Native Identity is Lost and Created in Tommy Orange’s “Wandering Stars”


When a group of 89 protesters calling themselves Indians of All Tribes (IAT) occupied the remnants of Alcatraz Island in 1969, the former prison that sits on federally annexed land had been abandoned by the U.S. government for nearly six years. The IAT cited the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie as justification for the return of abandoned federal lands to the indigenous people who originally lived there. Native messages and greetings graffitied onto walls and water towers remained on the island for decades after the occupation, even as the wave of activism it inspired faded into history. By the time the fictional characters in Wandering Stars revisit Alcatraz for the annual UnThanksgiving sunrise ceremony, details of the original occupation are already more of a dream for the women who participated all those years ago and a myth for their grandsons who are still figuring out what it means to them. 

 Wandering Stars picks up the stories of Orvil Red Feather and his grandmother Jacquie Red Feather after the shooting at an Oakland powwow that marks the tragic yet heroic end of Tommy Orange’s first novel, Pulitzer Prize finalist and PEN/Hemingway winner There There. Orange further builds out the Red Feather family tree by moving both forward and backward through time. Narrations from Jacquie’s great-grandfather Jude Star recall how he escaped the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 only to be sent to Florida’s Fort Marion as a prisoner of the U.S. government’s wars against Native people. While incarcerated, Jude performs for white people in a show compared to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and admits, “It didn’t matter what I did, white people wouldn’t know the difference. Eventually I didn’t either, it seemed none of us did.” It’s a frank acknowledgment of the erosion of identity and culture that’s been happening for generations. By the time Jude’s son Charles moves to Oakland and marries his childhood friend Opal Viola Bear Shield, his father’s childhood stories of living with the Cheyenne have all but disappeared along with the skeletons of the buffalo that Charles sees while traveling to California. As each generation after Charles and Opal Viola struggles through their own iterations of addiction, survival, and hope for the future, identities are lost and discovered, and in some cases, created out of necessity.   

The stories of very real figures like Chief Gray Beard, who was killed trying to escape Fort Marion, William Henry Pratt (a man labeled an “Honest Lunatic” for the fanaticism with which he pursued his assimilation duties at the Carlisle Indian School), and the ever egregious Theodore Roosevelt serve as chronologic and thematic markers woven into the tellings of the fictional narrators’ search to define themselves in an increasingly invasive white world. The novel is prefaced by a Cheyenne proverb about silence and a Roosevelt quote that calls the Sand Creek Massacre, “as righteous and beneficial a deed as ever took place on the frontier.” A line from Clarice Lispector about inventing oneself in order to understand oneself sets up the novel’s final section. 

This kind of circular prose isn’t confined to the quotes before each section though. Cycles of violence and addiction work through sentences and chapters, in fleeting thoughts that last seconds and transgenerational histories that span decades. For Orvil, morphine becomes, “[t]he thing brought dreams over into waking, and waking things back over into dreams to where you didn’t know what was what.” His therapist preaches about the power of the unconscious as Orvil works through his addiction in ways that both mirror and depart from his own mother’s death from overdose and Charles’s use of laudanum and whiskey almost a century earlier. Though the parallel themes of substance use connecting characters from different eras aren’t exactly surprising, they add complexity and breadth to themes that could otherwise feel repetitive and claustrophobic. 

Orange smartly avoids words like trauma, preferring instead to present the lived experiences of Orvil and his family members as raw material for creating new meaning for themselves and their process of imagining new possibilities of what a family could be. Even the vicarious transmissions of wisdom from Jacquie and Opal Viola’s mother, Victoria, skip generations until resurfacing in Orvil’s subconscious, “You are from a people who survived by making their surviving mean more than surviving, who did their best to stay together. But you will not know if the people ahead of you will be capable of the same.” Any flirtation with tropes of ancient wisdom passed from the elders is balanced out by the comparatively mundane milieu of references to movies (Donnie Darko) and video games (Red Dead Redemption) that make up the world of teenage anxiety that Orvil and his brothers, Loother and Lony, each navigate in their own ways.  Ultimately, Wandering Stars is less about reconnecting with what has been lost than asking questions of how to define what lies ahead. Each voice is a dream that transcends mere visions of the past to transform the voices of the living. For the brothers and their lineage, there is freedom in sobriety, solace in togetherness, and a kind of victory in continuing the stories that make life into something worth living.


Wandering Stars

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by Tommy Orange

Knopf Publishing Group

Published on February 27, 2024

Joe Stanek

Joe Stanek graduated from West Point and has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. He writes about the consequences of war and military culture.


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