Thursday, May 15, 2014

"I hate this topic": Welcome to the Club

This morning, two interesting things happened:

First, I received an anonymous comment on this blog (for the post "Thought Experiment").  The poster, the frustrated parent of a California fourth grader, had this to say:

"i hate this topic. my fourth grader just finished her report, and we concentrated as much as possible on the lives of the indians -- though that was not much discussed in the official books and materials available at the mission itself. she got instantly that the whole reason the missions existed was to export religion -- bully for her. now, i need a bloody checklist of materials used to construct the mission. her mission was burned down by rightfully angry indians and a padre was killed...would it be bad to try to capture that night, and have the bloodied body of the priest in the courtyard? hm....." 

I sat in my office and mulled over this note.  "I hate this topic..." - Missions?  California Indians?  Telling a difficult truth?  Being forced to excavate the truth in an educational and cultural system that would prefer you not?

This comment brings up some of my deepest reservations about the Fourth Grade Mission Project.  I hear both frustration and resentment in this parent's voice - understandably - but both seem to be directed at the Indian figure at the center of this project.  I want to re-direct that anger just a bit.

The parent acknowledges that finding truthful information about the lives of Indians was difficult, something I can appreciate.  But I'm sorry that this re-education seems to inconvenience the parent; I suggest he or she imagine how living in a country in desperate need of re-education "inconveniences" Indians on a minute-by-minute basis!  Parent, you just have to deal with this one project in one year of your child's life.  California Indians have this struggle day in and day out, decade after decade, century after century.  I understand that the pressure put on parents and children to create "perfect" mission reports and models/dioramas of a mission, but there is a bigger picture out there, and it is worth investigating.

For one thing, I'm a little concerned that the parent feels having the fourth grader in question learn that "the whole reason the missions existed was to export religion" was one of the main points of the project.  This is another fallacy about the missions that needs careful consideration.  Yes, the Spanish Crown originally sent priests out to convert - that was and continues to be a central part of Catholicism - but any "saved" Native souls were really just a bonus.  Historians agree with me on this one: the real point in colonization was land, resources, and political power.  Religion was just the vehicle these passengers arrived in; a wonderfully self-congratulatory vehicle with which to carry out the genocide of millions by a group of people without the semblance of a driver's license.  Greed, not religion, is at the center of this event.  And that changes a lot about how fourth graders (or adults just coming to this realization) process this revelation.  More about that later.

I have no argument with a religion that tells us to love thy neighbor, practice charity and compassion, and reminds us that we are all human beings struggling toward the sacred.  I do have some serious issues with the practitioners of a religion who says it's okay to kill other people, take their land, rape them physically and emotionally, as long as they are baptized before they succumb to torture or a disease brought in by the religion's practitioners.  I worry about the idea that religion becomes the scapegoat for what is, essentially, human misbehavior.  A comedian named Flip Wilson used to have a great tagline: "The Devil made me do it."  Blaming religion is kind of like saying, "God/Jesus made me do it."  How scary is that for a child to hear?

But back to the concept of greed.  I also worry that by putting the blame solely on religious conversion, we can avoid knowing that colonization of California Indian lands benefited the triple stream of colonizers - Spanish, Mexican, and American - and, in fact, benefits anyone who currently owns or uses land in California.  In other words, by saying that the missions were just about spreading Catholicism at any cost - as horrible as that sounds - Euro-Americans don't have to admit that the thefts of land and rich resources had anything whatsoever to do with them.  Or that California Indians still suffer from that loss; or that these losses continue into present and future Native generations.  Or that gee, something should be done to rectify that obvious and painful injustice.  Blaming religion allows Euro-Americans to take their privilege and benefits from the mission era blindly, without seeing who was run over in order to obtain it for them. Admitting that California (and sadly, this entire country) was built on greed and exploitation of human beings and the land - that's a steep learning curve, but one that, when we are brave enough to attempt it, can lead to real change, real justice.  Not simply admitting privilege, but working to heal wounds that now hurt not just Native people and the earth, but anyone living on the planet.

I also wish this parent had left an email or name, so I could send him or her a copy of Vincent Medina's excellent article "Plastic Siege: A New Twist on the Fourth Grade Mission Project," where Vincent talks about helping his little brother, both members of the Ohlone Chochenyo tribe, take on a more realistic construction of a mission; a mission experiencing revolution and resistance by its Native population that included armed self-defense.  After explaining why the California Mission Mythology is so painful for Indian children, especially, to swallow and fight back from, Medina writes,

"To start the project, we bought the typical Mission supplies from an arts and craft store – Styrofoam, white paint, sand, glitter glues, figurines of Spanish priests, plastic horses, and little fake gold bells. But we also bought orange cellophane to look like flames, toothpicks to paint to insert in the model to look like arrows, and military toy figurines which we would later paint to be our Ohlone militia. A new twist to a traditional model. The priests are held hostage as Ohlone fighters are inside the bell tower. I asked Gabe what he wants to title his Mission project, and he says with pride “let’s call it… you gotta do what you gotta do.”

I would love for Mr or Ms Fourth-Grade-Parent to read this essay by Medina, and perhaps learn (aside from the fact that California craft stores overflow with Mission Kit materials - hard to AVOID them) that yes, it is okay to be angry about the project, about the lies, the inaccurate education we all received and the way those inaccuracies require us to act in order to properly educate our children.  Medina and his little brother used their anger to create a mission project that illustrated the necessity for Native people to defend our way of life, our families, our cultures.  Self-defense is something that our ancestors practiced in the past, and we survivors and descendents practice it in the present as well.  A poem can be a form of self-defense.  A fourth-grade mission project in which the "priests are held hostage" is a form of self-defense.  

A mission model with a bloody priest in the courtyard might be one way for this parent-child duo to express their exasperation about the lack of a good fourth grade curriculum.  In fact, I would love for this parent's child to create a mission under attack (was it just me, or did I catch a whiff of sarcasm in the parent's comment?), even the scene at Mission San Diego, where the priest was killed outright by angry Indians.  This kind of honest representation would demonstrate an understanding on the part of parent and child that self-defense of one's homeland and people is a human right.  Whether the teacher would accept such a project, I don't know, but I'd be willing to bet that fourth grade teachers are receiving more and more reports and mission models from a less Eurocentric perspective.

But here's the thing: don't blame us - Native people - for this inconvenient and difficult assignment.  Please.  "I hate this topic" - when the topic is the suffering of my ancestor's lives, and my own life as the survivor of colonization and Historical Trauma - carries such misdirected anger and fear.  Be angry at a more deserving target!  Like your school district, or the California Fourth Grade Curriculum.  Take some responsibility for your child's education, especially if the curriculum being used is outdated, incomplete, or downright inaccurate.  Talk to the teacher.  Go to curriculum adoption meetings.  Research books for the school library (see Heyday's catalog for a good start!). Use the internet to contact local California tribes and ask if they have a person who speaks to fourth graders, or know of Native educators who will come to the classroom - after all, we are still here - at least, some of us.

And hey, welcome to the club.  This is just a taste of what it's like to take on colonialism and imperialism in the 21st Century.

Oh, and that second interesting thing today?  See the illustration above.  Bad Indians is still rockin' the charts at Heyday.  Maybe that parent should have paid attention to the blog s/he landed on.  Might have learned about a book that models how to respond to infuriating injustices.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Making a Place for Our Story in this World

I awoke this morning to news from my friend Linda Rodriguez that Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir has won a Gold Medal from the Independent Publisher Book Awards (fondly known as IPPYs).   

This is really an honor and a blessing!  I mean that in every possible way: for a small press book like Bad Indians, being seen and acknowledged is difficult, and the IPPYs are extremely wonderful for the way in which they bring attention to a book that might otherwise have gone relatively unacknowledged by folks outside the small press zone.   

My publisher, Heyday, and I have entered Bad Indians in as many awards as we could find.  Locating awards the book might be eligible for hasn’t been easy, because it crosses so many borders - memoir, documentary, poetry, prose, collage, art – in addition to Heyday often being seen as a regional small press.  So this award is as much a testament to Heyday’s willingness to publish a book so difficult to categorize as it is to the contents of the book.

The IPPY website  notes some of the benefits of IPPY recognition:

As one of the oldest, most established independent book awards in operation, the Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPYs) are well known and respected in the book industry. Our winners are:
  • Featured in a series of articles at our website which had over 80,000 unique visitors in the past year
  • Advertised at Publisher's Weekly website for one month totaling 100,000 impressions
  • Advertised in three Publisher Weekly's Tip Sheet emails (65,000 opt-in subscribers) direct emails
  • Advertised in Publisher Weekly's Daily (36,000 opt-in subscribers) direct email
  • Advertised at Shelf Awareness website for one week totaling over 200,000 impressions
  • Promoted in press releases sent to over 2,000 publishing industry media outlets
  • Given two free passes, valued at $300, to the IPPY gala held during BEA in New York City.
  • Sent a Winner's Celebration Packet that includes a starter set of book seals, an official winner's certificate, and a medal.
  • Listed in results that are permanently archived on back to 2001
  • Featured in an average of 50 articles per year internationally 

I couldn’t beg, borrow or steal this kind of publicity – and you better believe that I am going to head for the IPPY awards ceremony held during the Book Expo America in New York at the end of May to take full advantage of that. 

Bad Indians took me ten years to complete, and is now in more university courses than I can count.  The word of mouth testimonies and the passionate advocates Bad Indians has found in professors, writers, students, California Indians, Indians in general, has been phenomenal.  The community of this book, which has always consisted of my family, my ancestors, my mother, father, sisters, brothers, tribal members, has grown to include many more, all participating in telling the horrific story of Missionization and those 'bad Indians' who survived Missionization.  My gratitude is deep and growing, dear friends.  Thank you for your faith in this story’s importance. 

Isabel Meadows (who spoke Spanish, English, and several Indian languages) said, after telling J.P. Harrington the sad story of how Carmel Indians were dispossessed of land and left to die:  Ojalá que uno de los ricos del Carmelo les pudiera comprar un buen pedazo de tierra siquiera pa vivir, pa poner su rancheria comoantes, pa refivir su idioma, y pa hacer cuento otra vez en el mundo … I hope that one of the wealthy people of the Carmelo will be able to buy them a good piece of land, at least, to live on, to put their ranchería like before, to revive their language, and to make their story again in the world.”  (see footnote at end)

I like to think that Isabel is clapping her hands right now, maybe even firing off a shot or two from that pistol that she was known to carry around in her skirts as she traveled through the dangerous Spanish/Mexican territory around Carmel and Monterey that once belonged to her mother’s ancestors. 

Isabel, the ricos still haven’t lined up to give land back to your people, but your stories lead the way for California Indians to make our story again in the world, and for Indians and allies to give our story a place in this world.  I'm not sure you ever expected that to happen.  On the other hand, you left us plenty of bread crumbs to follow back to the story, now didn't you?

I think you would be proud, Isabel.  Nimasianexelpasaleki.  Oh, nimasianexelpasaleki!

footnote:  (In his dissertation, RECOGNIZING INDIANS: PLACE, IDENTITY, HISTORY, AND THE FEDERAL ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF THE OHLONE/COSTANOAN-ESSELEN NATION (2010), Philip Laverty writes about this passage, “I would translate the phrase ‘…pa hacer cuento’ differently [than Yamane, who translates it as ‘to be counted again in the world.’] First, “cuenta’ means ‘count’ (and Harrington usually notes “sic” in the case of incorrect gender use) whereas ‘cuento’ means ‘story.’ ‘Contar’ is the verb ‘to count,’ but it also means ‘to relate’ or ‘to tell.’ ‘Hacer’ is not ‘to be.’ ‘Hacer cuento’ is commonly used to mean ‘to tell a story,’ or, perhaps better, ‘to make up a story.’ Consequently, I would translate the phrase as ‘to make their story again in the world’ or ‘to make their history again in the world.’”)