I had never considered this subject matter before. I had never seriously thought about what had happened to the Native Americans in this country other than once and while hearing about reservation casinos or visiting pueblos in New Mexico. And when I was aware of Native Americans it was always in the traditional sense with people wearing full regalia either on TV or during cultural awareness events on campuses.
This book, however, forced me to see Native Americans, and not as some people distinct from Americans, but as just simply Americans who have to deal with and struggle with all the problems of being American but who are also trying to figure how what it means to be Native American in this America. It’s an odd place to be in because just like the title suggests that there is and yet isn’t a there there, Native Americans are there (here) and yet they aren’t, they are Americans but they are also something else, something even more American perhaps.
One of the saddest parts of this book is how so many characters struggle with some sort of addition, be it drugs or the internet, and of course this is not unique to Native Americans, but it seems to be such a part of that story of being Native American. The stereotype is that of someone drunk on the reservation and in a way this book both supports this stereotype as well as examine the why behind it. To say that only Native Americans struggle with addiction is untrue – all people struggle with it – but in this book we learn the why behind it, and a lot of it has to do with just trying to escape while being surrounded by a culture that ignores Native Americans (or thinks they are Mexican). It’s an odd thing to try to escape from people who don’t want to see you, and there’s a sense of here of wanting to be seen while also just wanting to be treated no different.
And that’s the thing here in that the characters are not any different than anyone else except for the fact that they are Native American. They love each other, they are violent towards each other, they are artists, they are abusers, and they are every kind of person there is, it’s just that they are also Native American on top of all that and they live in the cities with everyone else and so it’s hard to stand out in any way since everyone is forced to live cheek to jowl with everyone else and so it can be nearly impossible to see Native Americans unless they are wearing their regalia like during the pow wow at the end of the novel.
And then once the Native Americans are seen by the end of the novel, that’s when the violence happens. And it’s a shame that American art now must deal with the reality of American violence in the form of mass shootings. These shootings are such a part of the fabric of our culture that there is no escaping it, though what Orange does in this novel is explain how these shootings are not new, and he’s not talking about how they started in the 90’s (Columbine) or the 60’s (Kent State), but how they go all the way back to Sand Creek and Plymouth Plantation. Mass shootings are as old as America, older in fact since they go back to when we were still a British colony.
And that’s the thread of the story of this novel in that violence, specifically gun violence is what Native Americans have been running from ever since Europeans first came here and that they are still running and so it’s easier to remain silent, head down, and blend in, but that this comes at such a cost in that culture and tradition is lost that Native Americans have to hang onto who they are as a myriad people yet when they do they have to go back to running from bullets.