Friday, June 13, 2008

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. 

Eileen Baustian
Eagle/Shark Clan, Tlingit


jpm said...

Wow. Eileen Baustian's comments demolish any claim to authenticity on Mikaelson's part, as well as his apparent belief that even if Spirit Bear isn't authentic, it really doesn't matter.

It DOES matter. And Ms. Baustian's post helped me clarify something that has been roiling around in my brain for awhile. The reason authors and illustrators and publishers ought to be concerned about how Native lives are portrayed is NOT that "somebody might be offended" if it's done wrong. The reason for concern is that misrepresentation is lying. People have multi-layered, complex responses to books like Spirit Bear, as Ms. Baustian's post shows, and to dismiss those responses as "being offended" ignores the ethical questions involved in misrepresenting lives other than one's own. When someone lies about you, you're not just "offended". (I'm drawing this thread of offendedness from someone's comments about a previous topic on this blog.)

As a reader or potential reader, I don't want to be lied to about someone else's culture. It doesn't "offend" me -- it ticks me off. In my roles as educator and parent/grandparent, I also feel ticked off when I encounter books that attempt to capitalize on the general public's lack of awareness of the complexities of Native cultures, for the purpose of getting people like me to share lies with young people.

The "Twilight" books are doing pretty much the same kind of thing, it seems to me. Meyer and Mikaelson are both just using some elements of "Nativeness" to shoehorn a little bit of originality into what might otherwise be ordinary vampire or coming-of-age stories.

And by the way, is there some kind of trend among non-Native writers who create Native characters, away from fascination with Great Plains tribes, and toward the Northwest Coast? Tlingit in Mikaelson's books, and Quileute in the Twilight series.... Who's next? Let's see -- the vampires in the first book in Meyer's series refer to a community of "good" vampires near Mt. Denali... so maybe an Alaska Native community will find itself "put on the map" by some other book in that series, like it or not? Someone asked in an earlier conversation what sort of research Meyer did into the Quileute community. In Twilight, she certainly doesn't seem to acknowledge the help of anyone from LaPush or the tribe. So if she got information from somebody, their assistance is not acknowledged; not even in the after-the-fact way that Mikaelson did in the email shared on this blog a few weeks ago.

Getting back to Eileen Baustian's correspondence: if you're reading, Eileen, thanks for taking the time to say what you said! You nailed it!

igahoihg said...

Eileen's article is soooo ironic considering that our 7th grade English teacher is using the "Touching Spirit Bear" book as a cultural book in out curriculum. Wait until she finds out about this!!! My essay will be very... Different...

Anonymous said...

I understand the importance of teaching the correct information regarding Native culture, but I think this story goes so far beyond that. Yes, things stated should be acurate in the way they are portrayed, but there is an even bigger issue here. When I read the book, I never even thought about the "Native Issue", rather I thought of the way I could use this book to talk about responsibility and learning to love oneself. I did make connections to a case I know where a girl faced a circle of justice group for her part in bullying a teen to death.
I work with a lot of teens that need restoration, and if this book can help, then use it, and instead of bashing the book, use it and teach about the inaccuracies. If it is being used to teach cultural studies, it is a poor choice. If it is used to teach about responsibility, then it is great.

Anonymous said...

I teach this book to my 8th graders and I DO NOT use it as a cross cultural piece of literature. I use it to help my students deal with bulling and to find their inner spirit. I apologize if this offends the Native American culture BUT with myself being Native American I look past that and for the REAL, DEAP story that the author is trying to get across to the reader. Honestly my students could care less about the culture of this tribe that is mentioned in the book, they focus on the change that Cole goes through and it helps my students deal with their own battles and hardships that they face each day.

Migdalia said...

Elder Baustian has a valid claim to the use of Native culture in ways not authentic and misrepresenting peoples that have long been used as "exotic" adornment not just in books but in movies as well.

I have read this book with students in middle school and high school and the response to the Spirit Bear and Cole's transformational experience are unique and compelling.

While I am not trying to appease the Tlingkit Peoples the presence of the At.oow is magical. It does have a life in itself which brings a supernatural and spiritual element to the story...which really is up to the reader for interpretation. This is what literature is all about...touching the imagination.

The animal dances are not described as tribal but as a white boy discovering the liberating contact with the forces of nature and its inhabitants. They really are dances of discovery...very clearly delineated by the author.

If it weren't because of this book there wouldn't be a whole move towards reformation of a juvenile courts system in New York, all inspired and still learning from the "tribal ways" of justice to deal with a segment of a broken generation living in poverty.

The legacy of the Tribal Peoples everywhere is necessary and one way to expose people to them is through books like this.

Debbie Reese said...

It frustrates me to have someone say that books should be authentic, and in the same breath, say that it doesn't matter with THIS book because THIS book has a more important message.

More important to WHO???

When you make the decision to ignore the errors in it and use it anyway, aren't you, IRONICALLY, choosing to bully Native people for the sake of others?

Amy said...

@Debbie Reese -
Having just done some work w/bullying...No, I don't think the commentator is bullying anyone. Bullying implies intent. The worst crime here is ignorance, plus good intentions. If we can think back to the 1960's and 70's, with the beginnings of a black cultural movement, there were many, MANY missteps along the way. I think, unfortunately, that they are inevitable. They need to be righted. They need to be discussed. Embarrassment often comes along with it, plus claims of good intentions, hurt feelings, and a sort of "well, the heck with trying, then!" attitude. Let's take a step back. It's appropriate to fix errors when they're found. Good intentions are not enough - we all know that. Mikaelson's work is pretty amazing, but touched a nerve, and crossed some definite lines. Perhaps a new edition would be appropriate? Creating a fictional tribe, with a completely fictional culture, would have prevented these issues. We can all do better, and sometimes, it's a little painful to realize, later, that we should have.

Anonymous said...

what does it matter the tribe isn't the focus of the book and besides the ending it's a good book

Magpie118 said...

I am a Native American (Micmac) woman/teacher from Maine. I have been working with kids on perspective and looking at cultural perspectives. This certainly causes me to question whether or not to use the book. However, I could easily share the issues with the book as well. I just get sick of having to explain the issues. Why can't authors just do their homework? I thought the book had a great storyline, but I can't teach misinformation. I wondered if there is a lot of debate about the content of the book. Have others besides the one above complained. Is this generally thought to be incorrect? I guess I need more information before I can really make a decision. If anyone has other links to information or information in general, I would appreciate it if you could post it. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

The love of my life is Tlingit and I just started looking up some more tribal information, customs, etc...because I want to get to know where he comes from. THE FIRST WEBSITE explains the importance of the at.oow. I really don't understand how an author can overlook such a detail and be so disrespectful to a tribe he is clearly trying to imitate through story (also another important part of the tribe). It's adding insult to injury really.