The Big Oakland Powwow

There, There

By Tommy Orange

Published 2017

Read Nov 2018

This debut novel is really quite impressive.  Orange opens the book with a Prologue that gets and keeps your attention.  It is a powerful indictment of the White Man for his intended impact on the Native population.   I use the word intended here because it’s hard not to when the US uses the term “Indian Termination Policy” to describe its policy regarding Native Americans in the 1940s through mid-1960s.  A “positive” attribute of the policy was to grant Native Americans the rights and privileges associated with US citizenship (something denied anyone with more than 50% Native blood since the 1600’s).  But it also meant that the US ended its recognition of the sovereignty of tribes.  The intent was that Native Americans abandon their traditional lives, become civilized, and just plain assimilate.    In the Prologue and Interlude later in the book Orange writes a number of short essays informing the reader of facts and figures that are difficult to digest and to which you want to hide.  We also learn that Urban Native is a term describing Natives that have been born in urban environments vs those that were moved there or moved there themselves.

This book is about 13 characters who live in Oakland, CA, whose varied paths take them to the Big Oakland Powwow, and what happens to them at that fictional event.  The characters are rather diverse.  Single mothers; offspring of single mothers with various degrees of problems; offspring of two parent households with a variety of issues; a daughter of two Natives who is given up for adoption and raised White while knowing she isn’t; offspring from one Native and one White parent; offspring of wholly Native or part-Native who have some connection with some of their Native customs; offspring of wholly Native or part-Natives whose parents or grandparents have suppressed their connection to their Native background; significant others of Natives.  Some of the characters are family members.  Some of the characters meet through their involvement in planning the Big Oakland Powwow.  Some of the characters know each other through drug dealing or using.  There are many interesting characters with a range of connections and a range of experiences.

Each chapter is titled for a character and is told by or tells about that specific character and some part of the overall plot.  Each character has at least one and usually several chapters titled for them but many appear in other chapters as well.   The point of view in these character titled chapters is not constant.  For instance Tony Loneman’s first chapter is in in first person but a later Tony Loneman chapter is in future tense told by a third person.  One chapter has a long email written by the title person to his brother, another significant character who never has his own titled chapter.   The language is straightforward and it’s clear who the chapter is discussing and what is happening in that chapter.  What takes a bit of work understanding  the various connections between characters and the interleaving circumstances.  I eventually succumbed to re-reading and taking notes to which I could refer to more fully tease out  he various characters’ situations and  interleaving story lines that all press them towards the day of the Big Oakland Powwow.

So this is a book with a simple structure that is actually a fairly complex product which is about complex characters that represent a very complex situation of Urban Natives which is but one type of Natives in this very complex and complicated county that has always dealt poorly with how to interact with people of different blood (even when everyone is “All White”).

This book demands you work at reading it and listening to the many kinds of things it is sharing with you.  It is well worth all the energy required to take it in. You will be changed.

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