Friday, March 15, 2013

Bad Indians, a conversation with Deborah A. Miranda

Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir
Send your pony pic to kids on ponies.

Deborah A. Miranda is one bad Indian. Her memoir refuses categorization in its unique structure, gorgeous poetry, and painful story of resistance, strength, and survival. Part documentary of Mission Indians and part coming of age story, her book reaches back to the beginning of colonization of her ancestors to insist on an identity, both tribal and sexual, both painful and celebratory, of a people who many in California and the world relegated to extinction. Miranda was kind enough to offer generous answers about her extraordinary memoir Bad Indians: A TribalMemoir.

Melinda Ann Palacio:
Tell us about finding the structure for your memoir? When did you decide that you needed to go way back and give an entire history of Mission Indians and when did you decide you would focus on the bad Indian motif.

Deborah Ann Miranda:
The structure came about, I think, because of the massive amounts of materials that turned up in my research:  all the mission baptisms, marriage and death records, letters and diaries for the Franciscan priests, newspaper articles, family stories, genealogy, photographs, historical studies of the missions … so many stories, and every one haunting me.  When I tried to create one cohesive narrative out of all these fragments, I’d get overwhelmed and then frustrated, because I couldn’t keep a single narrative together.  It was too MUCH material for a single narrative.  But when I focused on just one of the stories at a time, let it speak, I could do right by that story.  A mosaic approach allowed me to chip away at a story that would otherwise be way too much for me to wrap my head (and heart) around, and privileged a collective voice without losing the individual voices. It would also allow me to include the historical context necessary for it all to make sense.  As for ‘bad Indians’ – that phrase turns up in the historical records over and over again.  Even my mother found it while reading notes about Indian relatives at boarding schools: “So-and-so is a bad Indian – he runs away all the time.”  My father had told me once, “They say the only good Indian is a dead Indian, but hell, even when we’re dead we’re not good enough.”  And of course, finding the newspaper article from 1909 with the headline “Bad Indian Goes on Rampage at Santa Ynez,” about a man named Juan Miranda, cemented the phrase for me.  I realized that the only reason I’m here today is because so many of my ancestors were ‘bad’!  A bad Indian is an Indian who resists in any way he or she can; a bad Indian survives.  A bad Indian, in other words, is a good Ancestor.  I wanted to honor those Ancestors, and honor what they did to survive so that we can be here today.

What were some of the more difficult parts of writing this memoir? Were you waiting to publish the love/hate affair between your parents for a long while or did you seek their permission before their death or did you just decide to go for it? How has the book affected your relationship with your siblings.

The research was challenging – finding the materials, digging for indigenous voices in what is a predominantly Euro-American archive – but reading those materials, knowing that the Indians being flogged or put into stocks, hunted down, humiliated, starved, abused, killed, were my relatives, my Ancestors – those stories, those individuals, haunted me.  I had a hard time sleeping; I was angry or grief-stricken much of the time.  But I knew that my own sadness was a drop in the bucket compared to what my Ancestors had endured.  I had to write through it.  As for publication – my mother had passed away in 2001.  My father died in 2009.  I told the parts of their stories that affected my life, the way I had experienced it, the connections I saw to historically traumatic events.  I didn't ask permission, because the stories in their lives created my life, became my story.  But I’m not sure I could have let the book be published if they had both still been alive.  The book had its own timing.  It hasn’t really changed my relationship with my siblings – those relationships that were strong to begin with are still strong, those that were not are still not. 

What is the story behind your pony photo? Was it something you've always had or did you find it in your mother's things and has it always been a part of your identity?

“Kid on a Pony” is an iconic photo for kids on the West coast and in the Southwest, too.  Itinerant photographers would go around neighborhoods with these little ponies, some cowboy dress-up clothes, and a camera.  Actually, in some places, they still do.  My older half-sisters have those pictures of themselves and their children!  I even have a page on my blog ( with the “Kid on a Pony” photographs that people have sent me.  My mom always had that photo around.  In fact, there are two of those pictures; in one, I’m raising my hand in a powerful “Peace sign.”  That’s the one I chose for the cover, but it was too faded for Heyday to get a good reprint.  That must have been my mom’s favorite.  It was taken right before we left California for good, I think; I remember living in those apartments, walking across the pedestrian bridge from kindergarten.  There’s something about that photo that captures a particular moment in my life; a cusp of some sort, when I was between worlds. 

Luis Rodriguez, Deborah Miranda, and Melinda Palacio at AWP in Boston
There is beautiful poetry in the book. How did you decide when you could let loose with the lyricism and when to hold back and report the facts? What were some of the challenges in putting this book together and mixing poetry, stories, and assumed Mission histories? 

As I said before, the forms for each piece emerged during the writing of that piece.  Early on each piece assumed an identity as poetry or prose or (in the case of the “Blood Quantum” series, a visual), and usually I left them that way.  Occasionally, however, a piece morphed into another form later in the final revisioning.  “Novena to Bad Indians,” for example, started out as poetry with line breaks, but over time I read it aloud and realized it was more of a prose poem, more along the lines of a true novena.  My biggest challenge was deciding how to divide the book into sections.  That much material needed some kind of structure, and chronological made the most sense; the problem was, in talking about historical trauma, linear time is not a reliable or even useful device.  Sometimes I needed to use a very old story – like the El Potrero materials from 1836 – to talk about a contemporary moment in my own life.  Where would that piece belong, in the post-missionization section, or the contemporary section?!  That took lots of moving and testing to see how the threads best held together, and several devoted readers who looked at multiple versions of the same manuscript (thanks especially to Margo Solod, Nina Solod Brodeur, and Chris Gavaler).  The biggest overall challenge was allowing myself to believe that this kind of mosaic structure would make sense to a publisher! 

What challenges as an author do you have in presenting your book? And do you have any advice for new authors beginning their book tours?

Most audiences do not have much knowledge about California history, the history of Catholic Missionization in North America, or California Indian experiences of triple-colonization, let alone the way all of this compounds historical trauma, which is a very real diagnosis for psychological damage.  So providing that kind of context in a brief, coherent way, without giving a lecture or boring people out of their minds, is tricky.  I’ve learned that a Powerpoint presentation really helps me get some of that context into the conversation early.  And over time, I’ve really pared those particular PPT slides down to the basics.  I started off wanting to tell much more than was really necessary (a problem all authors with extensive research have is believing that everyone else is just as obsessed with the minutiae of discovery as we are).  Advice for new authors starting out on book tours would include A) choose a balance of tones for the pieces you’ll read (sad, funny, contemplative, angry), B) time your readings so you don’t end up having to cut things short, C) do as much creative advertising of your readings as possible for each venue – send email flyers to local college professors, historical societies, writing groups, book clubs, libraries as well as newspapers, specialized media groups (for example, my sister Louise Ramirez hooked me up with Native Voice TV in San Jose for a great interview that aired locally and was subsequently made available online), FB, Twitter, and so on.  And be prepared to put most of your energy into promoting your book, not writing new stuff.  If you don’t have a paid assistant or the undying devotion of an unpaid friend or partner, you’ll be making all the travel, media and mailing arrangements yourself.  It’s a time suck.  Decide how much time and money you can invest, and do it whole-heartedly within those boundaries.

You and your partner found each other after having been married and had children. I was wondering if you could talk a little about the last coyote story in the book. Is it symbolic of how shifting or tricky finding your own sexual identity. Your first marriage seems an attempt at escape and survival in the way you were eager to leave an abusive father. Is the coyote symbolic of your shift in finding a relationship that was more about who you are and was this difficult for you or your family to accept?

Great questions.  I actually met that Coyote guy on the bus to Venice Beach.  Well, I met a guy whom I suspected had a lot of Coyote in him, anyway, and wrote a story about what could have actually been going on… and yes, I wanted that story to do a lot of work.  The narrative happens in a contemporary time, but also has a parallel time back in pre-contact and contact eras when many California indigenous communities had a ‘third gender’ role.  What happened to those people?  How did losing them affect us, our spirituality, the spirituality inherent in our sexual identities?  What role did the Catholic church of the Contact era have in colonizing Native sexual identities?  How has that historical colonization affect my own sexual identity?  What would it mean if we had choices about sexual identity, rather than prescribed roles?  So in a way, yes, “Coyote Takes a Trip” is about the blurred boundaries between male and female genders, and of course reflects some of my own negotiations as a Two Spirit.  Those negotiations have cause some necessary chaos in my life, but then, change is an act of creation.

Thank you, Deborah. Is there anything else you'd like to tell La Bloga? Tour schedule? Future projects?

I’ll be wrapping up my big push for this book by the end of April, so that I can get back to my new project (a collection of essays about Isabel Meadows’s stories titled The Hidden Stories of Isabel Meadows and other California Indian Lacunae, with U of Nebraska Press) and start planning for the 2013-14 academic year’s classes.  The tour dates are on my blog at


Sunday, in between St. Patrick's day parades and the L.A. Marathon is Beyond Baroque's Hitched Poetry Series featuring Melinda Palacio, Yago Cura, Elline Lipkin, and David Slavin.

Date:            Sunday, March 17th
Time:            5pm
Place:            Beyond Baroque,  681 Venice Blvd, Venice, CA

HITCHED is a monthly reading series that couples established poets & writers with newer voices for the purpose of broadening community and celebrating writer relationships. The series is hosted by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo.

Next week: Sunday, March 24 Luivette Resto Presents La Palabra at Avenue 50 Studio, the feature is Melinda Palacio, 2- 4 pm, 131 N. Avenue 50 Studio, Highland Park, CA.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Melinda for bringing us this interview. I never got my "kid on a pony pic" but my little sister did when we lived in Florence,CA. It is one of our family's favorite memories. Your questions and Ms Miranda's answers were so helpful to me as a novice poet and writer who fights the conscious of memoirs. I read a quote by Gore Vidal who said, "a memoir is how one remembers one's life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research dates, facts double-checked." I look forward to reading "Bad Indians" and as always your blogs books.
Sincerely, Diana

One Latina's Pen said...

The interview was interesting that I clicked over to Ms. Miranda's website, which has some incredible writing. After I read her March 2nd post I felt such a resonance with her words that I clicked over to her book.