Tuesday, January 22, 2019

"First" Encounters

Dear journalists phoning and emailing for comments: Please consider this my official statement on Nathan Phillips and the Covington Catholic High School male students.

I’m sorry, I teach all day and don’t have time for a live interview.

I can say, however, that after careful viewing of all the videos currently online that show the encounter between Phillips, the Black Israelites, and the mostly-white Catholic high school students there for a "Pro-Life March" (if you need my thoughts on that, please read Ursula K. Le Guin's brilliant essay), this is what I’m thinking: the only adult human in those videos is Nathan Phillips.

A friend once told me, when a situation is chaotic, and language is confusing, look at the basics: actions. Who is doing what? 

Looking at those videos, I see four Black Israelites insulting both what appears to be about 30 Catholic students and the small group of 3-5 Indigenous people/allies. Then I see the Catholic students crowding around an elderly Indian man in street clothes and glasses, who is beating a hand drum and vocalizing song or his own language (both, probably). I see the Catholic students jumping up and down, some doing the Tomahawk-Chop from a pro football team, one boy stripping off his shirt and doing some kind of dance (later I heard these are school spirit chants), others “singing along” without knowing what they were singing, while doing the Tomahawk-chop, clapping to the beat of the drum, asking each other “what is going on?” and making a lot of loud noises that are obnoxious, rather than afraid (shouts, screams, chants). At one point, I see two blond women also dancing and chopping with the students – since this is a boy’s group, and the women are older, it seems likely that they are parent chaperones or teachers. Another video shows a glimpse of a man with a priest’s collar in the back, observing. I see that the young man in the MAGA hat who engages Phillips with his gaze has plenty of room to move back or sideways. I see that Phillips could turn and walk away. I see that he has a handful of supporters – maybe four.

What I don’t see? I don’t see any frightened children. I don’t see any children crying, running away, shielding themselves from threats, or acting fearful for their well-being. Instead, they appear to be crowding closer to Phillips – curious yet clueless. I see the beginning of a mob. What I see is a juvenile version of a Donald Trump rally in which protestors or even allies of a different color are heckled or kicked out of the auditorium.

This is how it always starts. This is why Native Americans are concerned about being told, "You started it."

Here is what I also see: that the children in these videos have absolutely no true representations of Native Americans in their heads to prepare them in any way for this moment. They possess no point of reference for what an Indian person is, other than howling stereotypes from Westerns, Indian sports mascots, bloody video games, and outdated novels or textbooks. They probably have never met an Indigenous person, let along spoken to one, or heard Indigenous music or prayers sung.  Perhaps to these students, “Indian” means mascot, casino, vanishing, savage. Their “responses” strike me as that of very young, confused children -- but minus any respect a child typically gives adults.

Strangely, I am reminded of the ways Europeans responded to Indigenous peoples at first contact – unable to image the Other as a human being with language, religion, feelings, intentions, or dignity.  And so, like early Catholics in the “New World,” the school children impose their own standards on Phillips, and in their wild gesticulations, find the Indian man to be laughable, suitable for mocking. This is certainly the framework with which Spanish Catholic explorers, priests and soldiers responded to meeting my ancestors, the Esselen and Chumash peoples who were missionized in Southern California from 1769-1835. The Spaniards were absolutely certain that their worldview and belief systems were the only way with which to live in the world, and left no room left for negotiation or conversation. What followed was a brutal attempt to literally beat “bad” Indians into good Catholic laborers and servants, and a drop in Indigenous population in what we currently call California – from over one million people at first contact in 1769 to less than 20,000 people by 1900.

In short, I see a group of children who have been failed by their educators, their parents, and their role models. Because unlike the original “First Encounters” in North America, these children – in 2019 – don’t have the (questionable) excuse of ignorance. Evidently, their parents and teachers were never educated in the history of Indigenous peoples, on whose land they stood, either. Evidently, they too never learned the etiquette of engaging with someone whose looks, language, religion, or worldview are different than theirs – let alone consider that these differences may actually be just as valuable as their own. I say “evidently,” because the evidence in these videos – all of them – should cause the parents and educators of these children to wince in shame. Instead, I see the young man who locked gazes with Phillips release a statement saying, “perhaps a group of adults was trying to provoke a group of teenagers into a larger conflict." 

That student is a young male, white, a member of the dominant culture in this country (and a culture that has long been dominant, a culture which has historically enslaved some, appropriated the land of others, and required laws passed in order to extend human rights) and goes to a private school with a steep tuition. Phillips is male, Indian in a country where the dominant culture has historically mistreated Indians – please look up Indian Boarding Schools – elderly, and physically frail.

If that student felt threatened, we all need to ask ourselves why that delusion seems to be stuck in his head – and in the heads of the so-called adults raising him. Because it is a delusion. It is inexcusably ignorant. And I will give the young man’s school and parents that much credit – he is far too smart not to know that.


Deborah A. Miranda


Wednesday, January 2, 2019

"Writing Down Your Demons" Poetry Workshop

Writing Down the Demons with Deborah Miranda

Date(s): Thursday, February 21, 2019, 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Piper Writers House, 450 E Tyler Mall, Tempe, AZ 85281 (view map)
Advanced Workshop, Generative Workshop, Workshop
Genre and Form(s): Poetry
Tags: Revision, Beauty, Grief, Climate Change, Politics, Healing
$149 Regular*, $119 Student

About the Class

How do we summon creative power in the face of our personal and/or global demons? How can we speak of beauty when our world seems full of loss, grief, climate change, and political turmoil?  Thich Nhat Hanh says that the work of meditation is to transform “compost into flowers”; that is also the work of poetry.  This generative workshop will help you to re-see your demons as a form of poetic compost. Writing poetry is a way for us to name, explore and re-shape our demons and use them to grow something beautiful, powerful, and healing. Through in-class writing exercises, reading and discussing sample poems, as well as the plain old blood, sweat and tears of revision, this workshop is structured to inspire as well as provide you with new tools to continue the work on your own afterwards.  Please bring your favorite writing materials.
*While this workshop is open to the public, Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference attendees receive $25 off advanced workshops. To receive the discount, register for the conference.
Other workshops I'll be teaching at this conference:

Writers Relationship to Reading
Tara Ison, Deborah Miranda, Patricia Colleen Murphy

Friday, February 22, 2019, 9:00 a.m. - 10:00 a.m.
Location: Carson Ballroom, Old Main
Type: Panel
More information about this session is coming soon.

Creating a Mixed-Genre Family Memoir
Deborah Miranda

Saturday, February 23, 2019, 10:15 a.m. - 11:15 a.m.
Location: Heritage, University Club
Type: Presentation
Genre: Creative Nonfiction, Experimental, Fiction, Hybrid, Memoir, Mixed Genre, Multi-genre, Poetry, Research, Short Stories
This session will demonstrate ways to create richly layered memoir via multiple genres and visual storytelling. Our lives and those of our ancestors leave traces in the human archive that include much more than photographs. Documents like immigration records, religious institutions, letters, newspaper clippings, government forms, song lyrics, even fingerprints, prison records, school assignments, local histories or ethnographic notes—can all be “mined” for creative inspiration, expanding and enriching the narrative of your family.

Meet Your Instructor: Deborah Miranda

Desert Nights Rising Stars Writers Conference Faculty 2019 Deborah Miranda
Deborah A. Miranda is an enrolled member of the Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen.  Her mixed-genre book Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir, received the PEN-Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Award, a Gold Medal from the Independent Publishers Association, and was short-listed for the William Saroyan Literary Award.  Her most recent poetry collection is Raised by Humans; previous collections include The Zen of La Llorona and Indian Cartography. Altar for Broken Things, a new poetry collection, will be published in 2019 from BkMk Press. Miranda is Professor of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia where she teaches literature and creative writing.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

"Satan's Last Stronghold"

THIS article by Julia Corderoy gives us the real story: not the 'murder' of a 'missionary,' but the anger and self-defensive actions by a traumatized indigenous people he refused to respect. I'm talking about John Chau, a 27-year old United Statesian who basically committed suicide-by-Indigenous people just before Thanksgiving. 

As the article states, Chau was killed "by the islanders [on North Sentinel Island, in the Bay of Bengal], after he illegally paid fishermen to take him there in a bizarre plan to convert them to Christianity."

The Sentinelese (not their own name for themselves) live on this island protected by the country of India; no contact by outsiders is allowed, with boat and air patrols enforcing a 5-mile distance from land. This sovereignty has been enforced in large part after early contact in the late 1890s resulted in the kidnapping of islanders by a curious British naval officer named Maurice Vidal Portman. 

As Corderoy writes, Portman "took the islanders to a British-run prison on a larger island where he watched the adults grow sick and die." At that point, Portman returned the children to the island - creating who knows what kind of contamination from western illnesses, as well as a handful of traumatized children with a story that must have been of an incomprehensible terror. 

Corderoy suggests that this incident set the scene for the islander's deep suspicion of outsiders, and it's not hard for me to imagine that initial encounter becoming part of an oral tradition chronicling absolute terror. Eventually, India passed a law protecting the tribespeople, allowing them to continue their way of life as they desired.

Chau knew he was breaking that law, but felt he was obeying a higher law -- something missionaries have long claimed to excuse their legal and ethical law-breaking. 

Another sad part of the story is that this man was mixed-race (in another article, a diary excerpt by Chau claimed he was "an American citizen, part Irish, part Native American and part African and part Chinese and South East Asian").  In other words, Chau came from a family with histories that include earlier colonization by Christian missionaries - the Irish, Native American and African strands, certainly; by adulthood, he was thoroughly indoctrinated in evangelical proselytizing from a childhood and adolescence steeped in an ideology that dictates the inferiority of indigenous spiritual beliefs. He graduated from Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a well-known conservative private institution whose vision statement reads in part, "founded in the fires of evangelism and upon the unchanging precepts of the Bible." 

I feel deep pity for a boy whose spiritual leaders not only led him astray and to his death, but who did not, in the least, prepare him for the realities of the world, or human beings from other cultures. Chau wrote in his journal that he attempted to speak to the tribespeople using a few words of Xhosa (an African language) that he'd picked up. The tribespeople laughed at him, he reported with dismay.

What kind of magical thinking made Chau believe that ANY indigenous language would magically work on ANY indigenous people? For that matter, why did he feel compelled to bring safety pins and scissors as "gifts," or think that yelling "My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you!" was somehow going to be magically translated into a language the islanders could understand?

What kind of magical thinking turns the invasion of someone else's land and world as "love"? 

Magical thinking called evangelical Christianity. And by that, I mean every missionizing form of Christianity; I'm hard-core here. As the descendant of peoples who were genocided by Catholicism as well as greed, I don't cut missionization a lot of slack. It sure didn't cut us any.

Now, those same organizations are calling Chau a Christian martyr. Maybe he is - but not the way they mean it. 

To me, John Chau is an example of what the trauma of colonization and missionization can do to people, and how that trauma can create spiritual and psychological damage so devastating that, sometimes, we then turn around and do the same to others. 

... which is not to say that I am not enraged by Chau's actions. I'm just enraged for multiply layered reasons. Some of his diary entries reveal such a simplified, narrow worldview that he actually sounds like a brainwashed cult member meeting up with the real world for the first time ever, with no authority figure to filter it for him or protect him from the truth. 

“What makes them become this defensive and hostile?” 
“I felt some fear but mainly was disappointed. They didn’t accept me right away.”  
"Why did a little kid have to shoot me today?"  
"Lord, is this island Satan's last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?" 

These comments reveal the shock of someone dealing, for the first time, with autonomous, sovereign, uncolonized human beings. These are the thoughts of an immature, narcissistic person. We often call that privilege. In this case, since it cost him his life, maybe not so much.

...on the other hand, privilege means being able to live without having to acknowledge other people's equal humanity. I'm not sure Chau figured out that these are people with a rich, complete, traumatized, fiercely beloved culture of their own, even at the very end, when they killed him for his ignorance and worse, his lack of respect for their world, their bodies, and their spirits. 

I'm thinking of the Spanish Franciscan missionaries killed in California during the missionization era. Theirs, too, was a mindset I can only describe as brainwashed. Intelligent men, determined to the point of obsession, who drank the Kool Aid. 

That was a choice. That was their choice.  

But the decision to force others to drink that Kool Aid against their wishes?

For some reason, we call that missionization. Proselytizing. Spreading the Good News. Christians have done it by bribery, coercion, force, violence, deception, on the pretence of 'helping' a culture laid low by colonial violence, and/or psychological and physical torture. And yet, missionaries are still surprised when their intended-neophytes strike back. 

A tragedy in all directions.

Whose Good Night?

(after viewing the painting, “Jesuit Martyr-Saints of North America”)

The Jesuits do not want to go gentle into their good night
even though it’s the fastest way to martyrdom and halos;
they hold up crucifixes to show they’re in the right.

Those wise men stand firm, let the tomahawk take a bite, 
say their prayers at the stake as flames nibble their toes 
but they’d rather not go gentle into God’s goodnight.

Pierced with Indian arrows still full feathered in flight,
struck dumb by wooden warclub’s brutish blows
they hold up crucifixes to show they’re still in the right 

See, already they ascend into heaven, a glorious sight 
treading soft fluffy clouds with their heads all aglow; 
already it’s worth it, going so gently into good night. 

Brave men far from home, faith your only might  
Let go, let God, above all let baptismal waters flow! 
Hold up your crucifixes of gold to show you’re in the right 

Attend your Father, your angels, look down from new height
Forgive us, we’re savages made simply, from clay.
We refused to go into colonization’s good night.  
We gave up our bodies, we’re martyrs too, right?

-- Deborah A. Miranda, Raised by Humans

Below: detail from "The Jesuit Martyr-Saints of North America" (see the entire painting above)

--> -->

Saturday, October 27, 2018


It's been Pride week on our campus all week - lots of activities, and small rainbow flags planted along the walkways in various places. On Thursday I noticed that a bunch of them had been torn up and thrown onto the ground, some of them into bushes, and the "poles" (plastic straws) ground into the bricks and splintered. Angry, I wrote a short blog about it, and online, challenged faculty and students to repair the damage. The good news? A few people did.

It's also been the week of pipe bombs mailed to high-profile Democrats. Every day. Wave after wave. 

And a Black man, a Black woman, shot outside a grocery store while a white man is given a pass.

Friday, the KKK came onto our campus and dropped a bunch of their fun flyers, this time including graphics of exactly who is human and who isn't, along with a recruitment offer and contact info for anyone interested.

Today, Pittsburgh. Shabbat services, a baby boy's bris (circumcision), and 11 dead by a hate-filled man with way too much firepower. 

All week I've been coming home wiped out from some bug I've had, and sleeping a lot. 

Today I alternated doing laundry, errands, cleaning out closets. I felt like I had to keep moving. Finally I lay down with Margo and we napped. I'd been awake till 3 a.m. the night before, wondering (among other things) how long it would be before we get targeted, personally. 

Tomorrow evening there will be a gathering at W&L in support of, well, everyone.  I'll go.  I'll go for the students who are hurting, and because I know it will do me good to be with other people. But at the same time, the University always does this - a vigil, a gathering, and then - continues the same bizarre traditions that encourage all kinds of bias and violence.

I've never felt safe holding Margo's hand in town, but since we returned from Provincetown this summer, where we reveled in that luxury, we've tried to keep it up whenever we walk together. As lesbians, as a Jew and an Indigenous woman, I've always felt like we have targets on our backs. I'm thinking about whether or not we'll continue trying that, and find myself shaking my head. 

Here's the really creepy thing I haven't told anyone.  I think I saw those guys, the KKK guys, on campus on Friday. I was walking back from my morning class to Payne Hall, and I saw two men holding plastic baggies with paper inside, walking around Payne. They saw me, and just kept looking up at the roofline and eaves, as if they were studying architecture.  I thought maybe they were contractors, there to do some work. Maybe they were. Maybe they had just found the flyers and were trying to figure out where they came from. The flyers (inside ziploc bags with birdseed, to keep them from blowing away), were distributed during the day, during classes.  I didn't hear about it until I'd been home a few hours. 

Nothing comes without a fight. I know that. Jews, Indians, lgbtq, immigrants.  We don't get to quit just because it's hard. We can't not be who we are -- although the stress has driven many to pass as Christian, white, straight. That path comes with its own burdens. I know.

My Literature of Poverty course spent this week reading Stephen Graham Jones' book Mongrels.  Jones is Blackfeet, and his genre is horror.  Mongrels is an allegorical story about contemporary werewolves, who are Indians, of course.  My students are fascinated. They love peeling away the layers of allegory, explaining "this means this, this stands for that."  Some of it, you'd have to be Indian to understand; some is clear. My Black and Asian students smile when I explain the scene in which the school janitor looks up, gives the narrator and his aunt "the nod." 

Then my students get to the one unmovable fact that they think cannot be unpacked: the fact that the werewolves can pass as human most of the time, but have the ability - sometimes the need - to transform into something inhuman, something hungry, something untamable. Something with super powers of strength, speed, and the power to slash. The students don't know what to do with that information. They are on the werewolves' side, you see. They are Team Werewolf. But they can't abide or come to terms with this core part of werewolf identity.

Most of the time, SGJ's contemporary werewolves only kill humans in self-defence, or because they are starving. Flat-out hunting humans for meat is one of those things they can't do like they did in the old days, the grandpa says. So they hold minimum wage jobs, work under the table, steal social security numbers, live in trailers or their cars, hunt deer and small animals, buy a lot of cheap meat. They move around a lot, because invariably, something goes wrong and they have to flee.  Sometimes there are clashes with law enforcement that don't end well for the officer. Sometimes, a werewolf ends up roadkill on a freeway, or just another naked drifter's remains found in a ditch. 

The narrator, a young werewolf boy who has not yet had his first "transformation," says wouldn't it be easier if people just hung a live chicken from their mailbox once a week, so the werewolves could simply scoop them up and be off, rather than having to hunt down domesticated animals, or people?  Help us out, he thinks, and then we could be who we are without resorting to stealing and violence in the name of self-defense.

"It's like the world wants us to be monsters," he thinks at one point, "like it won't let us live the way normal citizens do."

It's that core identity that can't be changed.  We cannot not be who we are: Werewolves. Indians. Queers.  Jews.  And to be clear, who we are is not a curse.  The curse is those who hunt us, fear us, see us as zombies, monsters, the manifestation of whatever is actually threatening their lives.

We must keep repeating that to ourselves. I am not the curse. I have been trying to believe that for a long time. The pressure of self-loathing becomes real when that is what surrounds us day after day.

What do you do when the thing about yourself that you cannot change is the very thing that the world around you hates?

Go mad, I think.  For many people, madness; or else a permanent state of rage (and that rage is different from righteous anger, the kind "loaded with information and energy" which Audre Lorde highlights as one of our strengths). Or self-hatred.

We always have a choice to choose love, too.

Even a queer Jew-Indian Werewolf.

I send my love to all who hurt tonight, all who mourn, all who feel unsafe, frightened, pushed into that corner. Who you are is not wrong.  Who you are is not a mistake. We are not monsters. 

The monsters in the world are fear, greed, hate.  Sometimes these forces possess the bodies of human beings. What are we to do?

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hateonly love can do that." - Martin Luther King, Jr.

I'm going to keep giving love a try.

Friday, October 26, 2018


Yesterday I sat on a bench and counted the number of mini rainbow flags torn out of the ground and tossed onto red bricks, ground under foot traffic of students, ignored by passersby. 

I wondered how many of those busy folks might be lesbian, or gay, how many might one day seek their true bodies, how many averted their eyes so as not to be identified.  

Wondered how many of them call themselves compassionate, kind; how many came from homes with a plaque reading, "Do unto others..."

I wondered how many of them might have already kicked a flag over. 

I sat on a bench in late October sun while administrators and faculty walked past, eyes and minds on other important things. 

Light from the sun, I know, boosts serotonin in the brain, feeds the body vitamin D, strengthens bones, heals the skin of eczema, cures jaundice. But all I felt was anger, unfolding like a fall crocus, like a field of fall crocuses whose bulbs were planted years ago and multiply each season, crowded and lovely in their yellow fire. 

I wrote my anger down, sent it out into the world, where many responded with angry faces, but only a few from my own university.

And then, I tucked my anger away into the appropriate corner of my soul, walked home to my wife.

Last night, I dreamt this: not having received an invitation to a party, I planned to sneak in, wearing a disguise. Searching through dozens of drawers and cupboards filled with foundation, scarlet lipsticks, false eye lashes and the paraphernalia of beauty, I imagined how fine and anonymous I would look, but I couldn’t find it and I couldn’t find it and I couldn’t find it: that fat silver tube of privilege, a little dented from use, but still filled with the slick power to transform. 

It was a long dream, but I never put my hand on it, that tube with the designer label in a font called American Typewriter:  “Whiteface.”

Something there is that doesn't love a disguise.