WINTER 2013 (Issue 77)

Natanya Ann Pulley

A Review of Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir, by Deborah A. Miranda

Heyday Books 2012
240 pages

For those suspicious of memoir's lofty goal to capture and contain memories, Bad Indians is a relief. Deborah A. Miranda’s mosaic of short essays, poetry, personal explorations, oral histories, tales, newspaper clippings, anthropological recordings, and photos (to name a few!) seeks to gather the stories of a people’s past while respecting the elusive nature of chronicling generations. This is not your ordinary memoir. The goal of documenting and processing in order to hold a memory as a complete and understood thing is not at the forefront of this work, but rather the drive of this collection is the desire (sometimes compulsion) to re-tell and recover truths—gaps and blurred moments notwithstanding.

The beginning of Bad Indians introduces readers to the California 4th Grade Mission Project as an insightful comparison to the book’s project. Miranda’s undertaking is the unmaking of this absurd multi-media project that attempts to connect students to history through the experience of building a California Mission model. While the Mission project attempts to illuminate when and where the Missions were built, Bad Indians follows the author’s family line of Ohlone Costanoan Esselen (one of many tribes referred to as “Mission Indians”) focusing on the who, why and how, which is glibly referred to in the school’s Mission projects. The memoir then begins to remove blocks of the famed California Mission stories by providing letters, descriptions and summaries of the enslaved Native American tribes that built and lived through the missions. Restoration comes in small doses of poetry, meditations and in the captions of the many photos that relay the passing of the photo through hands and properties, but always leaving some questions and times unanswered. One of my favorite moments: Miranda’s revising of her daughter’s San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo coloring book. The coloring book describes “Huge hand carved doors”; the author’s marginalia demands “carved by whom?” (21).

As Miranda moves forward in time from the missionization of her family line, the same themes of not only violence and oppression, but also loss and abandonment carry through to her stories about her own upbringing as well as a tumultuous period with her own children. As I tried to reorient myself after the jolt of the author’s rape described halfway through the book, I wasn’t sure if we had moved into a new type of memoir—one that I was not certain I wanted to follow as it seemed too close or too personal. I had to ask myself what was particularly not personal about the first part of the book. Why was the experience of a family as an enslaved, brutalized and forgotten people not as distressful as the horrors of a 20th century rape? I realized the shift was one of narrative distance and safety. That is, I became fearful when the violence from the first part of the collection caught up with the voice that had walked me through centuries of danger (from “The End of the World: Missionization. 1776-1836” to “Teheyapami Achiska: Home. 1961-present.”) The author begins to reel in the past in order to show how it casts out into the future when she describes the trauma of her assault playing out as her own daughter turns seven (the same age as Miranda was when she was raped). All the rattling questions about tone and point-of-view fall into place when the trauma of the author begins to speak back to the original violence and acts of colonization that “broke the world, broke our hearts, broke the connection between soul and flesh” (123). The abuse upon Miranda and her siblings from strangers and her father is born of the same violence of her people’s story. Those “Bad Indians” that rebelled against missionization and kept their coyote stories had only the prisons, cemeteries and museums to inhabit in the colonized world. That same rebellion was entrusted to future generations, which could too easily turn tumultuous, angsty, abusive and life-threatening in a world hell-bent on building a kid-friendly history of California out of a store-bought Mission model. This is not to say the gory past is an excuse for present day violence or abuse within Native American communities; this collection is not about blame or any broad arguments regarding victimization. Instead, the tribal memoir is the gathering and releasing of stories in all the forms they seek to speak through and in all the ways they strive to form connections. In Miranda’s words, “I’ll return to the elements that created me. But through this mark you will know I was here, and I know you are coming after me. We have stories to exchange about this difficult gift, life, and those stories will never disappear” (122).

As a lover of non-linear and fused or mishmashed mediums, the construction of this memoir continually lured me forward. For example, the portraits, maps, worksheets and historical documents propelled me into a reader turned investigator. But I also could wander through the oral histories as a welcomed stranger. There are stories of unfettered questions with small celebrations of rebellion here and there. The stories of pleasure: “Coyote Takes a Trip” (from Venice Beach) and “Mestiza Nation: A Future History of My Tribe” (“Once there was a girl without a mother”) seem both a new fiction—the kind of new mythology that holds more fact than any newspaper clipping could. When I was not taken with the range of voices and styles, the echoing fallout of violence and undoing and the yearn for recovery engaged me. Solace arrives as best it can: in Miranda's poetry and the crests of beauty in her prose and in reclaimed names and things singing and drumming. Always there is a wound within these pieces despite the vast efforts of colonizers to hide the thing and disconnect the enslaved people of the past with their generations thriving today. Though the tribal memoir will always be one of towering loss and that particular kind of violence that puts a human in the role of meat and motor, it also will be told through the gathering of voices and images, through a ceremony of mediums and moments. It will play out for future generations without agenda and in a variety of raw and delightful forms. These stories like stars, for gazing and orienting one’s self in a vast space. I hope this constellation, this tribal memoir, is a sign of many more like it to come.