Saturday, October 22, 2011


Terry Tempest Williams asks, I came to finding my voice through the pain and suffering of those I love most - how do I deal with that?  What do I do with that knowledge?

This is precisely the dilemma I faced from the very beginning, when writing about the California Missions became the focus of my work, both scholarly and poetic.

My “successes” in life (tenured teaching position, house, car, children’s college, health care, publications, the attention and respect of publishers, universities, other scholars and poets) have come about mostly through the fact that I write about and research California Indian history and experiences.  And most of those histories and experiences are not pleasant “legends” or warm, fuzzy memories.  Most of them are about death by horrible disease or murder, the fragmentation of family relationships, self-destructive responses to trauma, the abandonment of children, exile and/or homelessness, displacement, loss of language and culture – and more, all at the hands of another people whose blood also runs in my veins. 

Is it any wonder that I am reluctant to claim any of my successes as such?  That I am so careful to always look over my shoulder at what might be coming up behind me?  That I dream about sleeping on a bed of bones carved with the words of another language?  That I feel guilty for profiting from telling the stories of my ancestors in the missions?  That I shrink from compliments about my writing?  That this writing comes so hard, takes so much out of me?

So when I heard Terry Tempest William speak at Lee Chapel, on the Washington and Lee University campus, her questions about “voice” resonated down to my bones.  She spoke about her new book, one that she had thought would be about voice, finding voice, and said those words:  I came to finding my voice through the pain and suffering of those I love most - how do I deal with that?  What do I do with that knowledge?

I went to bed that night thinking, it’s a responsibility.  It’s a debt, this gift, and I must repay it by carrying the responsibility of giving voice to those who could not speak.  Isn’t that the answer?  Isn’t that the way to assuage my guilt at earning my living from the tortured cries of my beloved ancestors and relatives?  To accept it as a charge, not a gift?

But I wasn’t satisfied.  It felt, not wrong, but incomplete.  Too easy.  And not enough.  I know that often in those liminal moments between wakefulness and sleeping, revelation slips in, so I asked (myself, the Universe, the Ancestors):  but what more is it?  and perhaps because Terry’s achingly honest vulnerability had created a receptivity and openness that hadn’t been there before, the response came back almost as if it had been waiting for me to ask:

It’s not that you’ve found your voice through the pain of others.  It’s that their voices found you.

I opened my hand and put that thought inside it, closed my fist around the warmth of the truth, and slept.

When I woke up, I remembered a dream I’d had twenty years before.  Early on in my adult writing life, when I was about thirty, soon after the poem “I Am Not a Witness” came to me, I dreamt that I was part of a group of Indian people being used in an experiment.  We were locked up in a dark, crowded space together.  Huge wooden doors slammed shut, and we beat our fists against them, splintering the wood into our flesh, but unable to escape.  No windows, no light, just wives, sisters, brothers, husbands, uncles, babies, toddlers, small children, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, in-laws – trapped – while the scientists watched from one-way windows in their white lab coats.  In the dream, I knew we were inside a mission; the experiment was to see how much of what our ancestors had experienced was stored in the cells of our bodies.  In the dream, I opened my mouth.  A scream came out.  A horrible, broken scream came out of my throat.  But it wasn’t mine.  It wasn’t my scream.  It was someone else’s scream, the scream of an ancestor, coming from my own throat.

When I awoke in the dark, damp with sweat and panic, I had not uttered a sound.  But my throat hurt, scraped raw.  My voice, when I tried to speak, was hoarse and dry; my vocal cords scratched and strained.

Not my voice.  Her voice. 

The voice of an ancestor, joining mine.  Singing with mine – making a song, collaborating in a song for multiple voices. 

I don’t mean this in some new-age, “channeling,” Seth-like explanation.  I’m not sure how I mean it.  But if time is, indeed, spiral and happening all around us all the time, then there must be places where people separated by chronology touch as the spiral curves inward.  I know that my sister Louise is one of those people, one who dreams, who listens, and acts for the Ancestors.  We are conduits, but not mindless, robotic tubes through which something is delivered.  That would be possession.  That would be someone else controlling me, dictating to me.  And that is not what I feel happening as I write. 

What I feel as I write is this:  a door opens inside me, a door like one of those between hotel rooms, with locks on each side.  I must unlock my side.  Someone – the Ancestor wishing to speak – must unlock her side.  We must both stand, willingly, in that threshold.

If I am afraid or unwilling or unable to unlock my side, then she will attempt to come as a dream.  Of this I am certain.  Once, during a time of denial about writing, I dreamt of a bear attempting to knock down the door to get into my bedroom!  She was a beautiful bear, and I loved her rough brown fur and long claws and dark eyes even as I barricaded the door against her. 

The stories I tell with this voice that is both mine and the voices of others are, in fact, a lot like bears.  Beautiful and admirable, glossy and strong.  Wild and unpredictable and full of fierceness, scarred, in pain. 

Maybe that’s why I’ve always been a turtle.  I have to be able to withdraw into a protective shell at times, rest, then stick my head back out for the next round.  A turtle is a good form to have; a hard shell into which one may retreat is a necessary tool in this work. 

Am I constructing a story that lets me off the hook of survivor’s guilt?  Perhaps.  But what I like about the “revelation” I had the night after Terry Tempest Williams’ talk is not that it somehow removes the responsibility of bearing witness for my Ancestors, because it does not - I owe my very existence to their tenacity, their willingness to be Bad Indians rather than Dead Indians.  What I like is how I see that the Ancestors are undefeated after all:  not dead and silent in the ground, under pavement, in museums.  No.  The Ancestors are alive and kicking – kicking that door down, insisting on telling their stories, still making songs, still bearing witness themselves.  They are not victims, needing my help.  If anything, I am the needy one!  I am in dire need of their wisdom, their direction, their Coyotismo, their survivance. 

What I like is that they share their stories, still tell me how to live, allow me to write it down; what I like is that they are still teaching us how to survive.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Following Isabel

Following Isabel

Re-reading parts of Almanac of the Dead, finding that it helps me write (by which I mean, get a grip on, wrap my mind around) these essays about my Carmel Mission ancestor, Isabel Meadows, and her survival of the missions ... and her narration of stories about those who survived with her, and those who did not.  Silko’s descriptions of wars that never end is so apt, and the nearly infinite ways of splintering souls that she describes, are so like what Isabel describes in her mixed Spanish-English heartbroken vocabulary.  How Silko found the words to write like this, and how Isabel found the words to speak like this, and how these words find their way into the world to change it, are just rocking me back on my heels this morning.  When someone is broken down to the very bottom of what can survive, how is it that such power can arise out of those shards?  It has to be a power that comes from beyond one individual; it has to be the power of brokenness itself, the transformation that brokenness incites, absolute loss and betrayal.  How can I write about this?  Have the words to write about it even been invented yet?

One of the ways Isabel managed this was simply by telling the bare bones truth about the lives of Carmel mission Indian survivors.  Just that: telling what happened between husbands and wives, between mothers and children, between lovers, between sisters, brothers.  Between priest and confessor; between Indian woman and white rapist; between kidnapped Indian children and slavemasters.  The truth:  the infidelity, the physical blows, the moments spent gathering chia seeds or picking wild strawberries together; the drunken fights between brothers, the pain of having an only son hung by the whites, the exhibition of an ancient old woman to a group of thrill-seeking white picnickers for the few pennies it brought.  She just tells the truth, but it is a truth long hidden by mythology, lies, stereotypes, guilt, horror, fear, history-by-the-victors.  It is a truth which, beneath the piles of gilded bullshit called California history, doesn’t break down but grows sharper, more pungent, potent with repressed clarity.  Distilled truth, perhaps: cooked beneath the lies, growing harder, sharper, unrepentant and medicinal as rattlesnake venom. 

Isabel also managed to tell these stories by listening and observing the chaos she saw going on around her, rather than denying that it happened, rather than self-medicating to block out the pain.  It’s startling how little she writes about herself, despite living to be 85 years old; instead, she focuses on the Indian community where she lived all her life.  She takes in the stories of others, those who are not able to give them to Harrington, and she preserves them.  She is receptive as an open basket, calling those stories into herself.  At times, she appears judgmental towards her peers, condemning their drinking, multiple sexual partners, illegitimate children, cruelties toward each other, petty feuds.  That is the colonized soul in Isabel speaking, then; and even at that moment, she is testifying against colonization’s rapacious setting of Indian against Indian.  For in the very next breath, Isabel makes a direct connection between the loss of community and land, and that destructive behavior she records.  She says,

Some died of sadness and others went away from there, dispersed and scattered everywhere. Some ended up living away in Sacramento or in Santa Barbara. Throughout all those places there were Carmeleños hiding that they knew the language. And many died with smallpox also, and with measles—they didn’t know how to protect themselves. And years were ended with drunkenness. Before, in Monterey, it seems like every other house had a bar and these poor people drank until they died. Some drank from sorrow because they had been cast out.
The history of the Carmelo and of Monterey tells of many accidents and fights and stabbings and clubbings and everything that happened to the Indians when they were drinking. And many deaths resulted from the drinking of whiskey and wine. In this manner, the Indian people were finished off faster—with the drinking and with so much sorrow that they had been cast away from their land. 

I find that statement she makes about the loss of El Potrero to be a phenomenally astute analysis of post-colonial trauma; a moment in which she completely transcends her Catholic training, her European anti-Indian sentiment, and her own self-hatred.  A moment in which she loves her people, and mourns for them, mourns with them, mourns for a specific loss of a specific piece of land that happened nearly 100 years in the past, but which she ‘remembers’ as if it were yesterday.  Isabel had to have heard this story from her mother, and her mother’s generation.  Yet when she tells that story, she tells it as if she saw those El Potrero Indians – the infamous Estefana Real, her children, her sisters, their children – forced off of their land, camping on the banks of the Carmel River, and weeping with rage.  They had to leave, and they were gathered together camping at the river – and from there the Indian people dispersed,” she says, and in my heart, I hear an echo:  “By the waters of Babylon, where we sat down; yea, we wept…when we remembered Zion.”  

Isabel listened to that story about the theft of El Potrero, one of the last Indian-controlled pieces of land left; she listened to the immense, unspeakable grief underneath the words of the story, and she made the leap from that moment to the drinking, fighting, self-destructive behaviors that followed, and said:  we lost hope.  The descent into clinical depression, the self-medicating, the self-hatred at losing – she didn’t have the modern psychological vocabulary for that, but she did her best, and her analysis of the situation is deeply moving, insightful, beautiful, and above all, loving.  

Sometimes you write about pain in order to express love for those involved.  And oh, how Isabel loved those bad Indians.  That is the third way I see Isabel managing to speak the unspeakable: through sheer love.  A tenderness for those drunken Indians, those knife-fighting, coal-throwing, back-stabbing, starving, prostituted, wife-abusing, poor, Spanish-speaking, Indian-speaking, fragile souls who had been removed and erased to the point of ultimate despair.  Yes, she bad-mouthed their violence, their pursuit of alcohol, their cruelty toward women and children.  She didn’t like their behavior.  But she never lost sight of what had made them that way.  She never lost sight of who they could have been, if not for Missionization; she never forgot that they were good people driven insane by insane punishment.  If Isabel teaches me anything, she teaches me that: you can love even in the midst of witnessing your loved one’s self-destruction.  You can love, and despair, at the same time.

For me, this is of course about my father, about loving the broken jagged pieces of him despite the gashes inflicted by his touch; but it is not just about my father.  It’s about the contemporary Esselen Nation and our incessant in-fighting, the power-plays, the mistrust, the betrayals, the grief over lost sisters and lost relationships, cracks driven into us by the wedge of the BIA, the U.S. Government, the demand for blood quantum and paper trails for a people whose blood was spilled all over the state, and for whom even the joke of a signed treaty was so dangerous, they had to be hidden away from the eyes of the world for decades.  I see us as a forest cut down, stumps splintered and riddled with iron wedges driving through to separate us at the root.  Recovery seems impossible.   

I see my sister trying to hold the tribe together by sheer will power.  One woman, no matter how amazing, cannot do that.  Is she holding on to a memory, a dream?  I’m afraid to even think that way; her hold is so tenuous.  I want to believe we will make a comeback, we will remember how to love one another, learn how to love our broken selves as the makings of a mosaic.  I want a tribe to come home to, a center to the universe, a place and a people that will hold me, comfort me, welcome what I can give.  

I want what Isabel wanted.  It must have seemed impossible to her, too; but she never stopped hoping.  She wanted the U.S. Government to give the Carmel Indians some land, a place to call ours, a place to be a people again.  She was looking for an acknowledgment of our presence; for us to be given permission to exist.

Some say we can’t wait, and it can’t be given.  We must act now, and we must take what is ours, claim it.  Sovereignty.  But you can only claim it if you speak with a single voice, a single mind, a single dream.  And we cannot.  We are made of me and I and mine and want, multiplied by hundreds of years of violence.  

Yet Isabel never stopped hoping.  It was not simply because she was a strong woman.  It was because she loved.  It was because she knew the truth.  Her part in healing our brokenness was to listen, to remember, and to tell.

I don’t feel that I have done any differently; I don’t feel that I have done any more.  But it is all I can think of to do: to admit the power of story.  To follow her example.  To love our brokenness, and hope for transformation from splinters and shards into whole, vibrant, brilliant mosaics.

Can we do this?  How do we do this?  

We is the operative word.  This healing is not something that can be done alone; the healing of a community takes that whole community.  And how to lead a community toward wholeness is, I believe, something that can be accomplished through story.  We have so many great storytellers.  I’m trying to learn from them, trying to enact that transformation.  Isabel is our teacher.  In this project about her stories, I am trying to bring her teachings back to our tribe in a way they will be able to hear. 

Isabel, do you see me?  I'm so far behind you.  But listening.  Listening.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Winners of the "Codename: Geronimo" poetry contest!

When Turtles Fly is proud to announce the winners of the first ever "Codename: Geronimo" poetry contest.  Please see the previous blog entry for the contest's inspiration.

I've chosen 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and honorable mention.

Each of these poems approaches the topic from different angles, yet each also participates in one of Native American literature's signature acts: that of rewriting, or correcting, the historical record.  Whether it is Anita Endrezze's conflation of colonization and Middle Eastern war, soldiers with "boots heavy as centuries," or Kim Shuck's ageless "debate over the bones," or Kimberlee Lee's warning to hate-mongers of any era, "We see you in your darkness/it's where you always go," or Tiffany Midge's haunting question, "How many times should they kill Geronimo?" these writers understand and point out the terrible genealogy of racism and oppression.  And, these writers know that to correct and reconstruct history from a Native perspective is to directly engage with lies - those fierce guardians of "history"- that are deeply embedded in the mythology of the United States.  Each of those poets goes singing into that conflict, understanding the necessity of their intervention.

I'm honored to have their words grace this blog, and my life!  Thank you, poets!

And here they are.


A Rogue Wind Over Fort Sill
Spring Song for Goyathlay 2011

Windows are such lonely things the
Dry of Turkey Creek the humidity of
Osrash the debate over the bones these
Threads these words that stretch that
Call a handful of dirt this invocation that might be a
Cure for unhealing wounds for the lack of a
Scapula an ulna or an ingredient in an amulet for
Hiding in hills unfound the
Invisible blamed or blameless the
Lost in the crevices those
Folded, sequestered words kept
In a box at someone’s throat or carved into a
Gemstone a word learned
Silently this cure this
Contact poison this
New connection

by Kim Shuck



“We are all the children of one God. The sun, the darkness, the winds are all listening to what we have to say.” Geronimo (Goyathlay, or “one who yawns”)

The sun
is a prairie of light.

The darkness
listens to us
as we wonder
if it is separate
from ourselves.

The prairie moon
is yellow grass
and river stones.

The People sing,
 their voices
 lost in the vastness.

Then comes the soldiers,
with orders that march on
boots heavy as centuries.

The silence of light
clouds of blasted light
as Time passes from enemy
to enemy. Whose hands
are clean from the ashes
of the dead?

The earth turns

Tail winds of bombs,
bullets cracking
the sky
into our bones
your bones,
all the bones of the sky
breaking dawn
into splinters
of death.

by Anita Endrezze

Name Game

It’s not as if we didn’t know
The politics of Indian hating live
On in your war machine red with blood
Driven by fear hidden in code.
We see you in your darkness.
We know the places you go
Always repeating yourself in patterns
Too familiar, too loud, too slow
Foolish in your pride, you don’t think
We notice; you are wrong
That man was no Geronimo
We see you in your darkness
It’s the place you always go.
by  Kimberli Lee

Codename Geronimo

In 2011 someone made an order, kill Geronimo;
soldiers dispatched by jet, by car, with orders to kill Geronimo.

The Brits had a new princess and Fergie’s daughters had silly hats
but the Royal wedding was eclipsed by the killing of Geronimo.

I heard about it on the radio; bin Laden’s been ratted out
living in a pleasant Pakistani suburb, KIA Geronimo.

He used his wives as shields; there is nothing about
that fact to cheer yet some did after killing Geronimo.

For tribal nations the namesake’s a hero, little doubt
occupy their minds as to the military’s code KIA Geronimo.

It’s just another cry for war without
restraint. Our hero wasn’t a terrorist, the real Geronimo

fought to protect homelands, way of life, I’d say devout,
feared perhaps but how many times should they kill Geronimo?

by Tiffany Midge

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


So I'm running a poetry contest, totally impromptu. All Native writers welcome to submit one poem, any style. topic: Using code-name "Geronimo" for Osama Bin Laden. Prizes from my own personal bookshelf! The "Love & Erotica" issue of RedInk, the "Sexuality, Nationality, Indigeneity" volume of GLQ, and "The Truth About Stories" by Thomas King. Send entries to by June 1, 2011. Winners will be announced and published on WhenTurtlesFly/ on 6/1/2011.  C'mon, you know you want to let it rip.  Feel free to share.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Kids on Ponies

Deby Miranda, Los Angeles, CA
There used to be this guy ... he'd come through the neighborhoods with a pony and a set of child-sized, mythologically-correct cowboy gear: the hat, vest, chaps, sometimes a bandana.  And he'd smooth-talk the parents while the pony charmed their kids: a picture, just a few dollars, every kid's dream.  Remember that guy?  More importantly, remember that pony?

It's the iconic American Childhood photograph: a kid, somewhere between three and twelve years old, seated on a generic pony.  Sometimes frightened and cowering, sometimes living the fantasy with a yell or a waving hat, the children vary by age and ethnicity, but the theme is always the same: Wild West!  Cowboys!  (Injuns!)

I have two of these photographs.  In one, I am sitting with a broad grin, but fairly sedate.  That's the cover of Bad Indians.  In the other, much faded, I have my left hand raised in a proud "V," giving the peace sign.  This second picture makes me think that my father was the adult who put me up on that pony; he loved encouraging the Brown Power Fist or the Peace Sign.  Or, perhaps he was already gone by then, and I was signaling to his absent spirit, far away in San Quentin.  Either way, that second picture has my dad's flare for the radical flashing across my face.

Because the Peace Sign photo was too faded to work well on a book cover, I used the sedate version for Bad Indians.  But you know which one is my favorite.

 Do you have a Kid on Pony picture of yourself?  Send it to me at and I'll put it up here.  

Two of my sisters have already started off the collection with their contributions!
Louise J. Miranda Ramirez, Seaside CA

Patricia Miranda Maldonado, Seaside CA

Send me YOUR kid on a pony moment!

Tiara Ramirez, San Jose CA

Terry, Grand Rapids, MI

Susan, Columbus OH

Mickey, Seattle WA

Johnny and Jenny, Butte Montana

Timmy, Los Angeles CA

Katrina, Albuquerque NM
Joshua, Chicago IL

Margaret, Portland OR
Rosa, Tijuana Mexico

Chris, Kansas City MO
Ku'ualoha Ho'omanawanui says,
 So this is "riding a pony Hawaiian style." That's me on the right, one of our old time paniolo cowboys Keoki Ka'eo, a rodeo legend back in the 1950s on the left, my sister and our friend Tina in front. Keoki's horse's name in Manyana. The horse I'm on is Peso Bar. This is about 1972.

Rosie (Age 5) and German Gonzalez (Age 2), Photo: Recuerdo Del Parque Agua Azul, Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, August 21, 1970.


Mira L.  Love the photo of a photo that's happening here!

Here is mine. Was going to use it as my back cover photo on my next novel (my first novel Yellowbird won the NWCA first-book award. my second novel--Dragonfly, Walking Stick just out). Cheers, Judy Smith

  "As you can see from attached photo, I also rode the range at a young age—perhaps 20 years before you did—watched over by my own Jewish mother.  Having so much in common with you, I look forward to attending your 17 Jan reading at California Historical Society, especially to hear about aspects of your life that differ from mine." - Harvey Hacker

Jacqueline Marx on the middle pony in Morristown, Tennessee - now Cantor at Temple Emanu-El in New Jersey.  She's a secret writer, folks; just wait till her book comes out!  If it's anything like what I've seen so far, it should knock your socks off.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Day 16: Comfort Food

Comfort Food

My mother made one hell of an apple pie. 
She was always the first to suggest a raid
on Old Man Franklin’s orchard, fill paper bags
with the fruit of his tangled trees.  Other days,
I’d come home to find strips of soft noodles
hanging from chair backs and curtain rods,
air of our small trailer humid with chicken broth.
Once, I remember hiking up the hill from the busstop
on a wave of Bisquick cinnamon coffee cake,
exotic and crusty with brown sugar.  But best
of all were her enchiladas, rich with Old El Paso
sauce, cheese from the Food Bank, cheap
hamburger stretched with cut-up potato.  To this day,
I can’t make them any other way.  The truth
is, even Campbell’s Tomato Soup was heaven
if Mom made it: love in a can, saltines on the side. 
The truth is, all I ever wanted was to receive 
whatever she could give, and sometimes all 
she could give came from that silver saucepan, 
her battered skillet, aluminum pie tins.  The rest
she kept to herself: measurements, ingredients, 
recipes she’d inherited, stories best not passed on.
The truth is, she left us with a hunger
no recipe can cure.

Friday, April 1, 2011

UCLA Interview About "Bad Indians"

In 2007-2008, I was a Fellow at the UCLA Institute of American Cultures, with the Native American Studies Program. In November 2007, the Institute of American Cultures (IAC) hosted a Fall Forum and Welcome Reception in honor of the 2007-2008 Visiting Scholars, Postdoctoral, Predoctoral, & Graduate Fellows, and Research Grant Awardees.

Tritia Toyota, Ph.D., award-winning broadcast journalist & adjunct professor of Anthropology and Asian American Studies, interviewed 2007-2008 IAC Visiting Scholars, Ellie Hernández, myself, and Amy Sueyoshi, about our research projects. (Dr. Winton was unable to attend the IAC Fall Forum as she was researching and teaching in Ghana)

At that point, my project was called "The Light from Carissa Plains: Reinventing California Indian Identity." It has since come to be titled "Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir." This interview gives you a good idea of the project's scope, even then, when I was still figuring it all out.

Please note: At the interview, I was so nervous that I said J.P. Harrington's consultant was named "Isabel Ramirez," confusing Isabel Meadows and Laura Ramirez. Ooops!

To view: lick on the photo below [you'll need RealPlayer]; the link takes you to the IAC website.  Once there, scroll down to the second interview. Click "view Deborah Miranda interview."  Enjoy! [I'm aware that the link hasn't been working, but IAC sent me a new link that fixes the problem.]

UCLA Interview about Bad Indians