Saturday, May 10, 2008

Response from Ben Mikaelsen re TOUCHING SPIRIT BEAR

Over on the listserv for California's librarians, I posted my critique of Touching Spirit Bear. It sparked some discussion. The moderator said he thought it was getting personal in nature and that the conversation ought to be dropped. In the meantime, he said he'd ask the book's author, Ben Mikaelsen, about my concerns. Yesterday, the moderator posted a reply from Mikaelsen. The moderator said the discussion is closed, that the author should have the final word. I disagree but respect his decision and will not continue that conversation on that listserv. However, I do think further conversation is necessary, so will do that here.

A brief note for now: I understand the desire to feel sympathy for Mikaelsen, or to defend freedom of speech and his freedom to write what he wants to. My concern lies with the children who read (in this case) his books:
  • the Tlingit children who read his book and know he misrepresents their culture, and
  • the non-Tlingit children who may think they've learned something about Tlingit culture.
When I first read Mikaelsen's book a few years ago, I read somewhere (can't recall) that he had been on an airplane with a Tlingit elder who told him about the Tlingit people and their ways. At that time, I wrote to Mikaelsen (through his website) to verify that story, and someone replied (not Mikaelsen) saying that had not happened. That person did not offer any additional information.

Below is Mikaelsen's response. I invite your comments, and am working on a reply that I will post in the next few days.

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From: Ben Mikaelsen [mailto:ben@benmikaelsen.com]
Sent: Friday, May 09, 2008 9:09 AM
To: Pilling, George
Subject: Touching Spirit Bear

Hello George,

So nice to talk with you. Please feel free to post this on the blog if you feel it appropriate. Normally I don't feel confronting people serves much purpose. In this case, however, this lady is using her position to spread such misleading and erroneous information. Let me know what you think.

Touching Spirit Bear has not received much criticism from inside or outside the Native American or First Nation Community since publication. Most people who know me, know how thoroughly I researched the Tlingit culture. I had any number of Tlingits review the manuscript for me to make sure I had it "right." The few criticisms I have received have been from people who subscribe to the notion that unless you share a perspective, you cannot write to it. Using this logic, I could not have written my book Tree Girl because it holds a female perspective. I could not have written Petey or Stranded because they contained a disabled person's perspective. Sparrow Hawk Red, Red Midnight and Countdown would not have been valid because of the Hispanic and Maasai cultures they portrayed. The irony of Countdown is the biggest criticism I ever received on that book was from a black professor. She accused me of not being remotely accurate with my portrayal of Maasai culture. Ironically, that book has been used for years in Tanzania in their public girls' schools specifically because they like the accurate portrayal of the Maasai.

As for my accuracy in Touching Spirit Bear, I stand by what I've written and can defend every word. The Tlingit culture was peripheral to my story so there was no need to go into cultural aspects in great depth. Anybody familiar with any of the First Nation Cultures knows that their cultures are very complex and a person can spend a lifetime learning all the nuances. This was not possible or necessary for my purposes. This said, all of the healing methods portrayed, carrying the ancestor rocks, dancing the dances, carving the totems, turning the clothes inside out, soaking the ponds, breaking the sticks of anger, etc., all were shared with me by a First Nation spiritual leader. How somebody would categorically say these methods aren't used in Tlingit culture resorts to a troubling level of stereotyping.

People within any culture can be wonderfully diverse in beliefs and life styles. The reality of Circle Justice is that it has been used in different forms by First Nation people for hundreds of years. I first heard about Circle Justice from a prosecuting attorney in Minneapolis who had gone up to the Yukon with several other lawyers and judges to learn Circle Justice methods from First Nation elders there. As for banishment, that is simply one form of Circle Justice. There was a case of banishment a few years ago that did not work in Alaska because the boys thought they were movie stars with the press coming out to the islands to interview them. Nothing about that event or anything written on that event had any influence on my book. I did interview three First Nation men in Canada who had each experienced banishment for an extended period when they were younger. Two of these men were Tlingit. I did not dream up any of the methods that I portrayed in the book which makes criticism of my use of these methods even more puzzling.

I offer the following thoughts. Over the course of my career, all of my books have drawn censorship challenges for a variety of reasons. A Newberry author who I choose to leave anonymous, sat me down once and said, "Ben, knowing you and how thoroughly you research your books, don't you realize that most criticism has nothing to do with your books. Most criticism comes from fanatical zealots who are trying to forward their own agendas. They are like bugs flying to a fire. They look for someone else's limelight because they do nothing to deserve their own." I also remember that same author's next admonition. "Ben, it is simple to avoid criticism and challenges, just write bland books that don't do you or the world any good. But I never thought that was what you were about."

I will end by saying simply that I have conducted my writing career with three simple rules. Every word I write must be well researched, be for the good of a child and come from my heart. I can proudly defend every one of my novels and say that every word written in both Touching Spirit Bear and its new sequel, Ghost of Spirit Bear, has met these tests. I can only dream of a world where all criticism meets that same standard.

Warmest thoughts, Ben Mikaelsen



Thursday, May 08, 2008

Resources for Evaluating Tlingit Content in TOUCHING SPIRIT BEAR

Teachers and librarians looking for resources to evaluate the Tlingit content in Touching Spirit Bear can use the items listed below. These resources will be updated whenever I find additional material. Please keep in mind there is a lot of material available about Native peoples, much of it prepared by people without the insight or expertise to interpret it accurately. As such, a lot of that material is biased.

Visit these sites. They are primary sources. There aren't any "answers" to specific questions, but they do provide background information about the Tlingit people.


On page 19 of Mikaelsen's Touching Spirit Bear, he refers to the "at.oow." Go to these sites to learn about at.oow. Does his presentation of it match what you learn?

Here are some print resources:

Dauenhauer, Nora Marks, and Richard Dauenhauer, Haa Tuwunaagu Yis, for Healing our Spirit: Tlingit Oratory (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990.)

deLaguna, Frederica, Under Mount Saint Elias: The History and Culture of the Yakutat Tlingit, Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropologu, Vol. 7 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990).

Emmons, George Thornton, The Tlingit Indians (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991).

Kan, Sergei, Symbolic Immortality: The Tlingit Potlatch of the Nineteenth Century (Washington: Smithsonian Institutions Press, 1989).

Olson, Wallace M. The Tlingit: An Introduction to their Culture and History (Auke Bay, AK: Heritage Research, 1991).

Worl, Rosita, "History of Southeastern Alaska since 1867" in Handbook of North American Indians, ed. William c. Sturtevant, vol. 7, Northwest Coast, ed. Wayne Suttles (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1990).


And, here are some news articles that sound a lot like the premise for the story told in Touching Spirit Bear:

"The Banishing Judge," in Time Magazine, September 12, 1994.
"Indian Boys' Exile Turns Out to Be Hoax," in The New York Times, August 31, 1994. (pdf)


Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Powhatan statement on Pocahontas

On the website of the Powhatan Renape Nation is a statement I want to direct your attention to... It is called "The Pocahontas Myth." Here's the first two paragraphs:

In 1995, Roy Disney decided to release an animated movie about a Powhatan woman known as "Pocahontas". In answer to a complaint by the Powhatan Nation, he claims the film is "responsible, accurate, and respectful."

We of the Powhatan Nation disagree. The film distorts history beyond recognition. Our offers to assist Disney with cultural and historical accuracy were rejected. Our efforts urging him to reconsider his misguided mission were spurred."

If you teach about Pocahontas, or are selecting books about her for your library or classroom, you might want to read the entire statement. In fact, you might want to have your students read it!
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Monday, May 05, 2008

Congratulations to Eric Gansworth


Some weeks ago, I posted Eric Gansworth's poem "Loving That Land O'Lakes Girl." Eric is an enrolled member of the Onondaga Nation. The poem is in his book, A Half-Life of Cardio-Pulmonary Function. Eric wrote to me earlier today with terrific news.

It is on the Spring 2008 National Book Critics Circle's "Good Reads" list. Congratulations, Eric!

To read details, go to the blog called "Critical Mass: The Blog of the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors." Click here to get there. If you're developing a syllabus for a senior English lit class, consider adding Eric's book to your list.
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Sunday, May 04, 2008

A response to Richie's review of GHOST OF SPIRIT BEAR, and a critical look at TOUCHING SPIRIT BEAR

In the last few weeks, Richie Partington's review of Ben Mikaelsen's sequel to Touching Spirit Bear has been making the round on Internet listservs.

He opens his review with this excerpt from Black-Eyed Peas "Where is the Love?"

"Wrong information always shown by the media
Negative images is the main criteria
Infecting the young minds faster than bacteria
Kids wanna act like what they see in the cinema
Yo', whatever happened to the values of humanity
Whatever happened to the fairness in equality
Instead of spreading love we spreading animosity."

He goes on to praise Ghost of Spirit Bear, but again and again, I come back to the lyrics he opened the review with...

"Wrong information always shown by the media" --- That describes, perfectly, the way that Native peoples are portrayed in the movies, cartoons, advertisements, commercial products, and, of course, children's books.

"Wrong information" also perfectly describes Mikaelsen's first book, so it is puzzling that Partington uses that phrase to describe the book. Either Richie hasn't read criticism of Native imagery in Touching Spirit Bear, or, like so many others, he thinks a critique of Mikaelsen's misuse and misrepresentation of Tlingit people doesn't matter.

Touching Spirit Bear relies on and draws heavily from Mikaelsen's ideas about American Indians. His writing includes stereotypes, old and new. 'Old' meaning those older ones that put American Indians in the same class as animals; 'new' meaning the new-age use of Native spirituality.

Chapter 1 opens with Cole in a boat on his way to spend a year on an island in Alaska. This is "banishment" and the outcome, we are told later, of Circle Justice. With Cole are two men, both of them Tlingit. One is Garvey, who is "built like a bulldog with lazy eyes" (p. 3). The other is Edwin who "stared forward with a steely patience, like a wolf waiting" (p. 4)

Bulldog? Wolf? Is this a style Mikaelsen uses to describe all his characters? Here's how he describes Cole:

"He was an innocent-looking, baby-faced fifteen-year-old from Minneapolis..." (p.5)

And here's Peter, the kid Cole beat up:

"...the skinny red-haired boy," (p. 7)


Cole's parents:


"His mom acted like a scared Barbie doll, always looking good but never fighting back or standing up to anyone" (p. 9)

"His dad was a bullheaded drinker with a temper" (p. 9).


Bullheaded is certainly derived from an animal, but the term is common usage for someone who is determined to do what he wants, regardless of what others might think or want. Given that, I think it is different from the ways that Garvey and Edwin are described.

It is through Garvey that Cole learns about Circle Justice. Based on my reading about Circle Justice, Mikaelsen (through Garvey) does a reasonably accurate job of laying it out on pages 10-12. Where Mikaelsen goes astray is when Cole gets banished. Several meetings of the Circle have taken place, but Cole isn't making any progress. In frustration he tells the people at the meeting: "Send me someplace where I'm not in your face and can't hurt anyone. But why do I have to go to jail?" (p. 55).

Garvey replies "I'm a native Tlingit," he said. "I was raised in Southeast Alaska. It is possible I could make arrangements to have Cole banished to a remote island on the Inland Passage" (p. 55-56).

This banishment to an island comes straight out of the pages of the newspapers in 1994. "Indian Boys' Exile Turns Out to Be Hoax" ran in the New York Times. Reading it is much like reading the early part of Touching Spirit Bear. Except for the part of the article that reads:

"Now it turns out there is no such thing as banishment in Tlingit culture, according to tribal leaders and elders in Alaska."

Hmmm... That gives me pause. Let' see... the article came out in 1994. HarperCollins published Touching Spirit Bear in 2001. Apparently the book wasn't vetted. Maybe they don't do that with fiction? MAYBE THEY SHOULD!!! Course, I know of two books that experts critiqued prior to publication, but the writer/publisher chose to ignore the suggestions (those two are Ann Rinaldi's My Heart is on the Ground, and one of those Indian in the Cupboard books by Lynn Reid Banks).

Course, the book reading world loved Touching Spirit Bear! It's on all manner of "Best Books" lists, it has gotten many awards and glowing reviews. The Horn Book Guide is the only major review journal that panned it, giving it a 5 (out of 6) and calling it "Marginal, seriously flawed, but with some redeeming quality." I'm not sure what the redeeming quality is. "Marginal" and "seriously flawed" are dead on, though.

If you're an editor, get fiction manuscripts reviewed by experts, and when the experts point out problems, listen to the problems. Do not assume that the research the author has done is sufficient. It is likely that he/she is ill-informed.

Be mindful of the sources that you use when creating/writing/reviewing a story with Native characters or content. Today, more than ever, it is possible to find material written by Native people. You don't have to rely on biased and outdated material to do your research!

I know---there's a lot of people out there who are huge fans of Touching Spirit Bear. Seems there's a strong feeling that this book helps kids who are bullies. It may do that, but it also helps everyone stoke their incorrect stereotypical ideas about who Native people are. For that reason, I cannot and do not recommend it.

Notes:

(1) Touching Spirit Bear has been written about twice before on this website. See Beverly Slapin's review and a piece I wrote about comments posted to her review "Reaction to Slapin's review."

(2) Also see resources that can be used to evaluate the Tlingit content in Touching Spirit Bear.

(3) Read Ben Mikaelsen's response here.
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