Monday, March 24, 2014



It’s early in the morning here on our beautiful campus.  I’m in my book-lined stereotypically cluttered professorial den prepping for the day.  I have a skype interview with students in Hawai’i on my schedule, but forgot to bring a copy of my book to work (normally I keep a copy here but must have taken it home by accident).  Luckily, my institution’s brilliant librarians purchase copies of all faculty books, so I type the title into our e-catalog and my book pops right up.  That, however, is when my heart falls – no, not falls, but actually plummets:  the call number started with an ‘E’ … and I well know what that means.  This book is buried in the bowels of the library, in the ethnology/anthropology section.  Not only that, but in the CALIFORNIA INDIAN section, where no one on the entire campus except our sole California Indian – me – ever ventures. 

This is what my book looks like in the card catalog’s list:


See me?  There I am, 20th-21st Century memoirist, poet and writer: accompanied by Stone Age spear and arrow points of California and the Great Basin, Handbook of Indians of California, Indians, missionaries and merchants: the legacy of colonial encounters on the California frontiers and California Archaeology.  You might also notice that First families: a photographic history of California Indians by L. Frank and Kim Hogeland, another book from my publisher Heyday, is also consigned to this dungeon (it should be in with photography and/or art).  Since Bad Indians is a memoir that also contains poetry, short stories, artwork, photographs as well as some re-purposed ethnographic materials, placing it there with stone age arrowheads and California archaeology pretty much guarantees that it will never cross the path of a creative writing or English student browsing through any of those sections.   

The book is, in effect, hidden from sight.  None of the Creative Writing Minor students whom I hope will envision me as Mentor/Writer will ever see what is, in my mind at least, my literary masterpiece and a pretty interesting take on the memoir genre as well.  They'll see the books of their other professors on those library shelves, but not mine.  How does that look?  For someone like me - female, Native, lesbian - establishing a professional identity at a university with very few people of color or out professors is a hell of a lot of work.  But thanks to a simple number, it’s kind of like my book, and my life as a writer, don’t even exist.  Those words “Native American/California Indian” trump everything when it comes to classification of my literary output. 

I'm in my office again (the hours spent in this chair would stun you), taking a quick break to read some news from the outside world.  What catches my eye?
An article on the “post-racialization revolution” on television’s post-apocalyptic/zombie/futuristic series now in vogue celebrates the more realistic view of society with black, mixed-race, Asian, Latina/o, female leaders (as well as zombies; not too long ago, the zombification of the world was all white, something Key and Peel make fun of in this brilliant skit).  The article lists with celebratory acclaim the actors of color, along with scripts that avoid type-casting all villains and zombies as black or Latino/a, which now regularly populate our television screens.  Quite a change from even the recent past!    

But wait.  Did I hear the names of any Native American actors or roles?  Nope.  Apparently, Indians – who have survived colonization, Missionization, reservations, poor nutrition, bad health care, mind-blowing governmental abuse and a multitude of other metaphorical zombies - will NOT withstand the zombification of America.  Even the epic novel World War Z in unabridged audio form (over twelve hours long) – the fascinating, detailed novel by Max Brooks, not the lame movie - features just one Native woman fighter – Lakota, of course - who, of course, dies (she does pick up a turtle, murmur “Mitkuye Oyasin,” in her very brief cameo, however).

We do, of course, have the sci-fi/Western thriller Cowboys and Aliens, with Adam Beach as – oh, wait – the whiteman’s sidekick who, naturally, dies while saving said whiteman.  So really, does that even count? 

I would be remiss (and embarrassed) if I didn’t mention a great indie film titled The Dead Can’t Dance.   Shot in 2009 and released in 2010, the film is about 3 Indian guys who survive a virulent gust of wind that turns everyone else into zombies, but leaves them untouched.  Why?  Because they’re Native American and have some genetic immunity to the zombie virus.  GET IT?  Genetic immunity!  This is where being left out can be useful, I guess.  The meek shall inherit the earth and all that.  Or just poetic justice, dude.  (What are the chances of this film coming to Lexington's State Theater, I wonder?  Or YOUR hometown?  Is it even on Netflix??)

Again, I can’t leave you without Cutcha Risling Baldy’s excellent blog post on using a zombie lens to read contemporary Native existence, telling us, “Zombie-pocalypse sounds eerily similar to California Indian history...”  She’s brilliant.  Watch out for this woman.  Cutcha flips the paradigm around to read Indians as Zombies, but making very clear that this is not exactly a good thing.  

Sigh.  Sometimes being the only Native academic (or, let’s just say it, person) at my academic institution feels a lot like being the last Indian on the planet.  Maybe I’m in one of those sci-fi shows and I just don’t know it.  W&L is famous for being under a powerful "bubble" that keeps all unpleasantness (poor folks, third-world problems, ugly people) at bay.  Could it be the end of the world has already happened and I missed it?

Obviously, my next project needs to be an edited anthology of Native American zombie-apocalypse pieces.  Along with all the other projects lined up in my head.

Here's a sort-of-happy-ending to part of this story.  There was one thing I could do about the placement of my book in our institution's library:  I emailed one of the librarians and told her my story.  She was enormously sympathetic, and immediately said that she had no idea that’s where my book was located, and that when I returned it to the library, to bring it directly to her; she would go about the process of recategorizing it so that it sits with other memoir/short story/poetry literary works.

Wow.  All I had to do was ask.  Actually, I didn’t even do that; I simply relayed my dismay, and Elizabeth was all over it. Thank you, Elizabeth.
Of course, Elizabeth is an extraordinary human being and I can’t count on all librarians being quite so receptive, but, would it hurt any of us Native/Native Scholars/Writers/Allies to check out the call numbers on Native books, and request that they be moved into their appropriate literary category?  Or to do the same thing in the many bookstores out there where I routinely find Native poets in with either Native history or White People’s Woo-Woo Crystal-Gazing-How-To’s?

It would be a start.  The rest of the world might not be as responsive as my small liberal-arts university librarian, but a concerted effort would be better than becoming part of the living-yet-dead-Native-authors down in the basement.   

It’s hard when even the zombies (or those who animate them) don't want us.

Saturday, March 15, 2014


       for Susan Schultz 
"The tract through which we passed is generally very good land, with plenty of water; and there, as well as here, the country is neither rocky nor overrun with brush-wood. There are, however, many hills, but they are composed of earth. The road has been good in some places, but the greater part bad. About half-way, the valleys and banks of rivulets began to be delightful. We found vines of a large size, and in some cases quite loaded with grapes; we also found an abundance of roses, which appeared to be like those of Castile."
"We have seen Indians in immense numbers, and all those on this coast of the Pacific contrive to make a good subsistence on various seeds, and by fishing. The latter they carry on by means of rafts or canoes, made of tule (bullrush) with which they go a great way to sea. They are very civil. All the males, old and young, go naked; the women, however, and the female children, are decently covered from their breasts downward. We found on our journey, as well as in the place where we stopped, that they treated us with as much confidence and good-will as if they had known us all their lives. But when we offered them any of our victuals, they always refused them. All they cared for was cloth, and only for something of this sort would they exchange their fish or whatever else they had. During the whole march we found hares, rabbits, some deer, and a multitude of berendos (a kind of a wild goat)."
" I pray God may preserve your health and life many years."
" From this port and intended Mission of San Diego, in North California, third July, 1769."
[excerpt from Seventy-five years in California , page 371, by William Heath Davis]


We   here
are composed of earth
valleys and      rivulets
vines     loaded with grapes
an abundance of roses
We     Indians     on this coast    
carry on
very civil,     old and young 
decent     on our journey   
we treat with      confidence and good-will
all lives

always care for
the whole
a kind of wild

s     o    n     g        o     f

I I ‘ U R*
(* one of the Kumeyaay words for Juniperus californica)

         - by Deborah A. Miranda

I've had examples of erasure poems pasted into my notebook for years, but somehow the idea never grabbed hold of my imagination.  Until this morning.  And probably this inspiration came from skyping with Susan Schultz's Documentary Writing class yesterday (from Virginia to Hawai'i thanks to the magic of the internet!).  Susan has long been one of my heroes; the publisher of TinFish Press and so many of the quite beautiful chapbooks in my collection.  But she's also dear to my heart because of our mutual fascination with creating poetry (i.e., truth) out of the documents that pervade our lives.  

Speaking with her students yesterday, digging deep for answers to their questions and questings, I thought again of all the letters and diary entries left behind by Father Junipero Serra, the man responsible for making the idea of California missionization happen.  Bad Indians contains two "found" poems constructed from Serra's letters, but the layers of meaning in the word 'erasure' drove me to try something different this morning.  Yes, I wanted to erase Serra from the San Diego landscape from which he writes.  Yes, I am going to hell for this.  Yes, I am looking forward to all the really awesome poets who will be waiting for me at the gates.

After I wrote this poem, I wondered how to write ABOUT the form of an erasure poem, the concept of them.  Turns out lots of other people have attempted this, so I will just point you to Via Negative: A Literary Weblog, where Dave Bonta says:

"Just as (we are told) there are no atheists in foxholes, so the erasure poet comes to believe that there are no truly prosaic passages in a passage of prose. You can only look at arrangements of words on a page for so long before you completely lose track of which are the expected sentiments, the set phrases. Strangeness affects them all. You look deeper: within words, and between words widely separated on the page. New possible poems spark with electricity, like Frankenstein’s monster just before full reanimation. But it’s a zero-sum game: for one poem to open, countless others must remain closed. Syntax, like time, only flows in one direction. Knowing this, you hesitate over the source text. The poems are parallel universes, each with their own laws. And as in physics, any pretense of the observer to a god-like standing above the observed phenomenon is impossible; to observe is to recognize, and to recognize is to implicate oneself in an inherently contingent origin. Perhaps the Daoists are right, and the only perfect art object is the uncarved block."

And perhaps erasure poems must themselves be erased and transformed.  This poem is for the students in Susan's class who gave so much of themselves to me yesterday, and who have so much beauty to give to the world.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Luna, Seal, Bear, Turtle

Luna, Seal, Bear, Turtle

You are luna moth.  Instar, between, you inhabit this shape just long enough to find your way to the next, shed what you don’t need, leave it behind.

You are seal.  You pop your head above the waves to cock an eye at us, flip and dive into a sea of fickle disappearance.

You are bear in hibernation.  Groggy with sleep, one day ravenous, immobile the next; you snap and snarl when I try to rouse you.

You are turtle.  You withdraw deep inside your shell, pull up the hatches, shut us out, make safe, make home.

I keep waiting for you to spin your silken cocoon, construct the architecture of lime green canopy with painted eyes, emerge all wet and breathless, pump blood into the sails of elegant wings.

I keep my eye on the dark surface of your private salt sea, catch your whiskers above the surface, your bright brown eyes winking, laughing at me, your sleek black head rising up.

I keep guard over the entrance to your cave, prepare food for your huge hunger, mind your teeth when sleep savages you, admire that desire to live inside dream.

I keep watch outside your shell, hold you in my palm, stroke the perfect plates, sharp ridge of your back, smooth ivory of your belly.  I call your name in a language older than time.  Come out, come out.

          - Deborah Miranda

Monday, March 10, 2014


Dear Heavenly Father.  Well.  That’s the way the nuns taught me, back when I went to Saint Pat’s down on Santa Monica Boulevard, the place I got kicked out of in 8th grade.  And I know, I was a bad kid in those days.  Always cheating, swearing, teasing the girls.  But I was just so curious about everything.  Was Sister Marie really bald beneath her head-thingy?  I had to find out.  I didn’t want to do it, but I had to find out … she wasn’t.  That’s when I started going to public school.  When I started drinking and messing around with girls.  Lord, do you really think that was punishment enough?  It seemed more like a reward at the time.  I remember saying goodbye to those nuns, thinking how good it would be not to feel that ruler whacking down on my knuckles ever again … God, did nuns really perform your work?  ‘cause a lot of them were just mean, mean to the bone, and they were all white women who hated us Indians and our street Spanish, our dark skin, our pililis for lunch, our Indian slang.  Anyways, Heavenly Father, I hope you know I’ve changed.  I’m an old man now – almost eighty! Who’d have thought I’d make it this far?  What with my old man beating us boys for every little thing, him and our mom fighting till he left; then it was just the four of us boys, going everywhere, doing everything together.  Til that truck hit Richard on the road one day.  I carried him all the way home in my arms but he didn’t make it.  Guess that was one time you weren’t payin’ much attention, huh.  Then the gangs and the car wrecks, being in the Navy, Japs shooting at me, and all that drinking, those bare-knuckle fights.  That long stretch in San Quentin; didn’t think I’d get out of there alive.  All the people I’ve pissed off.  Don’t seem right that I outlasted Michie.  Hell, she was eight years younger’n me too – and a good woman, I shoulda treated her better but I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.  Sure, we had our troubles, she had a mouth on her when she was young and man, could she yell at me when I’d come home drunk!  Ay,  I’d still be drunk in the morning when it was time to go to work, she’d kick me out of the house without even making me a cup of coffee.  I wrecked that pink Plymouth one time, the one her folks bought for us because of the baby … yeah, Michie was a good woman, by God she turned herself around while I was in prison.  Went to Community College – she always was smart like that – got herself a job, held it for what, twenty, twenty-five years?  Retired just a year before she got that lung cancer.  Died at our daughter’s house, that baby girl we got the Plymouth for – a grown woman with two kids of her own.  Michie died and I was up North, too old and sick myself to come say goodbye.  No.  I really was sick.  Anyways I called her, told her I loved her, and she said, “I love you too Al.”  But I could tell she was rolling her eyes.  Still, she was the only one, God: the love of my life.  I’m sorry it didn’t work out after I got out of prison.  Don’t tell Betty I said so.  Or Marcie.  Anyways it doesn’t matter now.  I set around this apartment and going to Mass is like the highlight of my week, God.  I walk right up to the priest and take communion like when I was an altar boy.  I have to use my cane but I can still go to Mass.  Are you listening, God?  I’m trying to be a good Catholic now because I may not believe in you or Heaven anymore, but I sure as hell believe in Hell and I don’t want to end up there.  Too many guys there I never want to see again.  Well.  Time to take my pills and get to bed.  Glad the pills make me sleepy.  I get too many pictures in my head.  My dad, standing at the foot of my bed, telling me he wants to see me again.  Maybe.  Maybe.  In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.  Amen.  This is Alfred, God. Alfred Edward Miranda.  Remember me.

            - Deborah A. Miranda

Sunday, March 9, 2014


Blessing the Doubts

Bless this one, creeping into my pocket
like a bad penny, shiny copper talisman.

And this one, flooding me like a spring monsoon,
washing away all reason and linear thought.

One of my favorite doubts whispers of demons;
teaches me how to curse in a new language.

Then there’s the subtle one, tucking itself into my shoe;
constant and true, like a splinter.

And don’t forget the faithful doubt that refuses to desert me
(like a family ghost or demented mascot).

Pay special attention to the ragged runaway doubts;
I harbor them out of kindness.

Remember the one who pants like a seasoned hound,
reminds me to keep up, keep my head down, scent my prey.

Finally, please, bless that seductive doubt whose song
leads me to the ledge, pushes me off into impossible.

            - Deborah A. Miranda