Thursday, June 11, 2009

Jane Haladay's essay on BEARSTONE by Will Hobbs

Earlier this week, I said I'd be posting a review essay of Will Hobbs' Bearstone. The essay is by friend and colleague, Jane Haladay, an Assistant Professor in American Indian Studies. I am grateful to her for giving it to me. As readers in children's literature know, Will Hobbs is one of the writers who has written a lot of books with Native content. Though I've got a few pages of notes on his Kokopelli's Flute, I've not yet posted my thoughts on it. Suffice it to say (as you'll see when you read Jane's essay), I find it lacking.


Desecrations and Desires:

White Male Fantasy in Will Hobbs’ Bearstone

Jane Haladay, Ph.D.

The University of North Carolina at Pembroke

January was coming to a close, which meant the stressful holiday season, thankfully, would finally be over. The joyful event of watching President Barrack Obama formally take office last week had also come and gone, and it was now time to get back to the business of untangling some serious problems under the leadership of an intelligent, articulate diplomat who, at one point in his Inaugural Address, invoked Scripture to emphasize that “the time has come to set aside childish things.” Fallen Catholic that I am, I still had to say “Amen” to that.

The President obviously wasn’t talking about children’s literature, but to make a leap from the President’s words to literature for children and young adults, it struck me that the time has come not only to set aside literature that contains destructive stereotypical representations of Native peoples, but for all of us to become more vocal about it. People still may or may not listen, but we will at least be aware that we haven’t sat idly by, allowing ongoing generations of ignorant educators and accepting students to continue perpetuating violence in the ways American Indians are represented in children’s and YA lit.

This point was driven home to me a few months earlier, when I groggily clicked open the following email as I sipped my morning coffee:

Dr. Halladay,

I am an eighth grade English teacher. In November my students and I will be reading a novel (BEARSTONE by Will Hobbs) that touches on Ute Indian mythology, stories, etc. I am writing in the hope that you might be able to come speak to my students about American Indian myths and folklore, religion and burial practices, etc. I plan to teach the novel between November 12 and 24. If you can't come, if you know of another member of the department or even a student who might like to speak to my students, please let me know and I will take care of the details here. Thanks for your consdderation [sic].

I looked at my calendar: October 31. Sure enough, Native American Heritage Month was in the wind, the time when many K-12 educators seem to remember Indian peoples for the first and only time during the school year, for better and for worse. Yes, there are plenty of excellent teachers out there doing good work, and there are still plenty who don’t know anything about American Indians and don’t want their fantasies corrected. As it turned out, my exchange with after receiving her email proved to fall in the second category.

While I was tempted to delete this email based on the bad mechanics and the misspelling of my name alone (remember, I hadn’t had my coffee yet), I did not. Thinking this could be another one of those “teachable moments” that we educators are supposed to embrace, urged me instead to respond.

But first, I did two things. Since I had never heard of this book nor its author, I looked up Bearstone on and, not finding it there, on Then I emailed Dr. Debbie Reese, a Native scholar whose research interest is children’s literature for Native American children and youth. The descriptions I read on were troubling. For example, eighth grader Bobby Anderson notes that, “This book really put the fact that being alone is not a good idea into perspective,” while someone identifying her or himself as “A Kid’s Review” alerts us that “Cloyd [Bearstone’s protagonist] is a person that likes to keep thing to himself. He can sometime get really mad that he decides to run away [sic].”

While these descriptions were not especially helpful in allowing me a cursory understanding of what this book was about, one, written by “Roger L. Bagula” (someone possibly over the age of twelve) was extremely telling: “A half Ute, half Navajo is wild and alone. School has failed and his relatives are failing him. He just in time finds an old man to father him. It is a rough story and the boy who calls himself lone bear because of a blue stone he found in a burial cave of the ancient ones. A story of redemption and friendship that grows to love. Very well written and with mining and hunting, besides horses and ranching.” Clearly, there’s a whole lot going on in Bearstone, especially, it seemed, under the heading of taming the wild in a variety of forms.

When Dr. Reese emailed me back about this 154-page novel, which was published in 1989, she confirmed the sense I was already getting about Bearstone’s author. Hobbs makes a good living writing crap, getting guest speaking gigs at conferences, etc. I haven't read the book you've asked about, but KOKOPELLI'S FLUTE is crap.” Unsurprisingly, it turns out that Bearstone, too, is crap.

Meanwhile, I had written to the local teacher to inform her that my speaking to her students about “American Indian myths and folklore, religion and burial practices, etc.” wasn’t going to happen, if indeed I came to speak to her students. But maybe we could work something else out? I wrote:

Thank you so much for your invitation to visit your class. I could probably visit to discuss some of the topics you're interested in, but I would like to read BEARSTONE first, and speak with you about it, before setting a date. I have never heard of this book, which doesn't necessarily mean anything (there are plenty of books I've never heard of), but after reading a description about it online, I have some questions. Have you taught this book before? What do you think of it, and how do students respond? As a teacher of Native American literature (by which I mean, literature written by American Indian authors), I'm always suspicious of literature written by non-Natives that represents Native characters as ‘wild’ or ‘troubled,’ and who – as seems to be true for the boy in BEARSTONE – are ultimately ‘humanized’ by white characters. As I said, I haven't read the book yet, so this is my initial and admittedly superficial response.

If I visit your class, I might raise some of these issues about the text (also in regard to the controversies around writing about sacred objects, burial practices, etc. that you mentioned), if I see these as problematic after I read the novel. In other words, I would probably not give a presentation on Native stories and cultural practices detached from the politics of writing about them. If you're comfortable with that possibility, then let's talk.

This wasn’t exactly the presentation she had hoped for, I guess, since her next reply was less than enthusiastic about the approach I was suggesting. Her thorough response to my email was the longest in our approximately week-long exchange, and she hoped to convince me, it seemed, of why Hobbs book was a good one for any middle school student:

I have taught this book previously and found that the students really connected with Cloyd, the protagonist, as someone of their own age who is searching for identity much as they are. I don't see so much that the boy in the story is ‘rescued’ by anyone. He's a kid with problems like so many other kids have. No one attempts to change him or his cultural beliefs. During the course of the story, he is accepted as he is and given the freedom to explore who he is, make his own choices and mistakes, deal with the consequences of his choices, and learn about the value of love and friendship.

During the study we discuss talismans, which is relative to the title. I focus on the character's growth and the rather significant changes in him from beginning to end. We discuss the relationship between the protagonist and the old man with whom he lives, which becomes one of mutual love and respect by story's end. The author develops themes of growth from adversity (‘the hurt you get over makes you stronger’) and the importance of understanding of one's heritage among others, and frankly I feel that the novel is very respectful of the protagonist's culture….

I am not a scholar of Native American literature; I teach kids who struggle with the issues this character struggles with. My concern is that they take away from this novel some hope that they are not alone, that the world is not out to get them, that literature is a place they can go for escape, but also a means for self-examination and understanding.

After reading this outpouring of her reasons for teaching Bearstone and her analysis of the text, I wondered a bit why she had contacted me in the first place. She seemed to have it all figured out, so why did she need me, “a scholar of Native American literature”? Oh yeah, I realized: to tell her about Ute burial practices and talismans! I would be useful in making more colorful those markers of “Indianness” this text offers up to students, without being able to discuss why the entire premise of the story about a “wild” Indian adolescent who is “straightened out” by a kindly white man is problematic from a Native perspective in the first place. Things seemed to be going from bad to worse pretty quickly.

Hey, I’m hip to the bildungsroman; I taught high school English for eight years before teaching college. I made it clear to the teacher that I have great appreciation for the difficulties middle and high school teachers face in finding meaningful literature that students will actually read and respond to. But is Bearstone a place where American Indian students can go “for escape,” or is it just another space where they are captured, stereotyped, and offended? Could the teacher really assess whether this novel is “very respectful of the protagonist's culture,” when her invitation to have me come and speak about Ute culture suggests she doesn’t really know much, if anything, about it?

The junior high school where she teachers caters to a 15% population of American Indian students; 51% are African American, 30% are white, 3% are “Hispanic,” and 1% are Asian. Robeson County, where the school is located, is the poorest county in the state and, as the home of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, the county also has the highest population of American Indian people in the state. Forty-nine percent of the seventh and eighth graders attending this school are eligible for the free lunch program, a figure 10% higher than the North Carolina state average. During the 2006-2007 school year, this junior high did not make adequate yearly progress in student learning. A majority of the school’s 39 classroom teachers (59%) have fewer than ten years’ teaching experience, a figure that is 5% higher than the state average; also 5% higher than the state average is the teacher turnover rate: 29% to the state’s 24%. Obviously, then, this is a school where providing students with great novels to find “some hope that they are not alone, [and] that the world is not out to get them” is a really, really good idea.

Unfortunately, Bearstone is not such a novel. And you don’t need to be a Ute person nor a Ute scholar (neither of which I am) to understand that Bearstone is definitely not respectful of Ute culture.

Introducing Cloyd, the troubled protagonist of the novel, whom we first meet as he lies his way into an IHS hospital posing as a delivery boy, in hopes of tracking down the Navajo father who abandoned him and his mother when Cloyd was born. Cloyd’s Ute mother, meanwhile, has died giving birth to him. Cloyd has “run away from the Ute group home in Colorado and hitched all the way to Window Rock” (1) on a quest to finally meet his dad, only to discover that his father is a vegetable as a result of an auto accident four years ago. Cloyd, who is fourteen (8), has been seeking a father figure since he was born, but he’s disgusted by the reality of the man he finds: “What he saw terrified him. This wasn’t even a human being. It was more like a shriveled-up mummy attached to a bunch of tubes….How could this be his father? Was it even alive?” (2-3). Cloyd “threw the flowers in the trash” (4) that he had brought for his long-lost dad and departs, without so much as a backward glance. So ends Chapter 1.

If the tragic victimry of the first four pages doesn’t grab your attention, hold on: there’s a lot more to come. By page six, Cloyd is being driven by his white housemother to her white friend Walter Landis’s ranch in the high desert of Colorado, where she is taking Cloyd as a last resort because “[h]e failed all seven of his classes,” either because he won’t or doesn’t know how to do the work due to the four-year gap in his colonial education. “Four years!” Walter exclaims when the housemother tells him about this gap. “Where was he?” “Out in the canyons, herding his grandmother’s goats,” explains Cloyd’s housemother. “I think he’s at least half-wild” (8).

Hobbs offers not a hint of cultural awareness around traditional Indigenous education, or the fact that four years of living in his homelands herding his grandmother’s goats might have taught Cloyd a few things – including his Ute language – which can’t be found within the walls of the group home or the pages of books written in English. Unfortunately, Hobbs’ colonial fantasies of “wild” Indians is one of his least egregious depictions of Native life in Bearstone; at this point in the story, he’s just getting warmed up.

Will Hobbs’ worst assault on cultural sensitivity manifests in a deeply disturbing scene still early in the novel, during which Cloyd is ostensibly reconnecting with his Ute ancestral ways. Rebellious as usual, Cloyd has ditched his housemother to climb the sandstone cliffs behind Walter’s ranch before he has even had a chance to meet Walter. The red-and-white cliffs remind Cloyd of home, and he heads for them because he remembers his grandmother telling him that their people had originally lived in “Colorado, especially the mountains above Durango,” before gold-seeking white men “wanted them out of the way” and they moved to White Mesa (12). After Cloyd makes his harrowing climb up one of the high sandstone cliffs, he rests inside a cool cave. As he rests there, he notices an unusual looking object wedged into a crack in the cave. He then “shimmied into the dark, narrow crack until his hands closed on some kind of a bundle,” which he then takes into the dim light to examine (14).

Unlike Will Hobbs, I will not describe the fictional contents of the infant burial bundle that Cloyd unwraps and inspects in detail. While I imagine Hobbs may have been pleased with the anthropological accuracy with which he describes the sacred objects and human remains in this bundle, it is extremely upsetting to read his description, to which I had a visceral response that made me want to push the book away from me. These details are even more troubling in that Native and other culturally aware readers are asked to believe that Cloyd would not have understood what he was holding before he opened it and, once he did open it, that he would proceed to behave as he does. Hobbs tells us that Cloyd’s grandmother had “talked about such things” and had given him advice about how to handle any burial objects Cloyd might one day come in contact with: “behave carefully, treat the buried one with the utmost respect, and don’t make any mistakes. The Ancient Ones are not people to be trifled with” (15).

It’s extremely difficult to understand why, then, having recalled his grandmother’s reasoned and important words, Cloyd would not only have unwrapped the burial bundle but would go one step further and steal a burial object he finds inside a piece of pottery that rests beside the bundle. When he extracts the pot from the crevice near the bundle, Cloyd’s first thought, after he “took in [the pot’s] beauty and wholeness” was that he had heard that such pots “were worth a thousand dollars unbroken” (15). Cloyd then makes an even more spectacular find: “a small blue stone about two inches long, worn smooth by long handling. Turquoise. Two eyes, a snout, and a humped back. A bear. Surely, a bear to accompany the infant on the long journey” (15).

Cloyd reflects on what his grandmother has told him about the significance of bears to the Ute people, and how “[i]f you could make a bear your personal guardian, you would be a strong man and lucky” (15). Cloyd needs some luck, obviously, so it’s only logical that he decides he needs the bearstone more than the departed infant Ancient One, right? Well sure, especially when you’re a fictional Indian boy whose thinking is being crafted by a white man. In Bearstone, Hobbs’ Indian fantasies won’t get anywhere without the Native protagonist buying into them, right down to ransacking one of his own ancestor’s graves and ruminating upon the expensive pottery and turquoise talismans to be found there. At this point, I was becoming downright queasy about the idea of the teacher wanting me to come to her class to discuss “American Indian myths and folklore, religion and burial practices, etc.,” as her interest at least in burial practices clearly originated in this scene, one that enacts the most violence upon Ute people in the entire short novel.

Cloyd’s story proceeds on pretty much along these problematic lines, with side trips for Cloyd to cut down an entire orchard full of Walter’s beloved peach trees in a fit of rage, trees that Walter’s deceased wife had brought from distant lands and nurtured on the ranch. Now thoroughly disgusted with Cloyd’s lack of response to his many attempts at kindnesses (dang those resistant Indians anyway!), Walter returns Cloyd to his grandmother’s home on the Ute Reservation, where Cloyd knows that “in the slickrock country, he could live wild and free” (63). Oh, did I forget to mention that by now Cloyd has given himself his own Indian name, Lone Bear?

When Cloyd is reunited with his apparently long-suffering grandmother, the one who has educated Cloyd in those Ute traditions he is still aware of, Hobbs does not bother naming her. It isn’t necessary, apparently, as she is merely another white male fantasy of the Indian earth-mother grandma who cooks, offers words of sage counsel to her grandson, and doesn’t bug him with silly questions. Hobbs describes Cloyd’s grandmother as “A Ute woman in the old style,…dark, earthy, and large, the mainstay of her diet being frybread” (64). Cloyd stays for one meal with his grandmother, but is all the while feeling so guilty about having chainsawed down the old white man’s peach trees that he leaves immediately after the meal to hitchhike back and ask for a second chance with Walter. And that’s the most we hear about Grandma for the remainder of the novel. Cloyd, it seems, has an easy time of putting his blood relatives and his entire community out of his mind when he has a chance to show a white rancher what he’s really worth.

Of course Walter takes Cloyd back (hooray!), and for the remainder of the novel, the two are up in the mountains where Walter is trying to revive his dream, with Cloyd’s help, of striking it rich in his dilapidated gold mine. One passage in this section contains perhaps the most direct critique of colonialism in the book, although it doesn’t make up for the rest of the nonsense and is really one more token nod by Hobbs to the tragic “demise” of Native culture at the hands of “conquering” whites. Cloyd recalls that his grandmother had told him that:

The uranium made you get sick and die early….She never said if gold made you sick. But then he remembered what she said about gold. It made people crazy and dishonest. First the white men promised the Utes they could keep the mountains forever, but that was before gold was discovered and miners came pouring in. The white men forgot all about their promise. The Utes were told to stay out of the mountains. They couldn’t roam around anymore and live in the old way. (91)

Even here, describing the lifeways of Ute people as “roaming around” to “live in the old way” evokes a sense of aimless and anachronistic drifting, rather than suggesting the sophisticated patterns of Ute land use that resulted in their traditional patterns of seasonal migration.

Bearstone is a frustrating book not only because of Will Hobbs’ white fantasies about Indian exoticism, or because of his offensive, stereotypical depictions of much of his subject matter. The book is also troublesome because it actually raises real issues that American Indian youth and their communities experience, but it does not offer any larger context to attempt achieving real understanding by a general readership as to why these issues exist. For example, during Cloyd’s one brief visit to his Grandmother, “Cloyd wanted to talk. He’d spoken no Ute in the last year, as the boys from the Colorado reservation no longer knew the language. Right away he found himself telling her about Walter…” (64). This passage does not clarify whether Cloyd is speaking English or Ute. Does being with Grandmother reinvigorate his fluent Ute, is Grandmother speaking English, or is Cloyd speaking English and Grandmother speaking Ute? It matters, but we don’t know. We know only that “the boys from the Colorado reservation no longer knew the language,” though we don’t know whether these boys are living at off-reservation boarding schools, at Cloyd’s group home, or if they are still on the reservation. At the same time, while the implication that Ute language has vanished with Cloyd’s generation alludes to the unfortunate reality of Southern Ute language’s endangered status among its tribal youth, it is not necessarily true that not speaking the language is the same as not knowing the language, or not understanding it. Hobbs does not help us understand these shadings around the crucial issue of Native languages, however, and so Ute language – and Cloyd’s diminishing use of it – are reduced to one more feature of Indian culture that, like roaming around to live in the old way, signals Indians and their ways as fading into the mists of time.

As a non-Native scholar who writes about Natives subjects, I fault Hobbs for his conscious lack of complexity in depicting the story of a complex Native life. It is irresponsible for any author, but especially a non-Native author, to simply plop into his novel without at least minimal contextualization references to significant circumstances in Indian communities such as the decline of original languages; child abandonment; the foster care system; Native youth who experience cultural disconnection from tribal heritages; and relationships toward sacred materials and ancestral remains. All of these are in Bearstone, but as Hobbs depicts them they exist only to reinscribe whitestream notions of vanishing Indians and the titillating markers of their apparently stagnant cultures. For a general reader unfamiliar with American Indian historical issues and their contemporary legacies, Hobbs’ references sprinkled throughout the text suggest that he is an authority on Ute experience, and thus that this portrait of the two Ute characters he paints -- Cloyd and his grandmother – are the way Ute people must be.

I’m not sure my exchange with the teacher who emailed me accomplished anything. And while it certainly didn’t prove to be any kind of teachable moment for her or for her students, it was definitely instructive to me, as this essay makes clear. By the time I finished reading Bearstone, I was quite horrified that I had been willing to come speak about anything in connection with this book. She, in the meantime, had decided that, based on my first email, if I were going to talk about Native literature in general, the school might as well capitalize on my time and gather up the entire eighth grade to listen to my presentation. In an assembly. On a Friday. Hmm; hold on a minute here. But I wanted to be a good citizen, so I initially agreed to this proposal. Yet as the teacher and I corresponded about the details, and I thought more about my former days supervising assemblies as a high school teacher, the more dubious I grew about the value of making any kind of educational presentation to a crowd of eighth graders. (On a Friday.) Even the teacher emailed that while I could have two combined class periods for the assembly, shorter might be better because “the kids lose interest, which you no doubt know.” Yeah, I know; in fact, I was rapidly losing interest myself.

I wrote to her then about my concerns around Bearstone and suggested something that I honestly thought might help be more helpful for everyone – the teachers, their students, and me:

Having read the book has caused me to rethink the idea of presenting on Native literature to an assembly of 8th graders, and I have an alternative proposal. I feel your students would ultimately gain more real understanding about Native American literature from you and the other teachers with whom they already have established relationships, the people they trust and work with every day, not an outside speaker who shows up once to "tell" them about a topic and then leaves without much chance for follow-up or questions beyond the assembly period. It can be hard to get students really interested in certain topics this way, unless the presentation is fairly razzle-dazzle, which my topic does not lend itself to.

What I would like to offer instead is a workshop with teachers at your school who are interested in hearing about the issues involved with teaching American Indian literature, and texts that include Indian characters. I could offer some guidelines for sensitive text selections, some history on controversial issues, and some suggestions for texts that offer positive portrayals of Native peoples. In this way, teachers at your school could have a more sustained dialogue with their students about these issues when teaching certain texts now and in the future, having had a chance to consider the issues themselves in advance. It would also prevent me from possibly contradicting some of the things you will have discussed with your students about BEARSTONE prior to my presentation, when I mention inappropriate aspects of non-Native literature that includes Native characters. I have no desire to present information to your students that would make you or other teachers at your school feel uncomfortable about your approach to a text, and I have no wish to confuse students. But I do hope to clarify some issues so that future readings of BEARSTONE or any text you teach with Indian characters might be viewed with additional understandings of how a Native reader might perceive the literature.

But this was not what she wanted. The same day I wrote, she emailed me back a terse one-liner stating, “I need to discuss this possibility with our principal. I will let you know what we decide and get back to you as soon as possible.” She expressed no interest in the idea of a workshop, and I never heard from her again.

It’s too bad, though. I did want to try to negotiate something with her and her students. But I think, since she clearly enjoyed the story as Hobbs wrote it, that she preferred not to have her image of Hobbs’ novel intruded upon with a critique of its offensiveness to Native people, in the same way Hobbs preferred not to have his story intruded upon by the addition of cultural appropriateness and complexity regarding Native lives. This teacher was looking at Bearstone as an ultimately happy tale of cultural bridging, of an elderly white stand-in father who eventually soothes all the wounds of a “wild” Indian boy who is trying to figure out who he is. And, she was looking at a book that reinscribes white fantasies of “love conquers all,” where relationships with biological family, returning to one’s cultural community, and leaving Indigenous sacred objects in the places they were found are antiquated notions of a primitive past that block real progress in relations between the so-called “races,” in the spirit of “we’re all the same beneath the skin.” In Bearstone, Will Hobbs’ equation of Cloyd minus parents minus tribe minus homeland plus kindly white widower equals new family and new home is good enough for the teacher, and thus good enough for her students.

We were definitely looking at Bearstone differently. I was looking at a book I hoped would offer the junior high school students, Native and non, of rural Southeastern North Carolina a tale that both outlined and explained some of the reasons around the complexities of being a Native adolescent in the twentieth century; a story in which the way out of the troubled adolescence of one Native boy did not automatically require rescue by yet another incarnation of the Great White Father; a novel in which a young Ute man who was raised by his traditional grandmother would at least have known, despite having left his community for extended periods of time, that to steal a burial item from an infant ancestor was an unthinkable, egotistical breach.

The conclusion of Bearstone finds Cloyd happily living at Walter’s ranch full time, beaming with delight when a nursery truck arrives with a load of young peach trees that Cloyd has purchased as a surprise gift for Walter to replace the trees Cloyd chain-sawed in his earlier killing spree. All’s well that end’s well, right? Not exactly. In Will Hobbs’ creating such questionable young adult literature, and in twenty-first century educators perpetuating the violent messages of Bearstone without understanding the damages of those messages to Native and non-Native students, I wonder who it is who actually lives happily ever after.


Willow said...

I am not First Nations/Indigenous American - but I have to wonder if respect for the dead is supposed to be something white culture is just not meant to have.

I can easily see myself opening a bundle, not realizing what it was. But the moment I saw remains and loving care placed with the remains, I'd know this wasn't a human life abandoned, but a burial. And return it where I found it.

Probably make a note of where I found it to tell someone connected to the area who was Indigenous- cause there might be procedures or cultural needs attended to once such a thing was disturbed.

I'm just really, really struck by the thought that grave robbing is made so casual in a children's book - and I don't know if I could even read it to see for myself. I just keep thinking of there was heavy rain at a Christian graveyard and bodies or coffins got swept out of the lot - would people think it ok to rob those dead? Since it wouldn't involve a spade and digging?

So is my not being white the reason I know you don't rob or disturb the dead?

I seriously cannot get over grave robbing being portrayed as a positive thing - something that changes a character's luck.

Tricia said...

Thank you, Debbie, for posting this thoughtful and thorough review. I too sense this kind of resistance in classroom teachers and find it frustrating. In my case, it's always in regards to WALK TWO MOONS. The fact that it's a Newbery book seems to trump all in the minds of teachers who insist on using it.

I'm not sure how to overcome the inertia in this area, but the work you are doing is helping. For my part, I'm hoping that bringing Oyate here will help some teachers become more critical of the books they select.

daniel said...

Thank you willow for demonstrating that it's not only whites who make stupidly prejudiced comments.

Debbie Reese said...

Hey Daniel.... can you elaborate? I'd rather not make assumptions about what you mean in your remarks.

Anonymous said...

I understand the point that books are not always accurate, and people, including educators, need to be, shall I say educated to do a better job in choosing and using books. Sometimes though, books can be used on different levels. If a book speaks to an audience, great. If as the teacher stated that the book was used "focusing on the character's growth" why is that bad? Does the character grow? (I admit I haven't read the book.) If I was the teacher, I hope I would have continued the invite and have had Jane Haladay still come and help explain the facts and that the book is not accurate.
Students should learn how to evaluate what they read in books, online etc. Take everything with a "grain of salt" read each book differently. Just because Twilight discusses Native Americans, will I think that it is all factual? No---The book includes vampires and werewolves.
Regarding Jane Haladay's essay though, I got the impression that she never wanted to help the teacher and purposely found fault instead of really trying to work with her. Yes, the teacher had her own ideas and had used the book before, but she did approach Jane Halady for a class discussion. Instead of alienating her, why not work to explain, rather than talk down to her. The teacher may have enjoyed the book, but with apparently getting "attitude" I too would be turned off even to such a good idea as teaching workshop.

Carter M. said...

Thanks to Debbie for putting Jane's essay up, and thanks to Jane for writing it. As a teacher of Native literature, I had a similar experience with a middle-school teacher a few years ago concerning the book TOUCHING SPIRIT BEAR, with an added wrinkle. The teacher's son had taken my AI lit class and had recommended his mom read Thomas King's satirical (among many other good things) masterpiece, GREEN GRASS, RUNNING WATER. She and I had lengthy email exchange about King's novel and she loved the satire of the white heroic literary mentality that King hilariously skewers. She got the critique, she loved it, and a year later emailed me about TOUCHING SPIRIT BEAR. I had just seen Prof. Reese give an incisive presentation on the novel and referred her to this blog's postings on the book. Our email exchanges went almost exactly like the ones Prof. Haladay describes: it's good, it's not about Native people, it's about the search for identity, etc...

The problem here is that if it is only about these things, then why make it a Native youth? I think that is what Prof. Haladay tried to broach with the teacher. She wanted to look at the politics of the book, not the "culture" (mis)represented in the book and question the idea that the book is engaging "universal" themes that "everyone" can relate to. It is and it is not engaging such themes (based on the essay's description of the book), but that is not even the point of Haladay's essay. The point I see is if the book is about those "universal" themes, why not make it about a "universal" youth? Why risk generating misrepresentations about Native people when our current knowledge of the last 500 years should have taught us to avoid this temptation?

What's interesting isn't that we had the same experience, but that this redemption narrative--the white man (whether a character in the book or the author) redeeming Native youth from the problems they face--is so prevalent and so unexamined. Middle schoolers are capable of thinking about such ideas, but for some reason--fear of change/institutional inertia/cultural conventions, or whatever else might be the cause-it is not engaged. And when a scholar and experienced educator seeks to raise those issues (rather than offer ethnographic explanations of Native culture) it is regarded as, um, "attitude." What is multiculturalism worth if we don't engage and critique the structural narratives that create Natives as victims in need of deliverance by the white man (or the white writer who explains "strange" native ways through research). We need to engage this critique at all levels of education--and kids are insightful empaths from an early age and are capable of thinking about ideas bigger than their own search for idenitity--in fact, thinking about such ideas may be a crucial factor in their identity formation as thinking citizens of the 21st century.

Debbie Reese said...


Read Haladay's words again, maybe, without the frames that she places around them.

It seems to me that prior experience and knowledge told her this was not likely to go well, yet, she tried anyway, offering her expertise.

That is a familiar experience. I've been through it many times, as have a lot of others with expertise in Native Studies.

Earlier today I was reading an essay by a friend (hoping he'll give it to me for posting here). He talks about his and his father's experiences, how what they offer is rejected because it does not affirm what the questioner wanted affirmed.

Change can happen, but only if educators/writers, etc. are willing to set aside their preconceived notions and their embrace of things that they think are "Indian."

Anonymous said...

Debbie Reese,
You are right, in that I do not know if Jane Haladay has had previous experience with this type of teacher. If she had, then she would have an inkling that this would not go well and so her responses. I would hope that not all of these encounters go in this direction. I did not mean attitude in what she was saying,(all valid) but rather how it seems she stated it, with the comments she also writes about the encounters--being "horrified, that I had been willing to come speak about anything in connection with this book." and "Yeah, I know; in fact, I was rapidly losing interest myself." After reading the article, my impression was that it was a two way street and each was coming from a different direction.
I totally agree that these topics should be discussed and as I stated earlier, students need to know that the books they read are not 100% factual.

What I don't totally agree with is Carter M.'s statements. Especially, when he states "The point I see is if the book is about those "universal" themes, why not make it about a "universal" youth? Why risk generating misrepresentations about Native people when our current knowledge of the last 500 years should have taught us to avoid this temptation?" Who is a "universal" youth? The characters, backgrounds and histories, are what sometimes get a reader caught up in the story. Part of that is what attracts readers to relate. If all books are about "universal" characters, wouldn't they seem bland.
I don't mean to offend anyone, I would hope that in the same situation, I would not be like the teacher mentioned. I think it is absolutely the right thing to have the truth explained. And as I originally wrote, I think students need to learn how to evaluate everything they read and see, from the web to novels to the newspaper and tv. Getting facts right and not misrepresenting cultures should be the aim of not just authors, but everyone and if Ms. Haladay, had had the opportunity, those middle schoolers would hopefully have learned that whether or not she agreed with the teacher.

Karen Saunders said...

Anonymous wrote:
Sometimes though, books can be used on different levels. If a book speaks to an audience, great.

At first glance, I'd agree with this statement. We all know of books that can be read on a number of different levels.

However, these different levels go both ways. Not only can books be used on different levels, but they work on multiple levels in our minds as we read them. As students are asked to read Bearstone with the teacher's purpose in mind, they're also absorbing inaccurate and stereotypical misinformation about Ute and Navajo people and culture. This results in the creation or reinforcement of stereotypical images in students’ minds.

I’ve been told by a couple of colleagues, doing their best not to roll their eyes as I critique yet another of their favorite books, that “it’s just fiction and kids don’t read that much into it, so relax.” Yet, we’re always picking up incidental information from fiction. I have a mental map of San Francisco from reading mysteries. I suspect that if I ever visit San Francisco, I’ll find that my mental map contains many errors - some due to the workings of my own mind, some misinformation from the errors of authors who’d never been to San Francisco themselves, but saw it as a good setting for the plot they had in mind. This could present problems, if I were to rely on my own mental map, rather than on an actual map to navigate my way through the city. I also suspect that some errors that I’ve not had the background to catch have been annoying to San Franciscan readers.

In the same way, we carry a sort of mental map of humanity gained partly from actual encounters with people and partly from books, films, and other media. Many of us use this mental map, complete with misinformation of all sorts, to navigate our way through life and our encounters with other people. The resultant problems are far more dangerous than the problems I’d face if I confused Lombard Street with Hyde Street. Similarly, in the school Jane Haladay wrote about, those 15% of the students reading Bearstone who are American Indian face more than annoyance. Thinking back to a few times when my own sons came home angered and hurt by the books their teachers had selected for classroom use (after conversations or letters in which I’d tried to point out misinformation and stereotypes, and suggested alternatives), I’m saddened by the teacher’s negative reaction to Jane’s generous offers of assistance.

Willow said...

I don't think Daniel is going to answer you. I still stand by my words, I do not believe a majority of white people believe in respect for the dead, far less the dead of those who're non-white.

White people - not Irish or Polish or Russian or Georgian or Scandanavian. White people, the culture they embraced in order to be 'better than...', when they cast aside their particular European heritage.

I've seen respect for the power of a dead person's continued family and occasionally respect or rather fear of the law and consequences. But those particular things don't hold when it's Peruvian bones or Egyptian bones or various African bones or tribal burial grounds.

Historical African Descended graveyards ploughed up and made into roads and someone's personal garden and worse? People needing to have petitions and spin legal briefs to protect their honored dead- yes; to get back their bones - yes; to make it an actual law that to steal things around said bones is a real crime - yes.

And is it even a crime against the dead? Or a crime against anthropology? I'm not even sure on that one.

White people lost many things to become white people and I'm thinking respect for the dead was one of those. It's not 'modern'.

Debbie Reese said...

On the respect for Native remains, the recent sting of graverobbers in the southwest is a perfect example. Here's a link to a news story in the Salt Lake Tribune. Not sure how long it'll be accessible...

Debbie Reese said...

Some discussion of Haladay's essay on LiveJournal:

Kit said...

It is not okay to rob people's graves to further your own character development. This is not a moral action, and if a protagonist does it and it's presented uncritically, this is not a good book to give to children. What about this concept is challenging for people?

(I suppose it's the 'Seeing Indians as people not as things' part.)

I'm white, and I'm not having any trouble understanding why it's unacceptable to steal things from dead babies.

Obviously there are problems with the "What this troubled kid needs is an old honky" narrative too, but I can't get past the stealing. From a baby. And then naming yourself after the stolen funeral good. Christ.