While reading There There—Tommy Orange’s award-winning novel and the 2020 One Book, One Philadelphia featured selection—I was repeatedly struck by how many references Orange was able to weave into a single, cohesive story. Wars, movements, treaties, bands, brands, places, people, concepts, books, actors, artists, songs: all these and more appear in There There, often for just a flash and without much explanation.
I wanted to learn more about some of the historical events Orange particularly emphasizes. This brief guide to four pivotal moments in Indigenous and United States history raises some important and complex terms, which are explored in greater depth in a short glossary at the end of this blog post. Help expand this resource for reading and discussions in the comments below, where you can build upon the information shared here and add your own entries.
King Philip’s War (There There, page 4)
King Philip’s War (1675–78; also known as the First Indian War and Metacomet’s War) was an armed conflict between Native inhabitants of New England and European settler-colonists and their allies. Often considered the last major attempt by Native peoples to reclaim their ancestral territories from the colonists, it was initially led by Metacomet, a Wampanoag sachem who took on the name King Philip and was brutally killed and dismembered in 1676. King Philip’s War was the deadliest conflict in 17th-century New England; by the war’s end, which resulted in a colonial victory, the Native population of the region’s southern territories had been reduced by over 40 percent. Multiple tribes—including the Narragansett, Wampanoag, Podunk, and Nipmuck—suffered so many losses that they ceased to exist as organized communities.
"The wound that was made when white people came and took all that they took has never healed." (There There, page 137)
Learn more: Check out Abenaki scholar Lisa Brooks’s Our Beloved Kin: Remapping a New History of King Philip’s War, a rigorous examination of Native resistance during King Philip’s War that’s grounded in routinely overlooked Indigenous sources and narratives.
Depiction of the Sand Creek Massacre by Cheyenne eyewitness and artist Howling Wolf.
Sand Creek Massacre (There There, page 8)
During the Sand Creek Massacre (November 29, 1864), the U.S. Army murdered and mutilated over 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho people at their village at Fort Lyon in the southeastern Colorado Territory. Many of the victims were children and elderly people. In an act of genocide, Colonel John Chivington and his troops burned what remained of the village to the ground the next day. A few months prior, in July 1864, governor John Evans had invited "friendly" Plains Indians to camp at Fort Lyon in safety, offering provisions and protection from U.S. troops; Cheyenne chiefs Black Kettle and White Antelope had brought their people there to live and negotiate peace. When the attack began on November 29, Chief Black Kettle raised the U.S. flag as well as a white flag, but the village was charged nonetheless. Colonel Chivington is known to have said: "Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! . . . I have come to kill Indians." As soon as the massacre ended, Chivington documented reports to the federal government and the press that claimed the violence was a necessary part of "civilizing" the West and preserving the Union in the context of the Civil War.
"They tried to kill us. But then when you hear them tell it, they make history seem like one big heroic adventure across an empty forest." (There There, page 51)
Learn more: A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling with the History of Sand Creek, by Penn State historian Ari Kelman, examines the controversy around the National Park Service’s recent creation of the Sand Creek Massacre Historic Site, foregrounding Indigenous experience, memory, and storytelling in its attempt to reckon with this unresolved and painful legacy.
Indian Relocation Act of 1956 (There There, page 9)
Also known as Public Law 959, the Indian Relocation Act was a 1956 U.S. federal law that intended to encourage Native Americans to leave their traditional lands (which by then were largely reservations) and move to urban areas, where they would assimilate into the general population and U.S. culture and identity. It offered to pay for moving expenses and provide some vocational training and medical insurance to anyone who relocated, but many people who accepted such offers did not actually receive these benefits once they arrived in cities. By 1960, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) reported that more than since 1952, 31,000 people had moved off of reservations and into urban areas, with 70 percent of them becoming self-sufficient. But many Native Americans who moved from their traditional lands to cities—whether during the diaspora spurred by the relocation program or after its offers expired—have experienced isolation from their communities, racial discrimination, and segregation through practices such as redlining.
The Relocation Act was part of a larger federal effort called the Indian Termination Policy (ongoing from the 1940s to the 1960s), which was a series of laws that attempted to terminate "Indian" identity and forced Native Americans to live as "Americans." The legacy and impacts of this policy of erasure by assimilation continue today. During the reservation period, many Native religious customs and practices had been outlawed by the U.S. government. As a social event rather than a religious one, the Grass Dance—which would evolve into the modern powwow— was one of the few events that weren’t made illegal and carried into urban Native American life as a powerful tie to community and identity.
"You’d wake up feeling like you’d dreamed something as important and devastating as it was forgotten. But there was no dream. There was only the open, living wound, and it itched somewhere on your body at all times." (There There, pages 217–18)
Learn more: Hear and consider Native perspectives on life in the city in American Indians and the Urban Experience, an edited volume of art, stories, and scholarship that, like There There, presents a complex cacophony of voices.
Reclaiming a decommissioned federal facility during the occupation of Alcatraz.
Occupation of Alcatraz (There There, throughout)
Part of the Native response to the United States government’s Indian Termination Policy, the occupation of Alcatraz was a key moment in 1960s activism and resistance. Beginning on November 20, 1969, a group of Native Americans occupied Alcatraz Island, a federal and military prison complex in San Francisco Bay that had been decommissioned five years prior. The group claimed ownership of the island under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which states that all retired or out-of-use federal land shall be returned to Indigenous peoples; they intended to build Native-led cultural, spiritual, and ecology centers on it. Spearheaded by Richard Oakes, LaNada Means, John Trudell, and other members of the Indians of All Tribes coalition, the occupation started with 89 people and eventually grew to over 400 strong. The government fought the occupation throughout, cutting off all electricity and telephone service to the island and setting up a Coast Guard blockade—making it difficult for food and clean water to arrive, even though children were on the island. These tactics, combined with internal political disagreements and other factors, led to a dwindling population of protesters, and on June 11, 1971, government officials forcibly removed the last 15 occupiers. But the occupation had succeeded in its broad goals of uniting Native voices against centuries of colonization and violence: demonstrations, occupations, and news coverage occurred across the country, beginning a wave of Indigenous activism still ongoing today.
"We’d been on Alcatraz, me and my family, back during the occupation, in 1970. It all started for me there." (There There, page 110)
Learn more: The occupation and its message of Indigenous sovereignty was widely covered by the media, in no small part thanks to Radio Free Alcatraz, a pirate radio station created and broadcasted from the island by John Trudell. Listen to an aircheck of the December 30, 1969, episode of Radio Free Alcatraz.
settler colonialism: A distinct form of colonialism in which settlers arrive in existing territories with the intention of making a new home. Settler colonists claim not just land, but also sovereignty over the land and any people, cultures, and resources inhabiting it. The violence of settler colonialism is enacted each day that settlers continue to occupy land that was once the home of other peoples.
sachem: An elected chief of the Algonquin, Narragansett, or certain other northeastern Native American tribes.
genocide: Violence against particular cultural, ethnic, religious, or racial groups that aims to destroy the group and exterminate, on a mass scale, those who hold its identities. Throughout history and continuing today, genocidal acts take many forms; the historic massacres of Sand Creek and King Philip’s War, for example, are part of the settler colonial aim of the mass genocide of Native peoples. The related term ethnogenocide is the form of genocide that is enacted through erasure, which in U.S. history and culture has included the use of flattening, monolithic stereotypes that perpetuate narratives of Indigenous extinction for the purposes of the state. Tommy Orange writes: "We’ve been defined by everyone else and continue to be slandered despite easy-to-look-up-on-the-internet facts about the realities of our histories and current state as a people. . . . We have all the logos and mascots. The copy of a copy of the image of an Indian in a textbook. All the way from the top of Canada, the top of Alaska, down to the bottom of South America, Indians were removed, then reduced to a feathered image." (There There page 7)
Historically and pervasively still, Indigenous women are the targets of genocidal violence rooted in racism, sexism, and marginalization. Canada has recently acknowledged that the murder of Indigenous and First Nations women amounts to genocide. Several activist groups have emerged to raise awareness about these ongoing forms of violence, including the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women.
diaspora: The dispersal of a people or peoples from their place of origin. Through the Indian Relocation Act and previous centuries of forced relocation, Native Americans who spoke different languages, had different cultural and spiritual practices, and were from different regions and tribes, have ended up in the same cities. "Diaspora" often refers to those customs, languages, and practices that migrated with people and were made anew in urban environments.
erasure: The process by which settler colonist societies eliminate the societies, cultures, and lifeways of the people inhabiting the land the settlers have claimed. Tactics of erasure range from direct attacks on the physical ability of a society to survive—war, the theft of land, the choking of resources—to more subtle attempts to undermine it, such as stereotyping, discounting or dismissing cultural practices and belief, and rewriting history to foreground settler colonialist narratives and hide legacies of colonial violence. There There is concerned not just with the ongoing erasure of Indigenous peoples in the United States, but with Indigenous resistance to these concentrated efforts. As Tommy Orange writes in the book’s prologue, "Getting us to cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our assimilation, absorption, erasure, the completion of a five-hundred-year-old genocidal campaign. But the city made us new, and we made it ours." (There There, page 8)
powwow: Tommy Orange’s novel revolves around the fictional Big Oakland Powwow, to which all of the characters are headed and which represents the inter-tribal powwows that take place in cities everywhere today. "Powwow" is a now-reclaimed term that derives from an Algonquian word that was misused by English settlers to refer to any kind of Native American gathering. For centuries, Indigenous communities have conducted ceremonial gatherings, but modern powwows evolved in the mid-19th century as a social gathering in the Plains area in response to displacement. When the federal government seized lands from the Lakota, Dakota, Blackfoot, and Ojibwa peoples in the Northern Plains and from Kiowa, Comanche, Pawnee, and Ponca peoples in the Southern Plains, the period of forced migration and upheaval resulted in deeper inter-tribal exchange and solidarity among Plains Indians. Two inter-tribal traditions that emerged during this period were the Drum Religion and the Grass Dance (or Helushka Society). These precursors to modern powwows were diffused, spread, amended, and adapted by different tribes across the Plains, with powwows becoming a way for families and communities separated by government removal to reunite.
During the Relocation Act period of the 1950s, mass migration of Plains Indians to cities across the country resulted in the formation of urban cultural centers and inter-tribal collaboration in urban areas, where new communities and new spaces were created where people could connect with one another and their cultures. Powwow circuits and traveling performance groups emerged. This period is associated with the rise of competition events in powwows, during which dancers compete in separate categories for monetary prizes, meaning the powwow has not only served an important cultural significance, but a financial one, as well.
Learn more: Tommy Orange discusses the fictional Big Oakland Powwow in this 2018 interview. "That’s a big part of why I used an Oakland powwow, because it’s inter-tribal and contemporary and traditional at the same time," he says. "It fits the urban Indian experience."