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A Review of Deborah Miranda’s Book, Bad Indians

American Indians are rebounding in California and all across the U.S.A., and they’re popularizing words like “indigeneity,” which is defined as originating in a specific place. White folks are also rebounding. Hasting Law School is planning to drop the name “Hastings,” its founder, from the institution because old Serranus initiated the massacre of Indians in Round Valley more than one hundred years ago. (Just in case you’re interested, the AVA was founded by an Indian in 1955. After he sold the paper he became a roving printer.)

If you want to know what some Indians are thinking and how they’re feeling today read Deborah Miranda, who is big on indigeneity. She believes in origins, lineage and genealogy the way some Americans believe in God and country. “If you know where you’re from, you know who you are,” she writes in Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir, (Heyday; $20) the November/December selection in the San Francisco Reads Program at the Public Library. The book has been in print since 2013, but it’s just now finding loyal readers and an appreciative audience. 

Some books take longer than others to catch on. This is one of them. Indians never go away, nor does their history and their on-going efforts for recognition, land and justice, though the protests at Standing Rock in 2016 and 2017 renewed interest in the people that JFK called “the oldest Americans.” 

Miranda’s adage about roots and origins, applies not only to herself and her tribe, but to citizens whose ancestors came to the U.S. as immigrants, slaves and indentured servants. At the back of Bad Indians, Miranda lays out a three-page family tree that begins in 1773, goes all the way through the nineteenth-century, and ends with her own birth in Los Angeles in 1961, as the daughter of Madgel Eleanor Yeoman and Alfred Edward Miranda. 

“Colonizer and Indian,” she writes of her parents. “European and Indigenous; nominal Christian and lapsed Catholic; once-good girl and twice-bad boy. Heaven on earth, and hell, too.” Miranda’s lineage is especially remarkable given the traumatic upheavals and tragic dislocations that have afflicted American Indians ever since the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century and the English beginning in the seventeenth-century. 

An enrolled member of the Ohlone-Costanoan-Esselen, who were the original inhabitants of the greater San Francisco Bay Area—and once on the verge of extinction—Miranda is the Thomas H. Broadus Professor of English at Washington and Lee University where she teaches creative writing and as “many books by Bad Indians as possible,” she explains with a characteristic sense of irony bordering on deep-seated sarcasm. 

At recent events held at the SF library someone from the staff has reminded the audience, "We are on unceded Ohlone land." That’s useful information. 

The title of Miranda’s book comes from an August 3, 1909 news story in the Los Angeles Times which is reproduced in full on page 96. The headline reads, “Bad Indian Goes on Rampage at Santa Ynez.” There are no “bad Indians” in Bad Indians, though there are Indians who do great harm to themselves and to other Indians, including Miranda’s father who served time in San Quentin. “We carry the violence we were given,” the author writes. For more than 200 sobering pages, she describes the violence that has been visited on California Indians from the colonial era to the present day. 

Her book, which is a kind of collage or mosaic made up of stories, photos, letters, newspaper clippings and more, belongs to the second Renaissance of American Indian writing that began in 1984 with the publication of Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine and that’s still going strong. The first Renaissance began with N. Scott Momaday’s novel House Made of Dawn that was published in 1968, a year before the start of the occupation of Alcatraz and that won the Pulitzer Prize. For a long time, Momaday’s book was the only one by an Indian to receive a Pulitzer. It was long overdue. Then, in 2021 two Indian authors, Erdrich and Natalie Diaz, were awarded the prize. 

Miranda isn’t hateful or vindictive about the violence that has been visited on Indians. “I’m not a Political Correction Officer,” she says in the Introduction and lives up to her word. Still, she doesn’t let Europeans, white settlers, soldiers and emissaries of the Catholic Church off the hook, including the early Spanish priests who operated the missions as though they were factories meant to “civilize” the “savages”and eliminate their whole way of life. 

In “Genealogy of Violence, Part I,” the author outlines the history and the institutions of colonialism and the long-term impacts on the indigenous inhabitants, including suicide rates, incarceration, alcoholism, poverty and clinical depression. In “Genealogy of Violence, Part II,” Miranda describes the “chasm” between her father, “Big Al,” and her brother, “Little Al,” who was beaten mercilessly with a belt buckle. “Flogging. Whipping. Belt,” she writes. “Whatever you want to call it, this beating, this punishment, is as much a part of our inheritance, our legacy, our culture as any bowl of acorn mush, any wild salmon.” 

Miranda does not demonize her father, though some readers might think of him as evil incarnate. When she was still a young woman, Big Al confessed to his daughter, “I was in prison for rape.” Years later, her sister Louise told her the full story: “you know what that bastard did? he waited out in the parking lot…He attacked her [a waitress he wanted]…and he beat her…Then he raped her. And just left her.” 

Bad Indians isn’t only about the genealogy of violence. It can often be playful and entertaining, especially in the longish story, “Coyote Takes a Trip,” in which Miranda reinvents the adventures of the legendary trickster and locates him in contemporary U.S.A. 

This book might touch Indians more than any other group of Americans, but it is not just or only for Indians. Indeed, it is for anyone and everyone who likes to listen to and tell stories and who believes in the liberating power of story. “Culture is lost when we neglect to tell our stories,” Miranda writes. “Story is the most powerful force in the world.”Bad Indians invites readers to tell their own stories of oppression and liberation, suffering and resistance.

(Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955, a novel.)

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