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Deborah Jackson Taff’s memoir explores life, history

Deborah Jackson Taffa will discuss her memoir, “Whiskey Tender,” next week at Maria’s Bookshop. (Courtesy)

Deborah Jackson Taffa’s debut memoir, “Whiskey Tender,” is an amazing mixture of deeply personal experiences and a well-researched history of Indigenous people’s treatment in the United States after America was “discovered.”

The author was born in Yuma, the first of her family born off the Yuma reservation. Her mother, Lorraine Lopez Herrera but called Rainy, came from a Hispanic family, while her father, Edward Jackson III, was Quechuan and Laguna. Her two older sisters are Joan and Lori. After Deborah came Monica, then Theresa and Ted, both born in Farmington.

If you go

WHAT: Author event and book-signing with Deborah Taffa, author of “Whiskey Tender.”

WHEN: 6 p.m. Wednesday.

WHERE: Maria’s Bookshop, 960 Main Ave.

MORE INFORMATION: Visit https://tinyurl.com/5n88r42c.

The Yuma reservation offered little opportunity for most residents and jobs were scarce. Edward took advantage of training that was made possible by the Indian Relocation Act to become a skilled welder. Deborah’s mother was a stay-at-home mom and a devout Catholic. The church was a large part of Deborah’s education as well. Her father worked many extra jobs so that the children could go to private Catholic schools. Her parents were strict and expected them to rise above most others from the reservation. Edward and Lorraine did everything they could to raise their children to grow and succeed in a world that wished to ignore or dismiss them.

The Jacksons moved to Farmington after Edward got a good job at the Four Corners Coal Plant. This was shortly after three Navajo men were brutally murdered by three high school students in April 1974. The murders were so heinous it made national news and brought federal investigators to Farmington.

The town was so dangerous to Native Americans that between 2013 and 2015, there were 170 unnatural deaths. There were other towns in New Mexico where they were targeted for violence and murder. In Albuquerque, some of the worst violence against Native Americans was done by the local police.

Adapting to living in a city was scary for Deborah and she was homesick. She threw herself into her schoolwork, because for the first time she was going to a public school. She encountered prejudice and low expectations from both the teachers and other students. Deborah was in a kind of limbo, too dark for the whites and too light for Native Americans.

Deborah was aching to know more about her Indigenous roots. She was the only Jackson child with the burning desire to learn about the family history on her father’s side. The library was a favorite place for her to hang out. Luckily, Edward was a great storyteller and shared what he knew about his ancestors. Deborah shares a close relationship with her father. Her mother, now, deceased, was another story. Lorraine suffered from depression and wasn’t as close and available as her father was to the children.

As part of her determined research for her memoir, Taffa exposes many injustices inflicted on her ancestors that most Americans have little or no knowledge of. For example, the first governor of California promoted genocide of Native Americans, asking for “a war of extermination.” As Taffa writes: “With the help of the U.S. Army, the California Legislature distributed weapons to vigilantes, who raided Native homes and killed 100,000 of my ancestors in the first two years of the gold rush alone.” This is only one account of these horrific events she has included in her memoir.

Taffa’s memoir holds nothing back as she writes about her unique upbringing and her family’s lives. She has accomplished a lot. She has an MFA in nonfiction writing and is currently director of MFA in the Creative Writing Program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. She also is the mother of five children.

“Whiskey Tender” is a gem that is both a deeply personal story, but also sheds a light on the injustices faced by Indigenous people past and present. It is a must read.

Leslie Doran is a retired teacher and freelance writer.