Tommy Orange's There There is a novel about the "urban Indian" experience, which is not commonly known to many non-indigenous Americans. But how much of the United States's indigenous population actually lives in cities, and how much of what Orange depicts mirrors their reality?
More than 7 out of 10 Native Americans reside in cities, according to census data from 2013. This was not always the case: in 1940, only 8% of the United States's indigenous population lived in cities. The mass migration that resulted in this radical shift in demographics was akin to the Great Migration, in which African Americans moved north to seek employment. In the case of Native Americans, however, the exodus was prompted by federal policy from the 1950s to the 1970s, which pressured Native communities to move off reservations because of poverty and other social ills.
When Native Americans arrived in cities, however, there was no accompanying federal policy to support them. In fact, a 2007 report by the Urban Indian Health Commission stated that there was still no national policy regarding urban Indian health. New problems presented themselves in cities: gang violence, heroin use, and social isolation. Indeed, urban life is more isolated and less integrated into community support than life on the reservation. The report cites "extreme poverty, poor health, and cultural isolation" as the most common experiences of urban Native life. Tommy Orange depicts these issues with unflinching narration. At the same time, however, he shows how his characters find love and connection to fill the gaps created by these conditions, an aspect of the story too often missing from the official data.