Sunday, June 28, 2009

Jeff Berglund's response to "Desecrations and Desires: White Male Fantasy in Will Hobbs' BEARSTONE

Jeff Berglund, a friend and colleague at Northern Arizona University, wrote this essay in response to Jane Haladay’s essay, “Desecrations and Desires: White Male Fantasy in Will Hobbs’ Bearstone.” Jeff is an Associate Professor in the Department of English.


Jeff Berglund's Response to Jane Haladay’s essay, “Desecrations and Desires: White Male Fantasy in Will Hobbs’ Bearstone"

I bring in young adult novels in all of my Native literature courses, particularly because many of my students are English Education majors, but also because it recalls for students so many of the previous renderings of Native peoples and cultures in books they read in junior high and high school, books like Bearstone, Touching Spirit Bear, Sign of the Beaver, Sing Down the Moon, and so forth.

Thanks, Jane, for doing (and recording) the real-world sort of work many of us are called to in our local communities. What I like about Jane's work is that it provides a model to all of us of how we might engage in these debates *and* set the terms of our participation.

So many teachers have basic questions and limited time and resources for doing ground-up investigations on their own. I ask my college students to consider donating copies of Birchbark House and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian so I can donate, on their behalf, reading sets (5-7 books) to schools. In paperback, these books are between $7-10 and give back barely $1-2 in sellback at the bookstore, so many students are willing to donate these.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of guest-lecturing in Jennifer Denetdale's graduate course at Dine College for Dine' educators. In the group of 15 students, all of whom are practicing teachers, not one, as a child, had read a book about the Navajo Long Walk. Two had seen the recent books by Dine' writers, but all were eager to find more. That's not surprising. What is surprising is that everyone had lots of basic questions: how do we figure out what books are the best quality? How can we trust authors to tell us the truth? Of course, Jennifer and I referred them to Debbie's blog, to Oyate, and we then proceeded to look at a number of books with evaluative criteria, such as those listed below in order to remind everyone that we all have to engage in the evaluative/comparative process of critical reading:

Questions to Consider When Purchasing New Books:
  1. Does the author have a connection to Native peoples, communities, or is the author a member of a tribal culture? What stake does the writer have in the lives of indigenous children?
  2. When was this book written? Does the author reflect his or her own time period and contemporary thinking about cultural and ethnic diversity?
  3. Whose story is being told? Do the centering principles of the story reflect the diversity and complexity of this culture and honor this culture’s principles as a means of understanding history or traditions?
  4. Are Native people represented as fully human—full of joy, wonder, wisdom, beauty, sorrow, pain, pleasure? Or, are they rendered as anthropological subjects, distanced from the contemporary world or assumed to be separate from all implied readers?
  5. If different viewpoints could be represented, do the authors or illustrators make efforts to include these different ideas?
  6. If stories are retellings of traditional narratives, is there information about how the author has come to the source information or come into a position to represent such information?
These are starting points that lead to pretty involved discussions.

[Note from Debbie: See my review of Jennifer Denetdale's nonfiction book on the Long Walk.]


jpm said...

The question, "What stake does the writer have in the lives of indigenous children?" is very, very important. If non-Native writers were creating their stories with actual Native kids in their minds, many of the books they have produced would be very different .

Nicole said...

What does one do with books that are not in this category (e.g., Arrow to the Sun)? There are a few in our family collection that I need to get rid of because I don't want my children to read them. I don't want to donate them to the library or to a thrift store; if I don't think they're healthy books, I certainly don't want someone else reading them. Are there colleges that can use these books for examples in literature classes? Has there been any discussion on this?

Debbie Reese said...

Hi Nicole,

Excellent question! I've never put out a call to donate such books, but people do offer to send them to me. I use them in my courses. For example, in my course, we read Louise Erdrich's THE BIRCHBARK HOUSE and, we read LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE. Erdrich's book is on the list of books to buy for the course, but I have a class set of LHOP that we use. I do not want students to buy LHOP. I say so, very clearly, at the start of the semester. The choice is theirs. Buy a new copy, or borrow one of mine.

I've been slowly acquiring copies of ARROW TO THE SUN. When I've got 30 (that's how many students I have in my course), I'll use it in the same way I use LHOP.

Are you nearby a college that offers a course in children's literature? If so, you could donate the book to that professor if he/she does critical analysis. If not, you can send it to me, along with your return address, and I'll reimburse you for the cost.

Anonymous said...

There's no such thing as a "healthy book". The best bet is to discuss with kids the differenrent points of view that people have or have had especially with books written many years ago. If you never discuss prejudice with children how are they going to know what to think when they encounter it later on (and they will)? How can you expect them to be able to put biased opinions into perspective an make informed, moral choices?

jpm said...

In response to anonymous:
I'm curious -- in your childhood, did you have teachers who were able to get healthy, in-depth discussions going among the children about misrepresentations of Native people in children's books?

I ask because in my long experience with teachers and classrooms, I've come to understand that teachers who even attempt that are rare. In my experience with teacher preparation programs, I've come to know that most of them have not been prepared to do so. By "not prepared" I mean "may not even recognize a problem when they see it" -- witness the ongoing popularity in classrooms and school libraries of books that blatantly misrepresent the lives of Native people. When the teachers do see a problem, they may not be prepared to handle the difficult questions and child-to-child interactions that sometimes result from putting the problems before the children.

The other problem with your suggestion has to do with the ages of the children involved, coupled with the subtlety of some misrepresentations. Let's say you explain to a first grader, "The person who wrote and illustrated this book is pretending to use Pueblo designs but they aren't really. And he says this is a Pueblo story but it's not really; he took an idea from a story that came from a Pueblo and changed it the way he wanted." By the time you finish with your explanation, the child is thinking, "So, why are you reading me a story that is full of mistakes?" Why indeed? Now that authentic stories by indigenous writers are available, it seems odd to choose the inauthentic and inaccurate over the Real Thing.

There is evidence that the best way to equip young children to contest bias is to provide them FIRST with accurate images and authentic stories of contemporary Native kids and families. (And for that matter, accurate images and authentic stories of any group that is "outside the dominant culture".) Awareness of reality will enable them to think critically when they encounter the misinformation and negative images.

Nicole said...

Thanks for your response to anonymous, jpm.

So, anonymous, here's my addition to that response:

My kids are young (not in grammar school yet). There's no danger of my children avoiding stereotypes of American Indians. They are all over the place. We discuss them when they come up, whether it be in an episode of Tom and Jerry or in a Clifford book. So, trust me, by the time a kid gets to five, if s/he is consuming anything in popular media, there are plenty of "teachable moments" about prejudice.

The question I ask myself is whether I would want someone portraying my culture in an inaccurate way. What if that book was someone's only window to my culture? Would I want it inaccurately portrayed or would I want someone to come away from that experience with a sense of what we're all about?

I'm Romanian. Do you think I would rather have someone read their kid a child's book version of Dracula and then explain to the kid that vampires aren't real and Romanians don't really drink people's blood -- or would I rather the person read "The Impudent Rooster", a traditional story, retold by someone in the culture? I suggest you ask yourself similar questions when you're picking children's books.