My audience is anyone who has done some digging into their family history or done a DNA test, only to be completely shocked by the results. This is for the person who has thought, “Why is it that my ancestor’s stories have been silenced or lost over time?” or questioned, “What aspect of society has caused these stories to be silenced and forgotten over time?” My audience also includes teachers either skeptical or enthusiastic about integrating diverse and multicultural texts in their classrooms. This piece will challenge them to take a critical lens to their curriculum and ask themselves, “is my curriculum favoring only one side of the story? Am I integrating sufficient diverse texts in my classroom? Do I truly understand the importance of utilizing these texts?”
“Culture is lost when we neglect to tell our stories, when we forget the power and craft of storytelling. Native Americans did not enter the canonical field of American Literature until 1969.” (p.xiv)
“Prior to 1969, who was telling our story? Non-Indians, for the most part” (p. xvi).
I am reading Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir by Deborah A. Miranda because my Grandmother and Grandfather just got their DNA tested through Ancestry.com. While it was not a surprise that I have ancestors from Ireland, Great Britain, Spain, and Mexico, I found myself to be shocked that my paternal Grandfather’s DNA is 43% Native American. But why was this so surprising to me? I knew he has Mexican and Spanish roots so it would make sense that our ancestors were Native Americans. While I have many family stories about how our Irish and British ancestors came to America, why is it that the stories of our ancestors native to North America have been silenced within my family? Why has society influenced us to read the stories Shakespeare, Hawthorne, and Dickens, yet silence the stories not part of the traditional Western Literary Canon? I am reading Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir because I am going to be an educator in the state of California. I read this book because I wanted to hear more of the California Native Americans stories to find out how they have been silenced over time, and how I can prevent the silencing of stories to perpetuated in the school curriculum.
Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir begins by telling the readers about her mother and father. Her mother was a Mexican-American and her father was from Native American descent. Deborah discusses the challenges she has faced with not being considered a “real Indian” because she does not have the language of her ancestors and much of the culture has been lost. She attributes her father’s abusiveness to the history of Native American people. In her version of the “Mission Unit” that 4th graders in California in have to complete, she tells the harsh realities of Native American life at the Missions. Miranda supports this with numerous primary source documents like photos and definitions of Mission terms. She outwardly criticizes the education system that is, “glorifying the era and glosses over both Spanish and Mexican exploitation of Indians, as well as American enslavement of those same Indians during American rule”. She even compares the way students are taught the “Mission Unit” as being if we were to teach about slavery in the South like this:
“While simultaneously requiring each child to lovingly construct a plantation model, complete with happy darkies in the fields, white masters, overseers with whips, and human auctions.”
Imagining 4th graders create this diorama is quite atrocious, but this imagery is effective in making the readers realize her argument and the problem with the current Mission and Native American curriculum being taught in schools. Below is a photo taken on April 15, 2017 showing the “Mission Unit” that Miranda describes is still very much alive.
As the memoir continues, Miranda’s seamless incorporation of different writing styles and integration of poems, narrative, photographs, art, diagrams, and primary sources make it impactful for the reader. The fourth section, “Teheyapami Achiska: Home 1961-present divulge deeper into her personal struggles with her family, and her critically reflective connection between her father’s behavior and the way Native Americans were treated during the time of the Missions in California. Miranda quotes a passage dictated by Lorenzo Asisara, born at Santa Cruz Mission in 1819,
“The Indians at the missions were very severely treated by the padres, often punished by fifty lashes on the bare back. They were governed somewhat in the military style, having sergeants, corporals and overseers, who were Indians, and they reported to the padres any disobedience or infraction of the rules, and then came the lash without mercy, the women the same as the men… We were always trembling with fear of the lash.” (p. 175)
In addition to this quote, the entire first section of the memoir, “The End of the World: Missionization 1776-1836” describes more injustices the Native Americans faced and how poorly they were treated in the Missions. After reading that section and the above quote from someone living at the Missions during this time, it makes the connection to her Father that much more obvious. In addition to being a destructive and angry alcoholic, her father was abusive and not present in her life for 8 years. He was serving time in prison for rape of an underage girl. But Miranda seems to find a small sense of forgiveness when realizing that this behavior has been perpetuated over time,
“All those passages I’d read, researching conditions in the missions, how the soldiers and padres treated Indian neophytes: a missor image. Imprisonment. Whippings. Betrayal. Rape. That was the first time I wondered if, in order to survive, we had become destroyers , like them. That was the first time I asked the question I had never dared face: Was there no way out of this self-perpetuating cycle of cruelty? That was the first time I really understood, in my bones, the unimaginable, savage splintering that my ancestors- and my father, my sisters, my brother, my self- had endured.” (Miranda, p. 172)
Like Miranda questions, how has this “self-perpetuating cycle of cruelty” continued from generation to generation? Through this memoir it is evident that the harsh treatment of Native Americans, especially during the time of the Missions, was the source. Since these people were treated so poorly, that behavior is all they knew. This cycle repeated over and over from one generation to the next. Her father was treated poorly as a child, he abused and neglected her, and Miranda started to become violent like her father. However, when Miranda discusses her joy in learning more about her native language, culture, and family history, she seemed to come to terms with the hurtful past of her family and make the decision to stop the cycle.
So what is the importance of Miranda’s connection she felt when learning her Native language in relation to literature, classroom educators, and those people shocked by their ancestry DNA? When the Missionaries and colonizers came to America, they brought with them Christianity, language, and later Western Literature. Much like they wiped out the Native population through oppression of religion, they silenced the Native language and enforced Spanish and later English. Like the silencing of Native language, the emphasis of the Western Literary canon in our contemporary society has had the same effect of silencing the Non-western literature and the voices of those expressed though it. The Western Canon includes texts by primarily dead, White, Male authors, which is not always representative of the students in our schools. Meanwhile, our education system requires our students read these works, “The canon of English literature is sexist. It is racist. It is colonialist, ableist, transphobic, and totally gross. You must read it anyway.”
Reading only Western Canon in our schools is not acceptable. This has been the emphasis of many of our schools’ curriculum and this has only told society that only the Western perspective is important and should heard. In fact, the top 10 pieces of literature required in college courses come from the Western Canon. If we continue this, more Non-western stories and family histories are going to be lost in the smoke of the Western Canon.
I think many educators have continued using the canon in their courses because that is what they were taught when they were in school and are ignorant to the literary richness out there in Non-Western literature. In “Theory Before Theory” Peter Berry eloquently describes the ambiguity of language itself and how there is no definite meaning of literature because every reader will interpret texts differently based on their own background.
“Hence, any claim to offer a definitive reading would be futile. The meanings within a literary work are never fixed and reliable, but always shifting, multi-faceted and ambiguous. In literature, as in all writing, there is never the possibility of establishing fixed and definite meanings: rather, it is characteristic of language to generate infinite webs of meaning, so that all texts are necessarily self- contradictory, as the process of deconstruction will reveal” (p.35).
Therefore, educators need to break the barriers of the Western Canon and realize and not be fearful in reading a Non-Western text that you may not have studied in school. There is no definite meaning to any text and picking up the book and analyzing it for yourself is the most important step. Berry also describes the English empiricist attitude, “it holds that the best way of expressing an emotion in art is to find some vehicle for it in gesture, action, or concrete symbolism, rather than approaching it directly or descriptively” (p. 28). I found this relevant to describe the painting Circus Ponies by Millard Sheets. Following this theory, this painting is a metaphor for how we are teaching California Native American history like Miranda argues. The ponies and landscape represent the Western perspective, while the Native Americans themselves are nowhere present in the painting, unable to tell their side of the story.
After reading Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir, I recommend reading Deborah A. Miranda’s other works which also tell stories of Native Americans The Dirt Is Red Here: Art & Poetry from Contemporary Native California (2002), Indian Cartography: Poems (1999), and The Zen of La Llorona (2005). All of these works were either nominated or winners of literary awards. For the educators looking for methods of incorporating multicultural and inclusive literature into their curriculum, I suggest learning more about the Ethnic Studies movement and implementing this pedagogy in your classroom. I also suggest everyone who has been surprised by their own ancestral DNA results to look into The Ethnic Studies movement because it will help you understand how entire cultures’ stories and entire languages have been lost over time. This methodology is the answer to stopping the cycle of literary oppression that has silenced cultures and language at the source in the classroom. This pedagogy is so important because it values multicultural literature, social justice approaches, and teaching to the students’ needs. It values instead of perpetuates the silencing of diverse cultures and Non-Western literature. While it is easily implemented into a Social Studies curriculum, it can also be integrated interdisciplinarily. To further understand how to teach with this approach, I recommend “Preparing to Teach Social Studies for Social Justice: Becoming a Renegade” and “Social Studies, Literacy, and Social Justice in the Common Core Classroom.”