downtown Tacoma. The event drew a packed house.

Tribal elder Connie McCloud opened the event by welcoming attendees to the home of the Puyallup people, delving into the creation story surrounding Puyallup Tribal villages, the sacredness of the Puyallup River and the abundance of sustenance provided by both the land and water.

McCloud also touched on the history of trade as well as trauma born from the area’s first boarding school, which later became Cushman Hospital. The opening ended with a canoe welcoming song.

Puyallup Tribal Council Chairman David Bean followed, accompanied by fellow Councilmembers James Rideout, Anna Bean and Annette Bryan, and fellow drummers and singers. They greeted attendees and introduced the “Warrior Song” and “Love for the People” as a means of honoring Tommy Orange and setting the stage for the evening.

As the final song came to an end, Orange was brought to the stage. Chairman Bean shared the Tribe’s hosting of the 2018 Canoe Journey and blanketed Orange with a special Eighth Generation canoe journey blanket and several other gifts.

Woodards presented Orange with a glass art piece created by the Hilltop Artists at Jason Lee Middle School. The piece was adorned with a message of gratitude toward Orange and his novel for its ability to create a necessary dialogue.

Bean touched on the contemporary urban Native experience in Tacoma, as related to There There, noting that the city is home to not only the Puyallup Tribe, but more than 25,000 Native people from more than 200 tribes.

“Tacoma and Seattle were cities where the federal government made major efforts to relocate Natives to large urban areas to receive vocational training in different trades as an attempt to assimilate Native Americans into American society,” Bean said.

After Woodards and Orange took their seats, Woodards expressed gratitude toward the Tribe.

“We would not have anything we have today if it hadn’t been for the sacrifices that they made,” she said.

The mayor began the conversation by asking Orange about his inspiration to write There There, his journey as a writer and how Oakland could be adequately described. Orange said writing was not a passion of his until his early 20s, and even then, he kept it under wraps. He had been working within the Native community for almost a decade, encountering numerous stories, but the true inspiration for his book arose when he realized he was going to be a father.

“I think there was something about the seriousness of becoming a father that made me want to take on a project that was more than whatever I was writing,” Orange said.

At the onset of his writing endeavors, he recalled submitting to one particular writing contest for seven years straight. He never won, though eventually he received an honorable mention.

This year, Orange was asked to judge the event, a request he accepted with pride.

In describing his hometown of Oakland, he indicated that there was a realness similar to the grit of Tacoma, and that such diversity and range of experiences persist regardless of gentrification.

Woodards asked Orange about his inspiration to incorporate Alcatraz into his novel, touching on the history of the Fishing Wars in this region.

Orange said that as part of a suicide prevention program, he had brought youth to Alcatraz to listen to the stories of the Elders who had taken part in
the movement. While observing the interaction, he said, he realized that a younger generation exists that may not be involved to the same degree of extremes in terms of activism, and thus may not feel as triumphant. Therefore, he incorporated his perception of what youth may have experienced on Alcatraz at that time within his novel.

As the evening progressed, Woodards and Orange discussed the inspiration surrounding the 12 distinct characters in the novel, the modern Native experience and the future of Native publications.

The evening finished with Orange reading an excerpt from one of his favorite parts of the prologue.

The Tacoma Reads event ended with an opportunity for the crowd to ask Orange questions, followed by a book signing and photo opportunity with the author.

Tacoma Reads is a partnership consisting of The Puyallup Tribe of Indians, the City of Tacoma and Tacoma Public Library.

Mayor Victoria Woodards and Tommy Orange. Photo by Brandi Douglas.