FREE Learning Community Celebrates Indigenous Perspectives

Artwork by Education Professor Micaela Rubalcava, inspired by this year's FREE event.
Rebecca A. Eckland

For the past four years, Greg Nielsen has taught a project-based Core Humanities class at UNR that focuses on Native American experiences and indigenous perspectives, which is why he’s the perfect choice for leading the first of four Book Club discussions that comprise this year’s Faculty for Radical Empowerment and Enlightenment (FREE) Learning Community at TMCC. After all, Nielsen is used to leading students into unknown territory; the first FREE event of Fall 2021 will discuss the prologue to Tommy Orange’s novel There, There, a work that explores the complexity of contemporary indigenous perspectives, along with history, identity, culture, trauma and loss.

Students in Nielsen’s class engage in authentic projects; last semester, student videos caught the attention of the Nevada Legislature which led to the enactment of higher education tuition waivers for Native American students. This semester, his students are producing videos about eight Native American tribes. Nielsen has seen that getting students to engage in authentic projects that depart from what is taught in a traditional history classroom creates meaningful learning experiences.  “That’s so rewarding to them. They’ve been learning the same American history from their high school, and these other histories are those they didn’t even know about before,” he said. 

Orange’s novel is a literary work that grapples with similar themes and ideas—and it’s something Nielsen believes TMCC students will find interesting. “The book is rich with the descriptions of many characters’ lives. It’s interesting how they come together,” Nielsen noted. 

During the first book club meeting on Nov. 9 from 6–7 p.m. on Zoom, Nielsen will guide students, faculty, and community members through the book’s prologue, which offers readers an impactful and emotional historical perspective of native communities. 

Archetypes, Stereotypes and Revisionist History

The introduction of There, There opens with the Indian Head Test Pattern that played across television screens when the broadcasting hours ended. The iconic pattern—which debuted in 1939 and was used until the early 1980s—was intended as a test card to help black and white display aspects on the screen. And yet, the disembodied native head is emblematic of the kind of history author Tommy Orange evokes in his lyrical introduction; one that traces how white colonists treated native heads as a commodity that measured power and oppression. 

The silence of the Indian head test card—offering only a 400-hertz tone—foregrounds the tone-deafness of the American Thanksgiving holiday, which Orange recounts in brutal detail. “Thanksgivings happened...whenever there was what we have to call ‘successful massacres.’”

Additionally, Orange traces this violent history in which Indian heads themselves become a commodity long before they end up on coins and television screens. “The Indian head in the jar, the Indian head on a spike were like flags flown, to be seen, cast broadly. Just like the Indian head test pattern was broadcast to sleeping Americans as we set sail from our living rooms, over the ocean blue-green glowing airwaves, to the shores, the screens of the New World.” 

“The author offers readers a glimpse of Thanksgiving—that it’s not the holiday we think,” said Nielsen. “It’s a kind of propaganda, a perpetuation of a lie, a white-washed history of America.” Orange’s decision to begin his novel with a lyrical essay that traces the history of a people through the lens of an indigenous perspective offers the reader an opportunity to think about cultural assumptions, biases and to incorporate a broader perspective about what it means to be a citizen of this country. 

While Nielsen is still working through the details of his presentation, he admits the Indian head test card will lead a discussion that will consider the narrative and structural choices that the author made in the introduction, and the larger scope of the book, which incorporates shifting perspectives of characters whose relation to one another become more clear as the story unfolds.

What remains constant, however, is the novel’s stance on the Native American experience as one that has been forcefully commodified. “Indians were removed, then reduced to a feathered image. Our heads are on flags, jerseys, and coins. Our heads were on the penny first, of course, the Indian cent, and then on the buffalo nickel, both before we could even vote as a people—which, like the truth of what happened in history all over the world, and like all that spilled blood from slaughter, are now out of circulation.”

The novel states that contemporary indigenous experiences are not easily rendered nor are they stereotypical; characters in the novel run the gamut of age, gender, education, and experience. In lieu of a shared past and expected tropes, what they share is the struggle against that reduction—which ultimately transforms into both a cultural and literal slaughter by the book’s end.

In a Question and Answer with the author, Orange admits wanting to write contemporary characters. “So much of what is written about Native Americans is in historical, or stereotypical, terms. So I very much wanted to write modern Native characters who transcend and transgress what has been written by Natives and non-Natives who fail to represent Native people living now, as relevant.”

Orange’s characters call Oakland, California home, but given the urban landscape, many define home as Gertrude Stein does, and her language inspires the novel’s title. “There is no there there,” writes Stein, who claims home often becomes so far removed given the layers of civilization that pile, rebuild and replace the places of our past and memory. “...[S]o much development had happened [in Oakland], that the there of her childhood, the there, there, was gone, and there was no there anymore.”

Yet, these characters exist in a liminal space, some between the Native experience and a Caucasian one. Thomas Frank, a character introduced later in the book, embodies the complexity of There, There’s structure and central themes. The character muses: “The chip you carry has to do with being born and raised in Oakland. A concrete chip, a slab, really heavy on one side, the half side, the side not white. As for your mom’s side, as for your whiteness, there’s too much and not enough there to know what to do with. You’re from a people who took and took and took and took. And from a people taken. You were both and neither. When you took baths, you’d stare at your brown arms against your white legs in the water and wonder what they were doing together on the same body, in the same bathtub.”  

So too There, There reckons deeply with race and culture and how those relate to a character’s agency. Offering no solutions, the book’s complicated structure and many characters gesture to a past and a present that isn’t tidy, but that is vibrantly human. At the very center of the novel is a powwow, a traditional Native American gathering. It, like the story itself, moves against the traditional depiction to one that we might see in our news feeds in 2021—one riddled with violence and loss, but beneath or beyond that, ever so faintly, hope.

TMCC’s FREE Learning Community 

FREE, which has been operating continuously since its founding in 2003, is TMCC’s longest-running interdisciplinary learning community. Through its focus on “laboratory learning”, the annual event offers a forum for shared social-emotional learning that deepens students’ academic engagement. Every year, approximately 200 students and 10 cross-disciplinary faculty will participate in the learning community. 

In addition to Orange’s novel There, There, FREE will also examine Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz’s nonfiction work An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. “We are reading purposeful excerpts and we acknowledge that we read the books on land that was once populated by thriving Indigenous communities, such as Paiute, Shoshone, and Washoe. Some of us are journaling handmade registers assembled from recycled materials, relating book insights to course units, assignments, and skills,” said Professor of Education, Diversity Advocate and FREE Organizer Micaela Rubalcava. 

As the academic year unfolds, students, faculty, and staff who participate in the collaborative events will be exposed to indigenous perspectives both present and past, and explore environmental education, multiple narrative voices, storytelling and oral history traditions, and more. As participation in diversity experiences and collaborations balance the mainstream curriculum narrative on campus, opening academics to Indigenous voices. 

In addition to the Nov. 9 Book Club Meeting, three additional meetings will be guided by TMCC faculty Molly Maynard, Emily King and Nancy O’Neal on Nov. 16, 23 and 30, respectively. All Book Club meetings will meet at 6-7 p.m. and use the same Zoom link.  

In December, TMCC Visual Art students under the guidance of Visual Art Program Coordinator and Instructor Rossitza Todorova will curate an artifact display on the Dandini Campus. The artwork will analyze themes from There, There, including loss, trauma and mental disorders.

For more information about the FREE Learning Community at TMCC, contact them at 775-674-7698.