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.