Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Challenge of Authenticity for Marginalized People

Over the centuries, simplifications like the Indian head test have supplanted and erased the lived reality of indigenous peoples, making it increasingly difficult for Native Americans to reclaim or preserve their authentic cultures. The first paragraph of There There describes the image of an Indian head located in crosshairs like a target, which was a symbol used until the late 1970s as a television test pattern. The line drawing of this head effaced the many differences between tribal identities, replacing them with an oversimplified image defined by white norms and values and available for appropriation, use, and reuse in American culture. The Indian head with which There There begins provides a powerful example of the difficulty of defining one’s identity under cultural conditions of erasure and exclusion.

Many characters across the novel question what it means to be Indian and search for an answer. They dress in regalia and go to powwows. Some live on reservations. The Native characters belong to different tribes and have varying percentages of Indian heritage. Some know very little about the history of their ancestors. Orvil Red Feather asks himself, “What is it to be or not to be an Indian?” in an echo of Hamlet’s famous phrase. The question links Native identity with death, a reasonable association given the systematic efforts by white European settlers, and the nations they went on to found, to erase indigenous people from the Americas.

There is no single right answer, Tony Loneman makes clear, when he attacks his purported friends at Coliseum to stop the violence. Indeed, the rejection of a single idea is an organizing idea of the book, as the Prologue makes clear, for “the land is everywhere or nowhere.” Thinking that one must live on a reservation to be truly an Indian, a mistake Blue makes when she returns to Oklahoma, is just as much a mistake as believing, with Calvin, that not knowing enough about one’s heritage means you are a fraud or, a term Orvil learns on the internet, a Pretendian. Even if the book does not, indeed cannot, offer a clear definition of what it means to be authentic, it argues powerfully against the traps that a desire for authenticity too narrowly defined can set.

The Limitations of History

In its focus on personal stories, There There suggests that our identities rely as much on what is left out of history as what it celebrates. History is often narrated by victors, who tend to omit the stories of people who’ve been murdered or displaced. For example, Americans grow up learning a story of Thanksgiving that simplifies a more complicated truth. The first meal the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims shared in 1621 was to mark a land deal. Two years later, they gathered for a second feast to mark their “eternal friendship,” after which, 200 indigenous people died from an “unknown poison.” Most Americans learn a version of the story that leaves out the brutality. People who have benefitted from the brutality might have difficulty examining how history is told, but the brutalized have no choice. A true history includes everyone’s stories. As Vicky explains to Opal, Indians must tell their stories for, without them, they will no longer be alive. Often, the book defines a story broadly, as including a life itself, but other times it focuses more narrowly on actual words and narratives, as in the Interlude when the narrator notes that last names are a product of oppression.

The book’s structure also reflects this distinction in how history and stories are told. Because the chapters are each told from the perspective of a different character, often in different narrative styles, the plot unfolds as a chorus. No central figure or organizing consciousness consolidates information or creates a single interpretation. Much like the powwow itself, the characters together provide a representation of what it means to be Indian in Oakland, CA, in the twenty-first century. 

Dene Oxendene’s film project aims to approach storytelling in the same way. Dene justifies his approach of having people tell their own stories in his documentary as a way to end pathetic stereotypes. When individuals are allowed to tell their own stories, they come across as powerful and passionate, not weak. Dene, a figure for the author of There There, understands that weaving together several individual stories is an important way to counter stereotypes and create a more nuanced view of what it means to be Native American.

The Inheritance of Trauma and the Possibility for Happiness

Across There There, characters observe that domestic violence, fractured families, and substance abuse are all associated with generations of suffering. A form of hiding, excess drinking lets Native people “feel like we can be ourselves and not be afraid,” Josefina says to her grandson, Octavio. When bad things happen to Opal and her family, she believes that she must in some way deserve them, suggesting that she feels destined for misery. Both Orvil and Tony struggle with what it means to think oneself stupid. If the world is organized to erase you, Opal reasons, then the best way to raise children is to be equipped for the worst. She hopes against hope that they will succeed where she has failed but raising children to expect the worst becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in some cases.

The chances for happiness are, therefore, slim in the novel. Of the many characters in the book, only two have a stable relationship. Bill Davis and Karen love one another “all the way,” even if Bill is often frustrated by the way Karen coddles her son Edwin. A white woman, Karen tells Bill to stay positive, an attitude Bill struggles to maintain. He is keenly aware of how lucky he is, both to have found Karen and to be making it at all. Where prison is for many a step on a downward spiral, Bill was able to use the time productively, reading, getting sober, and learning about his Native heritage. Bill’s luck runs out at the Coliseum, but he dies having overcome his obstacles and found true connection.

Forgiveness is not identical to happiness, but it is an important step in its direction for Harvey and Jacquie. When they meet again after four decades, Jacquie is angry at the pain he caused her and frustrated by his justifications. But his repentance seems genuine, even if he makes assumptions and missteps that reignite her rage. Despite all of this, she accepts his offer of a ride to Oakland and attends the powwow with him, foreshadowing not a future romantic relationship but a new sense of peace between them. For a people too long defined by death and erasure, peace could prove a welcome change.

The Benefits and Dangers of Community

Characters across There There long for the support of communities, depicted in gatherings like the powwow, self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, and organizations like the community center. In these spaces, people confront the ongoing damage done by genocide, but they fail to effect real progress. As one speaker at the “Keeping Them from Harm” conference explains, such organizations can have limited efficacy. Urging the audience to act more aggressively to prevent teen suicide, the speaker stresses that complacency, conformity, and exhaustion, all of which find expression in formulaic solutions and bureaucratic bloat, limit the more substantive support that would genuinely nurture Native communities. Good intentions have limited efficacy.

The novel stresses that Native communities can also be sites of violence and coercion. When the U.S. government drove Native populations onto reservations, they created community but also poverty and dislocation. When Blue travels to Oklahoma to explore her heritage, she becomes trapped in an abusive marriage, a travesty of belonging. Similarly, during the Native American occupation of Alcatraz, “Indians of All Tribes” gather, and Harvey assaults Jacquie, conceiving the child who will grow up into Blue. Young men with Native heritage sell drugs together and participate in violent acts that devastate families and build up to the novel’s most searing attack on community, the massacre at the powwow. This tragedy both reenacts the genocide that devastated Native tribes in the past and simultaneously dramatizes the mass shootings that have become common in contemporary U.S. communities.

In the shooting’s aftermath, however, the faint hope of a more sustaining community appears. Although they are brought together by disaster, the people waiting for news about Orvil and Edwin share kin bonds. Blue has found not only her parents but, in Orvil, a half-brother, while Orvil will have his grandmother. Through the violence comes revelations of connections among the characters and the chance for community.