Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir by Deborah A, Miranda (Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation)
Book Report: Multicultural Librarianship, Texas Woman’s University
Originally Submitted March 8th 2019
Deborah Miranda, an enrolled member of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation of California, takes the reader through the history of California Mission Indians and her own family using both poetry and prose. Her book could be read and understood by young adults, but because of the nuanced content, it would best be read by those 15 and older for a complete understanding of the material. Some people will be familiar with the 21 Spanish Missions along the California coastline, but not enough know of the un-romanticized history of abuse, slavery and genocide on which those missions and the rancherias of California are built. Miranda takes a deeper dive into old photographs, detailing their true history. Further, she presents field notes, letters, and news articles from times when the missions were thriving both from their intended purpose of conversion and forced labor, and later as tourist destinations. She intertwines these historical sources with her own background, weaving a narrative that demonstrates the connection between Spanish colonialism and modern-day California Natives. The second half of the book is devoted to memoir, covering deeply personal topics while still discussing aspects of history. She makes the transitions from history to modern day seamlessly, and though it surely took great effort, the effect is that, to the reader, it seems effortless.
Early in the book, Miranda recreates a typical 4th grade history assignment in California elementary schools, a report on one of the 21 California Indian Missions. In simple, matter-of-fact language, she examines different facets of typical Mission life. Beginning with the making of Adobe Bricks, “Recipe: Gather your Indians from the mission. Try to catch them between their regular chores of tending the fields, chasing cattle, cooking, weaving, mandatory prayers, and catechism instruction.” The passage on Adobe Bricks ends with, “All in all, adobe is cheap — the ingredients free for the taking — but you will certainly go through a lot of Indians. More lazy creatures on earth we have never seen.” In these two sentences it is made evident to the reader how the California Natives were thought of, and treated by the padres and missionaries. She then goes on to illustrate the discipline endured by these earlier generations because of their “animal-like natures”. The sarcasm is palpable. Her flippant tone and sourced material, used often in the book, always add to the reader’s understanding. She describes the sickening tools used to discipline the Natives; the cat-o’-nine tails, the cudgel, and the corma, “A hobbling device for misbehaving neophytes. Developed first for use on livestock…[that] might run away if left completely unshackled”. If Miranda’s goal is to make the reader feel outraged, it is her sometimes shocking use of easy-going language throughout the book that obtains the desired outcome. She concludes her 4th grade Mission report with a heartbreaking paragraph explaining some of the aftermath of Spanish colonization. The Natives became Christians, they also became slaves. They were baptized and therefore saved from Hell, and for that, “we must be grateful”.
Miranda writes of lost cultural practices and the effects of Spanish colonization from a place of authority. She deepens her authority by including information from historical accounts, like that of Isabel Meadows who acted as an informant for J.P. Harrington, a Smithsonian ethnologist. Miranda expertly emphasizes that it is through the efforts of Isabel and people like her, that access to true California history exists at all. She illuminates the importance of storytelling as a Native tradition of historical preservation and education, and through her writing, she continues it. Honest and to-the-point, Miranda juxtaposes quotes from padres with memories of her father. The padres wrote of how the Natives loved their children, almost like idols and never punished them, until the forced assimilation began. They write with happiness at how the Natives are learning to beat their children into submission, into losing their culture and becoming civilized, Spanish speaking, Christians. Miranda evokes a memory of her father beating her little brother with a belt for crying. The familiar line of, “I’ll give you something to cry about” passing through his lips as he swings the belt in the same motion that would have been used by the padres, the Catholic fathers of the Missions. This motion, that should be unfamiliar, even horrifying, to those who the padres reported as loving their children, “so excessive[ly] that it is a vice, for the majority lack the courage to punish their children’s wrongdoings”. Clearly and succinctly, she details the forced loss of culture made possible by the threat of physical violence, often ending in death. Thankfully, this devastating loss is not complete because older generations forethought to keep traditions alive secretly, only to be brought out again for preservation when it became safe. She writes, “Don’t tell them you still speak Chumash with their mother. That’s a lie your descendants will hate you for but lie anyway, so they’ll be alive to complain.” If the Elders had not hidden their languages and cultural practices and conformed to Christianity, then they likely would have been killed.
Using a portrait of a “Digger Indian” woman, Miranda chronicles the history of the term and in so doing, the history of slavery and genocide in California. There is no misrepresentation of events, nor is there any sensationalized writing, she simply states the shocking truth of matters, which is known, in parts, to many California Natives. Things like scalpings, so often in pop culture attributed as the ghastly work of savage Natives, are given their true source: sanctioned by the United States government as a means to cull the Indian populations in exchange for a bounty. Or if not scalped for bounty by colonizers, California Natives were often sold as slaves well after abolition. “More patient bounty hunters had other uses for women and orphaned children; they sold them as slaves — yes, true slavery existed in California, and persisted until after the end of the Civil War.” Using sourced material, Miranda informs the reader that up to 1862 Indians were legally kept as servants by white people, but even after that, “Indians were still being held, “as slaves were held in the South; those owning them use them as they please, beat them with clubs and shoot them down like dogs.”” Through the use of excerpts from old newspapers from the mid 1800’s, the reader is shown that in California, unless the Natives were being kept as slaves, the only good Indian was a dead one.
Miranda tells the reader of her family’s connection to the Carmel Mission, from her great grandfather onward. Throughout this short genealogy, she describes the after effects of a flawed census which was meant to count the California Indians and their tribes. The Esselen people and 135 other tribes among the erased and considered extinct, though families are still alive today. Miranda’s words bring her family to life on the page. She expresses so much that was lost, gentleness replaced with the firmness and lack of trust necessary to stay alive. “In 1877 it had been 107 years since Junipero Serra founded San Carlos Borromeo del rio Carmelo. From a pre-missionization population estimated as high as one million, California Indians now numbered about twenty thousand.” By sharing stories passed down to her from her grandfather, born in 1903, “just one generation removed from legal slavery.” she tells of the shared history of California Indians and how those violent enterprises still affect them today. The stories from her grandfather open a world of new understanding of California history which is often closed off to those outside of Native Californian communities where stories are passed on with aplomb. From field notes, the point of view of J.P. Harrington, a Smithsonian researcher, is made known. The arrogance of his words, calling the Indians “specimens” stings the heart, causing it to swell with anger. The researcher is good at convincing the Natives to disclose their stories to him, but his words betray the common thought that Indians are creatures. Interesting to study, important to document, but not worthy of the respect one would give another human.
Miranda’s book can be used as an educational tool for those within and outside of California Native communities because of the unique light it shines from multiple perspectives. There is a sharp honesty to her recountings of rape, abuse, and love. Her expertise in storytelling bleeds through every page of her life. Miranda, at no point, is just telling a story, she is imparting the experiences of her past, the past of California Indians she has studied, and the past she sees between the lines of field notes. At first glance, one might think that Miranda’s writings are disjointed, out of sync, but they flow rhythmically like talking around the fireplace on a stormy night. Yes, the stories move suddenly from one to the next, but the transition is not unnatural. Everything comes together. This is a single story of survival witnessed and understood by many.
On a personal note, I am an enrolled member of Big Sandy Rancheria Band of Western Mono Indians of California. I grew up on the remains of a Baptist Mission in the Sierra National Forest. The church is still active and many residents of the rancheria attend services there. Deborah Miranda and I come from different tribes with different languages and cultural practices. We have had different experiences, and yet the familiarity of her writing stuck me in a way that I will not soon forget. Shadows of the visceral reactions she pulled from me remain, even days removed from completing the book. We are different and yet we share so much: redbud baskets, acorn mush, storytelling and loss.
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