47 pages 1 hour read

Deborah A. Miranda

Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 2012

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Summary and Study Guide


Deborah A. Miranda’s 2013 book, Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir, tells the tragic story of California’s “Mission Indians” and their descendants, including Miranda’s family, surviving members of the Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen Nation. The book won a 2014 Independent Publisher Book Award gold medal. A Professor of English at Washington and Lee University, Miranda combined documentary evidence, autobiography, and literary creativity, including her own poetic compositions, to produce a work that is part history and part imagination. This hybrid approach allowed her to amplify emotional experiences, often of a personal nature, while maintaining the story’s chronological structure.

The story begins in the late 18th century, when Catholic priests, aided by Spanish soldiers, established a network of 21 missions to “civilize” and Christianize California’s Indigenous people. Subjugated by force, these groups endured various forms of brutality that left Indigenous communities, cultures, and languages broken beyond repair. The result was nothing less than a demographic holocaust: California’s Indigenous population plummeted from a pre-colonization high of around one million to approximately 20 thousand a century later. Miranda tells this story as a “tribal memoir” because she traces her ancestry to California’s “Mission Indians” through her father, Al Miranda, Sr. The complex story is marked by ambivalent feelings because Al Miranda, Sr., a man with alcoholism and a convicted rapist, brought little more than rage and violence to his daughter’s life. Miranda’s experience of sexual assault at a very young age further complicates her feelings toward her father, whom she tries to understand as a product of historical brutality. In addition, Miranda describes her personal transformations, including a midlife lesbian awakening, in the context of her tribe’s ongoing reinvention of itself. This theme of surviving and constructing a new identity from the fragments of a violent past helps unite Miranda’s personal story with the story of her people.

Content Warning: Bad Indians includes brief descriptions of child rape, other traumatic violence and abuse, and alcoholism. Throughout the book, the author uses the term “Indian” rather than “Indigenous.”


Bad Indians has four parts, each corresponding to a historical era and each featuring between six and 16 individual sections of varying length and content. Some sections contain only a single image or a short poem, while others consist of lengthier and more traditional prose. Part 4, which focuses on Miranda’s personal experiences, as well as relationships with her father and her half sister, Louise, is as lengthy as Parts 1-3 combined.

Miranda uses the book’s Introduction to emphasize The Power of Stories. She focuses on storytelling in the book’s opening pages and again in its concluding section, which suggests special significance for this major theme. Miranda believes that stories survive even when cultures, languages, and entire communities vanish. In addition, she insists that the prevailing story of Indigenous people in California’s mission system, told by missionaries and people of European descent and perpetuated through California’s school system and tourist industry, obscures missionization’s painful brutality toward Indigenous people, whose lives it destroyed. In this centuries-old context of violence and destruction, Miranda introduces her parents, Midgie and Al, a white woman of English, French, and Jewish descent and a dark-skinned man whose ancestors survived the missions. Their turbulent relationship, filled with violent intensity, embodied the broader collision of European and Indigenous people in the Americas.

Parts 1-3 cover nearly two centuries of California Indigenous history. In Part 1, “The End of the World: Missionization, 1770-1836,” Miranda combines historical evidence with creative compositions, such as poems and imagined first-person reflections, to illustrate the violence that her ancestors endured after the Spanish arrived in California. Extreme brutality recurs throughout Bad Indians, both in the historical narrative and in Miranda’s personal story. Miranda’s letter to Vicenta Gutierrez, a young Indigenous girl raped by a priest in the early 19th century, identifies child sexual assault as a particular manifestation of that brutality. Part 2, “Bridges: Post-Secularization, 1836-1900,” shows that violence against Indigenous people didn’t subside with the closing of the missions. The 1849 Gold Rush, coupled with California’s admission to the US the following year, brought a new invasion of greedy prospectors and thieves, who stole land rather than souls. In addition, Part 2 introduces Miranda’s direct ancestors, including her paternal great-grandfather, Tomas Santos Miranda. Part 3, “The Light from the Carrisa Plains: Reinvention, 1900-1961,” features recollections from Tom Miranda, the author’s paternal grandfather. In fact, two-thirds of Part 3 consist of Tom Miranda’s own words, transcribed from audio cassette recordings and handed down to the author sometime in the late 20th century. Tom’s memories range across decades, but familiar themes emerge, including land theft, identity, and suspicion toward the US government.

In Part 4, “Teheyapami Achiska: Home, 1961-Present,” Miranda unites her own personal story with the centuries-long history of California’s “Mission Indians.” Two of Part 4’s lengthiest sections, “Silver” and “Testimony,” focus on two subjects: traumatic violence and Al Miranda, Sr. In many cases, though not all, Miranda’s father appears as the violent perpetrator, beating his son with a belt or holding a knife to his wife’s throat. (Additionally, Miranda briefly describes being raped at age seven by a man named Buddy, a married friend of her mother.) Miranda even learns that her father spent eight years in prison for the brutal rape of a waitress. Overwhelmed by ambivalent feelings—“I love my father. I hate my father” (173)—Miranda introduces the theme of A Legacy of Violence, concluding that her father personified the violence that Indigenous people in California inherited from the missions. Part 4 features Miranda’s half sister, Louise, who compiled and published the first-ever Esselen-English dictionary. With Louise and other mission descendants, Miranda participated in an Indigenous language conference and visited a nearby mission site. She reflects on her fragmented tribe and contemplates its future. In so doing, she develops the theme of Survival and Forging a New Identity, which she mentions in the book’s introduction. The mere fact of Indigenous survival, both individual and collective, recurs throughout the book as something of a miracle at which the author marvels. In addition, Miranda explains that part of forging a new identity requires openness to change, and in her case this transformation occurred most powerfully when she first realized that she could find love with another woman. Although not one of the book’s major themes, the tradition of relationships between members of the same sex in California’s Indigenous communities constitutes a significant undercurrent.

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