“The only good Indians I ever knew were dead.”—General Philip Sheridan
Indian outlaws, banditos, renegades,
rebels, lazy Indians, sinful Indians, you gamblers
who squatted out behind the church instead of assuming
the missionary position behind the plow;
oh, lusty Indians who tied bones to sheets
thrown out of the women’s monjeria, climbed
up that swaying skeleton of salvation
and made unsanctified love all night, oh,women
who tossed down those sheets, hear my prayer.
Hail troublemakers, horse thieves, fornicators, I implore
you, polygamists, Deer Dancers, idol-worshippers,
chasers of loose women, heathens who caroused
in the hills, stole wine from the sacristy,
graffiti’d Indian designs on the church wall,
told Coyote stories instead of practicing Catechism,
torched mission wheat fields, set fire to tule roofs,
ran away, were captured, flogged, put in stocks or irons,
ran away again—help me, suffer me, in this hour of loss.
I ask for your grace, you dirty Indians, you stupid Indians
who wouldn’t learn Spanish or English, lazy bastards
who mumbled “no quiero,” when asked to load wagons
with tons of stinking skins, who chased the bottle
instead of cattle, who were late for Mass, confessed
everything and regretted nothing, took the whip
thick as a fist, laughing; you who loved soapstone
charms, glass beads, eagle feathers but wouldn’t learn
proper usage of land or gold; have mercy on my weakness.
Queens of earth, you women who sold yourselves
for a tortilla, a handful of beans, the dog’s meat;
sons of incorrigible cattle thieves like Juan Nepomuceno
who could no longer find elk or deer or salmon;
cabecillas, ringleaders like Hilario, who endured
the novenario for throwing a stone at a missionary –
twenty-five lashes on nine separate days – and then,
on nine consecutive Sundays, forty more, oh my martyrs
grant me strength, grant me courage in my desperation.
Oh magnificent Aniceto, who refused to name thieves
of money, chocolate, shoes, string, knives from the presidio –
thirteen years old, you took a flogging in silence;
oh renowned Yozcolo, alcalde from Mission Santa Clara
who raided mission stores, freed two hundred women
from the monjeria; dear Atanasio, found guilty of stealing
from the comisario, shot dead by a firing squad at seventeen
years of age, begging for your life as you knelt in the estuary
at Monterey – guide me out of the stone walls of this cell.
Accept my praisesong, you women who aborted
pregnancies conceived in rape by soldier or priest,
attend me, barren Indian woman stripped and prodded,
who refused to let Father Ramon Olbes examine
your genitals or test your fertility – you, who bit him,
suffered fifty lashes, shackles, imprisonment, a shaven head,
forced to carry a wooden false baby for nine days;
blessed Apolinaria, midwife, curandera, dancer,
keeper of potent medicines – heal me.
Ever full of faith, Pomponio, who cut off your heel
with your own knife to slip out of leg irons, terrible
heart of Toypurina, shaman revolutionary who dared
raise your gods against Spain’s, blessed Chumash woman
who heard the earth goddess Chupa tell you to rebaptize
neophytes in the tears of the sun; Licquisamne,
most merciless Estanislao, telling the Padre,
“We are rising in revolt . . . we have no fear
of the soldiers”; make me unrepentant.
Oh valiant Venancio, Julian, Donato, Antonio,
Lino, Vicente, Miguel, Andres, Emiliana, Maria Tata
who suffocated Father Andres Quintana at Santa Cruz
before he could test his new wire-tipped whip;
oh Nazario, personal cook to Fr. Panto at San Diego,
who slipped 'yerba,' powdered cuchasquelaai,
into the padre’s soup after enduring 124 lashes
(you said, “I could find no other way
to revenge myself”); I beseech your tenderness.
Oh unholy pagans who refused to convert
oh pagans who converted, oh pagans who recanted,
oh converts who survived, hear our supplication:
make us in your image, grant us your pride.
Ancestors, illuminate the dark civilization we endure.
Teach us to love untamed, inspire us to break rules,
remind us of your brutal wisdom learned so dearly:
even dead Indians are never
—Deborah A. Miranda
Note: The source of this poem, besides all the “Bad Indians” I found in my research (these are all true stories), was an article from the New York Times titled “Bad Indian Goes on Rampage at Santa Ynez.”
This poem first appeared in Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir, by Deborah A. Miranda (Heyday Press, 2012). We thank the publisher for permission.