About this sample
About this sample
Words: 2029 |
11 min read
Published: Aug 4, 2023
Words: 2029|Pages: 4|11 min read
Identity is not just a matter of race and ethnicity, nor can one’s identity be confined to only relating to a singular personal attribute of one’s character. Who one truly is can better be defined as a multitude of factors and self-recognition of one’s self. Within Tommy Orange’s There There, certain characters in the novel believe that they are less than their Native identity because of their “other” factors, such as trauma and addiction. However, many other characters, who don't struggle with addiction, also believe that they are not Native enough because of their appearance in the public eye; how they see themselves doesn't coincide with how the public sees them. All of the characters, including Jacquie Red Feather, believe themselves to not be physically or mentally Native enough to be accepted within the Native community. When in fact, the novel reveals that identity is not just one attribute within a person but, moreover, a multitude of intersecting qualities. Being Native cannot be defined by a single addiction or the hue of one skin color; being Native is about heritage and adaption. Even though all the characters are presented as widely dissimilar individuals, they are all connected through their Native roots and have the right to identify as Native American.
There is a common disconnection between the idea of cultural identity, Native Americans, and personal identities. For instance, Opal Bear Shield and Jacquie Red Feather both believe that they are not Native enough or Native in the wrong ways; they disconnect themselves from their Native culture and throughout the progression of the novel must reform their ideas of what it means to be a part of the Native community. They each struggle with their personal traumas of mental health issues and addictions, and they believe their traumas have disconnected themselves so much from their Native roots that they no longer have the right to identify as Native. From a very young age, Opal Bear Shield develops a strong connection to her Native identity because her mother moves her and her sister to live in Alcatraz. During the 1960s, Alcatraz was a symbol of protest towards the maltreatment of Native Americans by the US government. During her time on the island, Opal attends meetings with her mother where she hears different plans that the Natives on the island discuss and debate. “I hung by my mom’s side. We went around talking to people, attending official meetings where everyone tried to agree on what to do,” (50). By connecting Opal to Alcatraz, and her childhood to an infamous protest in Native history, Orange illustrates that there is a strongly rooted connection between Opal and her Native identity. However, after Opal's mother dies and she must leave the island, Opal goes through many traumatic experiences that push her away from her Native roots. She is forced to live with, and flee from, her sister’s abuser and as they are escaping Opal sees an Indian Head test pattern on the TV, “On the way through the living room, there on the TV was the test pattern Indian... Opal imagined the Indian turning to her. He was saying: go.” (167). Years later, Opal reflects on the moment that she saw the Indian head test pattern on the TV, she remembers how Native people were, and still are, targeted against, why she no longer identifies with her Native roots, and why she refuses to raise her grandsons within the Native culture. Opal lives in fear of the trauma she and her family endured in her past, the trauma brought onto them due to Native connections, so she denies the acceptance of her Native identity from herself and her grandsons.
However, as the story progresses Opal finds herself at the Oakland. At first, she only goes there to look out for her grandsons, yet as she sits in her car and listens to the beat of the drum Opal feels a connection, “Opal is listening to the drum. She hasn't heard a big drum like that since she was young.” (241). Even through all her trauma, her Native identity is still a factor within her self-identity. Orange is illustrating that past trauma doesn’t alienate one from their ethnic roots. Identity can adapt and adjust over time. Opal is not just one of her identities; she is a grandmother, she is a survivor of her past, and she is Native. The conflicting relationship between acceptance of Native identity and personal identity can also be seen within the progression of Jacquie Red Feather. Jacquie turned away from her Native identity and community because of her overbearing alcoholism, “Home was to drink. To drink was the trap.” (101). She is constantly battling her impulse to drink, and even though she finds herself at a Substance Abuse conference, she is still consumed by her desire to want to drink. She believes that her identity is only tied to her alcoholism and because she has strayed so far from her family and her culture that she is no longer connected to her Native roots. At the conference, she looks around the room and admits to the feelings of not belonging, “These were career people, more driven by their concerns about keeping their jobs than by the need to help Indian families. Jacquie was no different. She knew it and hated this fact.” (103). Just like many other characters within the novel, Jacquie feels like a fraudulent member within her own community. As the chapter progresses and Jacquie finds herself at an AA meeting, the leader of the AA meeting states, “It's not the alcohol. There's not some special relationship between Indians and alcohol.” as well as, “I stopped telling the story I've been telling myself about how that was the only way, that [this] was my life, my bad lot, history.” (112). This emphasizes Orange’s message that personal attributions and cultural roots are both important indicators in the makeup of one’s identity. As Orange’s characters try to make sense of who they are within the Native community and outside of it, Orange argues that understanding who they are on a personal level can lead to the recognition and acceptance of one’s place in a larger cultural identity.
Identity is a recognition of selfhood and one's position in their community, so each character defines identity differently. Although some characters in the story struggle to find the correlation of their personal identity and their cultural identity because of their past traumas, other characters experience an internal struggle of accepting their identity because of how they are seen in public versus private. The struggle of one's identity within the Native community is not just a matter of addiction; identity is a problem faced by all Native characters because of Native history and the pressure to survive through adaptation. Being mixed race has a large correlation with the struggle of being seen versus seeing one’s own identity throughout the novel. Edwin Black was raised by his white mother, and although he knows his father was Native, he never had a connection with him or the Native community. This disconnection between him and his Native identity controls many of the aspects of his life. In college, he avidly studied Native American literature to find some connection to his ethnic roots. “I once dreamed I'd become a writer. I graduated with my master’s in comparative literature with a focus on Native American literature.” (63). He even manages to reach out to his father and discover which tribe he belongs to in order to receive some type of recognition from the public's eye that he is truly Native. Edwin's life is so plagued with a fear of not belonging he is unable to pursue his career because he feels like a fraud working with Native American literature. As the story progresses, Edwin joins the Oakland powwow committee and, eventually, makes a real connection with his community and his father. Once the connection to his family and his heritage is made, he can see himself authentically and pursue his passion for writing fiction. Edwin’s newly found connection to the Native community allows him to expand his identity as an author and as a storyteller; accept his identity as both white and as Native.
Through Edwin’s progression, Orange illustrates the idea that being part of one culture doesn't erase your connection to another culture. Instead, culture identity has adapted to accept mixed identities as people within certain ethnic groups become more mixed. The struggle of accepting one's identity when torn between two separate cultures can also be seen through the progression of Dene Oxendene. Dene is trying to honor the memory of his uncle Lucas by starting his film project that would tell the stories of Natives within the Oakland community. He is faced with the daunting task of advocating his art project in front of a panel of judges, and his only worry is that he won't be given the art grant he needs because he is “ambiguously nonwhite.” (28). Unfortunately, his fears come true when the only judge on the panel to reject Dene’s idea is the Native judge, “Dene knew it would be the Native guy. He probably doesn't even think Dene is Native.” (41). This rejection is an indicator that Dene is not seen as Native enough by the other members in his community. Dene is only half Native, and this causes him to struggle in finding a community in which he belongs. Not only is Dene seen is as not Native enough by members in the Native community, but also by other mixed Natives. Upon meeting Dene for the first time, Calvin recalls that he would have thought Dene was white if he hadn't been wearing a specific tribal symbol. Even though Dene actively makes an effort to connect to his Native community, he cannot see himself as authentically Native because of the way the public views him. However, during the interviews for his film project, Dene discovers that many other Natives within the community also don't feel like they are Native enough to identify as Native. He feels a specific connection to Calvin as Calvin states, “I feel bad sometimes even saying I'm native. Mostly I just feel like I'm from Oakland.” (148). Dene finds comfort in the fact that other Natives within the community feel like a fraud when identifying as Native. Rather than turning away from his heritage, he continues to embrace his culture in Oakland and to continue his project by giving a voice to his fellow Native community. He is not alone in feeling conflicted by his Native roots; knowing other Native Americans feel disconnected from their community helps him to connect to his Native identity. There is self-recognition in understanding that people of the same ethnic background go through the same personal trials. It may seem as if personal identity detaches people from their cultural identity, in reality, Orange claims cultural identity can adapt and change over time as people within the community adapt and change.
Throughout Native history, Native Americans have been subjected to an extreme loss of culture and identity. They were forced to adapt to the western colonization of their civilizations to survive. As expressed within the prologue, “We [Natives] stood under both flags as they came at us. They did more than kill us. They tore us up. Mutilated us.”. (8). Part of being Native American is the forced adaptation to the urbanization of the Native culture during erasure and gentrification of Native communities. Orange mirrors the loss of identity throughout Native history within the personal history of each of the characters. Each character battles with their own feeling of “not being Native enough” or “not being the right type of Native”. They must learn to accept their personal identities, of trauma and mixed culture, as part of a bigger identity that includes their Native roots. There is no one way to be Native, nor is there a right way or a wrong way; Native identity comes from the acceptance and recognition of Native history and culture within oneself.
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