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Hidden histories: a new memoir explores growing up with mixed ethnicity in New Mexico

Deborah Jackson Taffa
Nadav Soroker
Searchlight New Mexico
Deborah Jackson Taffa

A new memoir, Whiskey Tender, by Deborah Jackson Taffa (Quechan and Laguna Puebo) tells the story of growing up first on the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation, among her father's Quechan (Yuma) people, and then in Farmington. As her dad worked in a power plant to try to give his kids a better life, she tried to work out her mixed identity. The story of seeking to understand who she was brings her, and her readers, to the wider tale of trauma and erasure of Indigenous people at the hands of United States' policy.

Taffa, who is director of the MFA CW Program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, spoke to KUNM about the book, beginning with her decision to write it at all.

DEBORAH JACKSON TAFFA: Growing up on reservations and in border towns, I was always taught that we should be private with our stories. There's a lot of worry about appropriation of our traditions, of our customs, even of our stories in Native country. And when my grandkids were born, and I saw that they could become Indigenous men who didn't have a grandmother, if I died before they came of age, that they might not know how to negotiate life in the Americas as both Indigenous and an American citizen.

There's a lot at stake right now. In terms of our democracy and climate change, and our value systems as Indigenous people speak directly to those things. I just think I wanted to be vulnerable in a way that would draw up some hidden histories and things that many Americans don't know about, in a way that touched on my family's private, personal experiences in this country.

KUNM: You write about becoming aware of Native political movements as you were growing up in Farmington. But you were conflicted about your own identity. Can you talk a bit about that?

TAFFA: I don't think I understood as a child that I was having something that was very akin to an immigration experience. Living on your home reservation, which is a sovereign nation, you have family, you have customs, you're taught your value systems in sort of an intact home-like environment. But we crossed that border and were moved in this great migration. Many people know about this great African American migration from the South up. Very few people know about the Indian Relocation Act and the way it created this huge migration of Indigenous people off reservations to cities and small rural towns. So when we arrived in Farmington, it was like I was you know, I was a migrant, I was an immigrant and a new mainstream society that I didn't understand. More importantly, my parents didn't understand. To complicate matters, I was a minority Indian in a Navajo majority. So I just couldn't fit in and it created identity issues for me, certainly, as a child.

KUNM: You write about a distant relative, Sarah Winnemucca, in the book. Can you talk about her and whether you identify with her at all?

TAFFA: Sarah Winnemucca was very famous for creating a persona of herself as an Indian princess. Even though the terminology, that moniker 'princess' is something that does not exist in Native America, she did everything she could to dramatically enact something for the imagination of white people so that she could get them to donate money to her cause, which was to save her people during the Bannock War. So she was a black sheep in our family, because since she was a translator during the Bannock War, and she spoke both English and her native tongue, a lot of people thought of her as a traitor. Of course, as I grew older, I came to appreciate her and I do see what I am doing is fraught. It's why it took a decade for me to write the book because there are many ethical considerations when you're creating a persona in an attempt to highlight issues that affect your entire population, your entire tribe.

KUNM: You didn't want to be part of the erasure of your people, but then you had the challenge of writing about a culture that isn't material for the most part. Can you talk a bit about how to go about doing that?

TAFFA: We're extreme non materialist, right, Quechan people? We let go one of our last remaining ceremonies because the bird singers who took part in it, different clans serve different roles, their elder died before he could pass the songs on and rather than try to recreate it, they said, never grasp at anything material. Even ceremonies must evolve and must change and we must evolve as people.

And so you can imagine that recording or writing down in a book that is such a static sort of product,. things when that sort of the value system of the culture, you can imagine exactly how I've broken taboos. And I think in some ways, it's the role of an artist to break taboos. And I don't want to be complicit with the erasure of my people. My great granny Ethel was born in the late 1800s. mere years after Geronimo was finally captured and shipped to Florida to be in prison. So my memories of my grandparents and my great-grandparents are something that I don't want to lose and having been able to depict them in a book for posterity is very meaningful to me. I don't want them to be forgotten: they gave a great deal to this country.

Alice Fordham joined the news team in 2022 after a career as an international correspondent, reporting for NPR from the Middle East and later Latin America and Europe. She also worked as a podcast producer for The Economist among other outlets, and tries to meld a love of sound and storytelling with solid reporting on the community. She grew up in the U.K. and has a small jar of Marmite in her kitchen for emergencies.
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