Saturday, January 24, 2015

Serra the Saint: Why Not?


Serra the Saint: Why Not?

We are told that Junipero Serra is being canonized because he brought Christianity to California Indigenous peoples. If that were all he had brought to us, perhaps I could find it in my heart to forgive Pope Francis’ decision. If Serra had brought us the choice of Christianity – with no punishment for choosing to remain faithful to our own religions – perhaps I could understand the Pope’s decision. But Serra did not just “bring” us Christianity; he imposed it, he forced it, he violated us with it, giving us no choice in the matter.

Missionization, for California Indians, was more like indoctrination in an abusive cult than spiritual grace. Natives who resisted or refused conversion were beaten, imprisoned, starved, exiled or driven from their homelands – usually by soldiers, at the behest of priests. Catholicism was the stealth weapon of Spanish colonization; a “moral” reason for conquest, to protect lands Spain wanted for itself from Russians moving south from Alaska. In addition to Christianity, the Spaniards brought disease, including their own special brand of syphilis that not only sterilized Native women but caused birth defects, blindness and death. A pre-contact population of close to one million dropped to 250,000-300,000 in less than 70 years. These numbers, these statistics, are human beings. Our ancestors. Our relatives. Our families. The missionaries’ efforts directly caused generations of Historical Trauma to California Indians from which we still have not recovered (loss of indigenous religion, culture, languages, art, land, health, psychological well-being and sovereignty were direct results of Serra’s missionization efforts).

In other historical contexts, this kind of abuse of power is called genocide, a crime against humanity. It is certainly about as far away from sainthood as anything I can imagine, and the Catholic Church’s stated intentions to honor Serra with canonization indicates that it has learned nothing, and does not understand that it needs to learn: violently enforced religion is not missionization, it is terrorism.

Why, then, is Serra’s canonization seemingly imminent?  After the church rape scandals in the past couple of decades, Serra may be seen by many in the Vatican as someone whose reputation is above all of that, having lived prior to and not affected by the legal cases still going on. And this canonization is definitely seen, within Vatican circles, as having taken too long already - Serra was beatified in 1988, which raised protests from Native peoples and, along with the then-necessity of a second miracle – may have put things on the back burner till now. Meanwhile, Pope Francis' participation in the fast-tracking of the double canonization last year (of his predecessors, Popes John Paul XXIII and John II) should serve as a red flag, indicating a lack of judgment and sensitivity toward the suffering not just of Native Americans and their Ancestors, but of Catholics themselves, particularly those who were sexually abused and whose Church covered up the crimes.  As Barbie Latza Nadeau writes, Pope John II not only protected one of the priests involved (“Legionnaires of Christ founder Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, who sexually abused seminarians, fathered several children and even abused his own son”), but actually rallied around him.  In addition, “In many ways,” says Nadeau, “John Paul II laid the groundwork for his own fast track to sainthood back in 1983 when he dismissed the office of the advocatus diabolus, or devil’s advocate. Until then, all causes for saints had to be scrutinized by a canon lawyer, called the Promoter Fidei, who studied each saint’s worthiness. John Paul … would not likely have made the cut based on his record on the child abuse scandal."  Indeed, with the new rules for sainthood no longer requiring two miracles, Serra’s canonization does seem very likely to happen soon.  

Serra, many of his his supporters have argued, was simply "a man of his times." In other words, colonization happens, and we should not blame those caught up in it. But that has a flip side to it:  if Serra was, in fact, “a man of his times” in 1769 when he founded the first California mission in San Diego, he should have known better: Bartolome de las Casas knew better in 1552 when he published "A Brief History of the Destruction of the Indies," and spent his entire life working for the freedom of Indians and return of their lands (a wealthy man, a priest, and former Indian slave-holder); a document Serra and all priests in training would have read and debated. Padre Antonio Horra knew better in 1799 when he protested soldiers' rapes and beatings of Indian converts at his California mission.  The Church officials in California and Mexico sent poor Padre Horra home saying he had gone insane from the stress of missionization and his inability to deal with the hardships of The New World. Mission websites state that "Padre Antonio de la Concepcion Horra (1767-?) became a problem almost from the very beginning. Then-President of the missions, Padre Fermin Francisco de Lasuen, assigned Padre Horra to work with the experienced missionary Padre Buenaventura Sitjar, for the founding of Mission San Miguel. Less than a month after the July 25, 1797 founding, Padre Horra began showing signs of insanity … 'Two surgeons at Monterey examined Horra and declared him insane; the governor made it official, and Horra was returned to Mexico. From there, Padre Horra was returned to Spain on July 8, 1804." This is from the Mission San Miguel website.    

However, there is another, rarely heard side to this story:  “The treatment shown to the Indians is the most cruel … For the slightest things they receive heavy floggings, are shackled, and put in the stocks, and treated with so much cruelty that they are kept whole days without a drink of water,” Horra wrote in his own defense, adding that charges of insanity were false and brought against him because of his serious charges against of cruelty by priests and soldiers, and mismanagement of Church resources (Bancroft 587).  In closing, Horra asked to be sent back to Spain because he feared for his life – not because of wild Indians, but due to his own Franciscan brethren.

Many letters, diaries and records of others traveling in California during Serra’s tenure and afterwards left behind testimonies of the brutality brought on by the missions.  In 1786, French explorer
Jean-François de Galaup de la Pérouse observed that during his visit to Mission Carmel a mere three years after Serra’s death, “Everything reminded us of a habitation in Saint Domingo, or any other West Indian slave colony. The men and women are assembled by the sound of the bell, one of the religious conducts them to their work, to church, and to all other exercises. We mention it with pain, the resemblance to a slave colony is so perfect, that we saw men and women loaded with irons, others in the stocks; and at length the noise of the strokes of a whip struck our ears.”  Other visitors in the same era noted that Indians were even beaten with a whip or cane when they did not “attend worship” -  not simply going to services, but actually paying attention to the service and necessary responses. These people saw through “the eyes of their time” and what they saw disturbed them deeply.  Serra knew, too. 

In 1988, the last time canonization of Serra came up, protests from California Indians was loud and immediately.  ``He is as responsible for what happened to American Indians as Hitler was responsible for what happened to the Jews,`` Jeannette Costo told The Chicago Tribune

This comparison is often dismissed out of hand as hyperbole, yet there is something to it: when Serra supporters write that “he was a man of his times, part of an inevitable colonization and expansion of European powers,” I often wonder, would we accept that as an excuse for Hitler, as well?  Wasn’t he just another power-hungry European leader who went to war for more territory?

More recently, retired Bishop Francis A. Quinn apologized to the Miwok Indians  during a Mass at the Church of St. Raphael in San Rafael California;  Bishop Quinn admitted that missionaries "took the Indian out of the Indian," and imposed “a European Catholicism upon the natives."  He also admitted that mission soldiers and priests had raped Indian women and enforced missionary rules with brutal and violent punishments. Perhaps most stunning, Bishop Quinn agreed with what some of us have long known: that Indians were civilized, had forms of religion, education, art, governance and agricultural knowledge long before the Spanish arrived bent on conversion and their own version of civilization.  

And still more recently, Bishop Richard Garcia asked forgiveness from the Diocese of Monterey (in December 2012) when he offered a formal apology for the abuses of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of Ohlone/Costanoan Indians, one of several tribes taken into Mission Carmel. 

A clear thread of protest from within the Catholic Church itself runs parallel to the protests of California Indians, although each has often been in danger of erasure by the powers that wish to control the narrative.

So is it any wonder that California Indians, and many of our allies, feel that Serra’s canonization is a mistake that will only cause further damage to our struggle to return from the aftermath of genocide – a struggle which in large part depends upon our ability to challenge and expose the Mission Mythology that supports past injustices?

As I write this, my mind is already leaping ahead to the hate mail and comments sure to follow.  In the comment section of a November 2013 issue of an article about Junipero Serra in The Guardian, I saw this typical thread:

The sheer inability of people to do their own research, or lacking that, to critically examine the arguments of the “research” they do read (or imagine they read), stuns me.  Obviously, our California Indian Ancestors not only survived “the ravages of Mother Nature,” but had a deeply spiritual connection with the cycles and our responsibilities to the beings around us; we did not need a “refuge” “against” nature, because we had spent thousands of years working with our world and understood what was required for an equitable relationship.  I’ve seen far, far more vicious threads in the past few days.  On the NYT comment section after an article in which I was quoted (along with two other California Indians), someone named Richard M wrote, “I hate to be blunt, but it must be said: ‘Prominent Native Americans’ here equals ‘usual handful of professional left-wing activists.’”  I replied with my academic and tribal credentials, gave him a few hard facts about missions, and told him to educate himself.  I refrained from his own brand of blunt simply because, as an Indian, I’ve learned that I cannot stoop to the level of haters without losing what little credibility I have.

So I don’t fool myself into thinking that I am going to change the minds of haters, or of the people who think this debate is highly amusing and not worth their time, because “it’s all water under the bridge now, just move on.”  But I do feel strongly that as one of the few descendants of the Indians who survived the missions, I have a responsibility to my Ancestors and to my own descendants to speak up and try to create a clearer understand about why Junipero Serra’s canonization would be another historical flogging of California Indians.  No, Serra was not the only one involved.  Yes, he was part of an intricate machine run by the Spanish Crown’s political desires, the Spanish military’s might, and the Vatican’s multiple ambitions to convert and acquire both souls and wealth.  But Serra was also a man who, like many before him, was faced with a choice: go along with the program, achieve his own personal goals, and ignore the larger crimes – or take a stand against inherently inhumane and unchristian acts against a people who were obviously vulnerable to diseases and technologies far different from their own.

Serra made his choice.  And in my eyes, that choice does not make him a saint, or anything close to it.  Why not canonize Mother Teresa?  Why not Archbishop Romero, who died defending indigenous peoples from poverty and injustice?  Why honor and elevate a man who allowed himself to close his eyes and continue to head an organization that was clearly destroying souls faster than it could "save" them?  This is what I want to bring to the attention of those who are willing to consider the more difficult sides of this debate: when we believe in Mission Mythology, or even simply just allow it to continue to exist, unchallenged, we accept that cruelty and injustice is allowable, inevitable, and profitable.

But that will come back to bite you, and those you love, one day.

Deborah A. Miranda
See also:  "Junípero Serra's road to sainthood is controversial for Native Americans"

Friday, January 23, 2015

Call for Teaching Tips & Event Updates

HAVE YOU TAUGHT MY BOOK, BAD INDIANS: A TRIBAL MEMOIR?  My publisher Heyday Books and I are putting together a list of teaching tips for the book – actual writing assignments, discussion points, activities, critical materials – anything you’ve used successfully in to engage your students.  Field-specific ideas are welcome (for example, Women and Gender Studies, Native Studies or Literature courses, Sociology, U.S. History, Creative Writing) but we are also looking for creative “ways in” that you may have discovered or designed.  I know that many universities have assigned the book (I’ve visited and Skyped with quite a few!), but many educators have asked me for teaching materials and I thought I’d ask for contributions.  We’ll credit you on the final document, of course, and may be able to do web links as well if you have online materials.  Please email your ideas and links to (and feel free to pass this call for teaching tips around to others who might be interested) Many thanks!

Recent news for Bad Indians:

·      In Fall 2014, at UC Santa Cruz, Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir was chosen as one of three texts for the Merrill Core Course (the other two were Cristina Garcia's novel Dreaming in Cuban and Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down)

·      Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir has been chosen (out of 30 nominations) as the Core Text for a new 200 person lecture seminar launched by English Department at UC Santa Barbara.  I will visit the seminar on February 24, 2015.

·      Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir was awarded a Gold Medal (Autobiography/Memoir) by the Independent Publishers Association in May 2014.

·      Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir was a semi-finalist for the William Saroyan Award in 2014.

·      Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir has been nominated for possible selection as the 2015-2016 One Campus One Book reader on the University of Central Missouri campus. An important aspect of One Campus One Book program is an author’s lecture on campus in November 2015.

·      Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir was mentioned recently in the New York Times in an article about protests of Pope Francis’ decision to canonize Junipero Serra

Upcoming Events:

I’ll be participating in “Saying Our Share: Surviving the Missions,” a two-day invitation-only symposium hosted by HeydayBooks at the Heyday Building in Berkeley on February 20-22nd

On February 24th, I’ll visit the 200-person seminar course at UC Santa Barbara to speak and read from Bad Indians.

On February 26th I’ll take part in a poetry reading at UC Davis, and the following day I’ll be at The UC Davis’ Mellon Research Initiative “Social Justice, Culture, and (In)Security” project.  Other guests include Natalie Diaz and Alice TePunga Sommerville.

On March 2nd, I will give the first John Lucian Smith Jr. Memorial Term Chair Lecture at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia (8:00 p.m., Northern Auditorium).

I will also be at the Associated Writer’s Program Conference in Minneapolis on April 9-11th, signing my new poetry collection, Raised By Humans, at the Tia Chucha table in the Book Fair.  I’d love to see you, friends!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

New Dreams, New Medicines

NEWS!  You can now donate on New Dreams, New Medicines (click on the name), a blog specifically set up just for this purpose.  You will also find donated items up for exchange there: books, art, jewelry donated by those who love Linda. 

The donation buttons here on Bad Ndns are still active and go to the same account. -- Deborah

Linda Hogan

Dear Friends of Linda Hogan:

As you have heard, Linda Hogan, Chickasaw writer and environmental activist, is in South Dakota helping her granddaughter deal with the sudden, unexpected death of her 8-year-old daughter Jayla (Linda’s great-granddaughter).  Kim Shuck and Deborah Miranda are putting together a blog for donations to help Linda cover her expenses both in South Dakota and back home in Colorado.  Linda recently lost her job and has been taking writing students and literary reading/teaching gigs, but right now she’s unable to make or keep those kinds of commitments.

We realize that many people want to donate to Linda but are short of cash.  If you are an artist or writer and have something you would like to donate on the blog for others to receive in exchange for monetary donations - with ALL proceeds going DIRECTLY to Linda Hogan - here is our proposal:

1.     Take a clear photograph of the item.

2.     In an email, write a brief description of that item & suggested donation amount in dollars (no more than 50 words, please)

3.     In your email, state that you want to donate this item to benefit Linda Hogan

4.     send photo as email attachment to:

5.     Be prepared to mail that item anywhere in the U.S. (i.e., you donate postage).

Suggested donations: signed books, handmade jewelry, small paintings/collages, small carvings, baskets, CDs … keeping things to an easy-to-mail size is key for this to work.  These items don’t need to have been made by you; there are no restrictions; these are just ideas.

The blog, “New Dreams, New Medicines,” is under construction right now.  The name is taken from Linda’s novel Solar Storms: 

"We had to believe, true or not, that our belated victory was the end of something. That one fracture we had healed, one crack mended, one piece back in place ... we had thrown an anchor into the future and followed the rope to the end of it, to where we would dream new dreams, new medicines, and one day, once again, remember the sacredness of every living thing" (351).

We hope that this small project will put some cash in Linda’s pocket for expenses, bills, travel, animal care, and the innumerable things that come up in times of loss.  It would be wonderful to have a stock of items ready to post on the blog when it opens (probably Tuesday, November 25).

Nimasianexelpasaleki, Deborah Miranda, Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen Nation

Wa-do, Kim Shuck (Tsalagi and Goral)

A temporary PayPal donation site is here!  We'll move this over to the new blog as soon as the blog is up.

Friday, November 21, 2014


This morning I lit the yarzeit (memorial) candle.  My mother, Madgel E. Miranda, died on November 21, 2001.  She was only sixty-six years old by the calendar.  If we counted years by pain and hardship and grief, she was much much older.

Even though it has now been thirteen years since Mom passed on, I still find references to her in genealogy forums on the internet.  “New” messages, or new to me, as I retrace her research for my ancestors, still pop up, and it seems that everywhere I think of to search, Mom has already been there.  I kind of love that.  Love that our minds follow the same paths, that I am following behind her.  It makes her feel closer, as if she hasn’t really been gone more than a decade.

Things My Mother Taught Me

Wear your silver and turquoise to knead tortilla dough;
baking soda polishes rings bright again.
Four paths to payday: beans and rice, flour, Crisco.

If hamburger’s sparse, cut with stale bread or a potato.
Take in strays.  Pay the vet.  Say amen.
Wear your silver and turquoise to knead tortilla dough.

Look the clerk in the eye over food stamps, as though
survival and revenge are close friends.
Four roads to payday: beans and rice, flour, Crisco.

Weed the garden when angry; kneel in each long row.
Zucchini’s one thing you don’t have to defend.
Wear your silver and turquoise to knead tortilla dough.

Drop everything and pick when the blackberries glow.
Write letters of protest.  Root for underdogs.  Like alone.
Four ways to payday: beans and rice, flour and Crisco.

Bring your mother home to die so your daughter knows
love is stronger than what cannot be forgiven.
Wear your silver and turquoise to knead tortilla dough.
Four paths to payday: beans and rice, flour, Crisco.

(Deborah Miranda, The Zen of La Llorona)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Epilepsy Awareness Month: My Turtle Girl

"Epigenetics, a relatively new field in science, could help define the causes of Autism and offer up new modes of treatment for the disorder, as well as other diseases like cancer, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. Epigenetics is the study of gene expression governed by the epigenome, the cellular material that sits on top of our genetic code. The epigenome does not change the genetic code inscribed in our DNA; rather, it activates or silences genes through the mobilization of molecules called methyl groups. These chemical changes are triggered by our environment. Toxins, pollutants, changes in diet, deficiencies in prenatal nutrition, and exposure to stressors alters the way our genes are expressed through the epigenome."  Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) 

I became a grandmother in March 2013, and it has changed me in all the ways that you might expect: I am now a drooling, grandbaby-picture-carrying, buy-that-cute-outfit-NOW fool.  Georgia is a real beauty, both in body and spirit, with her mom's beautiful eyes and skin and her daddy's sassy dark curls.  A glorious mix of North American and South American tribes (her father is Venezuelan), this is one awesome human being.

It took awhile for that glorious shine to dim enough for us to realize that somewhere around five months of age, Georgia was having some trouble with her vision; she also wasn't grasping objects, wasn't hitting the developmental milestones.  The pediatrician kept reassuring her parents that not all babies develop at the same pace, and to be patient.  But finally my daughter was able to catch an unusual pattern of movements on video, and take it to the pediatrician.  He had them at the Children's Hospital neurology department within an hour.  Georgia was having seizures.

To make a long story short (and it has been long, and working with doctors and the medical industry has been exhausting for my daughter, even in Washington State, which had health coverage well before the Affordable Care Act), Georgia was diagnosed with Infantile Spasms, a form of epilepsy. 

After trying several medications, which wasted precious time, one of them finally worked, and after that, a different one took care of a new kind of seizure (it's not uncommon for IS kids to have a variety).  "Whew, out of the woods," we thought.  She might have a longer path towards steady development, but at least the seizures were gone.

But Georgia's development continued to be slow, and my daughter kept pushing for more genetic testing (the first two tests had come back negative for any abnormalities); her Washington State insurance balked, as this is very expensive and there had been no results.  Finally, and blessedly, the genetic lab agreed to treat Georgia's test as research, thus freeing them up to do a really in-depth genetic search of both parents and the baby. 

They were looking for a recessive gene, something both Miranda and her husband might carry.  We thought, how could two people from completely different continents possibly have a rare recessive gene in common?!  But what else could explain Georgia's difficulties? 

ADSL.  Adenylosuccinate lyase deficiency.  It's a very rare condition - probably fewer than 100 people are known to have it right now - and it is, indeed, a recessive gene, carried by both of Georgia's parents. 

Hello, Creator?  Just what the heck are you up to??

Last night, I saw a cute photograph of a little girl Georgia's age on Facebook.  My sister-in-law, Nina, and I became grandmothers right around the same time, and it is a joy to share photos with each other.  But yesterday what I saw was a little girl standing up, playing peek-a-boo with an sweet little hat, looking into the camera and smiling. 

Sometimes it takes me by surprise.  I mean, my grief over my granddaughter's long struggle toward simple accomplishments like sitting.  Standing.  Holding objects.  Making eye contact.  Speaking.  I said something about it to Margo, my wife, who was sitting on the sofa with me.  She reached over and patted me gently.  She knew there was nothing to say.  One little tear slipped out of my left eye.  A deep, indigo sadness swept through me, quiet and unspeakable. 

Then I thought of how it must be to be Georgia's mother, and have to deal with all this rage and grief every minute of the day while still staying on top of multiple doctor's appointments, PT, OT, and eye specialist, medications, insurance, SSI, and a husband who can't work because he hasn't yet gotten a green card.  I thought about my daughter's reality, how much she loves Georgia, all of her determination that Georgia will be okay.  And I didn't let myself cry anymore.

Instead, I got out of FB and went back to work updating Turtle Girl Jewels.  This is a blog I made to tell Georgia's story, and to sell jewelry that I make as a way to supplement rent and utilities, developmentally-challenging toys and materials, for my Turtle Girl.  When I finished that, I pulled the bookshelf next to the sofa over to me, and out came the boxes of beads.

Making the jewelry is a meditation for me at the end of a day of teaching and talking and grading and prepping: I sit quietly on the sofa with my wife and we indulge in brain-candy TV, chat about our days, while I spread beads out and play.  Or pray.  Beading is a kind of prayer.  Other Native women I know are true beading artists: I am not even in their league.  But I love the feel of abalone beads, and the sound of glass and silver and wood and turquoise and jade clicking against each other.  And into each piece, I put a little bit of my love for my granddaughter.  A little of my hope.  A little of my determination.  And a little petition.

We never plan for catastrophe; no, not even those of us who have been through it already.  We never think it will happen to us.  Until it does.  And then we think, why me?  Why my child?  Why?

Some days I wonder, which ancestor did this gene come from?  My research turned up this interesting fact:  Recent data on the number of Native American patients seen for epilepsy per 1,000 persons indicate a high prevalence, more than double that for the United States as a whole.  Is that how this gene found its way to my daughter, and my granddaughter?  Did it come through me?  I have always thought of my ancestors, even (sometimes especially) those 'bad Indians' who broke laws and committed crimes (sometimes, against each other), to be my source of strength. They have guided me, spoken to me, taught me.  Taken me through some of my darkest moments by their own examples of strength.  

But did one of them carry this gene, too? Part of me wonders, is this genetic material the result of long-term physical, mental, spiritual trauma from disease, starvation, violence? (For an educational look at contemporary health care and Native epilepsy, read Closing the Distance: Native Americans and Epilepsy.)  I know that for California Indians, the introduction of a European strain of syphilis caused not just sterilization, but stillborns and genetic mutations; my great-great-great grandmother, Severiana, was born with only three fingers on each hand (and she was the only infant out of her mother's twenty children to survive infancy).  

In her article "Epigenetics: Scientific Proof of Historical Trauma," Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa, as well as pro-bono tribal attorney and a science professor) writes,  
Epigenetics may provide hard scientific evidence of intergenerational trauma among American Indians and link it directly to diseases that currently afflict us, like cancer and diabetes. The term "intergenerational trauma" has been used to describe the cumulative effects of trauma experienced by a group or individual that radiates across generations. For natives, intergenerational trauma has presented itself in the form of genocide, disease, poverty, forced assimilation via removal of children from their families to boarding schools, the seizure and environmental destruction of homelands, and other routes of European colonization.
Hopkins, whose son has a form of autism, goes on to add that 
We can use epigenetic inheritance to restore the action of our genetic code from one generation to the next. Once environmental stressors are removed and behavior is corrected, our DNA will revert to its original programming. We could cure diabetes through behavioral changes that allow our epigenome to operate correctly. The elimination of toxins and pollutants could greatly reduce the incidence of cancer and birth defects. Such modification of environmental exposures and behaviors will restore and even improve the overall health and capacity of our genetic line. As for my son, further research in epigenetics may soon decipher the specific mixture of genetics and environmental exposures that lead to Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Epigenetics.  Who knew.  When I read this article, I felt nauseous.  Sickened by the depth of what colonization can still do to us.  If our ancestors did carry this epigenetic scarring, I know it was beyond their ability to control - like so much of colonization.

I hope the Ancestors are watching over Georgia.  Despite her diagnosis, this kid is feisty, happy, and dear.  Sassy is her middle name.  (No, really: it is!)  Her personality shines even though she doesn't make eye contact.  She emits joy from every pore of her body.  She is usually a happy, smiley little girl.  Perhaps when she laughs, its because some ancestor is clowning it up for her.  Perhaps it is simply who she is: all love.

I don't know.  I wish I had answers for my daughter.  I wish I could be there every single day.  I wish I could make this all better.  That's what moms and grandmas are supposed to do, right?

Instead, I go to work every day.  I help my daughter with rent, utilities.  I bead at night.  I carry Georgia and her mom in my body with me.  I look at photographs of my mother and grandmother, both passed, and ask for their help. 

I understand, now, more about being human than ever before.  How much of life simply does not come with words.  How some things are a mystery, inexplicable, beyond us.  I'm beginning to understand that we can't understand everything, we can't make sense of everything.  We can't fix everything. 

This goes against all that I've ever learned about being human in the last fifty-three years. As a child of trauma, as someone who worked her way out of poverty, abuse, this - helplessness? - is a demon I'm not sure I will ever lay to rest.  I'm not sure I can simply sit back and love.  I am not a 'let go and let God' kind of girl.  I do.  I fix.

And I write, even when the words I need have not yet been invented.

It's Epilepsy Awareness Month.  Believe me.  I'm aware.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Letter from a Confederate General's Great-Great-Granddaughter

November 1, 2014

Dear Colleagues,

I write to recommend that the faculty of Washington and Lee University vote to suspend classes for Martin Luther King Day. 

I tell you this based on my experiences as a member of the Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen Nation of the Greater Monterey Bay Area in California; but I also recommend suspension of classes in my other, less-visible identity as a direct descendent (on my mother’s side) of Confederate General RichardMontgomery Gano, a slave-owner.  Gano is my Great-Great Grandfather.

My Confederate inheritance is neither as visible as my Native American identity, nor is it something that I have given much thought to – until coming to W&L ten years ago. 

I want to try to tell you what it is like to negotiate these two identities as part of my argument for suspending classes for MLK Day.

Last week, I attended a lecture by hip-hop scholar James Braxton Patterson.  During the Q&A, a question from a W&L student asked (and I'm paraphrasing), "Why does hip-hop work to exclude me?" 

I was embarrassed that one of our students had asked something revealing so much ignorance and privilege.  The student was a young white male, articulate and well-educated, and yet he had no idea of the depth of either his privilege or his ignorance.  It was a painful moment for me, as an educator and as a Native woman.

In fact, it was the kind of micro-aggression that I, and other people of color (as well as those not obviously 'marked' as 'different' - Jews, glbtq, white women) face on a daily basis in the larger world, and often on an hourly basis at Washington and Lee, where privilege often prevents students from realizing their full intellectual abilities.  James Patterson, to his credit, gave the student a fully informed response about the work of artists in the world, who they are and are not responsible to, and only at the end gave the most obvious reply:  welcome to my world.  How does it feel to be excluded?

I’m not ashamed to tell you that I sat in a back row and punched my fist into the air.  It felt so good to have somebody say that.  Out loud.  In public.

Let me add here that I could give you dozens of other scenarios and personal experiences over my last ten years as a professor here: the time that I was stopped by a staff member from entering a Dean's luncheon because "this is only for professors," or the time one of my creative writing students submitted a story about Confederates marching through a field full of enslaved Africans, who cheered the return of "their" men; or the several students over the years who have asked me to explain how they might prove "some Indian blood" and get scholarships for grad school.

None of these incidents came out of intentional mean-spiritedness; but they were all part of a pervasive, uninformed cultural world view that is deeply exhausting for those of us whose lives are directly affected.  Now in my eleventh year at W&L, I find myself worn down by such incidents, large and small.

Last week’s hip hop lecture, the debate over MLK Day, reminded me that somehow, I have lived fifty-three years without making the connection between having a Confederate General for a Great-Great Grandfather, and wondering whether or not this ancestor owned human beings.  Ignorance – it’s so easy to ignore, isn’t it? General Gano crossed my mind like a great big gray elephant in the sky, and for the first time, it hit me: he was from a wealthy Southern family.  The Ganos must have been slave owners.  Why had I never thought to look? 

Within five minutes of entering the search terms “General Gano Confederate slaves” into Google, I uncovered mention of my Great-Great Grandfather in The Federal Writers’ Project archive. His name came up in the interview of Hattie Mason, a Black woman who was born a slave.  Hattie and three of her siblings were “given” to Richard M. Gano’s wife Martha as a wedding gift; Hattie and her siblings traveled with the Ganos from Kentucky to Texas as slaves in that household.

In 1936, the year after my mother was born, Hattie Mason told a woman from The Federal Writers’ Project,

 Let me tell you, I am ashamed of the relief I feel at reading this brief narrative, which seems to put my Great-Great-Grandfather into the position of a “good master.”  (Wait.  Did I just write that?)  Of course, earlier in the narrative, Hattie also tells the interviewer that when her brother married the slave of a neighboring farmer, that brother was sold to the neighbor.  Hattie may not have seen slaves “sold at auction,” but she definitely knew the pain of having family members sold away like livestock.

Look, I just did it: the classic “passive voice” that creates historical ignorance with one hand and historical trauma with the other. 

Revision:  Hattie may not have seen slaves “sold at auction,” but she definitely knew the pain of seeing my great-great-grandfather sell away a member of her family like livestock.

What do I do with this information?  How does it change how I think about myself as a woman of color?  Should I be ashamed of my Gano ancestry, which comes to me through my beloved grandmother?  Should I hide it, never speak of it, emphasize instead the Native Ancestors from whom I have always drawn such strength?  Even my “bad Indian” Ancestors  -- thieves, alcoholics, murderers -- have been examples of resistance and survival to me.  But what do I do with a slave-owning Confederate General?!

This week, I have realized that this new information allows me to feel compassion for the ways that American culture and education have failed us all. 

This week, I had to imagine another kind of life for myself, a life in which my father’s Native American legacy was absent or did not become part of my identity – a life in which my Great-Great Grandfather’s role as a Confederate General and as slave-owner might have been held up to me by my family and my culture as a model of courage, loyalty and empowerment.  If General Richard Montgomery Gano had not moved from Texas to Illinois, and if his son Daniel, my Great-grandfather, had not moved to Nebraska, and if Doris Gano, my grandmother, had not moved to California, where my mother was born and where she met my Native American father, I might very well have been a child raised in ignorance, unaware (and not needing to become aware) of inequality, injustice, and the ugly foundations of this country.

Instead, history happened.  History put me in a body that could not pass as white, and the mysterious thing we call identity resonated with genocide rather than Confederate generals.  It’s really scary when you start to think of genocide as a lucky thing to inherit.  I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.  But my position as a minority woman really does give me insights and experiences that most mainstream, straight white people do not have – at least, about race.  And for that bloody gift, I am grateful.

In California, fourth graders still make cute little mission dioramas with “Mission Indians” adoring the Padres and working the fields, while “restored” Missions play a huge part in Southern California’s tourism economy; this, despite the fact that we know the Missionization of California Indians killed 90% of the pre-contact population and laid the groundwork for ongoing poverty, suicides, sexual violence and illiteracy that plague California Indians today.  Students in California are failed by their educational systems from preschool all the way through grad school when it comes to understanding that California’s history and wealth is built on the backs of dead Indians.

Sound familiar?  In Lexington, we are still arguing over the legacies of slavery, using euphemisms like “antebellum” and “state’s rights” while encouraging tourism that perpetuates a mythology much like that of my home state.  Children here are failed by their educational systems from preschool all the way through grad school when it comes to understanding that Virginia’s history and wealth is built on the backs of slaves, and that historical trauma is perpetuated by a multitude of intentional and unintentional forms of racism.

So for me, honoring MLK Day with the cancellation of classes as we do for many other honorable causes is a no-brainer.  Sometimes it's as simple as being able to say: my university honors the struggle for civil rights and equality for people of color the same way it honors its white heroes.  Would that help when I struggle to attract students to literature classes featuring predominantly non-white authors?  or when I enter a faculty meeting and scan the room for another person of color?  or when I counsel a glbtq student being teased because of "dressing like a boy"?

Actually, yes.  Yes it would.  It wouldn't bring about world peace or cure cancer, but it would sure make it easier for me to walk around a little less burdened by the history of this place; it would make it easier for me to recruit job candidates and answer their questions about the atmosphere and culture of Lexington and W&L; it would feel like my colleagues care about my well-being and the well-being of a university entering the twenty-first century with an agenda for reality.

It would make it more possible for me and other non-mainstream scholars to come, to stay, to educate, to recruit, and to continue making W&L an outstanding institution.

But it would also do something important that we often overlook in these discussions:  it would allow us to educate our students, all of our students, with clarity of intent and purpose, about the realities of life in this country for all people.  It would help create better citizens, stronger scholars, and more aware human beings by removing ugliness from hidden corners and from beneath invisibility cloaks.  A legal, officially recognized holiday for a Black man who fought against the legacies of slavery is a way of accepting the responsibilities which being a citizen of the United States requires, and of teaching those responsibilities to our mostly privileged students.

Putting MLK Day on W&L’s calendar puts our struggle against inequality on the map, on the academic agenda. It acknowledges our awareness, officially recognizes our efforts, in the same way that other historic efforts are recognized. 

Put aside discussion of the logistics for now.  We juggle logistics every day; it’s what we get paid to do.  We’ve got a university full of smart people who can find a way, make a way.

What matters is this:  What is the right thing to do?


Deborah Miranda

Dr. Deborah A. Miranda, John Lucian Smith Professor of English
204 W. Washington St.
Washington and Lee University
Lexington, VA 24450