Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Multiple times in There There, indigenous people abuse substances for reasons that arise from historical trauma rather than innate difference. It is not that Native Americans have a special fondness for alcohol, Harvey explains at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Instead, because alcohol is easy to buy and inexpensive, it offers a quick way to escape temporarily from an unjust world. If society treats one group unjustly, they are more likely to seek escape through substance abuse. Many characters, like Jacquie Red Feather, among others, use alcohol to manage depression, grief, frustration, or suppressed rage. But other forms of addiction also appear in There There. Edwin Black is addicted to food while Charles Johnson is dependent on drugs, as are several other characters. Still, the novel is clear that the root cause is not racial difference. It is, instead, the result of centuries of genocide, dislocation, and dispossession.
Families are unstable across There There, adding to the novel’s representation of an uprooted and devastated people. Domestic violence is not solely to blame for this instability but is one of the novel’s recurrent motifs, another expression of the trauma associated with the “domestic” violence directed against the Native population first by European settlers and then by the U.S. government. Tommy Orange relies on the double meaning of domestic, something linked to the family or house and policies inside the nation, to show that Native women have long suffered at the hands of men. The colonizers’ greed, the cause of territorial dispossession, echoes in the violence meted out by abusive husbands. This is a persistent motif across the novel, but Blue’s first chapter especially highlights domestic violence. All women are vulnerable, but Native women are especially vulnerable because they must fear all men, white and Native alike. Domestic violence is one important way that trauma from the past continues to influence Native communities and families.
From the title, which refers to a Radiohead song, to the final section, when drumming masks gunfire at the powwow, There There centers music. Characters listen to or perform music to express their individuality, explore their heritage, and escape from reality’s grim grind. The three Red Feather boys, for example, have widely divergent tastes. Orvil prefers “powwow music,” particularly the power of the drums. Loother listens exclusively to three rap artists, writing songs of his own to share with his brothers. Lony prefers Beethoven’s symphonies. Here, as elsewhere in the novel, the range of musical styles participates in the book’s committed representation of Native identity as multiple, complex, and nuanced. Still, particularly when combined with dance, music is one of the key ways characters engage with Native cultures. As Thomas Frank notes shortly before the powwow ends in violence, singing and drumming create “that full, that complete feeling” of belonging, of being in the right place.