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Tlingit Elder's Comments on TOUCHING SPIRIT BEAR and Ben Mikaelsen
(Submitted to American Indians in Children's Literature by Tlingit elder, Eileen Baustian.)
To me, the first thing that comes to mind is embarrassment. When the banishing incident happened in 1993, two teenage Tlingit boys were taken to Klawock, Alaska, by Rudy James, who claimed to be a tribal judge. The whole tribe felt embarrassed by his misrepresentation of our tribal customs. And then to have this book, which was obviously based on this incident, just felt insulting. I just know that Mikaelsen flat-out copied this event for his book. I felt that it was totally bizarre that Mikaelsen would use this incident, even though he denies it.
I really have a hard time, I don’t know how to express what we feel about words, about using words like “at.oow,” which is special regalia. It’s not just a blanket, it’s spirit. It’s the clan’s property. It would never, ever have happened that this kid would be given at.oow. This Tlingit probation officer could not have handed over at.oow. Mikaelsen’s use of that word it implies an understanding and yet the context is inappropriate; it just couldn’t have happened that way. I don’t feel Mikaelsen had the right to use the word without understanding how at.oow is used.
The animal dances, the ancestor rock, the anger rock, the anger stick, I don’t even have any words for this. I kept thinking, where did he come up with this? I can’t even imagine any of these rituals happening today. And the animal-impersonation dances: I thought I’d die. Even if these things all existed, this is a white boy from Minnesota. How would he know how Tlingits move when we dance?
It’s interesting that Mikaelsen says that the Tlingit culture was peripheral to the story, so he didn’t feel he needed to delve into cultural aspects in great depth. But he did go into cultural aspects in great depth; he just made them up. He says that his book was shared with a “First Nation [sic] spiritual leader,” but who is this unnamed spiritual person? Is she/he Tlingit? Does she/he have permission to advise non-Indians about Tlingit culture and ritual?
I can just picture non-Native kids reading this book and thinking they understand Tlingit culture. I can just picture teachers using the “Tlingit culture” in this book as a springboard for cross-cultural exercises. And I can just picture Tlingit kids being very, very embarrassed.