Teaching Tommy Orange’s There There: Part Three

Images used in accordance with Creative Commons Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 4.0 and Fair Use for Educational Purposes

In my previous posts, I shared how my teaching partner James and I prepare students for reading There There and how we teach the novel’s Prologue. In this post and subsequent posts in this series, I will not share day-to-day lesson plans; rather, I will share some resources that James and I have used. Our class is discussion-based, and if you are looking for discussion ideas, you might want to check out my blog post on discussion strategies and use or adapt them for discussing this book if your class is discussion-based also. You know your students best and understand what sorts of activities or prompts will work for them.

Tommy Orange has some prior involvement with StoryCenter, formerly the Center for Digital Storytelling. In fact, his novel was informed by storytelling organizations such as StoryCenter and StoryCorps. Orange says in his acknowledgments that he received a grant like his character Dene Oxendene. He created a digital story that we shared with our students because it gets at the heart of what Dene is hoping to do (in some ways) and also shares some interesting context for the novel. In fact, Orange gives a line from the digital story to his character Edwin Black (watch out for it!).

Tommy Orange’s Digital Story Ghost Dance

If you’re interested in learning more about digital storytelling, you might want to check out some of my prior work. I have done digital storytelling projects with students in the past, and they are powerful. 

When teaching about Opal’s first chapter, which takes place during the Native occupation of Alcatraz, we introduced students to the American Indian Movement (AIM) through this article. We did a close reading of the imagery on AIM’s flag. We showed our students the video below, but I have to share a caveat. This video is relatively short, which makes it great for class, and it also summarizes pertinent information about Alcatraz. However, at one point in the video, the host snarkily makes a remark to the effect that Native people didn’t understand inflation. Even if he meant it as a joke, it falls flat. James and I addressed this problematic comment head-on, and our students concluded that it wasn’t lack of understanding of inflation but rather a symbolic gesture. The moment in question falls about 1 minute 45 seconds in. James and I are always on the lookout for a short video that is this comprehensive without being sarcastic. Let me know if you found one!

Edwin’s chapter refers to A Tribe Called Red, which has since changed its name to Halluci Nation. Edwin describes their music as “the most modern, or most postmodern form of Indigenous music [he’s] heard that’s both traditional and new-sounding” (77). James and I play a track called “R.E.D.” and ask students what they think of Edwin’s assessment. Note: the lyrics are not “clean,” but to be honest, the book includes the same curse words, so James and I didn’t worry about it.

While we’re on the topic of music, Tommy Orange created a playlist of music he either refers to or listened to while writing the novel.

In teaching Jacquie Red Feather’s first chapter, we thought it was important to address her alcoholism and discuss how alcoholism affects Native communities, so we shared this fact sheet.

Jacquie’s grandson Orvil is attempting to reconnect with his Cheyenne heritage through powwow dancing. We shared this video so students could get a feel for what a powwow looks like.

America’s Largest Powwow by Keeley Gould

We also showed students this short video explaining powwow regalia.

And finally, we watched part of this video tutorial on powwow dancing. You might draw students’ attention to a couple of things: 1) the instructor is clearly in an urban or suburban area (apparently a park), much like Tommy Orange’s characters, and 2) this is exactly the kind of video Orvil probably watched to learn.

I wouldn’t necessarily have your students learn and perform this dance if they are not Native as it would be cultural appropriation, but they might appreciate seeing the kinds of tools Orvil would have had at his disposal.

Later in the book, Orvil scratches a bump on his leg and removes spider legs. This is something that really happened to Tommy Orange, and your students might be interested to know what inspired him to write it into his novel. Orange has turned it into a symbol, of course, but it’s possible that he suffered from Morgellons Disease.

Blue’s chapter offers a couple of opportunities for discussion. First, you might want to faciliate a discussion on the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). Deb Haaland is the first Native cabinet secretary. She is the Secretary of the Interior, and she oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs. We discussed the fact that not much was being done to address this horrible problem until Sec. Haaland introduced the formation of a Missing and Murdered Unit in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Our class discussed the harrowing scene in which a strange woman protects Blue from her violent husband by pretending that she is the only person in the restroom where Blue is hiding and decides to wait with Blue until her bus leaves. This moment in the novel is so poignant, and I shared with students that it makes me cry every time because of the solidarity the woman shows. One of our students said she found it remarkable that Tommy Orange could write this scene with so much sensitivity since he is a man.

Another opportunity for discussion in connection with Blue is that she is adopted by a White family and has to reconnect with her Cheyenne culture later on. The current season of Rebecca Nagle’s podcast This Land focuses on the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). The Supreme Court will hear a case this year that seeks to challenge ICWA. You may want to use the podcast in conjunction with teaching the novel somehow. If you don’t use it with students, you will still learn a lot from listening to it yourself. Keep your eyes on the Supreme Court. Given the Court’s current makeup, I am worried about how Brackeen v. Haaland may go. 

Thomas Frank’s chapter is written in the second person, and it is a great opportunity to point out that Orange uses first-, second-, and third-person narration in this novel. Whose chapters are written in the first person? Why? Third person? Why? What does Orange achieve by writing Thomas Frank’s chapter in the second person?

Thomas Frank also expresses appreciation for the artwork of James Hampton, and the Smithsonian recently produced a video about Hampton’s work.

We decided to teach a short lesson on Native language preservation, especially Sequoyah’s creation of the Cherokee Syllabary.

If you haven’t seen it yet, you might check out the series We Shall Remain. James and I are considering showing our students the final episode, “Wounded Knee,” which details the occupation of the Pine Ridge Reservation by members of AIM in the 1970s. I think you can only access this documentary if you purchase it on DVD or on one of the streaming services.

In my next post, I’ll share a few final resources and how we assess students’ learning in this unit.

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