Book Review by Beverly Slapin
“Story is the most powerful force in the world,” Deborah Miranda writes, “in our world, maybe in all worlds. Story is culture. Story, like culture, is constantly moving. It is a river where no gallon of water is the same gallon it was one second ago. Yet it is still the same river. It exists as a truth. As a whole. Even if the whole is in constant change. In fact, because of that constant change.”
For better or for worse, young Miranda never had to endure the daily humiliations of fourth grade in California, where children are taught the dominant discourse about the California missions. Where non-Indian children (and their parents) construct “mission” dioramas with beneficent padres instructing and supervising willing Indian neophytes as they learn how to work. Where Indian children—especially California Indian children—shrink into their seats, trying to disappear.
The real story—people massacred, children violated, land and languages stolen, cultures broken beyond recognition—is rarely told.
After asking her young son’s teacher to let him pass on the project—and being refused—an Indian parent I know allowed him to construct the required model mission. “So Nick built his mission and brought it home,” she told me. “And we built a fire and we talked about it again, how Indian people were enslaved and died building missions and living in missions. Then we put it in the fire and burned it and I promised Nick that I would always stick up for him and challenge anyone who would keep opening up these scars.”
“All my life,” Miranda writes, “I have heard only one story about California Indians: godless, dirty, stupid, primitive, ugly, passive, drunken, immoral, lazy, weak-willed people who might make good workers if properly trained and motivated. What kind of story is that to grow up with?”
Bad Indians is this story—the story of the missionization of California. In constructing Bad Indians, Miranda creates “a space where voices can speak after long and often violently imposed silence.” For Miranda, the stories seeped “out of old government documents, BIA forms, field notes, the diaries of explorers and priests, the occasional writings or testimony from Indians, family stories, photographs, newspaper articles.” Together, these disparate voices belie the dominant discourse; they are stories of tenacious survival. And they are Miranda’s “mission project.”
But Bad Indians is more than these voices; it’s Miranda’s family’s story as well. In it, I’m reminded of something that Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that has recently been channeled through Kelly Clarkson: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Actually, Nietzsche wrote it with more elegance: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
Miranda’s life’s twists and turns have brought her to this place, to find her ancestors’ stories, to tell her own family’s stories, to connect them—and to heal.
Some childhood memories, some faded photographs, some snippets of stories written down word for word by an anthropologist, some paragraphs from old textbooks. A lesser author might have crafted a novel spanning the generations, a linear novel, maybe a chapter for each character. But Miranda didn’t and wouldn’t do that; it would have dishonored her ancestors. Rather, she looks at what is—the pieces, the shards of a broken mirror—and interprets, imagines, wonders. If she doesn’t know a thing, she says so. Throughout, she is in awe of the voices, drawings, photos, whatever she can find—all treasured gifts, entrusted to her by the elders and ancestors she never got to meet.
“Who we are is where we are from,” Miranda writes. “Where we are from is who we are.”
On a Saturday morning, Miranda and relatives slowly and mindfully circle the grounds of the Mission Soledad, picking up bone fragments: “Here is a finger joint, here a tooth. Here a shattered section of femur, here something unidentifiable except for the lacy pattern that means human being. Our children run to us with handfuls of ancestors they keep calling ‘fossils’ because youth and privilege don’t let the truth sink in yet.” As they gently bury the tiny pieces of bones, “Xu-lin, we say to our broken ancestors: xu-lin, sprinkling sage, mugwort, and tobacco over the small grave. Xu-lin, we whisper as the earth takes back. Xu-lin, a plea and a promise: return.”
Bad Indians is not easy reading. Miranda draws connections between the violence of the California missions, the violence perpetrated on the descendants of the “Mission Indians,” the violence she witnessed at home, and the rapes she endured as a child: “Imprisonment. Whippings. Betrayal. Rape.” And she doesn’t mince words: “Erasure is a bitch, isn’t it?”
At the end of Bad Indians, Miranda quotes Tom King (Cherokee), who wrote in The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative (Toronto, Publishers Group Canada, 2003), “Take it. It’s yours. Do with it what you will. But don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You’ve heard it now.”
If you’re a fourth-grade teacher who has ever taught a “mission” unit, if you’re a parent of a fourth-grader who has ever helped her child construct a “mission diorama,” if you’ve ever admired the architecture of a California mission, if you’ve ever harbored the thought that Ishi was the “last of his tribe,” you no longer have an excuse for perpetuating the horrors. Don’t say you didn’t know.
In Bad Indians, Miranda has created an achingly beautiful mosaic out of the broken shards of her people and herself, gently glued together with heartbreak and scars, memories and perseverance and hope. Her writing is crisp and clear and eminently readable, with passion in place of polemic. She is a strong, brave, compassionate spirit, and I am honored to call her “friend.”
—Review by Beverly Slapin. Find more reviews by Slapin at De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children.