I am reading “There There” by Tommy Orange and thinking about a girl named Heather I knew in second grade.
“There There” is our Oswego Reading Initiative selection and it’s an engrossing book on the perilous and haunted plight of a dozen Native Americans whose lives are intersecting. It’s a reminder that we have been, putting it bluntly, awful to the first inhabitants of this continent. I’ve seen it personally: One day in class Heather talked of her Native American heritage and, in a sphere of ignorance and cruelty, kids started picking on her. I stood up for her, and I got picked on too.
Heather and her family moved away. I don’t know if that was related. As much as I got bullied, I still lived in white privilege, even not knowing what it was at the time. I could go places and not be judged or scorned by the simple calculus of looking like everybody else.
Those same natives that Americans have been so horrible to for centuries have been very good to my child. Amy is an accountant for the Oneida Nation, so in a country where we displaced so many natives from their homes, the Oneida tribe contributes to the roof over my son’s head.
One summer, he went to the Oneida Indian Nation Early Learning Center, where he learned the Oneida language and sang wonderful songs in it at their graduation ceremony. Arius has friends who are Oneida, but he wouldn’t think of picking on them because they’re all just kids in his eyes. Our children are better than us.
I’m reading “There There” because I’m serving as the interviewer when Orange does a virtual talk with the campus community on Sept. 30, so I need to ask questions that sound intelligent. It’s not an easy or feel-good topic, which means I can ask questions about his characters and what inspires him, but we also need to talk about Native Americans and all that has happened to them, and where we can go as a nation to be truly inclusive.
And I’ll be thinking of Heather. Wherever you are, I’m sorry I couldn’t do more to help you, and I hope you’re doing well. We all have to do a lot better, but reading and the kind of dialogue we’ll try to have on Sept. 30 will at least point us to a better “there” in our respective journeys.