About the Author
A journalist for more than 30 years, Catherine C. (Cathy) Robbins is now at work on her next book, A Torrid Splendor: Finding Calabria. Her first book, All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos)--short title Teepees--about contemporary American Indians, was published by the University of Nebraska Press, through it trade imprint Bison Books. Teepeesis now in its second printing.
Robbins’ byline has appeared in national and regional publications, including The New York Times, High Country News, San Francisco Chronicle,San Jose Mercury-News, as well as in local publications, such as the Albuquerque Journal,, where she was a staff reporter, the Albuquerque Tribune,, Crosswinds Weekly, and voiceofsandiego.org.
Although Robbins had worked on high school and college newspapers, her career began in earnest when she moved to New Mexico in 1969. She has published stories on politics, the arts, business, social issues, and the environment, and people and issues in the American Indian community. An award-winning reporter, Robbins was named Woman of Achievement by New Mexico Press Women.
Robbins is a native New Yorker and grew up in an Italian immigrant family. After 35 years of living in New Mexico, she and her husband currently reside in San Francisco, California. Robbins has degrees from Columbia and New York Universities. The Robbinses have two grown children and three grandchildren.
Oddly, my immigrant background gave me some insights into Indian people. Their tribulations and triumphs seemed similar to those of immigrants, who were strangers in a strange land. But Indians are not strangers and this land is not strange; indeed, for them, this continent is an old, familiar and beloved homeland. The trouble comes because the rest of America has tried for five centuries to turn Indians into strangers, to put Indians into boxes, physically onto reservations and psychologically into the safety of stereotypes. White Americans have always miscalculated the deeply-felt attachment of Indians to their homes.
Teepees tries to cure this persistent amnesia by showing how Indians--daily, in small and significant ways--are reconnecting. The impetus for this energy is NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which was passed in 1990. Through NAGPRA, American Indians are reclaiming more than the bodies of their ancestors and the "artifacts" that white America tore out of the ground for centuries, often in the name of science. Through the force of repatriation, they are also reclaiming their homes.
Italy, my ancestral homeland, too, is fertile ground for archaeologists and tourists who visit "ruins" with little thought to the possibility that those places are still alive with memories and stories that bind the present and the future with the past.
I grew up in a tightly-knit family that had emigrated from Italy on the cusp of World War II. A few, those with pressing family obligations, stayed behind. But for the most part, the immigrants came to work and raise families in the New World. My brother and I and our cousins were the first of the "Americans" born here, the first generation to go to college, to work in offices.
As an Italian, I lived with Columbus, the hero who was no hero. So cruel was he to New World natives and so avaricious that his European masters called him back for punishment. I understand the fury of American Indians who see this man celebrated.
I would like to see Columbus Day turned into a time set aside for reclaiming our joint history on this land. Columbus was a bad guy, but his journeys changed history forever, in ways that most Americans do not comprehend. In the chapter on the arts, I write about James Luna, a La Jolla Luiseno artist who took his installation and performance pieces to the Venice Biennial. As part of a performance, he dressed as a gondolier, and an assistant served him an espresso. The small drama was more than mere whimsy, however; it collapsed time and distance.
My heritage and the insights I gained also gave me an edge, compelling me to look closely and question. Certainly, those are qualities that a good reporter needs. Producing a book is something else, and writing Teepees has been a real challenge. To go from articles that never exceeded 3,000 words to a manuscript of 300,000 or more words has been exhilarating and exhausting.
Teepees, however, is not an apologia, an atonement. The European conquest was not too different from other conquests in the service of power, enrichment, or racial superiority. Genghis Khan swept across the steppes, the Romans and later the Nazis over Europe, the Turks to the gates of Vienna, the Incas over the west coast of South America. Few of the conquests occurred without great cruelty. In the New World, natives sometimes had their own agendas. They took sides in conflicts among Europeans in the Americas or even in European campaigns against their brothers.
At the least, however, we can acknowledge what happened. I have gone a bit further. While not ignoring the often horrific circumstances of the European conquest--murder, forced marches, ethnic cleansing, genocides--I marvel at what Native America offers to modern America.
What fools we are to ignore or reject the gifts that American Indians offer in areas as diverse as cuisine, science, the arts, and family and social organization. Their achievements grow out of adversity combined with the remembrances that gave them strength and joy.
I have been lucky. Living in New Mexico, I was deep in Indian Country, and native friends were my guides. My children met people and attended ceremonials that their eastern cousins could not imagine.
I can do nothing less than share my luck.