Arts & Culture

Tacoma’s Urban Indians draw strength from each other, will share their culture this fall

In his 2018 bestseller, “There There,” author Tommy Orange builds a story out of disparate characters who, by the novel’s conclusion, share a common kinship.

There is one other thing they share: They are all Urban Indians, living in Oakland, California.

“There There” is without the romanticized nostalgia that often runs through Native American literature.

“We know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers,” Orange writes.

All of Orange’s characters inhabit an Oakland that is a second skin to them. Simultaneously, they struggle to find their place in the city that renders them invisible or as an idle curiosity.

“We’ve been defined by everyone else and continue to be slandered despite easy-to-look-up-on-the-internet facts about the realities of our histories and current state as a people,” Orange writes in the book’s prologue.

Orange is an Arapahoe and Cheyenne author. This is his first novel and it’s taken the literary world by storm. It won the PEN/Hemingway Award and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize.

“There There” is the 2019 selection for Tacoma Reads, the annual group reading experience sponsored by the Tacoma Public Library.

Orange visited Tacoma on Friday for a sold-out reading at the Rialto Theater.

Other “There There” themed events will be taking place in the city during the coming months. They are produced by the people the book is centered on: Urban Indians.

The term refers to Native Americans who were born off or have left their home reservations. Orange’s book has hit home for some of them as it explores the themes of culture, identity and the pleasures and perils of living in the urban environment.

Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards chose the book.

“The mayor’s choice of this book for Tacoma Reads was inspirational,” said David Bean, chairman of the Puyallup Tribal Council. “Identity is an important issue for Natives today.”

The News Tribune interviewed three producers of programming for Tacoma Reads. They all identify as Urban Indians.

Philip Red Eagle

Philip Red Eagle calls himself an intermediary between two cultures.

As a kid, Red Eagle dug clams with his grandmother on trips to the Klallam reservation and then buddied up with the children of Greek and Italian immigrants at home in Tacoma.

“I had more interactions with non-native people,” he said. “That’s still playing in very intense ways.”

Red Eagle, 74, is the 2019 recipient of the Washington State Historical Society’s annual Peace and Friendship Award for his work in cultural diversity.

He still lives in Tacoma where he carves canoe paddles and pursues various activities that straddle the native and non-native worlds.

His mother was of Klallam/Steilacoom descent. His father was Dakota. They met at an Indian school in Oregon.

Like many Urban Indians, Red Eagle has a mix of different tribes and some white ancestors. That’s not necessarily a result of city life.

“When you marry somebody from outside, they become part of who you are, but they bring in their gifts,” Red Eagle said. “Are they good fishermen? Are they good hunters? Are they good canoe makers?”

In the 1940s and 1950s, Red Eagle’s father played on Indian baseball and basketball leagues. Red Eagle spent his first few years in a trailer park near a baseball field at L and 9th streets. Later, his family lived in an apartment on Yakima Avenue.

Many of the buildings from his youth are gone.

“It’s sad. And we’re still ripping them down. Why?” he said. “I’m a Native. I’m not even an urban white person, but I still have connections.”

Trips to the reservation gave Red Eagle connections to his Indian roots.

“We got to know our reservation counterparts and relatives,” he said.

“There There” reminded Red Eagle of stories from his youth in Tacoma. Some of the characters in the novel deal with post traumatic stress disorder.

“We had a lot of uncles who came back from World War II who had issues with PTSD,” Red Eagle said. “We hung around them. There was a lot of tragedy going on, bad relationships, violence.”

Red Eagle’s mother wouldn’t allow him to learn his native languages (Salish and Dakota) — another theme in Orange’s book.

“She wanted us to succeed as Americans,” he said.

Stories on his father’s Fort Peck reservation in Montana were only told in their native Dakota language, he said.

“If you didn’t have access to the language, you didn’t have access to the story,” he said.

At Tacoma’s public schools, the assimilation message was similar.

“You had to adapt,” Red Eagle said. “You had to adjust. You couldn’t be Indian. And our lives were limited. We couldn’t become lawyers or doctors. We had to be plumbers or ship builders.

Non-Indian friends couldn’t reconcile Red Eagle with the Hollywood and comic book image they had of Indians.

“I remember kids asking me, ‘Where’s your feathers? Where’s your bow and arrows?’” Red Eagle said.

As a teenager, he moved to Sitka, Alaska. After high school, he enrolled at the University of Alaska.

He didn’t last long.

“I was a wild young man,” he said. “I beat up their star hockey player, and they kicked me out.”

The reason?

“He was a racist pig.”

It was his wild ways, he said, that sent him to the U.S. Navy. He spent 10 years in the service, including a tour in Vietnam.

It was only after getting a degree in journalism and then attending the University of Washington when he started exploring art.

“When I was growing up, there was no emphasis on art,” he said. “It was all reading, writing and arithmetic.”

Red Eagle’s genres of art are many: graphic arts, metal, photography, writing.

“I’m just weird,” he said with a laugh. “All my artist friends self-identify as weird.”

Today, he’s a carver. He specializes in paddles. But don’t pigeonhole him.

“I’m a lot of things,” he said.

He started a literary journal, The Raven Chronicles, that still exists. He’s been instrumental in the annual Canoe Journey that travels the waters of the Salish Sea every year.

He produces copper rings for the journey every year that symbolize unity and strength. They are given to the participants.

Traditionally, art was not made for art’s sake, he said.

“We didn’t have a word for art, as far as I know,” he said. “I guess it was more of a craft. When you are making baskets, is it craft or art?”

Art is an integral part of native life as much as other occupations are.

“In Native life, everything is connected,” Red Eagle said. “There are no throw-away people. There are no homeless. Everybody has a place, everybody has a job, everybody contributes in some way or another.”

For Tacoma Reads, Red Eagle will give a carving demonstration, a presentation on the Tribal Canoe Journey and a writing workshop.

Kimberly Corinne Deriana and Asia Tail

Kimberly Corinne Deriana and Asia Tail have known each other for about a year but have already collaborated on several art projects.

Deriana, 34, a Seattle resident, met Tail, 28 of Tacoma, at the “Yehaw” native art exhibit in Seattle that Asia co-curated.

Deriana is an architectural designer and Tail is an artist and curator.

On Oct. 27 the two women will present “We Rise: Indigenous Womxn’s Stories”. The event will feature authors, poets and spoken word artists that encompass urban natives, Coast Salish tribes and natives who identify as Two Spirit.

“So much of the native literature and literature in general focuses on male writers,” Tail said.

They are also planning a family day event on Nov. 10. That will include hands-on learning led by native artists, story telling and book reading.

The women hope that a large native audience will attend but emphasize the programs are open to all.

Deriana, grew up in Bozeman, Montana. She’s Mandan and Hidatsa and a citizen of the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota.

“Even though we have a large native population in Montana, where I grew up, there wasn’t a lot of native folks,” Deriana said.

She grew up mostly with white kids.

Deriana’s paternal grandmother would take her to powwows and teach her about their shared native culture. Her blond Norweigan/Scottish mother was fully supportive of Deriana pursuing her native identity.

“Everybody used to ask her if I was adopted and she would say, no, do you want to see my stretch lines?” Deriana said.

Native culture was mostly underground in Bozeman, Deriana said, but she attended two schools — Morning Star and Sacajawea — with native names.

“They were just scratching the surface of acknowledging natives in a public way,” Deriana said.

There’s everything to be gained when mainstream society acknowledges native culture and history in the urban environment, she said.

“It’s good for everybody,” Deriana said. “It’s healing and it’s grounding and there’s medicine in everybody knowing the sacredness of a land and the original people who have been caring for and protecting the land.”

The portrayal of family relationships in “There There” appealed to Deriana.

Kinship, and its complexity, is important in the native world, she said.

“For me, that’s where I find my power and my strength,” Deriana said.

Tail, an artist and curator, is a citizen of the Cherokee nation and a second generation urban Indian.

“I feel really lucky to have grown up (in Tacoma),” Tail said. “I think there’s a really rich urban native community here and the Coast Salish people still have incredible histories and contemporary presence on their original lands.”

Seven out of 10 native people are born off their home reservation, Tail said.

“Even though the visibility (of urban natives) is low among the mainstream population, there are just so many of us here,” she said.

One facet of urban natives is the wide range of tribes represented.

But the similarities outweigh the differences.

Natives have a shared sense of community values and a connection to ancestors, Tail said.

“That, in my experience, forms a strong relationship with other native people regardless of tribal affiliation,” she said. “Kim and I are of different tribes. But we had a really strong bond immediately and an interest in each other’s work and a belief in the need for indigenous programming.”

Characters in “There There” come from a variety of tribes.

“I really feel like that book was written for me or for urban native people,” Tail said.

The perspective of the book is unusual, she said.

“To have the urban native voice centered in a way that wasn’t about shame, or trying to compare or trying to say that we weren’t native — that was new,” she said.

In the book, a character remarks that much of the Indian population didn’t the survive the genocide of colonization.

“So few of us made it through to the present that all of us are sacred and important,” Tail said.

Whether misrepresented or accurately presented, Indians are often portrayed in a historical or tribal setting in mass media. Urban Indians, meanwhile, often have no representation at all.

“An important part of this book, and the fact that this book is written by an indigenous author, is that it’s not about correcting other people’s misrepresentations of native peoples and instead it’s about listening to indigenous voices,” Tail said.

That’s a tactic the two women take in their work and why it often involves indigenous women.

“We aren’t concerned with the outsider’s gaze,” Tail said. “It’s really about that internal community narrative and what we want and need to talk about together as native people.”

While other urban natives have been telling their stories this book seems to have struck a chord with a wide audience.

“It’s really unusual, for sure,” Tail said.

“We ride buses, trains and cars across, over, and under concrete plains,” Orange writes. “Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.”

Tacoma Reads programs

Film series

What: “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World”

When: 5:30 p.m. Sept. 25

Where: Tacoma Public Library’s Moore Branch

This documentary brings to light the overlooked influence of indigenous people on popular music in North America. Focusing on music icons like Link Wray, Jimi Hendrix, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Taboo (The Black Eyed Peas), Charley Patton, Mildred Bailey, Jesse Ed Davis, Robbie Robertson, and Randy Castillo.

Origins of the Tribal Journey with Philip Red Eagle

When/Where: Oct. 5, 10:30 a.m., at Tacoma Public Library’s Kobetich Branch and Nov. 13, 6 p.m., at Tacoma Public Library’s Moore Branch.

The Tribal Journey had its beginnings in the mid-1980s and has recently become more visible to the average Puget Sounder. Red Eagle will present more than 100 images in a slideshow to explore the early beginnings of the “canoe movement” and its growth over the last 30 years.

“DOING THE WORK!” Tracy Rector Native American Film Series

When: Oct. 7, 7 p.m.

Where: The Grand Cinema/Tacoma Film Festival

Films in this series:

“Biidaaban”: Accompanied by a 10,000-year-old shapeshifter, Biidaaban sets out on a mission to reclaim the ceremonial harvesting of sap from maple trees.

“Blood (and) Memory 2”: A split-screen remix of home movies, exploring how the construction of indigenous memory fast-forwards and rewinds in time.

“Fast Horse”: Siksika horseman Allison RedCrow dreams of bringing a team to the “greatest outdoor show on Earth”—the Calgary Stampede.

“Les Vaillants”: For over 100-years, Kitcisakik men have gathered to build a casket as a show of solidarity with the deceased’s family.

“Paulette”: Follow the history-making rise of Coeur d’Alene tribal member Paulette Jordan, the first Indigenous candidate to win the Idaho Primary for Governor.

“Sweetheart Dancers”: Sean Snyder and Adrian Stevens, a Ute and Navajo two-spirit couple, shift culture through their participation in this celebrated powwow contest.

Exploring Identity & Sense of Place with Philip Red Eagle

When: Oct. 27, 1 p.m.

Where: Tacoma Public Library’s Wheelock Branch

Discussion of the style of writing in “There There” and old notions of native life and urban America related to the Relocation and Termination Acts and Bureau of Indian Affairs policies. Please bring a notebook and a writing utensil.

Traditional Wood Carving with Philip Red Eagle

When: Nov. 16, 1–5 p.m.

Where: Tacoma Public Library’s main branch

A demonstration of wood carving by Philip Red Eagle.

“We Rise: Indigenous Womxn’s Stories”

Where: To be determined

When: Oct. 27, 2-4 p.m.

Admission: Free and open to the public, all are welcome.

A diverse group of Indigenous women tell stories from their lives. Writers, activists, artists, and students will share a wide range of Coast Salish and Urban Native perspectives. Publications by Native women writers will also be available for purchase.

Family Day: Celebrate Indigenous Artists

Where: To be determined.

When: Nov. 10, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Admission: Free

Hands-on learning led by Native American artists. Hear Lushootseed songs and stories, explore books by native authors and create treasures to take home.

Craig Sailor has worked for The News Tribune for 20 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He previously worked at The Olympian and at other newspapers in Nevada and California.