Author Q&A: “Bad Indians” author Deborah Miranda

In Bad Indians, author Deborah A. Miranda tells stories of her Ohlone Costanoan Esselen family as well as the experience of California Indians as a whole through oral histories, newspaper clippings, anthropological recordings, personal reflections, and poems. Here, she sheds light on some of the processes and influences that shaped the book.

Bad Indians is a blend of academic writing, genealogical research, memoir, magical realism, literature, and poetry, sort of a literary mixed-media piece. Why did you choose this format? Were there things you could express in certain forms of writing that you couldn’t in others?

Actually, I didn’t choose that format; the book did, the stories did.  In fact when I realized that Screen shot 2013-02-28 at 11.01.37 AMI had this weird mix of poetry/prose/fiction/research going on, I panicked.  Who would publish it?  Who would read it?  Would it make sense?  But I went with it anyhow, since the writing was flowing out in these different ways and stopped if I tried to force it into just academic writing or just a poetry manuscript.  Each piece started with research, information coming into me from a source, but sometimes I could only respond in poetry, other times, only prose made sense, and still other times, only something visual, like the Blood Quantum Charts or the JP Harrington collage.  Eventually, I remembered Gloria Anzaldua talking about how a mosaic is what you make out of broken pieces, and suddenly, it made sense: I couldn’t “reconstruct” our culture, but I could gather what pieces I could find and try to create something new out of it.  Once I saw that mosaic format was, in fact, part of the message, everything made sense.

You make the case that the trauma of Missionization is passed down through generations, and that California Indian communities today are still suffering from this trauma. Could you talk more about this idea and how you address it in your work?

Quite a lot of work has been done with the idea of historical trauma as it relates to the lives of children of the Jewish Holocaust survivors; the idea that trauma continues to effect subsequent generations in various forms came to me from that line of research, and when I looked to see if anyone addressed this for Native peoples, I was fortunate to find work by Bonnie and Eduardo Duran (Native American Post-Colonial Psychology) as well as materials by Maria Yellow Horse Braveheart that specifically looked at this syndrome in Native communities, and offered not just examples and analysis, but treatment.  I recognized immediately that if the original generation of missionized Indians had been traumatized and never been allowed to heal, of course that pain and dysfunctional coping mechanisms would affect their children; and that subsequent trauma in each generation (secularization, slavery, homelessness, boarding school) also compounded those unhealed wounds with still more trauma – all without ever a moment to draw a breath, regroup, heal.  By the time five or six or seven generations have gone by – for those lucky enough to have an unbroken genealogy  – so much trauma has built up and typically been left unaddressed that it seems almost overwhelming to even imagine.  I try to confront this most obviously in the piece “The Genealogy of Violence I” and “The Genealogy of Violence II;” in the latter, I interspersed a story about my father beating my little brother with documentation from mission priests about Indians slowly learning to ‘discipline’ (abuse) their own children from priests and soldiers.  To see those lessons in abuse written out so clearly was unnerving for me; it took a long time to figure out how to illustrate such an evil and heartbreaking concept.

The poems in the book fit in organically with the themes you discuss and often deliver a devastating emotional punch. Were any of the poems written specifically for Bad Indians, or were they all part of your previous work?

Only two of the poems existed as drafts before I conceived of the book (“Ishi at Large” and “In the Basement of the Bone Museum”).  The rest were all written specifically for Bad Indians and came out of the research into my family, California missions, and secularization.

 You touch on the fourth grade “Mission Project” required of all California students at several points throughout the book, even introducing an early section as “a very late fourth grade project.” What do you think the effect of this perennial assignment has been on the public perception of California Indians (and on the Indians’ image of themselves), and is it too late to fix it?

First of all, it is never too late to give students and the general public a new perspective; look at all the huge changes we’ve seen in the dominant culture’s perceptions of African Americans or the LGBTQ2 community in the past 100 years.  It may be slow, but it can happen, and it can make a difference in the lives of both dominant and ‘minority’ cultures.  Secondly, I think 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, okay – sanctioned by all of the authorities in a child’s life, from parents right on up the chain of school administration and into government.  The result of that, of course, is a general public who does not question laws that discriminate against Native people, and which doesn’t even know how to have an civil conversation about historic wrongs, responsibility for justice, or compassion for communities suffering from historic trauma.  The problem with the typical Mission Project is that it ignores the complexity of colonization and Missionization in favor of a myth that allows people to pretend historical events do not affect our contemporary lives.  It’s like raising kids without ever teaching them that actions have consequences, and never allowing them to problem solve ways to deal with, or even prevent, future mistakes.

On your blog, you say that “In some ways, it feels as if I have been writing this book all my life.” How long did it take you to write Bad Indians? When and how did all the myriad parts of the narrative begin to gel into a cohesive book?

For the academic year 2007-2008, I had the gift of a sabbatical – ten months free from teaching and advising.  The idea for a book which was a kind of “tribal memoir” (not just my memories alone, but the memories of an entire community) had come to me a few years earlier when I’d re-discovered my grandfather Tom Miranda’s cassette tapes.  I’d written up a sabbatical proposal, but really, I had no idea what I was getting into.  The combination of returning to California for a research fellowship at UCLA, where I was actually born, and having all that solitude in which to research and read and write, allowed the narrative come out of my unconscious.  It was during those ten months that I wrote most of the book, and when I could finally see and accept its multi-genre form.  I had a rough rough draft of the book when I came back to Virginia after that year; it took another four or five years for the pieces to completely come together, for some other pieces to be written, and for me to say, “yeah, this is right, this is done.”  So all told – maybe ten years.

Did you discover anything new about your family while researching the book, or come to any realizations or revelations while writing?

Yes.  It isn’t easy to articulate what I’ve learned, but I can try:  I learned that each generation has the responsibility to accept our wounds and work to heal them.  I learned that survival sometimes requires us to be ‘bad’ or make ‘bad’ decisions, but we are still blood, still family, still a part of the ongoing story.  I learned that historical trauma may be at the heart of family dysfunction, but it is still not an excuse for it.  I learned a lot about my relationship with my father, and about myself; I found a way to love him without making up fantasies about what a great dad he was, or, bashing him for all of his flaws. If I had to sum up this experience in one word, writing this book taught me how essential it is to have compassion for ourselves.

 How did you come to choose the title Bad Indians?

SMALLauthor_miranda_credit_kevin_reminton-200x300For a long time, the working title was “The Light From Carissa Plains,” after one of my grandfather Tom’s stories.  But once I found the newspaper article “Bad Indian Goes on Rampage at Santa Ynez,” and wrote the poem “Novena for Bad Indians,” I couldn’t get that phrase out of my head.  I also found the phrase used innumerable times by priests, soldiers, government officials, teachers, virtually every kind of authority there was; and of course, I realized that to be a ‘bad Indian’ was to be resistant to colonization when no other avenue of resistance worked.  Then there was the thing my father said to me years ago – “They say the only good Indian is a bad Indian, but hell, even when we’re dead we aren’t good enough!”  Finally I said to my colleague, the writer Chris Gavaler, “I wish I could just call this book Bad Indians,” and he looked at me like I was crazy.  “Why can’t you?” he asked – I think I still feared the connotations of that phrase.  I’d closed myself off from seeing it as a viable title.  It was almost like a curse, or a slur, something to be ashamed of – not shout from the cover of a book!  What a relief to embrace it!

Throughout Bad Indians, you emphasize the power of words and language. Why is it that our stories are so powerful? How are Native American writers using their words and stories to overturn the traditional narrative?

Words – written and spoken – are tools of a craft; just as artists use color, form, shape, texture, all the mediums and resources at their command, so storytellers utilize language.  Like any tool, writing can be used to imprison a person, or used to enlighten a person.  I think that Native peoples may have resisted the tools of literacy for a long time, because it was used as a kind of brainwashing technique to beat our own languages and cultures out of us.  But the truth is, traditional Native people were master craftspeople of language, rhetoric, storytelling, oratory, the creation of worlds.  My sister Louise Miranda Ramirez is slowly reviving the Esselen language, and one of the things she’s taught me is that to know the right word is to have access to the power of that word.  When you can shape a story, you take on the responsibility of what that story does in the world – does it help people?  does it heal?  does it teach?  or does it misinform, lie, enable theft, enact violence?  I think Native writers use literature not just to overturn or expose the traditional narratives of exploitation and miseducation, but in fact, bring us closer to understanding our responsibility to make certain words are used carefully, intentionally, creatively rather than destructively.

Who or what are your inspirations when it comes to writing?

So many Native writers – Leslie Silko, Linda Hogan, Greg Sarris, Susan Power, Joy Harjo, N. Scott Momaday, Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, Nora Dauenhauer, Simon Ortiz, Ernestine Hayes – have done the hard work of opening doors for other Native writers.  Then there are Native scholars whose research gives me heart, our allies in academia, community activists whose work is so uplifting, my family, my children, and of course, the Ancestors.  I often think about the fact that pre-Contact California had as many as one million indigenous inhabitants, and yet, by the time my grandfather Tom was born in 1903, we were down to less than 10,000.  So many family lineages in the mission records just come to a complete halt; so many Indians died and left no survivors.  Several times in our family tree, I can see exactly where that end would have come, but one person survived just long enough to have a child, and that child survived just long enough to have a child … our family tree is full of fighters!  The chances of my being here now are infinitesimal.  The chances of me being able to write, being encouraged to write, and getting published, slimmer still.  So I feel a great inspiration from and responsibility to the ancestors whose strong spirits got me here, who have stories that need to be told.

I hope readers take away a sense of the layers of history that we live within right now.  A knowledge of the human suffering, endurance and ingenuity, sacrifices and small triumphs, that make up California and North America – Indian Country.  Insight into the limitations of traditional education, the biases in historical records and publications.  I’d like readers to question authority, be inspired to learn more on their own, put this knowledge to use in daily interactions with others.  Is that too much?  Then I hope that readers simply take away an appreciation of just what price was paid for the land they live on today, who paid (and still pays) that price; I hope they take home a new respect for the indigenous people living that struggle.