The prologue to Tommy Orange’s debut novel is an incisive, darkly humorous essay on the Native American experience. To start, Orange introduces a motif that shows up throughout American history under the heading "Indian Head." He first describes the Indian Head test pattern that was broadcast on American television from the image’s creation in 1939 until the late 1970s. The image showed an Indian Head in the center of a bull’s eye. Orange refrains from any analysis here, moving on to a listing of historical events that center on the motif of the Indian Head.
The first of these events was in 1621, when colonists invited Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts, to a feast celebrating a land deal. This meal that was the basis for the present-day holiday of Thanksgiving, but Orange points out that it wasn’t a meal of gratitude but rather a meal to commemorate a deal. Two years later at an actual meal of thanksgiving, two hundred Indians were poisoned. The next event is King Philip’s War, named after Chief Massasoit’s son, Metacomet, or King Philip. At the conclusion of the fighting, Metacomet was captured and beheaded. His head was preserved in a jar of rum, sold to Plymouth Colony, and displayed in public for the next quarter-century. The third event Orange discusses was in 1637 when colonists burned down a Pequot village as hundreds of members of the tribe gathered for their ritual Green Corn Dance. That act of violence was commemorated by a feast and a day of thanksgiving, a common response to Indian massacres at the time. The last event Orange discusses is the publication of The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, the first novel by a Native person, written in 1854 by a Cherokee man named John Rollin Ridge. The novel was based on the story of a Mexican bandit who was beheaded by a group of Texas Rangers, who preserved the head in a jar of whiskey.
In a swift transition, the Indian Head transforms from a passive image to a moving one as Orange continues the essay under a new heading: “Rolling Head.” He begins with a Cheyenne legend about a husband who would paint his wife’s face red before he went off to hunt. Every day when he returned, her face would be clean. One day, he followed her and found her in a water monster's embrace. He cut up the monster and killed his wife, bringing the meat home to feed his son and daughter. The son thought the meat tasted like his mother; the daughter told him it was just deer meat. Then, a rolling head began to chase the son and the daughter, who ran away but could not stop the advancing head. Finally, the rolling head became confused and drunk after drinking water from a stream. It kept rolling. Orange then references Mel Gibson’s 2006 adventure movie, Apocalypto, where the Mayas decapitate human sacrifices and roll their heads down pyramids. Gibson invented that practice for the movie, and indeed, countless movies, TV shows, and commercials have portrayed Native life however they want. Indians were removed from their land and then inserted into cultural objects and visual narratives with abandon.
Next, in a section titled "Massacre as Prologue," Orange tells of how he and his community grew up with stories of past massacres. At the Sand Creek Massacre, volunteer militia killed and mutilated women, children, and elders as they flew white flags in surrender. Then they celebrated, drawing crowds in laughter, dancing, and cheering at the killings.
Under the heading "Hard, Fast," Orange explains what happened when Indians were forced into cities. It was meant to be a tool of assimilation—the continuation of colonial genocide. Instead of disappearing, however, Native people formed their own communities within cities. Some Indians began to come by choice in order to escape the reservation, especially after returning from World War II and the Vietnam War when the reservations just felt too quiet. According to Orange, the rise of the Internet has also made Indians more urban. These adaptations made people call Indians inauthentic, but Orange calls it a means of survival. The bullets that first killed Indians during colonization contained the promise of the ongoing intent to erase that persists today.
This brings Orange to his final theme of the essay, under the heading of "Urbanity." He writes the story of what he calls Urban Indians: those born in the city who know the city better than the reservation or the land. The cityscape is no less “traditional” than the reservation, Orange reminds readers, and Indians of the city are no less Indian for that fact.
In what Dwight Garner of The New York Times calls a “bravura” prologue, Tommy Orange sets the historical and cultural context for the plot that unfolds in his novel. On the one hand, the essay presents a series of seemingly disconnected, gory events in the history of the Indian-settler relationship in the United States: the King Philip War, multiple massacres, novels, the Indian Relocation Act, and more. On the other hand, Orange weaves together these disparate moments in time and, in doing so, introduces some of the central themes of the novel. First, and perhaps most obviously, Orange lays out the acute violence present in every encounter between Natives and white settlers. He also cautions against interpreting this violence as a thing of the past. Those early bullets, he writes, were “premonitions” of the ongoing violence his people encounter at the hands of the white state, for which he cites evidence including the Indian Relocation Act and the attempt to force Natives to assimilate to white American culture. This introduction to the historical and ongoing violence faced by Native Americans resurfaces throughout the plot of the novel.
Indeed, There There directly combats two central colonial myths. First, the novel is set in 21st-century Oakland, the location that is introduced in the final paragraph of the prologue. Yet settler society rests on the premise that Native American life is confined to land outside the cities. Thus the novel's setting shatters centuries of racist logic.
Second, the prologue challenges the idea of authenticity. White American culture propagates the myth that Natives living off the reservations are frauds. Yet Orange writes the prologue with a clear trajectory: beginning with a litany of violent historical events, he concludes with the story of 21st-century Urban Indians. Thus he establishes a direct link from Native American life before and during colonization, to contemporary, urban Indian life. In a final, additional twist, Orange challenges the very notion of tradition, suggesting it is a colonial myth. As he writes, “nothing is original."
The decision to open a novel with a critical essay is a bold formal choice, one that immediately makes There There stand apart from other works in its genre. In a craft talk at IAIA, Orange describes how the prologue functions as a portal into the book for him, through which he can reenter the process of writing and revision again and again. The essay works in a similar fashion for readers, offering essential context for understanding the novel’s characters. The legacy of genocide, as well as Native survival and flourishing, is rarely told in America. Orange tells it unflinchingly in the prologue. In this way, he sets the stage for the characters’ experiences and voices, all of which are shaped by this history.
Orange also writes in the first-person plural, naming Indian trauma and resistance alike as “ours.” Thus he establishes a collective voice in the opening pages of the novel. This imagining of a unified experience serves as a counterpoint to the diverse perspectives that ensue from the novel's multiplicity of characters. In this way, Orange communicates a key juxtaposition of Native life. On the one hand, his characters tell many unique stories. On the other hand, they are all deeply shaped by their community, and their collective culture binds them together. Thus Orange’s use of the first-person plural challenges the idea that Native life is monolithic, giving readers a window into the power of shared history.