Monday, June 16, 2014

Managing Demons


This morning I read a review of Bad Indians that was very positive; someone had used it in her university classroom, which I love to hear about. 

But the reviewer took issue with how she saw me blaming my father’s violence and abusive behavior toward family members on the historical trauma of Missionization, rather than holding him personally responsible.  This perception makes me sad, because I worked hard in that book to make it clear that historical trauma was only one part of how I came to understand my father.  I don’t “excuse” or “forgive” his behavior on the basis of his personal or historical trauma, I understand his behavior because of what I’ve learned about how indigenous peoples survived genocide so horrific that no language could express it (in fact, I’ve often thought about the fact that even if we all spoke our native languages fluently, we still could not express the experiences of genocide.  No language can do that; it is a leap that the human tongue cannot make.)

The difference between forgiveness and understanding is an important one for me.  Yes, as the reviewer insisted, my father chose to drink, knowing full well that drinking made him violent and cruel; he also knew that drinking broke him open and flooded him with grief and despair.  And knowing what alcohol made him do, my father still “chose” to do it.   But this is where the reviewer loses me.  Alcoholism, in and of itself, is not a choice.  It is a disease.  Once someone is an addict, control goes out the window.  And when you are driven to alcoholism by despair and trauma, by biological bent, by forces too monstrous to name, that is not a choice. 

At times throughout his life, my father tried to quit drinking.  I witnessed him go into rehab at least twice during my teens, rehab that included nominal counseling and medical interventions.  But he had nothing else to dull the pain if he didn’t have alcohol – no real emotional resources, no understanding of his own grief.  Despite knowing that alcohol ruined every human relationship he’d ever had, he still could not break its hold on him. 

Finally, in his old age, he did stop drinking – medical conditions and medications meant that he could no longer metabolize alcohol as easily, or as often.  My father was more afraid of dying than he was of his demons, I think - so he detoxed, and stayed sober.  There was a long period of time when my mother didn’t have to be afraid of the phone ringing late at night (divorced, he still drunk-dialed her regularly), when my dad didn’t wake up in the drunk tank, when he retired and enjoyed not doing manual labor for the first time in his entire life.  He was a good grandfather to my two kids, coming down to the house to help me lay new linoleum or add a half-bath downstairs, fix a little plumbing problem or build a deck.  It was as if, in his seventies, my dad finally came into his own.  He became active in the tribe, attended gatherings, attempted to repair relationships with my older half sisters.  He remarried and formed his last family with his new wife and a beloved cat in a modest retirement community of other retired people who had worked hard all their lives.  I even went there to share Thanksgiving with my dad and his wife and a few of the neighbors one year.  One of my sisters flew up from California.  It was, in a quiet way, miraculous.  It didn’t last.

No, he didn’t start drinking again – but as his body fell apart, as his pain and limitations increased, so did his old anger, and his old fear, and even older grief.  This time he couldn't take to the bottle and drown his demons.  This time he couldn’t find a way to run away.  Yet even without alcohol, he drove away his third wife, managing to physically threaten and hurt her despite his decrepitude; he ended up alone in hospice care.  Only his youngest child, my brother, would visit him.  The rest of us kept our distance; we certainly did not want to put ourselves in the line of fire one last time; the man had shot us down so many times, and showed no inclination of easing up as he headed toward his own death.  My father wrote hurtful letters to me; he and I didn’t speak for the last two or three years of his life.  I don’t think he spoke very often, if at all, to any of his children except his youngest, my brother, who lived nearby and who had his own complex relationship with our dad.

So although alcohol exacerbated my father's violent behaviors, it seems to me that this self-medication was a symptom of deeper damage, damage that returned when he became helpless and wracked with pain.

Did I let my father off the hook in my writings about him?  Did I pull my punches?  (Why do we use images of piercing or blows to describe the act of choosing not to perpetuate violence?)

No, I don’t forgive my father for the damage he did to our family.  But I do understand the larger context of why he did the things he did, and the battles he fought that I knew nothing about.  The demons who haunted him.  The way he remained alone all of his life, unable to share any of his fears with anyone but alcohol.  And alcohol was not a good confidant.  Where was it, at the end?  Off carousing with some other poor sucker, while my father died mostly alone, as he had lived his life.   

I think that was punishment enough.  I can spare a little compassion.  I’m not sure I can call that forgiveness.  But in writing about my father, in telling the truth about who he was when I knew him, I wanted to tell the whole truth: he was good.  He was bad.  He was loving and lovable.  He was hateful and mean.  He was not, as the reviewer wrote, “a monster.”  He was Al Miranda. 

He was a human being who survived inhumane experiences and did not have any resources, either internally or externally, to figure out what to do with the anger and grief he carried.  I wish he had managed it all more gracefully.  I don't know for sure that he could have.  There are times when I'm not all that sure that I can manage my anger and grief with any grace.

But it's something worth working towards, isn't it?

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Miraculous Transportation of Cruz Miranda

I’ve long wondered (and my mother before me) how the hell my paternal ancestor (great-great-great grandfather), Cruz Miranda, an Indian from the Jesuit Mission San Jose del Cabo at the tip of Baja California, just up and migrated all the way to Monterey, California, around 1850.  Google Maps tells me that the distance is at least 1200 miles; probably a lot more, without flattened mountains and smooth highways. Commander-in-chief U.S. Naval  Forces, Pacific Ocean, Thomas Jones reported in 1848 that in his ship's voyage from San Juan del Cabo to Monterey, he had presided over, “A voyage exceeding in time that from America to Europe.”  Not only did Cruz make this trip, but he did it without seeming to possess any real occupational training or political power that would explain the financial ability to pay for such a trip – and managed to arrive with two young children (whether his wife made the journey with him is debatable, as we'll see), to boot.  On the 1860 U.S. Census, Cruz Miranda’s occupation is recorded as “Teamster” – in other words, he knew how to drive a team of mules and/or horses.  Not one of the more in-demand specialty trades at that time.

So, what kind of magical transportation allows this kind of miraculous mileage?!

That my ancestor brought children and possibly his wife has always suggested to me that Cruz hopped a ship; the overland trek up Baja to Monterey was a killer.  But just how would a lowly Mission Indian rate the relative luxury of shipboard travel, let alone be allowed to bring his young family?

If this had happened in an earlier time, when the missions in Baja and Alta California were still vital parts of economic/political hegemonies, I might think that Cruz and family were just neophytes sent from one mission to another as part of typical labor exchanges, or even as “model” neophytes indoctrinated in Catholicism, who could serve as mediators for newer converts.  But the missions were secularized in 1836, and the system had broken down long before then; a mission exchange is unlikely even if the Jesuits and Franciscans were amendable to cooperation.

The timing should have been my first clue: just barely post-Mexican-American War.  And I did vaguely consider that Cruz and family might have been fleeing the violence of that event.  But in Baja?!  Obviously I wasn’t listening very well during U.S. History class in high school – at least not for the 13 seconds we spent on that conflict – because I did not realize that Baja had, at one point, been part of a military contest between the U.S. and Mexico (I knew about the political conflict over Baja; just didn’t know it had actually involved battles not in the interior of Mexico).  

The truth is, neither my mother or I ever really put much effort into searching for Cruz, mostly because the original impetus for our genealogical research was always about Federal Recognition, and the Feds don’t give a hoot about “Mexican” indigenous blood-lines (those pesky borders again!  - paradoxically, the fact that the U.S. once felt so strongly that Baja California was U.S. land unjustly stolen by Mexico, and even sacrificed American lives to enforce that claim, is a moot point in the Federal Recognition process.  How convenient.).

Yet I’ve always wondered how Cruz accomplished this epic journey.  This past week, thinking about my California trip and remembering again how the Mirandas just seemed to drop out of the sky into the Monterey/Carmel Indian community, I threw a few search terms into Google, and the Google Gods were with me.  I struck it lucky during a Starbucks-fueled online muse-session, and came across an article on the Mexican-American War that totally illuminated the whole situation. 

Here it is, in a nutshell:  First of all, it’s important to know that the Spanish Mirandas, the colonizers, were present in Baja early on.  In fact, during 1848, Colonel Francisco Palacios Miranda was governor of Baja California.  For how long, I don’t know; but it could be a connection to Cruz Miranda’s family – important men in Spanish settlements often lent their names to neophytes at the baptismal font as sponsors or godparents.  If not Francisco Palacios Miranda, then some other Spanish soldier or priest.

Anyway, Governor Miranda apparently faced a choice: remain loyal to Mexico and possibly lose everything, or cooperate with the Americans and maybe retain some of his power if the Americans won.  I’m sorry to say, he wasn’t a very good guesser.  After several battles – including one in November 1847, when American Marines were holed up in a mission building were saved only because Mexican troops mistook a couple of incoming whaling ships as U.S. reinforcements - and a longer siege from January 22 to February 14 in 1848, when Mexican forces eventually “took over San Jose del Cabo and forced the Americans to either starve or surrender.  The USS Cyane rescued the Americans on the14th of February.  United States forces left the area 18 months later. The Americans had lost Baja California.” - and the fate of U.S. loyalist Mexicans was sealed.  Like Governor Miranda, the neophyte Cruz Miranda may have been forced into working for the U.S., and then faced retribution afterwards.  Commander Jones writes about his mission to rescue these refugees, 

The more powerful Mexican collaborators – including the Governor – demanded refugee status, and even some reimbursement for the property they had to abandon (part of Jones's report involves determining who was paid how much).  Perhaps some of them also managed to bring along loyal servants or, in the case of the diocese priest, particularly dear converts who were somehow attached to the mission.  At any rate, the U.S. sent two ships, The Lexington and The Ohio, to pick up those refugees.  The Lexington left in August 1848 with about 130 refugees; The Ohio left on September 6 with about 350.  Only the more prestigious refugees are actually named in the reports of this activity to Congress; the Governor, the diocese priest, a few wealthier Mexicans.  Peons like Cruz were lumped in as “other” refugees.

And just where did those refugee passengers disembark?  Why, Monterey, California – both ships docked there by October 1848.  It can be no coincidence that Cruz Miranda and family show up on the 1860 U.S. Census in Monterey.  Under country of origin, Cruz told the census taker “Mexico” (his wife, Crispina, seems to have died, and Cruz remarried one Gertrudis Duarte, also of Mexico – whether before or after the exodus, I don’t know).  Thanks to my mother’s research, I know that he also meant that he had been born, baptized and married at Mission San Juan del Cabo.

Upon arrival in Monterey, Cruz’s family immediately affiliated themselves with the indigenous population from the remnants of Mission Carmel.  Also in the 1860 census pictured above, my mother notes that the Mirandas lived within a door or two of the family they ended up marrying into, the Reals and Cantuas, Esselen to the core.  This affiliation indicates that this Baja family felt most at home with other missionized Indians, rather than Mexicans whose cultural and/or genealogical connections were had European roots.  Here are my mother’s notes about Cruz:

“Cruz Miranda born c 1820 Baja Calif … Cruz Miranda married Maria Crispina Beltran in San Jose del Cabo Baja Cal, June 18, 1813.

The next place I find Cruz is in Monterey from the 1860 US Census. He is now 40 years old and [has a new] wife Gertrudes Duarte [who] is 42 years old. They have 6 children. Carbola b 1844, Enriquez b 1850, Tranquilino 1846, Ygnacio 1855, Cruz Jr. 1856, and Josefa 1859.

…When son Tranquilino married 28 Aug 1871 Severiana Ramirez, Tranquilino's mother [was] given as Crispina … Tranquilino is identified by the BIA as Lower Mexican/Californian Indian full-blood.”

Tranquilino Miranda (third child listed on the 1860 census) was one of the children who made the long trip up the Pacific coast on either The Lexington or The Ohio; he was probably under the age of two at that time.  He grew up to marry an Esselen woman from the Carmel Mission, my great-great grandmother Serveriana Ramirez, daughter of Josefa Real (married to Ventura Cantua).

So this historical research find seems to answer the mystery of how the Mirandas traveled from San Jose del Cabo to Monterey; they were refugees of the Mexican-American War, perhaps having had the bad luck to back (by choice or by force) the Americans, but being somewhat rewarded for their “loyalty” with transportation out of the war zone, possibly sponsored by Govenor Miranda or other Spanish connections through Mission San Jose del Cabo.  What a journey for them!  What sheer chance!   

(There are some holes in this story: for example, this 1860 census lists “Cruz Jr.” as four years old, and the first child born in California, with Ygnacio as five years old and born in Mexico around 1855.  Wouldn’t that mean Cruz wasn’t in Alta California until 1855, six years after the refugees were brought to Monterey?   Not necessarily.  For one thing, Mexicans often didn’t distinguish between Alta and Baja California – California was California, borders meant nothing -  and confusion might easily have prevailed for either parent or even one of the older children when speaking to an Anglo census-taker.  For another, the long gap in children between Tranquilino, fourteen, and Ygnacio, five, may indicate that Cruz was widowed for quite some time – since his arrival around 1849, in fact - before taking a second wife and starting the second half of his family.  Perhaps Crispina was lost in the violence of the war, or didn’t survive the long sea journey?  Perhaps losing her was one of the reasons Cruz decided to leave his homeland?  At any rate, I don’t see any other way Cruz and the older children could have gotten from San Juan del Cabo to Monterey after the U.S. lost Baja; it makes much more sense that he was on one of those U.S. ships sent to retrieve refugees in 1849, that he remarried in 1854 or 55, and that the census taker simply got the information wrong about the birthplace of Ygnacio.  But if you haven’t figured it out by now, genealogy depends on records made by human beings and thus is not an exact science!)

And now I have even more questions.

For example, were the indigenous Mirandas members of the Pericu Indian peoples?  How long had they been missionized – one generation, or several? Supposedly, founding priest Father Tamaral and the Indians got along famously – he reportedly baptized over 1000 of them - until he cracked down on the polygamous family units the Pericu persisted in forming.  The Pericu rebelled several times, eventually killing Tamaral and burning down the mission.  

One online source says, “By 1767, virtually all the Indians in the area had died either of European diseases or in skirmishes with the Spanish. Surviving mission Indians were moved to missions farther north, but San Jose del Cabo remained an important Spanish military outpost until the mid-19th century when the presidio was turned over to Mexican nationals,” - but as we Esselen know all too well, rumors of indigenous extinction are often greatly exaggerated.  “Virtually all” might mean that cultural ties and visual markers had been severed or gone underground, that clans and other band differences has melted away within the Mission walls and religious instruction, or that the Indians had simply adapted so well that no one recognized them as “wild” Indians anymore.  Isn’t it strange how survival can look so much like extinction to colonizers who insist on having their Indians savage and uncivilized?

Of course, once things settled down at Mission San Juan del Cabo after the rebellions, the Church sent another priest, and it was monogamy as usual, although iterations of that poor mission were destroyed by hurricane, flood, pirates, and general disrepair over the years (you’d almost think the land didn’t want that mission there, wouldn’t you?).  David Kier notes that the native population at Mission San Juan del Cabo underwent multiple shifts, with natives being removed to other missions or the natives from other missions being brought in, so it may well be that Cruz and Crispina Miranda were the descendants of several surviving Southern Baja tribes.  The last of the last, perhaps – which also means, the first of the next.

Cruz and his wife (Crispina or Gertrudis) Miranda left their homeland – or what remained of it – in search of something better.  The couldn’t know that they were sailing into the teeth of a chaotic, bloody historical event known as The California Gold Rush, something Commander Jones noted:

Cruz and his wife also couldn’t know that abandoning one mission for another would land their children and future descendants in another post-apocalyptic community with, perhaps, even more problems than those that they fled.  If they had known the state of Carmel’s Indians, would the Mirandas have come anyway?  Did they have much choice, given war, complex political machinations, starvation? 

What a journey that must have been for those Mirandas – leaving their homeland, a long ocean voyage on a cramped boat with strangers, landing in a cooler climate full of still more gold-crazed strangers.  No wonder the Carmel mission Indians looked, if not like family, at least like relatives.  Outsiders, the Miranda children seem to have married into some of the more prominent (in terms of influence within the missions and in post-mission life) Indigenous families who survived Missionization; certainly, Tranquilino and his children after him did, becoming more Esselen as the generations went by.  I wonder what they retained of their own culture.  I wonder if everything had to be reinvented or repurposed in order for life to go on. 

All I know for sure: each time I dive into these stories, I learn again that I come from a long, long line of passionate survivors: Indians rebels, priest-killers, nation-jumpers.  Despite the pain of being human, we do love life.  That sentiment seems encoded into my DNA: flexibility, adaptability, an abhorrence of anything rigid or cage-like.   In a poem I once wrote, “We grow into/what comes next.”  

Yes, we do.  And that is our miracle.

This essay is dedicated to my father, Alfred Edward Miranda Sr.  Happy Father's Day.

Deborah A. Miranda
on board the Coast Starlight
near Klamath Falls, Oregon

Friday, June 6, 2014


Mission San Diego de Alcala has an interior garden with a cross built from the original bricks of the Spanish Mission.  Here I am, a few years ago, contemplating the slumping cross.

“. . . when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”  Chimamanda Adiche

I am about to embark on a great adventure.

For much of June, I’ll be traveling through California on my own.  On my own … at least physically.  I fully expect to meet ancestors and relatives – human and non-human - at every breath, to see and hear and feel and know wisps or storms of stories all around me, coming from every direction, including from within.

After a week spent visiting my adult children and one-year-old granddaughter, I will leave from the Amtrak station in Tacoma, Washington on a Saturday morning, carrying just a backpack of clothing and writing materials, a book or two, and all my years of longing.  I’ll head straight through Washington, Oregon and Northern California all the way to San Diego, a glorious journey of almost 40 hours through crazy beautiful mountains, forests, valleys, inner cities, along beaches and rolling hills covered with wildflowers.  I’ve made this trip before; the magic of a slow train and hours with nothing to do but read, write and look out the windows is my idea of escape, vacation, paradise.   

Once in San Diego, I will visit the mission there, then slowly proceed back up “El Camino Real” a few train stops at a time, following the path of the missions as laid out by the Spanish Franciscans and soldiers from 1769-1836-ish, over the course of 18 days.  I won’t be able to visit all 21 missions; but we do what we can with what we are given, and eight missions are plenty for this trip (and brings me to a total of 11 missions visited).

Preparation has taken quite some time, and a whole lot of energy: figuring out which California missions are close enough to Amtrak stations for me to visit without a car; planning a few inland excursions with a rental car; scouting out bus or walking routes; setting up lodging along the way (I’ll have a sleeper on the train for a total of four and a half nights, and along the Camino Real itself I’ll stay in hostels, hotels, an air bnb, even one of the missions itself, as a solo retreat participant).  A summer grant from my university makes this possible, but I need to make the funds stretch as far as possible, so meals will be creative: both healthy and cheap.

Other preparations have included re-reading various histories of the individual missions I’ll visit (both the “official” Catholic archival materials, and more recent indigenous-centric or alternative texts), revisiting my family genealogy as well as Isabel Meadows’ stories, reading and/or downloading books about California flora and fauna, especially ones that include traditional gathering of natural resources as food or materials for living.  Something about being able to name a tree, a flower, a fruit, a stone, a bird, gives me a little bit more of the story I’m witnessing and trying to tell.


But I’ve been preparing in other ways, too. 

My preparations require serious attention to the health of my faith: faith that stories matter.  When you spend nine months a year teaching literature of the margins to mostly white, mostly middle-to-upper-class students in a small southern university, this kind of faith can wear thin.  When you live in a world, as we all do, in which language and story are perverted into propaganda and misinformation, faith that stories matter takes a beating.  I have paused throughout the month of May (oh the grace of not teaching!) to refresh my faith with the beautiful constructions of language by writers whose work pulses with meaning.  

 Most recently, I read (and savored/delighted in/got lost in) Susan Power’s Sacred Wilderness and Louise Erdrich’s The Round House.   

These two books rejuvenated me as a writer, acted like a blood transfusion of plump, singing platelets for my faith.  Rich characters, deeply spiritual quests, poetic renderings of community and family … and the sheer joy of storytelling as the glue that holds us together (individually and collectively) even beyond death.  Yes, I believe that the stories I will find as I travel will have the potential to make a positive difference in how I, and others, know and live in the world.  I have faith that sometimes a story may be both dangerous and necessary.  Faith that the story will lead me in the direction that it needs to go.  Faith that I am tough enough, resolved enough, to go there too.  Huwa!

More than anything else, preparation for my time on “The Mission Trail” (as this string of history has often been called by historians and touristic exhortations) means reminding myself that I may be completely unprepared for the story that emerges from landscape and memory, golden hills and ocean breakers, melted adobe and reconstructed campanarios.  The story I find may not be the story I expect to find, or the story I want to find.  Looking for genocide, I may find peace.  Looking for sovereignty, I may find fractionated tribes swollen with Historical Trauma.  Expecting oppression, I may discover resilience, even joy.  If I can stay open to the story around me, who knows what I might learn?

This last thought gives me greatest pause. 

In her talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,”Chimamanda Adiche tells us about her experience, learned over and over in different situations, with the limitations and damage of falling for ‘just one story,’ of believing that the story we’ve always heard is the only story, the only truth about that story (the transcript of Adiche’s talk may be found here).  She says,

“It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power …  How they are told, who tells them, when they're told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story, and to start with, ‘secondly.’ Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have and entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.”

Adiche reminds us of the driving force behind the literature of so many survivors: the desire, the need, to tell our own stories, to claim our voices, to take back the power of narrating our identity.  I absolutely agree with her; storytellers have a power that cuts both ways.  A story can create, but it also has the power to destroy.  Because of this, Adiche also warns us:  not just about being wary of the stories we inherit, but taking care with the stories we, ourselves, create.  In our urgency behind this desire for voice, we become susceptible to the lure of a central myth, a controlling stereotype that damages the lives of very real human beings.  It seems like a paradox:  how do we assert our story, our truth, without becoming proselytizers for The One True Story?  Put another way, does there have to be one monolithic story for a people, or can there be multi-colored threads intertwined in a larger cable? 

Many years ago, I attended a life-changing, week-long writing workshop on the McKenzie River in Oregon.  As part of the registration process, each workshop participant reached into a basket and drew out a card with one printed word that was meant to act as our guiding principal throughout the week.  I drew the word willingness.  Such a demanding word!  To this day, willingness tasks me with the work of not taking the easy way through an experience by closing up, turning away, maintaining the status quo.   

So, my preparation for this California mission journey also includes a decision to nurture my willingness to remain open, to listen, observe, intuit, question and consider all the stories that I will be entering into.  Willingness does not always come easy; it’s safer to stay unwilling.  In that sense, willingness implies risk.  (I embraced willingness that week on the MacKenzie River, by the way, and it shook me up, shook me down, and completely rearranged my life – for the better, ultimately, but damn, that was some hard work!  I still battle frequently with the concept of willingness; I don’t give up security easily but at least I have learned to keep trying). 

Well, this storytelling thing is a risky business.

Yes, I will bring my intellectual knowledge about Missionization with me – leaving it behind is impossible – but I also want to try to put aside what I think I know about the story of California missions, and listen to the story that comes to me from the places themselves.  I sound surer of this process than I actually am; I think I have some strategies about how to do this, but I also know that I’ll work it out as I go. 

What I do know for sure is that this journey has been calling me for a long time, and now that I am finally on my way, I can hardly wait to hear the harmonies of voices, see the constellations of stories, re-enter the ‘kind of paradise’ that is my homeland.

Fresh figs from Mission Soledad (previous visit)

Thursday, May 15, 2014

"I hate this topic": Welcome to the Club

This morning, two interesting things happened:

First, I received an anonymous comment on this blog (for the post "Thought Experiment").  The poster, the frustrated parent of a California fourth grader, had this to say:

"i hate this topic. my fourth grader just finished her report, and we concentrated as much as possible on the lives of the indians -- though that was not much discussed in the official books and materials available at the mission itself. she got instantly that the whole reason the missions existed was to export religion -- bully for her. now, i need a bloody checklist of materials used to construct the mission. her mission was burned down by rightfully angry indians and a padre was killed...would it be bad to try to capture that night, and have the bloodied body of the priest in the courtyard? hm....." 

I sat in my office and mulled over this note.  "I hate this topic..." - Missions?  California Indians?  Telling a difficult truth?  Being forced to excavate the truth in an educational and cultural system that would prefer you not?

This comment brings up some of my deepest reservations about the Fourth Grade Mission Project.  I hear both frustration and resentment in this parent's voice - understandably - but both seem to be directed at the Indian figure at the center of this project.  I want to re-direct that anger just a bit.

The parent acknowledges that finding truthful information about the lives of Indians was difficult, something I can appreciate.  But I'm sorry that this re-education seems to inconvenience the parent; I suggest he or she imagine how living in a country in desperate need of re-education "inconveniences" Indians on a minute-by-minute basis!  Parent, you just have to deal with this one project in one year of your child's life.  California Indians have this struggle day in and day out, decade after decade, century after century.  I understand that the pressure put on parents and children to create "perfect" mission reports and models/dioramas of a mission, but there is a bigger picture out there, and it is worth investigating.

For one thing, I'm a little concerned that the parent feels having the fourth grader in question learn that "the whole reason the missions existed was to export religion" was one of the main points of the project.  This is another fallacy about the missions that needs careful consideration.  Yes, the Spanish Crown originally sent priests out to convert - that was and continues to be a central part of Catholicism - but any "saved" Native souls were really just a bonus.  Historians agree with me on this one: the real point in colonization was land, resources, and political power.  Religion was just the vehicle these passengers arrived in; a wonderfully self-congratulatory vehicle with which to carry out the genocide of millions by a group of people without the semblance of a driver's license.  Greed, not religion, is at the center of this event.  And that changes a lot about how fourth graders (or adults just coming to this realization) process this revelation.  More about that later.

I have no argument with a religion that tells us to love thy neighbor, practice charity and compassion, and reminds us that we are all human beings struggling toward the sacred.  I do have some serious issues with the practitioners of a religion who says it's okay to kill other people, take their land, rape them physically and emotionally, as long as they are baptized before they succumb to torture or a disease brought in by the religion's practitioners.  I worry about the idea that religion becomes the scapegoat for what is, essentially, human misbehavior.  A comedian named Flip Wilson used to have a great tagline: "The Devil made me do it."  Blaming religion is kind of like saying, "God/Jesus made me do it."  How scary is that for a child to hear?

But back to the concept of greed.  I also worry that by putting the blame solely on religious conversion, we can avoid knowing that colonization of California Indian lands benefited the triple stream of colonizers - Spanish, Mexican, and American - and, in fact, benefits anyone who currently owns or uses land in California.  In other words, by saying that the missions were just about spreading Catholicism at any cost - as horrible as that sounds - Euro-Americans don't have to admit that the thefts of land and rich resources had anything whatsoever to do with them.  Or that California Indians still suffer from that loss; or that these losses continue into present and future Native generations.  Or that gee, something should be done to rectify that obvious and painful injustice.  Blaming religion allows Euro-Americans to take their privilege and benefits from the mission era blindly, without seeing who was run over in order to obtain it for them. Admitting that California (and sadly, this entire country) was built on greed and exploitation of human beings and the land - that's a steep learning curve, but one that, when we are brave enough to attempt it, can lead to real change, real justice.  Not simply admitting privilege, but working to heal wounds that now hurt not just Native people and the earth, but anyone living on the planet.

I also wish this parent had left an email or name, so I could send him or her a copy of Vincent Medina's excellent article "Plastic Siege: A New Twist on the Fourth Grade Mission Project," where Vincent talks about helping his little brother, both members of the Ohlone Chochenyo tribe, take on a more realistic construction of a mission; a mission experiencing revolution and resistance by its Native population that included armed self-defense.  After explaining why the California Mission Mythology is so painful for Indian children, especially, to swallow and fight back from, Medina writes,

"To start the project, we bought the typical Mission supplies from an arts and craft store – Styrofoam, white paint, sand, glitter glues, figurines of Spanish priests, plastic horses, and little fake gold bells. But we also bought orange cellophane to look like flames, toothpicks to paint to insert in the model to look like arrows, and military toy figurines which we would later paint to be our Ohlone militia. A new twist to a traditional model. The priests are held hostage as Ohlone fighters are inside the bell tower. I asked Gabe what he wants to title his Mission project, and he says with pride “let’s call it… you gotta do what you gotta do.”

I would love for Mr or Ms Fourth-Grade-Parent to read this essay by Medina, and perhaps learn (aside from the fact that California craft stores overflow with Mission Kit materials - hard to AVOID them) that yes, it is okay to be angry about the project, about the lies, the inaccurate education we all received and the way those inaccuracies require us to act in order to properly educate our children.  Medina and his little brother used their anger to create a mission project that illustrated the necessity for Native people to defend our way of life, our families, our cultures.  Self-defense is something that our ancestors practiced in the past, and we survivors and descendents practice it in the present as well.  A poem can be a form of self-defense.  A fourth-grade mission project in which the "priests are held hostage" is a form of self-defense.  

A mission model with a bloody priest in the courtyard might be one way for this parent-child duo to express their exasperation about the lack of a good fourth grade curriculum.  In fact, I would love for this parent's child to create a mission under attack (was it just me, or did I catch a whiff of sarcasm in the parent's comment?), even the scene at Mission San Diego, where the priest was killed outright by angry Indians.  This kind of honest representation would demonstrate an understanding on the part of parent and child that self-defense of one's homeland and people is a human right.  Whether the teacher would accept such a project, I don't know, but I'd be willing to bet that fourth grade teachers are receiving more and more reports and mission models from a less Eurocentric perspective.

But here's the thing: don't blame us - Native people - for this inconvenient and difficult assignment.  Please.  "I hate this topic" - when the topic is the suffering of my ancestor's lives, and my own life as the survivor of colonization and Historical Trauma - carries such misdirected anger and fear.  Be angry at a more deserving target!  Like your school district, or the California Fourth Grade Curriculum.  Take some responsibility for your child's education, especially if the curriculum being used is outdated, incomplete, or downright inaccurate.  Talk to the teacher.  Go to curriculum adoption meetings.  Research books for the school library (see Heyday's catalog for a good start!). Use the internet to contact local California tribes and ask if they have a person who speaks to fourth graders, or know of Native educators who will come to the classroom - after all, we are still here - at least, some of us.

And hey, welcome to the club.  This is just a taste of what it's like to take on colonialism and imperialism in the 21st Century.

Oh, and that second interesting thing today?  See the illustration above.  Bad Indians is still rockin' the charts at Heyday.  Maybe that parent should have paid attention to the blog s/he landed on.  Might have learned about a book that models how to respond to infuriating injustices.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Making a Place for Our Story in this World

I awoke this morning to news from my friend Linda Rodriguez that Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir has won a Gold Medal from the Independent Publisher Book Awards (fondly known as IPPYs).   

This is really an honor and a blessing!  I mean that in every possible way: for a small press book like Bad Indians, being seen and acknowledged is difficult, and the IPPYs are extremely wonderful for the way in which they bring attention to a book that might otherwise have gone relatively unacknowledged by folks outside the small press zone.   

My publisher, Heyday, and I have entered Bad Indians in as many awards as we could find.  Locating awards the book might be eligible for hasn’t been easy, because it crosses so many borders - memoir, documentary, poetry, prose, collage, art – in addition to Heyday often being seen as a regional small press.  So this award is as much a testament to Heyday’s willingness to publish a book so difficult to categorize as it is to the contents of the book.

The IPPY website  notes some of the benefits of IPPY recognition:

As one of the oldest, most established independent book awards in operation, the Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPYs) are well known and respected in the book industry. Our winners are:
  • Featured in a series of articles at our website which had over 80,000 unique visitors in the past year
  • Advertised at Publisher's Weekly website for one month totaling 100,000 impressions
  • Advertised in three Publisher Weekly's Tip Sheet emails (65,000 opt-in subscribers) direct emails
  • Advertised in Publisher Weekly's Daily (36,000 opt-in subscribers) direct email
  • Advertised at Shelf Awareness website for one week totaling over 200,000 impressions
  • Promoted in press releases sent to over 2,000 publishing industry media outlets
  • Given two free passes, valued at $300, to the IPPY gala held during BEA in New York City.
  • Sent a Winner's Celebration Packet that includes a starter set of book seals, an official winner's certificate, and a medal.
  • Listed in results that are permanently archived on back to 2001
  • Featured in an average of 50 articles per year internationally 

I couldn’t beg, borrow or steal this kind of publicity – and you better believe that I am going to head for the IPPY awards ceremony held during the Book Expo America in New York at the end of May to take full advantage of that. 

Bad Indians took me ten years to complete, and is now in more university courses than I can count.  The word of mouth testimonies and the passionate advocates Bad Indians has found in professors, writers, students, California Indians, Indians in general, has been phenomenal.  The community of this book, which has always consisted of my family, my ancestors, my mother, father, sisters, brothers, tribal members, has grown to include many more, all participating in telling the horrific story of Missionization and those 'bad Indians' who survived Missionization.  My gratitude is deep and growing, dear friends.  Thank you for your faith in this story’s importance. 

Isabel Meadows (who spoke Spanish, English, and several Indian languages) said, after telling J.P. Harrington the sad story of how Carmel Indians were dispossessed of land and left to die:  Ojalá que uno de los ricos del Carmelo les pudiera comprar un buen pedazo de tierra siquiera pa vivir, pa poner su rancheria comoantes, pa refivir su idioma, y pa hacer cuento otra vez en el mundo … I hope that one of the wealthy people of the Carmelo will be able to buy them a good piece of land, at least, to live on, to put their ranchería like before, to revive their language, and to make their story again in the world.”  (see footnote at end)

I like to think that Isabel is clapping her hands right now, maybe even firing off a shot or two from that pistol that she was known to carry around in her skirts as she traveled through the dangerous Spanish/Mexican territory around Carmel and Monterey that once belonged to her mother’s ancestors. 

Isabel, the ricos still haven’t lined up to give land back to your people, but your stories lead the way for California Indians to make our story again in the world, and for Indians and allies to give our story a place in this world.  I'm not sure you ever expected that to happen.  On the other hand, you left us plenty of bread crumbs to follow back to the story, now didn't you?

I think you would be proud, Isabel.  Nimasianexelpasaleki.  Oh, nimasianexelpasaleki!

footnote:  (In his dissertation, RECOGNIZING INDIANS: PLACE, IDENTITY, HISTORY, AND THE FEDERAL ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF THE OHLONE/COSTANOAN-ESSELEN NATION (2010), Philip Laverty writes about this passage, “I would translate the phrase ‘…pa hacer cuento’ differently [than Yamane, who translates it as ‘to be counted again in the world.’] First, “cuenta’ means ‘count’ (and Harrington usually notes “sic” in the case of incorrect gender use) whereas ‘cuento’ means ‘story.’ ‘Contar’ is the verb ‘to count,’ but it also means ‘to relate’ or ‘to tell.’ ‘Hacer’ is not ‘to be.’ ‘Hacer cuento’ is commonly used to mean ‘to tell a story,’ or, perhaps better, ‘to make up a story.’ Consequently, I would translate the phrase as ‘to make their story again in the world’ or ‘to make their history again in the world.’”)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Metabolic Demons

Metabolic what? 

Well, here I am: 52 years old, and as my dear Margo is wont to say, “rode hard and put up wet.”  I suppose it’s not surprising that after a lifetime of non-stop adrenalin, trauma, relocation, loss, stress and struggle, I ended up in a gastroenterologist’s office this morning with a young doctor there on fellowship and his supervisor, both questioning me closely about my alcohol intake, sex life, tattoos, diet and exercise.  An ultrasound of my liver was “fatty” and enlarged.  My liver enzymes are bad.  And, just in case the fact that my primary care doctor issued me a blood sugar meter and accompanying paraphernalia didn’t make it clear, I am, without a doubt, diabetic (damn, I was hoping that just because she said I was ‘borderline’ I had somehow not quite jumped that line).  Plus, I have high blood pressure and my cholesterol is always just below or at the warning level.  And sleep apnea.

“We call this ‘metabolic syndrome’” the younger doctor, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, informed me.  “Diet.  Exercise.  Otherwise, that fat will start to scar your liver.  Do you know what we call that?” 

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions — increased blood pressure, a high blood sugar level, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels — that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.  If you have metabolic syndrome or any of the components of metabolic syndrome, aggressive lifestyle changes can delay or even prevent the development of serious health problems.
 - Mayo Clinic 

I hate it when doctors act like patients live in a dark cave and never listen to the news or don’t pay attention to a million warnings from their doctors . . . or don’t have fifteen relatives with liver-related diseases.

“Cirrhosis,” I replied, wearily.

“Yes, and its very, very painful, you do NOT want to go there,” the senior doctor warned, wiggling his admirable gray caterpillar-like eyebrows as if he were waving me off the wrong exit on the freeway.

Tell me about it.  At eleven years old, I waited outside a hospital room doorway listening to my brother scream as he underwent a liver biopsy, watched him battle back from the edge of serious illness.  As an adult, I’ve visited two of my sisters – at different times and different hospitals - post-liver transplant. I know the routine.  I know the procedures.  I know the drugs.  This doctor may be an Andy Griffith look-alike, but he knew his stuff and he was letting me have it with both barrels.  I don’t want to mess around with my liver, he assured me.  At least, not any more than I already have.

It’s true, I have dragged my poor liver with me through all kinds of trauma, welfare and commodity foods and massive stress – and that was just my childhood.  Adulthood was another string of years on low budget food, an increasing dependence on sugar (my drug of choice; it’s as bad for me as alcohol or other drugs have been for other family members), and less and less vigorous, steady exercise.  Grad school?  One long surge of adrenalin, a hernia, and more sugar.  Fourteen years as a professor?  Um, think grad school with more money for more sugar.  I used to carry my weight evenly, all over my body, a nice survival suit of back-up energy and insulation.  But in the past fifteen years, the fat has concentrated itself in my abdomen like a child I can’t give birth to.

But I have never been a drinker, never taken a questionable substance of the pharmaceutical nature.  I’ve never even tried to smoke a joint, although being in the same room with folks doing so once made me vomit violently off the front porch. Although I have two tattoos, I got them at highly reputable places with the highest standards.  And sexual partners?  Don’t make me laugh (or tell you just how Victorian I really am).  It’s kind of unfair, really.  All those relatives I know who are or have been such heavy drinkers or drug users – my mother and father included! – and who ends up with a lousy liver???  The woman who has been drunk maybe three times in her life.

Still, I haven’t been good to my liver in terms of food.  And, let’s face it, as a woman with at least half my ancestry coming from California Native tribes, my body has a predisposition to metabolic syndrome, possibly even an inherited liver intolerance for the kinds of high fat and sugars my generation grew up on. (Okay, NOW can I get Federal Recognition?!)

I used my brain to pull myself out of poverty – my brain, and learning to trust my instincts, wherever those are located – but I guess I forgot to include my body in that rescue mission.   

In the process of earning a Ph.D., becoming a published author and full professor, I left my body behind, ignored my body’s needs.  Well, guess what?  These are not two independently situated places.  Brain needs body.  Body needs brain.

No brainer, right?

It’s called denial.  It’s called, too stressed out and obsessive about ‘getting things done’ to get up from the desk and go for a walk.

It’s called winning the battle but losing the war.

So I sat there this morning and took my tongue-lashing like a woman, admitted my negligence, promised to get to work on diet and exercise, gave three vials of blood for more testing, and set up an appointment for a liver biopsy.

Then I called my wife.  To her credit, she did not choose that moment to say “I told you so” (she did that later, after I came home), but commiserated and agreed that I probably needed to go to the bead store and do a little retail therapy before heading back to Lexington.

You might be thinking, oh come on, how hard can this be?  Lose the weight.  Go for some walks.  Get over yourself, whiner.  You have health insurance.  You live in a very walkable area.  You have a supportive partner who can cook healthy food like she’s a professional or something.  Why all this moaning and groaning?

Listen.  If you’ve ever been a smoker, or a hard drinker, or addicted to some substance that wasn’t good for you (whether that be speed or wheat), you know that beneath every addiction is a demon eating up that crack, or that whiskey, or that Snickers bar.  Maybe even more than one demon.  Demons like Loss, Grief, Fear, Abandonment, Loneliness, Inadequacy, Hunger.  Demons like Denial, Anger, Self-Destructiveness, Pain.  Demons so complex they can’t ever have a name.  Demons as much a part of you as your DNA, Demons you can never quite completely wash out of your blood.

Those are the demons who need the fried donut, the big bowl of ice cream, the candy bar between classes, the Coke at the end of the term when you just can’t make it through one more round of student conferences without a ‘lift.’  These are the demons who crawled out of some dark place when you were a baby and your parents drank and fought, slammed doors and each other, right over your head.  These are the demons who constructed themselves out of your mother’s absence or your father’s disappearance or the sudden amputation of siblings from your life.  Once those demons got a hold in your body, they dug into your veins and your organs like parasites in for the long haul.  They thrive on divorce, coming out, homelessness, term papers in grad school, competition for TAships, the job hunt, proposals for panels and papers and books.

They do not let go just because you have good intentions about going clean.  They do not give up when your doctor tells you your blood sugar is too high for too long.  These kinds of demons stay, they grow, fed by stress and worry and fear, they get real comfortable, real fat. Real real. 

As real as real gets, my friends.

These are the demons who, even when you DO go cold turkey on sugar, exercise daily, lose 30 or 40 pounds - as I have done TWICE in the past ten years - simply lie in wait, looking for that new stressor to pop up, or that old one to hold a massive reunion.  And then, they POUNCE.  That's called relapse.  Just like an alcoholic is always an alcoholic, I will always be a sugar junkie who can't let her guard down.  But who does, anyway.

So here I sit in my comfortable living room mulling over the fact that at the age of fifty-two, I have accomplished many things of which I am very proud – at the price of my health.  It’s not a very good feeling.  I’d kind of like a big bowl of peanut butter and chocolate ice cream, in fact.

Oh wait.

Maybe I’ll just sit with the demons and listen to them scream.