The first chapter opens with a series of memories and thoughts from Tony Loneman. Tony recalls when his guardian, Maxine, told him he had fetal alcohol syndrome. At the time, he misheard the name of the syndrome, and it became known to him as the Drone. He thinks of it as a reminder of his history. Although he is 21 years old now, he doesn’t drink—he figures he got enough as a baby from his mom. Tony's IQ percentile is the lowest possible, but his psychologist, Karen, affirms his intelligence. Tony knows he is smart where it counts. He knows Oakland, his only home. Maxine says he is a medicine man, deserving of respect, and she tells him the history of colonization. Tony sympathizes with his ancestors’ plight; he would hate to have to leave Oakland. Sometimes, he rides his bike through all the neighborhoods just to see them, listening to the rapper MF Doom, whose music he likes for lines such as, “Got more soul than a sock with a hole.” He occasionally speaks with his mother, who is in jail, on the phone. She tells him that his father lives in New Mexico and doesn’t know he exists. Tony blames her for this, and for the Drome.
Tony is big, strong, and prone to fits of anger. Growing up, he moved from school to school, always getting suspended after yet another fight. People are afraid of him, and he wonders if Maxine is wrong about him being a medicine man. Maybe one day, he thinks, he will be known for something bad he has done. Tony has been selling weed since he was thirteen. He doesn’t need more money; he gives most of what he makes to Maxine. He takes care of her, especially since she's broken her hip. He also reads to her before she goes to sleep. He has difficulty reading, but sometimes the words move him, like when Maxine has him read something by her favorite author, Louise Erdrich. Maxine knows him better than anyone and helps him makes sense of the world around him.
The trouble began when a few white boys asked Tony for coke. Tony didn’t have it, so he asked Carlos, who told him to visit someone named Octavio. A very drunk Octavio confided in Tony about his love for his grandmother and gave him coke to sell. They sold it to those boys and their friends for the whole summer, until Octavio came up with a plan to make up a debt he owed: they would rob the Oakland Powwow with white 3D-printed guns. Octavio tells Tony that his job is to buy the bullets and go to the Powwow wearing his old Indian headdress. Tony goes home and puts on his old regalia. He looks at his reflection in the dark TV and sees himself as a dancer.
Next, readers hear the voice of Dene Oxendene. He sweats as he takes the steps up a dead escalator at the Fruitvale Station in Oakland. At the top, he looks at the graffiti tag scrawled across the tracks: Lens. This makes him think of the first time he saw someone tag. A kid in the back of his bus wrote emt, which Dene understood to mean empty, in the window condensation. By that point, he knew to acknowledge but not be caught looking.
Dene feels a rush of self-loathing approaching like the fast-moving train. The feeling passes in an instant, and he boards the train. He worries about the panel of judges he is going to see. He imagines old white men in robes who will know everything about him—except they will assume he is white. Dene is always mistaken for being white, despite being half Native. On the train, Dene looks out the window at the cars moving at different speeds on the freeway and listens to “There, There,” by Radiohead.
Dene thought of the tag Lens for the first time on the bus home on the day his uncle Lucas came to visit. At dinner, his mother, Norma, was annoyed with Lucas for saying he "made movies," when all his movie ideas were just in his head. Lucas told Dene his idea for a movie about an alien conquest of America. He hadn't made any of his movies, but he held boom mics for other people’s movies. He did have one project that he was working on, however, that wouldn't require any money. Lucas was collecting interviews of Indians who have moved to Oakland, asking them to share a story about how they ended up in Oakland and what it was like for them. The next day, Dene tagged Lens everywhere he could at school. When he got home that afternoon, his mother told him Lucas was in the hospital overnight. He was dying of liver failure because he has been drinking heavily his whole life. His mother said there was nothing she could do. Lucas returned from the hospital the next day and admitted to Dene that he was dying, but he kept drinking. Alcohol was medicine to make him feel better, he said—it’s just that some medicines can kill. He asked Dene to make a movie with him the next day.
On the way into the interview for the grant, Dene meets a young white man who is also there to interview. The man, who assumes Dene is white, says he is moving to West Oakland where rent is dirt cheap. He tells Dene that is no one is really “from” Oakland, and he quotes Gertrude Stein to him, talking about the city of Oakland: “There is no there there.” Dene knows this quote but doesn’t say so. He looked it up in its original context, Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Gertrude Stein was really saying that so much development happened in Oakland that the place, the there, of her childhood was simply no longer there. Dene hasn’t read any other Gertrude Stein, but this quote, to him, represents the story of Native people all over the Americas.
Dene goes inside to the panel of judges, a multiracial group in the middle of debating the merits of his project. They give him a final three minutes to speak for his project. Dene introduces himself and tells them about the project he has inherited from his uncle. His plan, he tells the judges, is to let the content direct the vision. His interviewees will be able to say anything they want, and he will pay them for their stories. This is what the community needs, he says: to be valued for the depth and breadth of its stories. After his monologue is over, the Native judge raises his concerns about the lack of vision for the project. Another judge, however, a black man, defends Dene, saying the stories are important to document regardless of vision. Dene leaves the interview confident he won the grant.
When Dene’s uncle died, his mom came home to tell him. Dene knew what had happened from the look on her face before she even said anything. Dene immediately ran out the door with his uncle’s camera in hand. He went to a tunnel underneath a park near his house, where his mom once told him there was an underground waterway that went all the way out into the bay. The wind howled at him. Dene realized he shouldn’t have run away from his mother; there was no one to be mad at. He managed to turn on his uncle’s camera and shoot as he walked home. When he got home, he hid behind a telephone pole, watching his mother cry in the doorway. He felt bad again for leaving her to cry alone. He pointed the camera at her and filmed.
Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield
One day, Opal and Jacquie’s mom came home with swollen lips and told them to pack their things. On a cold morning in January 1970, the three of them left the small yellow house where they lived in East Oakland. Opal took her teddy bear, Two Shoes, with her. On the bus, Opal’s mom explained that Bear Shield is an old Indian name that comes from their own customs before white people. She also explained where they were going: Alcatraz, a former prison that had been taken over by Indians. Men in military uniforms brought the three to the island in speedboats. Once there, Jacquie quickly made friends with a group of teenagers that ran wild all over the island. One day, Opal went to go find her. The group of teenagers was down by the shore and they scared her, so she talked to Two Shoes. Two Shoes told her that he would protect her. He also told her the stories of how white men named teddy bears after Teddy Roosevelt. Opal left him by the rocks and went down the shore. Her sister was drunk and introduced her to a teenage boy named Harvey. Opal walked away and found a boy named Rocky closer to her age. Rocky was upset to be on the island; he thought there was no point in trying to take back something from the past. Then all the teenagers got on a stolen boat, and Opal and Rocky followed. They held hands on the boat as the drunk teenagers steered madly. They made it back to shore. Opal and Rocky kept holding hands until Opal heard Jacquie’s voice swearing. She ran towards the sound and found Jacquie and Harvey. Jacquie swore at Harvey again and told Opal that she told him not to do it but he did. They went back to the cell where they slept with their mom and fell asleep.
Things got worse on Alcatraz as more and more people gave up on the dream of separating from the mainland and maintaining power. Opal’s mom took her aside one day and told her that the only thing they can do was to tell their stories—and that she had cancer. They left the island and moved in with their mom’s adopted brother, Ronald, just outside downtown Oakland. Ronald was a medicine man, and their mom followed his advice, rather than the doctors’. Eventually, she died, right there in the house. Opal kept her head down and focused on school, until one day Jacquie told her she was pregnant with Harvey’s baby. She said that she knew someone who could help her get rid of it, but Opal wanted her to keep it.
Edwin is on the toilet trying to make a bowel movement, but he can’t. It has been six days since his last one. Yesterday, he dropped his phone in the toilet and his computer froze, so now he has no access to the Internet, either. He is addicted to the Internet; he spent the last four years sitting in his room on his computer. He used to dream of becoming a writer: he has his Master’s in Comparative Literature with a focus on Native American literature. But then he couldn’t find a job, so moved back in with his mom and subsequently gained a hundred pounds. He can find out anything on the Internet, go anywhere, and he gets stuck in spirals of clicking. He stays in his room on the computer especially when Bill is over—his mom’s boyfriend, whom he doesn’t like. Recently, Edwin has become fascinated with looking up information about the brain on the Internet. He looks up the connection between the gastrointestinal system and the brain. As he eats an old slice of pizza, he reads about the relationship between brain and food. He goes into the kitchen for a glass of Pepsi, but he spits it out in the sink when he sees his reflection in the mirror. He wasn't overweight growing up, but now he is obese. A Facebook ding from upstairs makes him rush to his room.
Edwin’s mom is white, and although he has never met his dad, she told him he is Native. So, one day, Edwin logs into his mom's Facebook account and found a couple of Harveys who match the criteria, sending them fake messages from his mom about meeting up. One Harvey responds, willing to meet up when he comes to Oakland for the Powwow. Edwin messages back, telling him he is his son. Harvey is shocked but believes him, and he tells him they are Cheyenne. Edwin logs off. He has spent years wondering what tribe he is from, years studying Native identity without knowing his.
His mom comes home and asks for an update. Edwin tells her he doesn’t want to hear anything about his weight; he knows he is fat. His mom says she just wants to talk, and she asks him about how his stories are going. Edwin says he doesn’t bother her about her problems—how she drinks too much despite having a job as a substance abuse counselor. Finally, they stop arguing and she tells him about a paid internship at the Indian Center. Edwin goes back to his room and listens to a group of Native DJs called A Tribe Called Red. He likes them because they are indigenous and postmodern, both traditional and new-sounding. He seats on the floor and tries to complete a sit-up. He can’t, but then he gets angry when he remembers his Cheyenne identity: he completes a sit-up, and the exertion brings a bowel movement. He lies back down on the floor in his soiled sweatpants and says, “Thank you.”
Part I is a powerful introduction to key elements of the structure, plot, and literary elements of There There. First, it introduces readers to a key formal feature of the novel: the story is told through a multitude of characters’ voices. In Part I, each section is an introduction to a central character of the novel. These are disparate sections, without direct links to each other and told in different ways. For example, Edwin, Tony, and Opal's sections are written in the first person, placing us directly inside the experience of their battles with self-image, hope, anger, and loss. Dene’s, on the other hand, is written in the third person, giving readers an outside view. Thus Orange writes many distinct voices into existence, creating a diverse community of characters that disrupts the stereotype of Native life as monolithic.
Indeed, Part I declines to identify any clear protagonist or antagonist. Tony, the first character to speak, alerts readers to his own role in the devious plot that will haunt the rest of the book; yet rather than depicting him as a villain, Orange treats Tony sympathetically. In this way, Orange rejects clear-cut moral divisions. At the same time, the lack of judgment in the narrative tone towards the characters suggests that perhaps the real antagonist lies somewhere outside the list of the novel’s characters—maybe in the violence that has broken down Native communities for centuries.
Part I does, however, introduce the central conflict of the novel: not one between any particular characters but rather the ominous convergence of people and forces at the Big Oakland Powwow. Tony’s section reveals a plot to steal the prize money from the Oakland Powwow. In a later section, Edwin learns the identity of his Native father, who is coming to Oakland for the same Powwow. Different characters’ stories will circle the Powwow for the rest of the book. Thus here, in the very first section, Orange foreshadows the simultaneous violence and sense of community that the Powwow represents.
An important theme develops throughout Part I: that of connection to place, and specifically to Oakland. Each character’s story is set in Oakland, and that setting significantly shapes each character’s life. Tony, for example, knows Oakland intimately. He refers to the city as his only home, and he enjoys riding his bike around different neighborhoods just to observe them. For Dene, in another instance, Oakland is the site of the stories on which he bases his film project: he — and his uncle before him — want to tell the stories of specifically Oakland-based Natives.
Oakland as the novel’s setting is similarly important as a site of belonging, connected to the characters’ Native identity. Rob, a young white man, tells Dene that Gertrude Stein once said, “There is no there there” about Oakland. For Dene, who already knows this quote, Rob represents the changes to Oakland that rob it of its “there-ness.” Dene sees the gentrification that Rob represents as continuing the long line of historical displacement of Native community. In another example of this link between the contemporary urban phenomenon of gentrification and the historical displacement of Native peoples, Tony reflects that he would hate if he had to leave Oakland, and this feeling makes him sympathize with his Native forbearers who were themselves forced to leave their homes. Not only does this establish the link between colonial violence and gentrification: it also subverts the stereotypical view of Indian culture that it is irrevocably tied to the reservation and the tribe’s traditional land before the reservation. Indeed, the characters in this first chapter assert their Native identity and their allegiance to Oakland in the same breath, a powerful claim that lays the foundation for the rest of the plot to unfold.