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].
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.
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.
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)
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.