What Your Patients are Hearing

Native American writer explores identity


The debut novel “There There” by Tommy Orange explores what it means to be Native American in contemporary urban America.

Tommy Orange

In an interview with the PBS Newshour, Mr. Orange, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes who grew up in Oakland, Calif., describes the ways in which living in an urban environment in an ethnically diverse American city can be isolating and lonely for Native Americans.

“We know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls,” Mr. Orange said, reading from his book. “We know the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than we do the smell of cedar or sage or even frybread. We ride buses, trains, and cars across, over, and under concrete plains. Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.”

For Mr. Orange, whose mother is white and father is Native American, identity in Oakland has been a fluid concept. “If I’m in the Fruitvale [area of Oakland], people will speak Spanish to me first,” he said in the interview. “I’ve been thought to be a number of different things because I have ambiguity.”

Establishing identity can be a difficult task for Native Americans, Mr. Orange said, because parents often do not share stories about history – “sometimes because of pain,” he said.

To watch the PBS Newshour interview with Mr. Orange, click here.

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