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New Book by W&L's Miranda Gives a Voice to California Indians

Deborah Miranda’s new book, “Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir” (Heyday, Jan. 2013), is both a tribal history of California Indians and a memoir of her own family’s experiences. She is associate professor of English at Washington and Lee University and a member of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen tribe of California Indians, also known as “Mission Indians.”

The book is a collage of family stories, poems, newspaper clippings, anthropological recordings, photographs, old government documents and personal reflections as well as the occasional writings or testimony from Indians.

One reviewer described the book as “beautiful and devastating” and contended that it should be required reading for anyone seeking to learn about California Indian history, past and present. The book has already been picked up by a variety of departments in several universities including English, native studies, creative writing and history.

“American Indians get written out of American history a lot, but especially California Indians. Many people, even other Indians, think we’re all dead,” said Miranda. “I wanted to bring a voice to the California Indian community and provide a correction of our history that has mostly been presented to Americans in a mythological way.

“The book is also about me and my Dad, but in order to understand him I had to go way back to the beginning of what happened to the California Indians.”

Following a mostly chronological order, the book begins in 1770 California with the arrival of the Spanish who built a string of 21 missions along the coastline from San Diego to San Francisco. Following the model they had established in Mexico, the Spaniards began a forced conversion of the Native Indians, perceiving them as animals but with souls that could be saved. They also brought germs that were new to the indigenous people.

Many family lineages in missionary records came to a complete halt since many Indians died and left no survivors. “That is one reason people don’t hear the story of California Indians, since every time a person died a whole library of stories was lost,” said Miranda.

The Spanish were followed, in 1836, by the Mexicans who closed the missions as churches. By that time, the Indians had no land to return to, and the Mexicans established rancherias and continued the idea that Indians lived and worked for them in return for food and shelter. According to Miranda, the largest loss of life occurred during this period, with the Native population falling from around one million pre-contact to between 5,000 and 10,000 in less than 100 years.

The horrors continued with the arrival of Americans in the mid-1800’s following the war with Mexico. Implementing the plantation ideal, they bought and sold the Indians as slaves, especially the children. When the Gold Rush started (mostly north of San Francisco), the government initiated a bounty system that paid $2.5 million for Indian scalps between 1851 and 1857.

“The word ‘extermination’ was used by government officials,” pointed out Miranda, “and the slavery continued long after the slavery of African Americans was officially ended.”

Miranda included stories about her grandfather, Tom Miranda, in the American section of the book since he was born in 1900. His grandparents were enslaved in the missions and his parents were the first generation of Mission Indians “born free” in California since 1769. It was Tom’s collection of 10 cassettes of stories about growing up and the Indians he knew that formed the basis of Miranda’s research, supplemented by 25 boxes of genealogy left to her by her mother.

“She gathered all these bits and pieces, nothing was whole, because California Indians didn’t have a lot of records,” Miranda explained. “I wanted to pick up as many fragments as I could and make these people real to the reader, because people have forgotten the price that was paid and who paid that price.”

In the fourth section of her book Miranda writes from her own perspective about the price California Indians continue to pay today, examining the love/hate relationship she had with her violent father.

“I grew up watching my Dad beat my little brother, and I saw violence in other California Indian families as well,” she said. “A lot of the violence my Dad brought into our family came from hundreds of years ago. He was taught to be violent, his father was violent and so was his grandfather. This was something that was completely unnatural to Indians.”

During her research for the book, Miranda found a series of anthropological questions about the Indians that Spain sent to the padres at the missions. Without fail, all the padres reported that the Indians treated their children like idols and never corrected or beat them. This was considered a huge flaw under the Spanish Inquisition’s tradition of sin and punishment.

Over time the padres reported that they had taught some of the Indians to turn their children over to the soldiers in the mission for discipline. Later, reports indicate that some of the Indian parents were finally starting to discipline their children themselves. And eventually, the parents were beating their children.

According to Miranda, the violence she witnessed in her home was a manifestation of historical trauma known as post-colonial stress disorder, a field of study that has grown in recent years. She compared the California Indians to the children of Holocaust survivors who, although healthy, well-fed and well-educated, experienced neuroses that would usually be associated with camp survivors themselves.

“We’ve certainly been traumatized for 500 years with never a chance to catch our breath,” said Miranda. “It’s not like we could get over it and raise a healthy generation. Every generation has faced a bombardment, from the Spanish, Mexicans and Americans to contemporary drug abuse, alcohol, diabetes and domestic abuse.”

While Miranda described much of the history of California Indians as “gruesome and devastating,” she also had some fun with it.

“There has to be something you can laugh about,” she said. “I found this great newspaper article from 1909 with the headline ‘Bad Indian Goes on Rampage at Santa Ynez.’ It describes an Indian coming out of his cabin with a 44-caliber Winchester followed by his daughter with a six-shooter and his wife with a double-barreled shotgun.

Miranda found the phrase “bad Indian” used innumerable times by priests, soldiers, government officials and teachers. “I realized that to be a ‘bad Indian’ was to be resistant to colonization when no other avenue of resistance worked,” she said. “These people were my heroes.” In addition to getting the title to her book from the article, Miranda wrote a poem called “Novena to Bad Indians,” using the names of real “bad” people she found in old records from the different periods of the California Indians.

Miranda also had fun with the “mission project” given to all fourth-graders in California, whereby they visit one mission and then create a diorama about its history. “The mission projects reiterate the false history that the mission was a wonderful place. Maybe the Indians had a hard time but they were Christianized, they learned how to wear clothing, to farm and it was really the best thing for them,” she said.

Since Miranda wasn’t in California as a fourth-grader, she decided to create her own mission project as an adult and include it as a chapter in the book. “I decided on a booklet format because the mission gift shops sell little booklets, one for each mission, that are full of lies. I wanted mine to tell the truth,” she said.

“The effect of the typical mission project has been to not just implant racial stereotypes about Native Californians in children’s minds, but also to assert that those racial stereotypes are, in fact, OK —sanctioned by all of the authorities in a child’s life, from parents right on up the chain of school administration and into government,” she added.

Miranda said she hopes readers will come away with not only knowledge of the human suffering, ingenuity, sacrifices and small triumphs of the California Indians but also some insight into the biases in historical records and publications.

She noted the irony that in order to write a book about California she had to move across the country to Washington and Lee. “I received two fabulous sabbaticals from W&L,” she said. “The first one enabled me to take a fellowship at the UCLA for 10 months with W&L making up the shortfall to cover all my expenses. I also received Lenfest grants so I could continue working during the summers. So I have had tons of support that colleagues in other schools envy.”

Miranda received her B.S. in Teaching Moderate Special Needs Children from Wheelock College and her M.A. and Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington.

She is the author of two poetry collections, “Indian Cartography” and “The Zen of La Llorona,” and co-editor of  “Sovereign Erotics: An Anthology of Two-Spirit Literature,” which was a silver medalist at the Independent Publisher Book Awards. A collection of essays, “Hidden Stories of Isabel Meadows and Other California Lacunae,” is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press.

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