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Cathy Robbins Thinking Aloud

After 1491, What do we do for American Indians?

March 6, 2013

Tags: American Indians, Native Americans, 1491, Charles Mann


So what can we do for American Indians? I often hear that question. Most recently, it came up during a book club consideration of Charles Mann’s 1491, which was published in 2005. Mann gave readers an eye-popping look at indigenous peoples in the Americas before the Europeans started streaming in. He reported on archaeological and historical records that portrayed a hemisphere teeming with people of diverse cultures. Some, like the Aztecs, were highly-structured societies, with classes, hierarchies and enormous wealth. Others, for instance in the New England area, were more “democratic,” with decision-making spread among all levels. (more…)

Getting Healthy, the Native Way

February 22, 2013

Tags: American Indians, Surgeon-General, American Indian physicians, American Indian doctors, health, Mark Bittman, health care, alternative medicine


Mark Bittman, in his column in the New York Times, recently remarked that few Americans know the name of our current Surgeon-General. Her name is Regina Benjamin, and she is, in a sense, “the nation’s doctor.” But Bittman contends that she is not doing much to keep us healthy. Benjamin is especially weak in addressing the role of “big food” in making us one of the unhealthiest industrialized nations in the world. American Indians have some of the worst health outcomes in the U.S. But can we learn anything about getting healthy the Native way?

American Indian healing is centuries old. And as far as Indians are concerned, it works! In a survey taken at an Indian Health Service Clinic in Milwaukee, 38 percent of patients said (more…)

Bones Make a Difference

February 12, 2013

Tags: Richard III, American Indians, American Indian remains, Native Americans, repatriation, skeletal remains

The people of Pecos and Jemez Pueblo accompany the remains of their ancestors―behind them in the white semi-truck―to their final rest. Photo by Cary Herz.

Bones! American Indians must have felt the pain of remembrance when the remains of Richard III were displayed, and the world responded with a “frenzy of forensic romance,” according to Newsweek. The monarch’s bones had rested serenely under the asphalt of a parking lot in England until researchers found them and confirmed his identity. He met a gruesome end at the Battle of Bosworth field in 1485, and his body, which showed signs of two lethal blows to the head as well as “humiliation” wounds after death, was simply stuffed into a grave. Richard violent death ended a (more…)

State of the American Indians Nations, A Speech

January 29, 2013

Tags: American Indians, American Indian sovereignty, National Congress of American Indians, Embassy of Nations, State of the American Indian Nations

The staff of the National Congress of American Indians gather at the organization’s new headquarters, the Embassy of Tribal Nations, in the heart of the diplomatic enclave in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of the National Congress of American Indians.

Since 2003, every year, the president of the National Congress of American Indians presents the State of Indian Nations. The message is timed precisely - just a few days after the State of the Union address from the president of the United States - and it reaffirms the sovereign status of nearly 600 tribes and nations.

In the State of the Union message, the president reports on the condition of the country and sets out his vision and agenda for dealing with issues and problems. The U.S. Constitution mandates a regular report from the president to Congress, and since 1790, since George Washington produced the first such report, an American President has delivered a State of the Union either in writing or in a talk. The message is not simply a (more…)

Dissing American Indians, Part III: Send the cops away

January 15, 2013

Tags: American Indians, American Indian crime, American Indian police, U.S. Dept. of Justice, Indian law, Indian sovereignty, American Indian self-determination


What happens when American Indians call the federal cops to investigate a rape or a murder? Too often, nobody answers. On reservations, when the feds drop the ball, understaffed tribal police departments are unable to cope with the resulting mayhem.

Step back about a 150 years. At that time, white America was mopping up. Settlers, developers, mining and timber interests, and railroad companies were chewing up much of Indian country not just stealing land but also slaughtering bison and destroying other sources of Native sustenance. To stop Indians’ understandable resistance to this wholesale grab, the U.S. government sent the cavalry and finally entered into treaties to end the Indian wars. Indians laid down their arms and gave up much of their lands and resources. In exchange, the federal government set aside some lands for reservations in exchange for food, education, health, and policing for reservations. (more…)

American Indians, Part II: Victoria’s Dirty Indian Secret

January 9, 2013

Tags: Victoria’s Secret, pow wow porn, American Indians, Indian, Native Americans, war bonnet, regalia

Karlie Kloss struts onto Victoria Secret’s runway with ceremonial war bonnet and layers of American Indian jewelry. No Indian woman would be caught dead with such a getup. Credit: http://www.change.org/petitions/victoria-s-secret-apologize-for-using-a-native-american-headdress-in-their-2012-fashion-show

Victoria’s Secret has a dirty Indian secret―”pow wow porn.” During its annual show at the end of 2012, the lingerie company sent one of its favorite scantily clad models out on the runway wearing a long American Indian war bonnet and draped in turquoise and silver jewelry. Within 24 hours, reaction to this offensive display of corporate ignorance found its way onto social networks and then into the national media, including the Huffington Post. (Victoria’s Secret is an equal opportunity offender. Earlier in the year, the company also released an Asian-themed line of lingerie that a writer in Jezebel Magazine "traded in sexualized, generic pan-Asian ethnic stereotypes.")

Victoria’s Secret’s outrage was one of the more extreme instance of whites appropriating Native beliefs or items in order to hype some product or activity. In 2009, several people died when an (more…)

Dissing American Indians, Part I: A Month a Year

January 7, 2013

Tags: American Indians, Native Americans, Native American Heritage Month, All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos)


November is Native American Heritage Month. It’s a good opportunity to acknowledge our oldest inhabitants, but a month a year just doesn’t do the job of revealing the rich Native heritage and more importantly the lives of contemporary Indians and their communities. White Americans’ continual disregard for and ignorance about Americans is the most basic form of disrespect.

Perhaps we were luckier than most Americans in our access to American Indians. Living for many years in Albuquerque, NM, a place with a significant percentage of Indians, we had many opportunities to meet Native people. Just thirty minutes away was San Felipe Pueblo, where friends welcomed us for family and holiday celebrations. About 30,000 of New Mexico’s Pueblos live in (more…)

Indians and Thanksgiving

December 19, 2012

Tags: Thanksgiving, Indians and Thanksgiving, American Indians, Native Americans, American Indians and Thanksgiving, Native Americans and Thanksgiving, hospitality


Americans can easily recite the story of the first Thanksgiving. In 1621, a group of 53 colonists at Plymouth, MA, after enduring a harsh winter, sat with nearby American Indians - Wampanoag - for a harvest feast. Chief Massasoit himself and some of his men hunted for some deer that they brought to the feast.

What followed the arrival of the Europeans in North America, though, was not quite so festive. As many as 90 percent of the thousands of Wampanoags in Massachusetts and the offshore islands had already succumbed to disease, at first thought to be small pox but subsequently determined to be some other fever condition. By 1621, although they were as weakened as the colonists, they continued to welcome the outsiders. Then in the 1670s, their resistance to conquest led to the near obliteration of the tribes. The English confiscated their lands and enslaved the survivors. (more…)

Blood and American Indians: Part 2

November 5, 2012

Tags: American Indians, Native Americans, blood quantum, Elizabeth Warren, Who is Indian


Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts, finds herself caught in the dilemma of “blood quantum.” Most white Americans don’t know what this term means, but it is the hottest issue in Indian country, because it raised the question, “Who is Indian?” Warren just doesn’t have the “paper,” the “proof” of her Cherokee/Osage ancestry.

Whites imposed “blood quantum” on Indian identity in the nineteenth century, and through Elizabeth Warren, other Americans know more about it. As Native resistance to American conquest unleashed brutal battles across the West, the federal government (more…)

Spain the Global Power

October 25, 2012

Tags: Globalization, Spain, American Indians, The New World, Conquistadores, New Mexico, De Soto, Coronado, Cabrillo

Cabrillo exploration

We think of globalization as a new phenomenon, but 500 years ago, great powers competed for resources across the Americas, in what we call the United States today. In the New World, European nations sought minerals (especially gold), furs, access to trade routes, sea lanes, and land.

Spain had a head start, with its colony in Mexico. In the 1530s, she launched a campaign designed to counter the Russians moving down the from the Pacific Northwest coast, the French from the North (Canada) and the English from the East. Three well-equipped Spanish expeditions headed into what is today the United States. At the eastern end of the continent, Hernando de Soto sailed from Cuba, landing at present-day Tampa in 1539. During the next three years, he used the Panhandle as a base to survey the area from the Carolinas to Texas. Native peoples resisted, and (more…)

About the book tour: San Diego

April 7, 2012

Tags: Kumeyaay, Navajo, Hopi, Pueblo, Barnes and Noble, book events, book tour, author signings, American Indians, Native Americans, Teepees, Casinos, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, San Diego

Jane Dumas, the heroine of the introduction, with Teepees/Casinos


Apr. 7, 2012
About the book tour: San Diego

In sunny San Diego, I had two author events in November 2011, one for the general public at the Downtown (Main) Library and another for San Diego Independent Scholars (SDIS) at the University of California at San Diego.

I spoke in the library's Wangenheim Room, the rare book room, a marvellous venue that was designed to look like a library in the home of a well-off family in the late 19th-early 20th century. Well-polished dark wood book shelves line walls, rugs cover the wood floors. Some glass cases display some of the room's treasures. One of them--not on display that evening--is a complete multi-volumed edition of Edward Curtis' original Native Americans of North America. Only about 300 were printed, and today, libraries and collectors guard those sets. In 2007, when I was living in San Diego, the library put some of the set on display in the Wangenheim Room, and I had the opportunity to see the exhibit and write about Curtis.

So this event was like a homecoming for me. About 15 people lively and engaged people attended--not bad given the warnings I had had about no one showing up! The talk was easy, because the introduction of the book was set in San Diego and the Kumeyaay of that area. So I read some of the chapter, and then threw it open for discussion. I had told the audience that some of them probably knew more about the Kumayaay than I did, and I was right!

The second event was also a homecoming. Again, while living in San Diego, I had been a member of SDIS. This is one of a half-dozen groups around the country composed of writers, scholars and intellectuals who have no academic affiliation but who work to publish valuable work in various fields. SDIS simply meets at UCSD for convenience; the university gives the group the chancellor's conference room for its monthly meeting.

I was November's featured speaker, and I was delighted to see familiar faces. This too is an active and engaged group, but they expected more and different! Besides content, they wanted to know how I had come to write the book, what challenges I faced, and other questions relating to scholarship and marketing. Like the library group, they were also knowledgeable about some of the subject matter.

San Diego ilustrates one of the lesser-known issues that authors face, namely, simply selling books at events. Bookstores are easy. They order the books from the warehouse, take care of the transactions , and handle the books after you leave (putting some on the shelf for later sale, returning those they can't sell). You just have to entertain and sign books. At both San Diego meetings, I had to sell the books myself--on a cash basis-- because neither organizations had mechanisms for charge cards or handling money. My friend Marina Bezzatti helped me out at the library, and I handled it alone at SDIS. But you have to work fast and do your own record-keeping.

Great to be back in San Diego. This is a place with a gorgeous landscape and natural environment that unfortunately has been badly damaged by urban sprawl of all types: tacky subdivisions, high-end enclaves, shopping centers that obliterate the San Diego River, a tourism and entertainment industry that threatens to slip into honky-tonk, freeways that become parking lots at rush hour. Fortunately, here and there, especially around downtown San Diego, a few graceful neighborhoods and wonderful institutions like the library survive. Can San Diego be saved?

On the Road

March 21, 2012

Tags: Barnes and Noble, book events, book tour, author signings, American Indians, Native Americans, Teepees, Casinos, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, San Diego



March 21, 2012
About the book tour: Portland, Barnes and Noble

Since my last post (see below), I’ve been thinking about how to write about the book events. Chronologically? Geographically? Or in some other order?

Well, let’s take a look at the chain versus the indie book stores and within that categorization, I’ll write about the audience and their community.

First stop: Barnes and Noble, Portland. The chain is valiantly trying to hold on to its store patrons—thanks! Author events and book fairs are plentiful. Each store, though, differs greatly on how it organizes these activities. In Portland, the store at Lloyd Center was just terrific, thanks to events coordinator Steve Chandler. From the moment I contacted him, he has an idea in mind—a Saturday book fair devoted to American Indians with my book as the centerpiece at an afternoon author’s event. A portion of the proceeds of sales throughout the store that day would go to a Native organization serving family and youth.

With that kind of enthusiasm, I went a step beyond, too. Instead of just a talk, I contacted Karen Kitchen, the head of the Indian program in the Portland Public Schools and asked her to join me for a program on education for urban Indians, a topic I cover in one of my chapters. She rounded up a Native high schooler who spends her summers with her Navajo grandparents. I also asked Dean Azule, the head of the Native American Student Center at Portland State, to participate. He was eager to do it, and I arrived in Portland a day early to attend a meet-and-greet at the Center. Unfortunately, on the day of the event, Dean was down with the flu.

But we had a great event. I had the sense to leave most of the program to Karen and her young friend. They were inspired. Karen described the Indian program in PPS, a small one compared with Albuquerque’s, which I write about. But the issues are similar—cultural dislocation, language fluency but great richness. The young student she brought revealed a level of wisdom I did not have at her age; I even forgot to take notes on her wonderful talk—or write down her name! She is bi-tribal—from an Oregon tribe and Navajo. In her school, she said, she gets her education in science and other subjects and plays the sports she loves. Then during the summer, she goes to her grandparents on the Navajo Nation. There she listens carefully to elders and others who have other lessons to teach her. These, she said, help ground her and make her strong.

We had a good audience of about 30 people, and Steve was quite happy to sell 14 books. I will personally donate a portion of the proceeds to the Portland State Native Center.

That was Barnes and Noble Portland. Stay tuned for more.


March 8, 2012
I've been AWOL. Yes--on the road marketing Teepees/Casinos. Sales of the book are going well, and the publisher is planning a second printing.

Since November, I’ve done more than a dozen author events--talks--in San Jose, San Diego, San Francisco, Albuquerque, Portland and Seattle. Leaving boxes unopened and pictures wrapped and unhung, I went on the road just about six weeks after we had moved into our new apartment in San Francisco.

Now I'm taking a break!

We've organized the garage and hung some pictures. My lap swimming and Y workouts are on a regular schedule. I'm exploring nearby neighborhoods for provisions, going to the ballet, concerts, movies, and spending time with family and on community service.

I also have some space to think and to revel in that freedom. It gives me more time for this blog. First of all, I'd like to tell you about my marketing travels. If you dream of writing a book, you have to get it into readers' hands, and you do that with marketing. So listen up!

Each author event--sometimes called a book event--was different, and they were all the same. Some were more successful than others. Turnout is important, and in the most successful, we had up to 30 people, a large—maybe huge—number, organizers told me. The least successful was a meet-and-greet at a Barnes and Noble along the car dealer strip of Stevens Creek Blvd. in San Jose. I had a small table near the entrance with my books and some Indian items I’d brought from home. Only one person—a friend made the effort to come. I snagged a few others as they came in the door. Also not successful was the one at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle as a record snow storm barreled across the city; I was lucky that my flight out of town got off the ground before the airport was closed.

But just using turnout as a criterion, the rest were successful events: Bookworks in Albuquerque; Book Passage in Corte Madera, one of the Bay Area's top indie book store, just across the Golden Gate from the city; the main library of the San Francisco Public Library; the San Diego Public Library (downtown); San Diego Independent Scholars (La Jolla); Barnes and Noble stores at the Pruneyard in Campbell and at Lloyd Center in Portland. I also spoke to two elementary school classes at the Hillbrook School in Los Gatos; they are a different order of event!

You might think that the number of books sold is another criterion for success, but that is not the case. Over and over, I have heard from marketing people that these events are not for selling books. Rather they are for raising visibility. While I did sell books at some of them, what was more important was the publicity they generated: a full-page story in the entertainment supplement of the San Francisco Chronicle; long pieces with plenty of photos in the Santa Fe New Mexican’s Pasatiempo and in Seattle’s Real Change; in Albuquerque, a fine review in the Albuquerque Journal, a 20-minute segment on New Mexico In Focus (KNME/PBS), an hour on Native America Calling. Some publicity came from the venues themselves: Book Passage's the large-circulation newsletter ; the web sites of the San Francisco and San Diego Public Libraries; Barnes and Noble stores' publicity machine.

I was going to just mention each event in passing, but the more I think about it, the more I feel that each needs more time and space. In many ways, they all reflect the communities where they happened. I’ll noodle it and get back to you!

New article covers the book thoroughly

February 3, 2012

Tags: American Indians, Native Americans, newspapers, booklovers


Casey Sanchez wrote a thorough article about Teepees/Casinos in last Friday's Pasatiempo, the fat weekly magazine of the Santa Fe New Mexican. Sanchez managed to cover a number of topics I cover in the story, which splashed over 2-3 tabloid-sized pages with plenty of pictures. Unfortunately, Pasatiempo is not available on line, but I have it on my hard drive as a jpg, so I'll post that! Thanks Casey for a good job!

This follows a terrific piece a couple of weeks ago in the hefty 96 Hours section of the San Francisco Chronicle. Wirtten by Louis Peitzman, a Los Angeles writer. See the text posted on the reviews page!

Thanks San Francisco

February 3, 2012

Tags: Booklovers, San Francisco, Library, American Indians, Native Americans



Had a wonderful turnout for a book event at the San Francisco Public Library Main. Glad you came and enjoyed the talk. Thanks to Joan Jasper at the events department. I'll visit the Merced branch for its monthly salon on Feb. 22, at 7 pm., 155 Winston Drive, across 19th Ave. from Stonestown.

A Remarkable Woman, from Navajo to San Francisco

January 26, 2012

Tags: American Indians, Native Americans, booklovers, San Francisco, urban Indians



Helen Waukazoo hasn’t changed much since I saw her last in 2005, when a dream came true. On a brilliant sunny spring day in the San Francisco's Mission District, the new Friendship House opened with a dedication ceremony.

Helen had guided Friendship House for more than 30 years, arriving from boarding school, a relocated Navajo who nearly fled the city on the Bay. She had never seen so many people in one place. Even after nearly 40 years in the Bay Area, Helen still has traces of her singing Navajo language. She returns to her home on the reservation near Crownpoint, New Mexico at least twice a year.

On that spring day, a drum group drawn from various tribes, with dancers in regalia and singers, VIPs from the city, and other visitors from the American Indian community in San Francisco and beyond represented the promise of the new Friendship House.

In the crowd, the building’s Chinese-American architects looked puzzled as they surveyed the thickly woven Pendleton blankets given to them. Someone finally explained to them that the blankets were gestures of respect and thanks.

The spanking fresh building they had designed was an 85-bed treatment facility for substance abusers and alcoholics and, frankly, any American Indian floundering in the big city or who simply wanted to see a familiar Native face or receive a healing touch. Friendship House has the only licensed sweat lodge in San Francisco—just one example of its culturally-based healing.

Friendship House had come a long way since Helen arrived in the 1960s. After boarding school, she and some girlfriends knew that jobs would be hard to find on the reservation, a place of excruciating beauty and painful economic distress.

They opted for San Francisco, where Helen took a job as a clerk-typist at the Christian Reform Church's Friendship House, which received a growing number of relocated--and disoriented-- Indians. By 1973 the American Indian community in the Bay Area increased by 27 percent and a new generation of Indians far from home appeared at Friendship House's door, as culture-shocked as she had been. Helen had moved up to bookkeeper, and she would become executive director in 1987.

The ribbon-cutting for the new Friendship House spoke of a long history and a long promise for thousands of American Indians in San Francisco. The budget is at $4 million, and the $12-million Friendship House is the nation’s largest facility for Indian substance abusers.

Helen is 70 now and she knows Friendship House's leadership will change, so she’s writing a “practices” manual and a history for the new boss, whoever that is. Sitting before me, she dispenses advice on caring for elderly parents, fields phone calls, and grills me about my book. I’d just given her a thank-you copy. One entire wall of shelves in her sun-drenched office holds family photos, awards, and Navajo and other Indian pots, baskets and art. I can’t imagine anyone else at that desk.

For more, see pages 110-112 of All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos).