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.
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:
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 Oyate.com and, not finding it there, on amazon.com. 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 amazon.com 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. “
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
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.
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,
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 “
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
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,
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
As a non-Native scholar who writes about Natives subjects, I fault
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
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.