Indigenous Author Tommy Orange Digs Into Our Past — So We Can Embrace Who We Are Today

In his new novel, Orange's characters reveal how intergenerational trauma can manifest.
In the new novel "Wandering Stars," Indigenous author Tommy Orange sheds light on how intergenerational trauma can manifest.
In the new novel "Wandering Stars," Indigenous author Tommy Orange sheds light on how intergenerational trauma can manifest.
via Associated Press

There’s a greeting ritual where Native people introduce themselves. We say who we are, the land we come from, and who our people (both our tribes and our relatives) are. These identifications are our way of showing our spiritual connections to our land and our heritage. Community is at the core of our values, as well as the way we share knowledge and pass down histories, stories and legacies.

This trading of information is intrinsic to the journey that New York Times bestselling author Tommy Orange, a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes from Oklahoma, takes us on in his new book, “Wandering Stars.” While Orange’s debut novel, There There,” was a contemporary story of urban Natives filled with multiple perspectives culminating in the dramatic events at a powwow, “Wandering Stars” dives into the history of the Bear Shield family line, serving as both a prequel and a sequel.

By beginning his new novel amid 1864’s Sand Creek Massacre and then exploring the pain and displacement that haunted the Bear Shield and Red Feather families for decades afterward, Orange sheds light on how intergenerational trauma can manifest. His storytelling informs and enlightens anyone unfamiliar with the specifics of how Native families were deliberately broken down over the years. For young Natives like myself, though, it does something even more crucial: It provides context to why we introduce ourselves in the way we do, and explores the more shrouded parts of our identities that lie deeper.

“Wandering Stars” shows us, through its complex characters, the different ways in which our trauma as Native people shows up. Why did you feel like it was important to give the historical prequel as part of “Wandering Stars”?

It all started with finding out about the prison castle at Fort Marion, which I had never heard about. Southern Cheyennes made up half of the prisoners of war there, and I didn’t know that we were at the seed for this awful thing that devastated generations of people. I was doing research and was already calling the book ”Wandering Stars.”

I found out that the prison castle was shaped like a star and that there was an actual prisoner, a Southern Cheyenne, named Star, and then another prisoner named Bear Shield, which is a family from ”There There.” I knew I was going to write this generational thing that reached all the way back to the Sand Creek Massacre, because it was a family story that I grew up hearing — that was the devastating part of Cheyenne history.

Really going through the rest of the history had to do with reaching the present — the family line. It had more to do with creating this family line that would end up landing you in the present with all of the context and backstory.

When you wrote ”There There,” you mentioned that you were driven by a sort of loneliness, since we’ve always been represented in such monolithic ways. What was the initial drive when you wrote ”Wandering Stars”?

This time, that loneliness — it wasn’t there. A lot of cool Native representations are happening right now. Also, knowing that I have an audience whether I succeeded or failed at the sophomore effort, there’s sort of a spectacle. I’ve met a lot of Native people and experienced their reactions too, so there’s a lot of different factors.

I write from the inside out. I really need to know my characters, what they think about, what they’re like in the interior, before I have them doing things in the world. To make them feel real to me, I have to make the inside part real first. So that’s usually how I start.

How do you tap into that internal world of each character and use it to explain history and culture in this story?

I’ll use certain things that I might know or that I thought of for the character. Sometimes it’s driven by a name. For example, Star at the prison castle was a bread-maker and went on to become the chief of police. In reality, the actual person Star had that going on. So, sometimes I have real details, especially with the historical piece I write from Richard Henry Pratt’s perspective. I read up a lot about him.

There was a lot of research for this [novel] that informed my character development differently than with ”There There,” and even the contemporary parts of ”Wandering Stars.” It’s a lot more that comes from knowing the community. The addiction stuff comes from personal experience and family experience.

What was it like approaching this novel, given how successful ”There There” was? Did you feel a lot of pressure, from yourself or elsewhere?

My agent and editor are very hands-off. I almost wish they pressured me more, sometimes. But I definitely felt the sophomore effort and wanted to write something that felt like it’ll do as good or better. Writing an actual book was the goal. It was different every day, but the same doubts were there. When I quiet everything down, I just have to face the writing room. And I haven’t gotten any better at believing — I just have to keep working until I feel it’s good enough.

You just sold your third book. Is there anything you can tell us about what that will look like?

So, it’s contemporary Oakland stories. There are multiple perspectives — again, surprise, surprise! One of the major themes is pretendians.

A character in the book writes a parody of a book called ”The Education of Little Tree.” It was, like, the only Native book I knew about growing up. I only found out somewhat recently that it was not written by a Native person. It was written by a former KKK member named Asa Earl Carter under the pseudonym Forrest Carter, who wrote the famous line “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” He wrote “The Education of Little Tree” and passed himself off as a Cherokee man. A lot of people argue that it’s actually white supremacist propaganda, sort of hidden in Native American coming-of-age stories — kind of crazy.

So, this character, he writes this book and he becomes a Native author with success. He starts a podcast about ethnic fraud and pretendians, and how rampant it is. So there’s a lot to explore in that world, but that’s one of the areas.

Wow, I can’t wait to read that.

Yeah, the tone is more dark comedy. You know, ”There There” and ”Wandering Stars” are pretty heavy subject matter, and the tones are pretty dark. So it’s nice to pivot to a different tonal style.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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