There There tries to reconstruct a fractured indigenous community through narrative, at least temporarily. The stories of its diverse cast unfold in moments of joy and rage, alienation and belonging. The characters make new connections to others, to their histories, and to themselves, creating a world where their communities might thrive. But this work of healing and reconstruction is brutally disrupted by gun violence, which rips apart much of what has been built and leaves many of the named characters dead.

The first three sections of the novel—Remain, Reclaim, and Return—offer strategies for dealing with generations of trauma. While “Remain” stresses the importance of endurance and “Reclaim” suggests the need to honor traditions through remembrance and respect, the multiple meanings of “Return”—as homecoming, as profit, or as repetition—hint at the difficulties on any path to thorough reconstruction. What can return, as There There makes clear, is just as often greed or violence as a safe space of belonging. Powwow, the novel’s fourth and final section, begins in dance and ends in tragedy. This section is a response to the former three, one with bittersweet implications. The powwow is a tradition created after genocide to simulate community, and its tragic outcome in There There suggests that any promise it offers is inadequate, although the novel’s uncertain conclusion presents little in the way of easy alternatives. The novel ends with stories that are unfinished.

At the same time, however, the book is not only bleak, even if its message is unflinching about the forms of violence and erasure Native peoples have endured, first at the hands of European colonists and subsequently through the work of the U.S. government and its citizens. But There There is deeply committed to the value of storytelling and the power of words. Epigraphs from famous writers, like James Baldwin or Gertrude Stein, locate the Native experiences in the context of a larger literary tradition. The decision to forego a central narrator allows a kaleidoscope of experiences to emerge, an explicit rejection of the tendency noted in the Prologue to conflate all Indigenous people into a single representative Indian head. The narrative choices in the chapters, differences in point of view and diction, also prevent a single perspective from emerging. The book’s strategy is repeated in Dene’s documentary, which also incorporates multiple stories without the intrusion of a single vision. The narrative structure of There There complicates the selection of major characters but sisters Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield and Jacquie Red Feather anchor the novel and provide connections to several additional characters. Because they both spent time on Alcatraz Island in 1970, they can also offer different perspectives on the same event. In that way, the sisters’ perspectives echo the central structural element of the novel as a whole. The novel’s inconclusive ending stresses, however, that the story of Indigenous people in the United States is still in the process of being written.

As much as There There insists on the need to tell the history of the indigenous experience in new ways, it also stresses the importance of individual life stories. Real community will not be created, it suggests, by erasing individuals in favor of a group. This would be yet another abstraction, not so different from the Indian head with which the book begins. Tensions between Native Americans who live on reservations and those who make their homes in urban environments form an important backdrop to the novel, mentioned several times and introduced obliquely in Blue’s journey to Oklahoma, from which she flees in terror.

Individual stories are important to share, but the novel is not naïve about the difficulties that narration can introduce for all involved.  In Jacquie Red Feather’s first chapter, as she moves from a professional conference where she hears an individual story to an AA meeting where she shares her own experience, the novel shows how the purported ameliorative function of such gatherings, shared information, can be shattering. What Jacquie’s experience in both these settings indicates, however, is that it is never simple to share because there are always unexpected consequences and dangers that intervene.

There There makes clear that to not try to seek community through story and song and dance is to be isolated from the world. As Orvil prepares for the grand entry at the powwow, he listens to a seasoned dancer explain that his movements will be a prayer. Orvil feels grateful that there are happy days and feelings to counteract the despair that tears represent. His dance will be a manifestation of these positive and good feelings. Life for the novel’s characters is a balance of hope and despair, and their identity relies on their ability to honor both.