Friday, June 13, 2008

Tlingit Elder's Comments on Ben Mikaelsen's TOUCHING SPIRIT BEAR: "I can just picture Tlingit kids being very, very embarrassed."

Eds. note: These comments about Mikaelson's Touching Spirit Bear were 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

Monday, June 09, 2008


[This review may not be used (published elsewhere, online or in print) without written permission of its author, Beverly Slapin.]

Yazzie, Evangeline Parsons (Diné), Dzáni Yázhi Naazbaa’/Little Woman Warrior Who Came Home: A Story of the Navajo Long Walk, color paintings by Irving Toddy (Diné), Navajo translation by the author. Salina Bookshelf, 2005, grades 3-up

Children, today more than ever, need to know the truths of history, even—no, especially—the ugly parts, the parts often deemed “not for children.” One of these truths is what has come to be known as the “Navajo Long Walk.” In 1863-1864, U.S. soldiers launched a scorched-earth offensive against Diné Bekayah, grabbed up some 8,000 Navajo women and men, children and old people, and marched them off to a barren concentration camp known as Bosque Redondo (Fort Sumner). On this death march of hundreds of miles, more than 3,000 died of cold and starvation or were killed—the soldiers shot pregnant women and elderly people and all others who couldn’t keep up.

Dzáni Yázhi Naazbaa’ (Little Woman Warrior Who Came Home) is the young Naabeehó (Navajo) girl who survives the Long Walk and the four-year incarceration at Fort Sumner. Yazzie, to whom these family stories have been passed down, spares little detail—the terror of being forcibly taken from home; seeing the elderly and sick being shot as they fall behind; experiencing crop failure and having to rely on foreign, rotten and bug-infested rations; stealing food from the soldiers’ horses to allay starvation. But throughout the torture, persecution, hunger and homesickness, the parents and elders feed the children with perseverance and hope that come from the clan system and the prayers and stories, and the knowing that the land, culture and community will survive. And, indeed, Little Woman Warrior does come home. Toddy’s paintings, especially those of the land and the frightened children, perfectly complement this bilingual story, in Navajo and English, of endurance and strength.

Of all the published children’s stories about the Long Walk period, only Dzáni Yázhi Naazbaa’/Little Woman Warrior Who Came Home and Joe Bruchac’s and Shonto Begay’s Navajo Long Walk (National Geographic, 2002) tell these truths, and Little Woman Warrior is a perfect antidote to Scott O’Dell’s toxic Sing Down the Moon (Houghton Mifflin, 1970) and Ann Turner’s equally poisonous The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow: The Diary of Sarah Nita, A Navajo Girl, New Mexico, 1864 (Scholastic, 1999).—Beverly Slapin

[Note from Debbie: This book is available from Oyate.]