An Interview with Deborah Miranda

Deborah Miranda’s book Bad Indians (Heyday) is a powerful collage of oral histories, personal narrative, poems, newspaper clippings and haunting photographs. Reading Deborah’s personal story within the larger story of her California Indian ancestors is sobering, unsettling, and absorbing. Deborah graciously answered my questions about Bad Indians and she did it with the same passion and potency of prose that characterizes this very essential book.

1. Bad Indians is called a tribal memoir. But it’s also a personal memoir. In your story, you can’t have one without the other. Please talk about that.

Linda Hogan says, “History is our illness.” I’m reminded of this when I think of the legacies that Missionization and colonization have left us: diabetes, substance abuse, obesity, depression, domestic violence, racism. Who needs a colonizer anymore—we can do ourselves quite a bit of damage without outside help! Bonnie Duran and Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart call this Postcolonial Stress Disorder, or Historical Trauma. Our personal histories are shorter versions of the tribal histories we have endured. In my case, I realized that my life, short as it has been, is like a fractal of my larger tribal history—full of the same traumas, the same losses, just on a smaller scale. Poverty, sexual violence, loss of language, family dysfunction, self-medicating with alcohol and sugar—it’s all there, in both timelines. No, this isn’t all just because my father was Indian—my mother’s (Euro-American) family came with its own dysfunction—but it is impossible to ignore the fact that certain commonalities run through Native lives and identities that come directly from the colonized experience.

My father and mother separated when I was three—my father went to San Quentin for eight years, and my mother moved with me away to Washington State. When my father returned to us, I was thirteen years old and everything I knew about being Indian was unarticulated, unconscious, and self-referential—I had little information about my tribe, and a very rough idea of what “Indian” meant to the local tribes around me. I also had dark skin, dark hair, dark eyes, and was the only Native kid in any class from grade school through high school. So my father’s sudden reappearance in my life was like taking a crash course in becoming Indian, and my primary teacher was a man shaped by both his indigenous roots and by the vicious history his family had survived.

And I needed that education—I needed to learn about the Native part of my own identity—but I didn’t just get the typical California Fourth Grade curriculum, that lovely mythology about happy Indians, gentle Padres and the nobility of sacrificing yourself to build missions out of adobe bricks for future tourists to visit. No, I got the real deal—the blessings and the genocide—and so when I came to write Bad Indians, the poems and stories themselves made it very clear that I was not allowed to claim amnesty. I could not “opt out” or maintain an “objective” distance from the materials I collected or remembered. California Indian history is brutal. I learned the realities of it from my father. The academic knowledge came later. And they were the same thing.

2. You make the point that loss of land, language, and way of life will decimate a culture, but will not completely extinguish it as long as story survives. How much can the revival, nurturing and dissemination of story lead to the recovery of those other losses?

What a great question! Story is the great healer—of people, of histories, of imbalance. The best examples I can think of are the stories of Isabel Meadows, a Carmel Indian woman who lived from 1846-1939. Isabel had inherited generations (over 200 years) of oral family and community stories and knowledge, but knew that the way things were going, there probably wouldn’t be any one person to whom she could pass them on. She did not read or write, and she lived in a time when most people expected California Indians to become extinct soon.

Along comes J.P. Harrington, an ethnologist/linguist from the Smithsonian, and I swear, a light must have gone on in Isabel’s mind. Because she told him hundreds of stories, and Harrington, being the OCD guy that he was, wrote every single one down, using exactly the words Isabel used—Spanish, English, or one of several Indian dialects she spoke. And those stories are preserved, still, at the Smithsonian. In one of them, Isabel tells the story of Vicenta Gutierrez, a young girl who is raped by the priest at the Carmel mission when she goes to services for Lent. Isabel tells the story very tersely, almost brutally, and emphasizes “the girl went running to her house, saying the Padre had grabbed her.”

When I first read this story, and began talking about it, I thought of it as mostly a piece of evidence about the exploitation of power, about the victimization of Indian women. One scholar actually told me, “Don’t pay too much attention to that story, Harrington liked those dirty stories.” But I knew it wasn’t a titillating story; it wasn’t colonization porn. Researching the lives of Isabel, Vicenta, and the priest, Padre Real, I discovered that Isabel was telling a story that had happened fully 100 years before; it had to be a story she had heard from her mother and her mother’s contemporaries. Why had these women thought the story important enough to pass it on? Why had Isabel chosen that story to tell Harrington? To serve as testimony against Padre Real, the Church, Missionization itself?

I kept returning to that final line: “the girl went running to her house, saying the Padre had grabbed her.” Those two verbs! “Running” and “saying”—they are active, assertive, they change things, they cause things to happen. I realized that Isabel, and her mother’s generation, were probably proud of Vicenta’s voice, her refusal to be silenced about sexual violence toward Indian women, something they had certainly all either endured or witnessed during and after Missionization. Not only did they want to memorialize Vicenta, these women also wanted to speak to future generations of Indian women. After all, they could probably not conceive of a future in which sexual violence was not still a reality for Indian women—and sadly, tragically, they were right about that.

So I put this story in Bad Indians, and whenever I read it, Indian women in the audience let me know—either in conversation afterwards, or in emails and notes days later—that the story speaks to them, personally. You know, one of the key treatments for Postcolonial Stress Disorder (or Historical Trauma) is to tell your story, to validate your wounds—it’s crucial for healing. So there’s a long answer to your question: that’s how story, even when most everything else has been lost or stolen, can help revive a Native community. Indian women have to claim our wounds, our history, in order to recover. And when Indian women start healing, start recovering self-esteem, strength, pride—well, just look at Idle No More. We are shedding our shame. And that’s empowering for every kind of cultural revival, whether we’re talking about languages or basket-weaving or self-governance.

3. Myths are traditional or legendary stories that explain phenomena or beings and are an important part of indigenous cultures. The word myth is also used for what Merriam-Webster terms “an unfounded or false notion.”  What role does each of these definitions play in Bad Indians?

In Bad Indians I play with both meanings of “mythology.” California history has been turned into a myth, a creation myth, about Californian identities—white, Mexican, Hispanic, Indian, Mestiza. In fact, California history is taught in schools with a reverence and awe and authority that I would normally attribute to a cultural myth. The difference is, this “myth” isn’t true, isn’t based on a spiritual knowledge, but on lies and greed. So by calling California mission history curriculum/culture a “mythology,” I am doing two things: first, throwing the pejorative nature of that word back in the face of that curriculum, and second, reclaiming what I think is a much more honorable word for Native knowledge, which is simply “story.” In a way, this is a specifically California Indian act; perhaps other tribal peoples with other colonization histories don’t feel the need to reject the word “myth” that I do. But California Missions are still a big part of the Californian economy, the identity of a Californian public school student, the life of any Californian walking down a street lined with faux-adobe buildings, which have “mission” architecture, red tile roof tiles, iron grates and doors and windows trimmed out in heavy oak. This lie that Missionization was good, that it was benevolent or at worst, inevitable, is a constant, invasive project that needs to be resisted. Calling it a myth does that, for me.

4. As I read the book, a range of strong emotions rose up in me—anger, sadness, bitterness, indignation. Yet, I also felt joy and hope. What was it like emotionally for you to research and write this book?

Researching and writing this book was pretty much the emotional rollercoaster you just described; large parts rage and grief, and smaller, but sustaining, parts of joy or pride or love. I spent ten months living in Los Angeles, on sabbatical, during the majority of my research and much of the original writing. When I returned to my home institution the next fall, many of my colleagues greeted me by asking things like, “So, are you all rested up and recharged after a whole year off?” and I realized that no, I didn’t feel rested up at all—in fact, I felt like I had just spent a year studying the Holocaust.

Battered, bruised, exhausted, hyper-aware of all kinds of anti-Indian or racist or violent words and behaviors, battling sadness and grief from all the stories I had carried home with me. I sort of needed a sabbatical to recover from my sabbatical! Of course, that wasn’t going to happen, so I did the next best thing, which was to write, and teach, and go into therapy! Seriously, that personal/tribal resonance was a difficult thing to negotiate. Working at a predominantly white (both faculty and student) institution far from family also made returning to work tough. Luckily, my partner took good care of me, and encouraged me to see a wonderful Latina therapist from Texas who understood a lot of what I was experiencing, and who helped me process those emotions. I also am blessed with a tremendous department full of good, empathetic, smart souls.

I’m still dealing with all the same history and materials, but I think I have a slightly less visceral reaction now… and maybe that’s not a good thing. I was visiting at a university recently, and had lost my voice, so I asked a young Indian woman if she would read “Novena to Bad Indians” for the class in my stead. She had already heard me read it twice at various venues, and we’d had some conversation that made me feel I could trust her with that poem. Oh, big mistake—on my part, not hers. She got to the third day of the Novena and just broke down in front of the whole class, sobbing. She said it was too real; that these slurs and scenes were too real for her to go on, that it was too much like real life for her as an Indian woman.

I had forgotten. I had been reading these pieces a lot lately, and I had forgotten how powerful the stories of these ancestors are. I should never have asked a student to read that poem aloud; but I had become a little desensitized to the words. I’ll have to be careful of that. I don’t ever want to stop feeling that connection, that sense of reality—it’s a fine line to walk, to speak that reality. But sometimes, the most honest thing a person can do is cry. That young woman came back and finished reading that poem. “It’s important,” she said, swallowing her tears. I knew what she meant. That’s where the joy and pride and love come in; that’s where those emotions rise up and get you through. You do it for the Ancestors, because they endured much worse for us.

5. I would love to see your book read far and wide, in and out of schools, by Americans of every color and class. Do you have a sense of who your readers are? What kind of responses are you getting?

Thank you! I would love that too. Bad Indians is such a collaborative work—the Ancestors, Isabel, my mother’s genealogy, my father and grandfather’s stories, my sister’s Esselen language work, Harrington, the help of librarians, researchers, other scholars—I want their voices heard. Partly because of the diversity of voices in the book, I think my readers are also quite varied. I’ve read for mostly Native audiences, I’ve read for mostly Euro-American audiences, I’ve read for young people, elderly, people at TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), in libraries, universities, bookstores, at professional conferences, for people who know me and people who don’t have a clue who I am or even what a California Mission is.

Overwhelmingly (and to me, incredibly), people respond with honest sorrow, grief, amazement that any of us survived, appreciation for the histories they have never learned, or mis-learned, and a determination to change that. Recently, I gave a reading at my own school, and a colleague had her Anthro 101 students attend and write responses. One of those responses began, “Hearing Professor Miranda read from her book was a blessing.” Wow. I can’t take that personally—that was about the stories, the Ancestors. And Isabel Meadows’s great-nephew contacted me to say some lovely things about the book, words I hold close to my heart.

Once in a while, I get someone who wants to argue with me about the validity of my research (one man insisted that it only looked like Padre Real had fathered a bunch of children with Indian women, despite the 25-minute PowerPoint I had just laid out with birth certificates, Church documents and personal testimony from other priests of the time), and a few times, someone has asked the wearisome question, “After all this time, can’t you forgive and forget?” Oh, and a couple of people have accused me of hating the Catholic Church and all Catholics (I don’t). But for the most part, people are willing to hear the stories in this book, and consider them, and allow the stories to speak with authority. (Maybe people are just nicer face-to-face. These responses have all been in person; online, on my blog, I often get very agitated responses to the California Fourth Grade Mission Project posts, and had to announce that I would no longer post anonymous comments—if I can put my name on what I do, so can you!) I don’t doubt that negative responses are out there, and hope I’m ready to deal with them when the time comes.

6. Do you ever expect to see Bad Indians on the shelf of a mission gift shop?

Ha! Did you see the L. Frank (Tongva-Acjachemen) cartoon near the end of Bad Indians? The one where the Mission Gift Shop is run by Coyote, selling “mission tours” and “mission art” and “tell me your dreams” interpretation? Maybe in that universe. Otherwise, nope. I’ve been to too many Mission gift shops to think otherwise. You know, they still ask (demand) that visitors—even California Indians whose ancestors were enslaved in those missions—“make a donation” to get in? “It’s not a fee, it’s a donation,” the docents insist, but they also don’t want to let you in if you don’t actually hand over some form of money. My sister Louise refuses to pay. “We’ve already paid enough,” she says, and goes on through. I tell you what: if they put my book in the mission gift shop, I’ll make a donation to get into the mission!

Read more about Deborah and her work on her blog.