There There

There There


Tommy Orange

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Cultural Identity vs. Personal Identity Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Cultural Identity vs. Personal Identity Theme Icon
Storytelling Theme Icon
Interconnectedness, Coincidence, and Chance Theme Icon
Generational Trauma Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in There There, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Cultural Identity vs. Personal Identity Theme Icon

The characters who make up the cast of Tommy Orange’s novel There There are wildly different—but they all share a tense relationship to the intersection of their cultural identity as Native Americans and their personal identities. Orvil Red Feather, Blue, and Edwin Black are each shown worrying that they are not “Native enough,” or are Native in the wrong ways—and must reconcile what they know or believe about themselves with their idea of what it means to be a part of the Native community. As Orange’s characters try to make sense of who they are within the Native community and outside of it, Orange argues that discovering one’s place in a larger cultural identity can help that person to understand who they are on a personal level.

Fourteen-year-old Orvil Red Feather has been all but barred from learning about his family’s Indian heritage by his great-aunt and caretaker, Opal. Opal believes that “learning about your heritage is a privilege” which their family does not have. Opal is careful to impress upon Orvil and his brothers, Lony and Loother, that there is little about modern-day Native culture that is original—much of Native tradition only exists because of the ways in which Native people have had to make do with the scraps given to them by their white oppressors. Though Opal tries to shield Orvil from the difficulty of navigating a cultural tradition with roots in pain, trauma, and ostracism, Orvil is drawn to the Native part of his identity. Through the internet, he learns about Native culture and memorizes Native dances. He digs out some old regalia from Opal’s closet and, together with his brothers, plans in secret to attend the upcoming Big Oakland Powwow. Most mysteriously of all, Orvil finds that an itchy bump on his leg is full of spider legs. He does not know that when his great-aunt Opal was a young girl, she found the same phenomenon on her own body. The spider leg incident is symbolic of how one’s cultural identity is a part of them, for better or worse, even if kept hidden. The emergence of the spider legs symbolizes the fact that Orvil is ready to embrace the heritage he’s been denied all his life.

Blue, the chair of the Oakland Indian Center’s powwow committee, doesn’t know who her parents are—a fact that fills her with questions about her cultural identity. For most of her life, she’s been called Crystal; adopted at birth by white parents, she grew up in an affluent Oakland suburb. At eighteen, when her adoptive mother revealed the name of Blue’s birth mother, Blue began a quest to find out who she really was. Her journey in search of her Cheyenne roots led her to Oklahoma, where she married a Native man and was given an Indian name—but after her husband Paul became abusive, she fled back to Oakland. Blue’s journey of self-discovery resulted in pain and trauma—but rather than turn away from the heritage she discovered in Oklahoma, she continued to embrace her culture in Oakland and gave her time, energy, and love to the Native community there. She chooses to approach her connection to her Native identity as an extension of her personal identity, bringing to it the lessons she’s learned throughout her life.

Raised by a white mother, and in total ignorance of who his Native father is, Edwin Black has been searching all his life for hints of who he might be—but has failed to construct a viable personal identity that allows him to thrive in the world. After a promising start to an academic career in Native American literature, Edwin has hit a wall. He is a recluse who spends most of his time on the internet, living in his mother Karen’s home and avoiding the outside world. He successfully contacts his biological father Harvey through Facebook, but after confirming that they are related and learning what tribe Harvey belongs to, Edwin backs off from the communication, afraid of what a real connection might look like. When readers first meet Edwin, he has been constipated for over a week. This constipation serves as a metaphor for the ways in which Edwin has been holding himself back from the world around him, failing to understand on any real level who he is inside. Edwin’s mother, worried about how much time her son is spending online, confronts him about the changes he needs to make to his lifestyle. Edwin applies for a job at the local Indian Center, begins doing exercises in his room, and resolves to eat more healthily. As the barriers between Edwin and the rest of the world break down, he’s at last able to have a bowel movement—and feels as if he’s finally moving forward in life. As the novel progresses, Edwin becomes a part of the powwow committee at the Indian Center, and through the planning is able to connect with his biological father Harvey and with his coworker Blue—who turns out, in a surprising twist of events, to be his half-sister. As Edwin learns more about his cultural history, he comes out of his shell and begins pursuing his passion—writing fiction. As he learns more about his people, he at last allows himself to care about something real, to develop his identity as an author and storyteller, and to thrive through his newfound connection to his larger Native community.

Through the example of these three major characters, Orange extends empathy to those who wrestle with the feeling that their personal identity is devoid of cultural identity. In examining the ways in which his characters have distanced themselves (or have been distanced against their wills) from Native culture—and the ways in which they try to reconnect with a vital part of who they are—Orange shows how cultural identity can enliven one’s personal identity, bringing a new sense of purpose into their life.

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Cultural Identity vs. Personal Identity Quotes in There There

Below you will find the important quotes in There There related to the theme of Cultural Identity vs. Personal Identity.
Prologue Quotes

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. We didn’t get lost amid the sprawl of tall buildings, the stream of anonymous masses, the ceaseless din of traffic. We found one another, started up Indian Cen­ters, brought out our families and powwows, our dances, our songs, our beadwork.

Page Number: 8-9
Explanation and Analysis:
Part I: Tony Loneman (1) Quotes

I pulled my regalia out and put it on. I went out into the living room and stood in front of the TV. It was the only place in the house I could see my whole body. I shook and lifted a foot. I watched the feathers flutter on the screen. I put my arms out and dipped my shoulders down, then I walked up to the TV. I tightened my chin strap. I looked at my face. The Drome. I didn’t see it there. I saw an Indian. I saw a dancer.

Related Characters: Tony Loneman (speaker)
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:
Part I: Dene Oxendene (1) Quotes

“There is no there there,” [Rob] says in a kind of whisper, with this goofy openmouthed smile Dene wants to punch. Dene wants to tell him he’d looked up the quote in its original context, in her Everybody’s Autobiography, and found that she was talking about how the place where she’d grown up in Oakland had changed so much, that so much development had happened there, that the there of her childhood, the there there, was gone… […] Dene wants to tell him it’s what happened to Native people, he wants to explain that they’re not the same, that Dene is Native, born and raised in Oakland, from Oakland. Rob probably didn’t look any further into the quote because he’d gotten what he wanted from it.

Related Characters: Dene Oxendene, Rob
Page Number: 38-39
Explanation and Analysis:
Part II: Orvil Red Feather (1) Quotes

But his leg. The lump that’s been in his leg for as long as he can remember, as of late it’s been itching. He hasn’t been able to stop scratching it.

Related Characters: Orvil Red Feather
Related Symbols: Spiders
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:
Part II: Interlude Quotes

We all came to the Big Oakland Powwow for different reasons. The messy, dangling strands of our lives got pulled into a braid—tied to the back of everything we'd been doing all along to get us here. We’ve been coming from miles. And we’ve been coming for years, generations, lifetimes, layered in prayer and handwoven regalia, beaded and sewn together, feathered, braided, blessed, and cursed.

Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:

Something about it will make sense. The bullets have been coming from miles. Years. Their sound will break the water in our bodies, tear sound itself, rip our lives in half. The tragedy of it all will be unspeakable, the fact we’ve been fighting for decades to be recognized as a present-tense people, modern and relevant, alive, only to die in the grass wearing feathers.

Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:
Part II: Calvin Johnson (2) Quotes

Dene starts to say something about storytelling, some real heady shit, so Calvin tunes out. He doesn’t know what he’s gonna say when it comes around to him. He’d been put in charge of finding younger vendors, to support young Native artists and entrepreneurs. But he hadn’t done shit.

Related Characters: Dene Oxendene, Calvin Johnson
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:
Part III: Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield (2) Quotes

Opal pulled three spider legs out of her leg the Sunday afternoon before she and Jacquie left the home, the house, the man they’d been left with after their mom left this world. There’d recently been blood from her first moon. Both the menstrual blood and the spider legs had made her feel the same kind of shame. Something was in her that came out, that seemed so creaturely, so grotesque yet magical, that the only readily available emotion she had for both occasions was shame, which led to secrecy in both cases.

Related Characters: Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, Jacquie Red Feather, Orvil Red Feather
Related Symbols: Spiders
Page Number: 165
Explanation and Analysis:
Part IV: Orvil Red Feather (2) Quotes

“Now you young men in here, listen up. Don’t get too excited out there. That dance is your prayer. So don’t rush it, and don’t dance how you practice. There’s only one way for an Indian man to express himself. It's that dance that comes from all the way back there. All the way over there.”

Related Characters: Orvil Red Feather
Page Number: 231
Explanation and Analysis:
Part IV: Tony Loneman (3) Quotes

To get to the powwow Tony Loneman catches a train. He gets dressed at home and wears his regalia all the way there. He’s used to being stared at, but this is different. He wants to laugh at them staring at him. It’s his joke to himself about them. Everyone has been staring at him his whole life. Never for any other reason than the Drome. Never for any other reason than that his face told you something bad happened to him—a car wreck you should but can’t look away from.

Related Characters: Tony Loneman
Related Symbols: Buses and BART Trains
Page Number: 234
Explanation and Analysis:
Part IV: Calvin Johnson (4) Quotes

[Calvin] looks over to Tony, who’s bouncing a little—he’s light on his feet like he’s ready to dance. Tony’s supposed to do the actual robbing. The rest of them are there in case anything goes wrong. Octavio never explained why he wants Tony in regalia, and why he should be the one to take the money. Calvin assumes it’s because someone in regalia would be harder to identify, and ultimately harder to investigate.

Related Characters: Tony Loneman, Calvin Johnson, Octavio Gomez
Page Number: 272
Explanation and Analysis:
Part IV: Tony Loneman (4) Quotes

Tony plays with his Transformers on the floor of his bedroom. He makes them fight in slow motion. He gets lost in the story he works out for them. It’s always the same. There is a battle, then a betrayal, then a sacrifice.

Related Characters: Tony Loneman
Page Number: 289
Explanation and Analysis: