Saturday, June 13, 2009

"Would you want to be an Indian?"

Doing some research on use of Gerald McDermott's not-to-be-used-book-about-Pueblo-Indians, Arrow to the Sun, I found a page about global diversity, wherein a kindergarten teacher uses the book....

A culminating activity asks students to draw a picture, and, the teacher poses some questions. She posted two drawings and the Q&A. Here's one set of Q&A (red font is hers):

1. Can you tell me something about Indians? They shoot arrows
2. Would you want to be an Indian? Why or why not? No, because I would be dead

In her reflection of the activity, the teacher says:

State evidence in two or more sentences to show that your students gained knowledge during your Global Diversity lesson.

Through this lesson, my students gained knowledge about Indians that they did not know prior to this lesson. They learned what Indians ate, how they lived, some myths the Indians had, and much more information they did not know previously.

Note the use of past tense, and, the statement that her students gained information. Sadly, they gained MISinformation.

Patricia Wrede on THIRTEENTH CHILD

A few weeks ago, I pointed readers to Internet discussions of Patricia Wrede's book, Thirteenth Child. Miriam at the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Library submitted this comment:

It's really damning that it didn't occur to her that it at least needed explaining within the context of the world she built-- it's as if Natives were already invisible to her, and she swept them out of her alternate world without noticing what she had done, so she never felt she had to account for it. But kids aren't dumb; lots of readers, not just Natives, will be wondering, "but where are the native people in the New World in this alternate history?"

Over at dreamwidth on LiveJournal (so grateful to you, spiralsheep!), I found this excerpt and its link.

Wrede said:

The *plan* is for it to be a "settling the frontier" book, only without Indians (because I really hate both the older Indians-as-savages viewpoint that was common in that sort of book, *and* the modern Indians-as-gentle-ecologists viewpoint that seems to be so popular lately, and this seems the best way of eliminating the problem, plus it'll let me play with all sorts of cool megafauna). I'm not looking for wildly divergent history, because if it goes too far afield I won't get the right feel.
I agree with her on the 'hate' of what she calls "viewpoints." I don't think of them as viewpoints, though. Framing them as viewpoints legitimates them in a way they do not deserve. They are, in short, stereotypes. The bad and the good Indian, the bloodthirsty and the holier-than-thou. And forgive this bit of snarkyness: EARTH TO WREDE. YOU SAID WAS COMMON, SUGGESTING THAT THE 'INDIANS-AS-SAVAGES' PORTRAYAL DOESN'T HAPPEN ANYMORE. WRONG. IT IS STILL THERE.

Where she falls off the cliff, though, is when she says "without Indians." Beneath her words is an assumption about her audience: who it is, what they will buy, what they will revere, what they will notice... or not. It is pretty interesting for me to think about, especially because, as her bio on the Amazon website says, she lives in Minnesota! Lots of reservations there, and lots of Ojibwe's and Dakotas. Are they invisible to Wrede?!

The product description at Amazon says
"With wit and wonder, Patricia Wrede creates an alternative history of westward expansion that will delight fans of both J. K. Rowling and Laura Ingalls Wilder."
Wilder? Bingo! Elizabeth Bird at SLJ blogged the book, too. Read her review, and the comments. I am glad that the book is being discussed. I am confident that some writers will read everything being written about it, and be mindful of what they do with their own books. Course, there will be those who dig in their heels, too, and go along their Merry Manifest Destiny Way.

I wonder what Wrede will do with the discussion. The book is the FIRST in a series she's launched. I wonder what her editor is thinking, too. Controversy. Some writers (like Ann Rinaldi) say (with glee, it seems) that the controversy over a book makes it sell better. Likely so, but, Rinaldi didn't write any more books about American Indians after that, so, controversy also has a plus side for those of us who are tired of books like Thirteenth Child.

Friday, June 12, 2009

"Native Literary Nationalism and Reinventing the Enemy's Language: Simon Ortiz's Books for Youth"

Eds. Note: Today, friend and colleague Tom Crisp, assistant professor at the University of South Florida, will read a paper I wrote for the 36th Annual Children's Literature Association Conference. I opted to stay on-task with my book manuscript rather than attend the conference. I miss it, though, as I imagine the goings-on there yesterday, today, and tomorrow. My paper is one of four papers in the panel on Linguistic Diversity in Children's and Young Adult Literature. Last year was the first time I attended the conference. It was terrific to meet so many people with whom I've corresponded over the last ten years. My paper title is "Native Literary Nationalism and Reinventing the Enemy's Language: Simon Ortiz's Books for Youth." I'm sharing the paper here, today, on AICL. If you're at ChLA and want to respond to it, I hope you do so there, in the room where the panel is speaking, but I hope you'll also comment here, or, write to me directly.


I am sorry not to be with you today, to deliver this paper myself. I thank Dr. Tom Crisp for agreeing to read it for me. The paper is in first person, so remember that these are my words, not Tom’s. I preface my paper with some reflection and observation. The goal of this paper is to bring a Native perspective to ChLA. I will do that in two ways. First, I will briefly turn my lens on the association itself, and then, I will introduce you to an Acoma writer and poet named Simon Ortiz. First, my perspective on ChLA.

The theme of this year’s conference is “The Best of Three.” The program reads:
In the world of children's literature, the number three has special connotations. The third pig has the best house, the third wish is the best wish, and the third bear always has the best stuff. Thus, the theme for the 2009 conference is "The Best of Three."
Those words prompted some questions for me. In what world of children’s literature is three an important number? Is it an important number in what Nancy Larrick called the “all white world of children’s literature”? Three is not the number with special connotations in Native Nations. Our special number is four. Note, too, “best house” and “best wish” and “best stuff” in the program. Best for... whom? Why does best matter? It sounds like the American Dream. It makes me think of Perry Nodelman’s writings about assumptions. What assumptions does the theme reflect?

Native people are not new to ChLA. A Narragansett woman was at the very first conference in 1974, but she wasn’t there to give a paper. She was the entertainment at the banquet. That is, she was a storyteller. Her name was Princess Redwing. Given that notions of royalty were placed onto Native societies by Europeans, the word “princess” always gives me pause. From a 1997 article in the Providence Journal, I learned that Princess Red Wing was named Mary Congdon. She died in 1987 at the age of 92. The newspaper article says, “she was taught that her family descended from the Narragansett and Wampanoag tribes” (see notes 1 and 2, below). I am troubled by phrases she used and stories she told. From my perspective, they play to an audience that reveres the image of the romantic Indian. As a Native woman and scholar studying literatures and representation at this moment in time, I am, perhaps too often, critical of activities by Native peoples whose work affirmed—and affirms—negative or positive stereotypes that I view as harmful to our well-being as Native peoples in the present day. I want different stories, ones that make the reader uncomfortable, ones that replace the savage or romantic Indian with Native peoples of the past and present who were and are intellectuals and diplomats. Instead, it seems to me that a lot of people choose to tell what the field of children’s literature calls myths and folktales. Some turn to archived stories as their sources. There is a wealth of material for them to look into, but a lot of it was gathered in the 1800s and early 1900s by individuals who interpreted the material from an outsider’s perspective. In some instances, I think it is fair to say that their informants were tricksters. Case in point: Elsie Clews Parsons was a Smithsonian anthropologist working amongst the Pueblo Indians in the 1920s. In the preface to her monograph, she wrote:

Information from San Ildefonso was least satisfactory. The women were particularly timid and not well informed; the man was a threefold liar, lying from secretiveness, from his sense of burlesque, and from sheer laziness. (p. 7)

Though she does not say, I assume Parsons did not use information provided by the man from San Ildefonso, but I wonder how she knows that the information from her other informants was ok? My point is that these archived stories may not be a reliable resource. Anyone that wants to use these archives must do so with a critical lens, developed by reading journals used in American Indian studies and books published by presses specializing in Native Studies.

But, back to Princess Red Wing. I purposefully said that she was the entertainment at the banquet. I have been asked many times to come tell stories at this or that gathering. I reply that I am not a storyteller who tells Native stories, but I would be happy to give a talk about Pueblo Indians and our history. At that point, the invitation is withdrawn. Americans want performing Indians who can entertain them with myths and legends. Stories are one way, in fact, that people educate others. A lot of what is marketed as American Indian stories may be well written from an aesthetic viewpoint, but all my selves—the mother, the schoolteacher, the professor—want more than well-written stories. I want stories that accurately convey who American Indians were, and are—emphasis on the word are—in all our humanity.

As a society, America knows very little about American Indians and the things that we care about. So, you might wonder, what do I think is the most important thing about American Indians that children should learn? That we are sovereign nations; that we are political entities, not ethnic or racial ones. With the rise of multicultural education and the call for multicultural literature, American Indians were categorized as one of America’s ‘underrepresented minorities.’ And in fact, as a group, we are underrepresented, and due to our small population, we are a minority. As such, that categorization is accurate, but it obscures a great deal.

What it obscures is what I want Americans to learn. We have our own governments, constitutions, justice systems, police, and lands over which we have jurisdiction. Our tribal leaders enter into state-to-state agreements with other nations around the world. Our leaders do that today, just like they did in the 1600s and 1700s and 1800s and 1900s. Our status as nations brings me to Simon Ortiz.

In 1981, Simon Ortiz wrote an essay that Native scholars mark as a foundational text. Published in MELUS, it is called “Towards a National Indian Literature: Cultural Authenticity in Nationalism.” Ortiz is from Acoma, one of the 19 Pueblos in New Mexico. By 1981, he had written several acclaimed stories, books, and poems. The year prior to the publication of his MELUS essay, he had read at the “White House Salute to Poetry and American Poets.” He begins the MELUS essay by talking about celebrations and names at Acoma: Fiesta. Juana. Pedro. Anticipating his reader’s questions as to why Acoma Indians have a fiesta and why they use Spanish words and names, he offers this explanation:
[T]his celebration speaks of the creative ability of Indian people to gather in many forms of the socio-political colonizing force which beset them and to make these forms meaningful in their own terms. In fact, it is a celebration of the human spirit and the Indian struggle for liberation.
The socio-political colonizing force he is talking about is the arrival of the Europeans, and the celebration is a creative response to colonization that took place across the US and Canada:
[I]n every case where European culture was cast upon Indian people of this nation there was similar creative response and development… [T]his [creative ability] was the primary element of a nationalistic impulse to make use of foreign ritual, ideas, and material in their own—Indian—terms. Today’s writing by Indian authors is a continuation of that elemental impulse.
Without these creative responses, Ortiz writes, those hard experiences “would be driven into the dark recesses of the indigenous mind and psyche.” This, he says, is poison, and a detriment to growth. Through prayer, song, and story, Native peoples make meaning and meaningfulness, as we work towards maintaining our Nationhood and identity as sovereign Native Nations. And that, he says, is what literature is about. In Reinventing the Enemy’s Language (1997), acclaimed Mvskoke Creek author, poet, and musician Joy Harjo (author of The Good Luck Cat) says:
When our lands were colonized the language of the colonizer was forced on us. It was when we began to create with this new language that we named it ours, made it usefully tough and beautiful. (p. 23-24)
Native writers, Ortiz says, acknowledge:
…a responsibility to advocate for their people’s self-government, sovereignty, and control of land and resources; and to look also at racism, political and economic oppression, sexism, supremacism, and the needless and wasteful exploitation of land and people, especially in the U.S.
In his picture books for children, Ortiz takes that new language and uses it and his own Native tongue to advocate for community, and, to look at racism and oppression. Throughout, he emphasizes the well-being of community, and the connection to land and culture.

His first book, The People Shall Continue was published in 1977 by Children’s Book Press. As you know, the sixties and seventies were marked by social unrest. While everyone knows about the work of African Americans in the Civil Rights Movement, few know that Native peoples were very active, too. They occupied Alcatraz Island, Wounded Knee, and, federal buildings in Washington DC. This activism was designed to draw attention to treaty violations and treatment of American Indians. At that time, Simon Ortiz was living in the Bay Area. Harriet Rohmer, founding publisher of Children’s Book Press was there, too, helping out at the Native American Survival School. She wanted to do a book of interviews of Native teens talking about their lives and their thoughts about the future. This, she thought, would go a long way to countering the perception that Indians had vanished. She talked with school leaders about her book idea, but they expressed concern for the students, saying the raw qualities of their stories, in print form, might hurt them. Bill Wahpepah suggested she get a “university Indian” [3] to do the book, and to that end, he helped her get in touch with Simon Ortiz.

When Rohmer met with Ortiz, he talked at length about survival, and then he began work on the manuscript that would become The People Shall Continue. Given its content, the book was and is hailed as an honest history of colonization in North America. Doris Seale, an Abenaki/Santee Dakota-Cree librarian said “If you give only one book about Native peoples to your young children, let this be the one.”[4] Ortiz begins the first page in this way:
Many, many years ago, all things came to be.
The stars, rocks, plants, rivers, animals.
Mountains, sun, moon, birds, all things.
And the People were born.
Some say, “From the ocean.”
Some say, “From a hollow log.”
Some say, “From an opening in the ground.”
Some say, “From the mountains.”
And the People came to live
in the Northern Mountains and on the Plains,
in the Western Hills and on the Seacoasts,
in the Southern Deserts and in the Canyons,
in the Eastern Woodlands and on the Piedmonts. (2)

Eloquently, Ortiz tells us that there is more than one creation story. He acknowledges the presence of indigenous Peoples throughout the hemisphere, in all directions, each with their respective origins, histories, and beliefs. He privileges no one and no place. He goes on to tell us that the Peoples knew each other and had much to learn and share with each other. Without romanticizing Native peoples and our history, he continues, quietly and gently, preparing the reader for the changes to come. He writes:
[O]ne day, something unusual began to happen.
Maybe there was a small change in the wind.
Maybe there was a shift in the stars.
Maybe it was a dream that someone dreamed.
Maybe it was the strange behavior of an animal. (7)

He continues, telling us about strange men who arrived, seeking treasures and slaves and land, men causing destruction. Ortiz tells us the People fought back:
In the West, Popé called warriors from the Pueblo and Apache Nations.
In the East, Tecumseh gathered the Shawnee and the Nations of the Great Lakes,
the Appalachians, and the Ohio Valley to fight for their People.
In the Midwest, Black Hawk fought to save the Sauk (sock) and Fox Nation.
In the Great Plains, Crazy Horse led the Sioux in the struggle to keep their land.
Osceola in the Southeast, Geronimo in the Southwest, Chief Joseph in the Northwest, Sitting Bull, Captain Jack, all were warriors. (12)

How does anyone, at this point, tell children what happened next? Instead of a feel-good narrative of people living in harmony, Ortiz tells his readers the truth. Many adults feel such truths are beyond the understanding of a young child, but in Native communities, our children know these histories. Ortiz knows this, and he does not pull back from the hardships of those years as the People sought to protect their sovereignty. Ortiz writes:
From the 1500s to the late years of the 1800s,
The People fought for their lives and lands.
In battle after battle, they fought until they grew weak.
Their food supplies were gone, and their warriors were killed or imprisoned.(13)

From there, Ortiz goes on to talk of treaties. Reservations. Promises broken. Government agents. Boarding schools. Relocation. Poverty. But, he does not use the word “plight” nor does he draw on “tragic Indian” tropes. Instead, he tells his readers that parents told their children:
“You are Shawnee. You are Lakota.
You are Pima. You are Acoma.
You are Tlingit. You are Mohawk.
You are all these Nations of the People.”
And, he says, the People told each other stories:,
These are the stories and these are the songs.
This is our heritage.
And the children listened. (18)

Note the last line: “And the children listened.” A simple, yet powerful statement that conveys his confidence in children and the purpose that storytelling serves in a Native community.

Survival and well being depend on caring for each other. That caring ethic is seen in Ortiz’s second children’s book Blue and Red, published in 1981 by the Pueblo of Acoma Press. The title of the book refers to two horses who are brothers. In the story, Red challenges his older brother, Blue, to a race. With longer legs, Blue could easily get to the top of the mesa before Red, but, instead, he makes decisions that allow them to safely reach the top of the mesa together. Blue is living what he has been taught, which is responsibility to others and by extension, to the well-being of the community. It is that responsibility to community that is at the heart of our survival.

Ortiz had one other book published by the Pueblo of Acoma Press: The Importance of Childhood, published in 1982. The book is about games Ortiz played as a child. In it, he talks about a game most of you recall playing. “Red Rover.” But it isn’t just “Red Rover Red Rover, let Evelina come over” that is in the book. That “Red Rover” phrase is followed by “Ne baitsashru!” which in the Acoma language means “Run!” In Ortiz’s account of playing this and other childhood games, the children at AcomaPueblo people remade something from the outside into something of our own, something that reflects who we are as Pueblo people. use English and Keres. It illustrates how

His fourth book is The Good Rainbow Road, published by the University of Arizona Press in 2004. It is a trilingual book, published in English, Spanish, and Keres. The Spanish translation was done by Mayan writer, poet, and anthropologist Victor Montejo. In the Author’s Note, Ortiz says: “I was happy Professor Montejo could do it because I wanted a translation into Spanish by a Native-language speaker who knew at first-hand pertinent matters that have bearing on Spanish language use by Native people in the Americas” (n.p.). Though he does not elaborate on those first-hand matters, it is likely that Ortiz is referring to the complex history and relationships between the Pueblo peoples of the southwest and the Spanish who were the first Europeans to come into our midst. Brutal treatment by the Spanish led to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 by which the Pueblo people successfully drove the Spanish out of Pueblo homelands. Upon their return, delicate negotiations took place as, over the ensuing centuries, Pueblo people adapted, rejected, and reworked Spanish influences on PuebloThe Good Rainbow Road is the story of two boys, “First One” and “Next One” whose people have forgotten about the spirits of rain and snow, the Shiwana, and hence, they are in a drought. The boys are charged with going to the Shiwana for help. Their journey is long and difficult. At one point, Next One is unable to leap over a canyon of hot lava. He sits down, crying. An old blind woman comes down the path. Forgetting his fear, he leaps up to prevent her from falling into the canyon. She thanks him and gives him a stone that, when tied to his arrow and then shot from his bow, creates a rainbow across the canyon. She tells him to climb it and continue his journey. Next One looks back, remembering from where they came and thinks of their people, and he looks to the east where the Shiwana live. Then he continues the journey on the rainbow road across the canyon. society, thereby making external forces meaningful to us on our own terms.

Though The Good Rainbow Road is not a traditional story, it has elements of traditional Native stories. These elements include beliefs in the power of language and of memory. Both are central to the existence of the human race, and both are at the core of stories all peoples tell. It is memory of what once was (a time of plenty), and what has been forgotten (to ask the Shiwana for help) that serves as the impetus for the journey of First One and Next One. It is memory of their people that helps Next One climb onto the rainbow road. It is the power of language (a belief in the words the old woman says) that creates the road that will lead to the survival of the people.

Reflecting on his body of work, Ortiz says he has a mantra: land, culture, community. As Pueblo people, we are blessed in that our traditional ways are still strong and intact. Is it because we are so rooted in land, culture, and community? While his poetry, short stories and essays are important in their own right, his writing for children demonstrates the reason we continue. It is the importance of children. Whether it is his poems about his own children, or, his stories about his own childhood, he writes about the importance of childhood.

In The People Shall Continue, the children listen. In Blue and Red, children learn to help other children, and in The Importance of Childhood, children’s play incorporates the colonizer’s language. In The Good Rainbow Road, the survival of our communities is in the hands of children. Because of story, and because of children, the People Shall Continue.


Harjo, Joy. Reinventing the Enemies Language. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.

Larrick, Nancy. “The All-White World of Children’s Books.” Saturday Review September 1965: 63-85.

Ortiz, Simon. Blue and Red. Acoma: Pueblo of Acoma Press, 1981.

---. The Good Rainbow Road: Rawa ‘Kashtyaa’tsi Hiyaani. Tucson: University of Arizona Press,

---. The Importance of Childhood. Acoma: Pueblo of Acoma Press, 1982.

---. The People Shall Continue. Emeryville: Children’s Book Press, 1977.

---. Personal Interview. May. 2008.

---. “Towards a National Indian Literature: Cultural Authenticity in Nationalism,” in American Indian Literary Nationalism, edited by J. Weaver, C. S. Womack, and R. Warrior. Albuquerque: UNM Press. 2006.

Parsons, Elsie Clews. The Social Organization of the Tewa of New Mexico. The American Anthropological Association, 1929.

[1] See the website for more information:

[2] John Cech, Princess Red Wing: Keeper of the Past, Children's Literature - Volume 10, 1982, pp. 83-101

[3] By this time, Ortiz had been a student at the University of New Mexico and the University of Iowa. With several successful publications, he was adept at using the printed word to share Native experiences and perspectives. As such, he was well-positioned to take on the project.

[4] Her review of the book is in Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children, edited by Beverly Slapin and Doris Seale, first published in 1987. Through Indian Eyes is widely regarded as a touchstone volume in the field of children’s literature. Slapin would later be involved in the development of Ortiz’s The Good Rainbow Road.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Jane Haladay's essay on BEARSTONE by Will Hobbs

Earlier this week, I said I'd be posting a review essay of Will Hobbs' Bearstone. The essay is by friend and colleague, Jane Haladay, an Assistant Professor in American Indian Studies. I am grateful to her for giving it to me. As readers in children's literature know, Will Hobbs is one of the writers who has written a lot of books with Native content. Though I've got a few pages of notes on his Kokopelli's Flute, I've not yet posted my thoughts on it. Suffice it to say (as you'll see when you read Jane's essay), I find it lacking.

Desecrations and Desires:
White Male Fantasy in Will Hobbs’ Bearstone

Jane Haladay, Ph.D.
The University of North Carolina at Pembroke

January was coming to a close, which meant the stressful holiday season, thankfully, would finally be over. The joyful event of watching President Barrack Obama formally take office last week had also come and gone, and it was now time to get back to the business of untangling some serious problems under the leadership of an intelligent, articulate diplomat who, at one point in his Inaugural Address, invoked Scripture to emphasize that “the time has come to set aside childish things.” Fallen Catholic that I am, I still had to say “Amen” to that.

The President obviously wasn’t talking about children’s literature, but to make a leap from the President’s words to literature for children and young adults, it struck me that the time has come not only to set aside literature that contains destructive stereotypical representations of Native peoples, but for all of us to become more vocal about it. People still may or may not listen, but we will at least be aware that we haven’t sat idly by, allowing ongoing generations of ignorant educators and accepting students to continue perpetuating violence in the ways American Indians are represented in children’s and YA lit.

This point was driven home to me a few months earlier, when I groggily clicked open the following email as I sipped my morning coffee:
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].

I looked at my calendar: October 31. Sure enough, Native American Heritage Month was in the wind, the time when many K-12 educators seem to remember Indian peoples for the first and only time during the school year, for better and for worse. Yes, there are plenty of excellent teachers out there doing good work, and there are still plenty who don’t know anything about American Indians and don’t want their fantasies corrected. As it turned out, my exchange with after receiving her email proved to fall in the second category.

While I was tempted to delete this email based on the bad mechanics and the misspelling of my name alone (remember, I hadn’t had my coffee yet), I did not. Thinking this could be another one of those “teachable moments” that we educators are supposed to embrace, urged me instead to respond.

But first, I did two things. Since I had never heard of this book nor its author, I looked up Bearstone on and, not finding it there, on Then I emailed Dr. Debbie Reese, a Native scholar whose research interest is children’s literature for Native American children and youth. The descriptions I read on were troubling. For example, eighth grader Bobby Anderson notes that, “This book really put the fact that being alone is not a good idea into perspective,” while someone identifying her or himself as “A Kid’s Review” alerts us that “Cloyd [Bearstone’s protagonist] is a person that likes to keep thing to himself. He can sometime get really mad that he decides to run away [sic].”

While these descriptions were not especially helpful in allowing me a cursory understanding of what this book was about, one, written by “Roger L. Bagula” (someone possibly over the age of twelve) was extremely telling: “A half Ute, half Navajo is wild and alone. School has failed and his relatives are failing him. He just in time finds an old man to father him. It is a rough story and the boy who calls himself lone bear because of a blue stone he found in a burial cave of the ancient ones. A story of redemption and friendship that grows to love. Very well written and with mining and hunting, besides horses and ranching.” Clearly, there’s a whole lot going on in Bearstone, especially, it seemed, under the heading of taming the wild in a variety of forms.

When Dr. Reese emailed me back about this 154-page novel, which was published in 1989, she confirmed the sense I was already getting about Bearstone’s author. Hobbs makes a good living writing crap, getting guest speaking gigs at conferences, etc. I haven't read the book you've asked about, but KOKOPELLI'S FLUTE is crap.” Unsurprisingly, it turns out that Bearstone, too, is crap.

Meanwhile, I had written to the local teacher to inform her that my speaking to her students about “American Indian myths and folklore, religion and burial practices, etc.” wasn’t going to happen, if indeed I came to speak to her students. But maybe we could work something else out? I wrote:
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.

This wasn’t exactly the presentation she had hoped for, I guess, since her next reply was less than enthusiastic about the approach I was suggesting. Her thorough response to my email was the longest in our approximately week-long exchange, and she hoped to convince me, it seemed, of why Hobbs book was a good one for any middle school student:
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.

After reading this outpouring of her reasons for teaching Bearstone and her analysis of the text, I wondered a bit why she had contacted me in the first place. She seemed to have it all figured out, so why did she need me, “a scholar of Native American literature”? Oh yeah, I realized: to tell her about Ute burial practices and talismans! I would be useful in making more colorful those markers of “Indianness” this text offers up to students, without being able to discuss why the entire premise of the story about a “wild” Indian adolescent who is “straightened out” by a kindly white man is problematic from a Native perspective in the first place. Things seemed to be going from bad to worse pretty quickly.

Hey, I’m hip to the bildungsroman; I taught high school English for eight years before teaching college. I made it clear to the teacher that I have great appreciation for the difficulties middle and high school teachers face in finding meaningful literature that students will actually read and respond to. But is Bearstone a place where American Indian students can go “for escape,” or is it just another space where they are captured, stereotyped, and offended? Could the teacher really assess whether this novel is “very respectful of the protagonist's culture,” when her invitation to have me come and speak about Ute culture suggests she doesn’t really know much, if anything, about it?

The junior high school where she teachers caters to a 15% population of American Indian students; 51% are African American, 30% are white, 3% are “Hispanic,” and 1% are Asian. Robeson County, where the school is located, is the poorest county in the state and, as the home of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, the county also has the highest population of American Indian people in the state. Forty-nine percent of the seventh and eighth graders attending this school are eligible for the free lunch program, a figure 10% higher than the North Carolina state average. During the 2006-2007 school year, this junior high did not make adequate yearly progress in student learning. A majority of the school’s 39 classroom teachers (59%) have fewer than ten years’ teaching experience, a figure that is 5% higher than the state average; also 5% higher than the state average is the teacher turnover rate: 29% to the state’s 24%. Obviously, then, this is a school where providing students with great novels to find “some hope that they are not alone, [and] that the world is not out to get them” is a really, really good idea.

Unfortunately, Bearstone is not such a novel. And you don’t need to be a Ute person nor a Ute scholar (neither of which I am) to understand that Bearstone is definitely not respectful of Ute culture.

Introducing Cloyd, the troubled protagonist of the novel, whom we first meet as he lies his way into an IHS hospital posing as a delivery boy, in hopes of tracking down the Navajo father who abandoned him and his mother when Cloyd was born. Cloyd’s Ute mother, meanwhile, has died giving birth to him. Cloyd has “run away from the Ute group home in Colorado and hitched all the way to Window Rock” (1) on a quest to finally meet his dad, only to discover that his father is a vegetable as a result of an auto accident four years ago. Cloyd, who is fourteen (8), has been seeking a father figure since he was born, but he’s disgusted by the reality of the man he finds: “What he saw terrified him. This wasn’t even a human being. It was more like a shriveled-up mummy attached to a bunch of tubes….How could this be his father? Was it even alive?” (2-3). Cloyd “threw the flowers in the trash” (4) that he had brought for his long-lost dad and departs, without so much as a backward glance. So ends Chapter 1.

If the tragic victimry of the first four pages doesn’t grab your attention, hold on: there’s a lot more to come. By page six, Cloyd is being driven by his white housemother to her white friend Walter Landis’s ranch in the high desert of Colorado, where she is taking Cloyd as a last resort because “[h]e failed all seven of his classes,” either because he won’t or doesn’t know how to do the work due to the four-year gap in his colonial education. “Four years!” Walter exclaims when the housemother tells him about this gap. “Where was he?” “Out in the canyons, herding his grandmother’s goats,” explains Cloyd’s housemother. “I think he’s at least half-wild” (8).

Hobbs offers not a hint of cultural awareness around traditional Indigenous education, or the fact that four years of living in his homelands herding his grandmother’s goats might have taught Cloyd a few things – including his Ute language – which can’t be found within the walls of the group home or the pages of books written in English. Unfortunately, Hobbs’ colonial fantasies of “wild” Indians is one of his least egregious depictions of Native life in Bearstone; at this point in the story, he’s just getting warmed up.

Will Hobbs’ worst assault on cultural sensitivity manifests in a deeply disturbing scene still early in the novel, during which Cloyd is ostensibly reconnecting with his Ute ancestral ways. Rebellious as usual, Cloyd has ditched his housemother to climb the sandstone cliffs behind Walter’s ranch before he has even had a chance to meet Walter. The red-and-white cliffs remind Cloyd of home, and he heads for them because he remembers his grandmother telling him that their people had originally lived in “Colorado, especially the mountains above Durango,” before gold-seeking white men “wanted them out of the way” and they moved to White Mesa (12). After Cloyd makes his harrowing climb up one of the high sandstone cliffs, he rests inside a cool cave. As he rests there, he notices an unusual looking object wedged into a crack in the cave. He then “shimmied into the dark, narrow crack until his hands closed on some kind of a bundle,” which he then takes into the dim light to examine (14).

Unlike Will Hobbs, I will not describe the fictional contents of the infant burial bundle that Cloyd unwraps and inspects in detail. While I imagine Hobbs may have been pleased with the anthropological accuracy with which he describes the sacred objects and human remains in this bundle, it is extremely upsetting to read his description, to which I had a visceral response that made me want to push the book away from me. These details are even more troubling in that Native and other culturally aware readers are asked to believe that Cloyd would not have understood what he was holding before he opened it and, once he did open it, that he would proceed to behave as he does. Hobbs tells us that Cloyd’s grandmother had “talked about such things” and had given him advice about how to handle any burial objects Cloyd might one day come in contact with: “behave carefully, treat the buried one with the utmost respect, and don’t make any mistakes. The Ancient Ones are not people to be trifled with” (15).

It’s extremely difficult to understand why, then, having recalled his grandmother’s reasoned and important words, Cloyd would not only have unwrapped the burial bundle but would go one step further and steal a burial object he finds inside a piece of pottery that rests beside the bundle. When he extracts the pot from the crevice near the bundle, Cloyd’s first thought, after he “took in [the pot’s] beauty and wholeness” was that he had heard that such pots “were worth a thousand dollars unbroken” (15). Cloyd then makes an even more spectacular find: “a small blue stone about two inches long, worn smooth by long handling. Turquoise. Two eyes, a snout, and a humped back. A bear. Surely, a bear to accompany the infant on the long journey” (15).

Cloyd reflects on what his grandmother has told him about the significance of bears to the Ute people, and how “[i]f you could make a bear your personal guardian, you would be a strong man and lucky” (15). Cloyd needs some luck, obviously, so it’s only logical that he decides he needs the bearstone more than the departed infant Ancient One, right? Well sure, especially when you’re a fictional Indian boy whose thinking is being crafted by a white man. In Bearstone, Hobbs’ Indian fantasies won’t get anywhere without the Native protagonist buying into them, right down to ransacking one of his own ancestor’s graves and ruminating upon the expensive pottery and turquoise talismans to be found there. At this point, I was becoming downright queasy about the idea of the teacher wanting me to come to her class to discuss “American Indian myths and folklore, religion and burial practices, etc.,” as her interest at least in burial practices clearly originated in this scene, one that enacts the most violence upon Ute people in the entire short novel.

Cloyd’s story proceeds on pretty much along these problematic lines, with side trips for Cloyd to cut down an entire orchard full of Walter’s beloved peach trees in a fit of rage, trees that Walter’s deceased wife had brought from distant lands and nurtured on the ranch. Now thoroughly disgusted with Cloyd’s lack of response to his many attempts at kindnesses (dang those resistant Indians anyway!), Walter returns Cloyd to his grandmother’s home on the Ute Reservation, where Cloyd knows that “in the slickrock country, he could live wild and free” (63). Oh, did I forget to mention that by now Cloyd has given himself his own Indian name, Lone Bear?

When Cloyd is reunited with his apparently long-suffering grandmother, the one who has educated Cloyd in those Ute traditions he is still aware of, Hobbs does not bother naming her. It isn’t necessary, apparently, as she is merely another white male fantasy of the Indian earth-mother grandma who cooks, offers words of sage counsel to her grandson, and doesn’t bug him with silly questions. Hobbs describes Cloyd’s grandmother as “A Ute woman in the old style,…dark, earthy, and large, the mainstay of her diet being frybread” (64). Cloyd stays for one meal with his grandmother, but is all the while feeling so guilty about having chainsawed down the old white man’s peach trees that he leaves immediately after the meal to hitchhike back and ask for a second chance with Walter. And that’s the most we hear about Grandma for the remainder of the novel. Cloyd, it seems, has an easy time of putting his blood relatives and his entire community out of his mind when he has a chance to show a white rancher what he’s really worth.

Of course Walter takes Cloyd back (hooray!), and for the remainder of the novel, the two are up in the mountains where Walter is trying to revive his dream, with Cloyd’s help, of striking it rich in his dilapidated gold mine. One passage in this section contains perhaps the most direct critique of colonialism in the book, although it doesn’t make up for the rest of the nonsense and is really one more token nod by Hobbs to the tragic “demise” of Native culture at the hands of “conquering” whites. Cloyd recalls that his grandmother had told him that:
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)

Even here, describing the lifeways of Ute people as “roaming around” to “live in the old way” evokes a sense of aimless and anachronistic drifting, rather than suggesting the sophisticated patterns of Ute land use that resulted in their traditional patterns of seasonal migration.

Bearstone is a frustrating book not only because of Will Hobbs’ white fantasies about Indian exoticism, or because of his offensive, stereotypical depictions of much of his subject matter. The book is also troublesome because it actually raises real issues that American Indian youth and their communities experience, but it does not offer any larger context to attempt achieving real understanding by a general readership as to why these issues exist. For example, during Cloyd’s one brief visit to his Grandmother, “Cloyd wanted to talk. He’d spoken no Ute in the last year, as the boys from the Colorado reservation no longer knew the language. Right away he found himself telling her about Walter…” (64). This passage does not clarify whether Cloyd is speaking English or Ute. Does being with Grandmother reinvigorate his fluent Ute, is Grandmother speaking English, or is Cloyd speaking English and Grandmother speaking Ute? It matters, but we don’t know. We know only that “the boys from the Colorado reservation no longer knew the language,” though we don’t know whether these boys are living at off-reservation boarding schools, at Cloyd’s group home, or if they are still on the reservation. At the same time, while the implication that Ute language has vanished with Cloyd’s generation alludes to the unfortunate reality of Southern Ute language’s endangered status among its tribal youth, it is not necessarily true that not speaking the language is the same as not knowing the language, or not understanding it. Hobbs does not help us understand these shadings around the crucial issue of Native languages, however, and so Ute language – and Cloyd’s diminishing use of it – are reduced to one more feature of Indian culture that, like roaming around to live in the old way, signals Indians and their ways as fading into the mists of time.

As a non-Native scholar who writes about Natives subjects, I fault Hobbs for his conscious lack of complexity in depicting the story of a complex Native life. It is irresponsible for any author, but especially a non-Native author, to simply plop into his novel without at least minimal contextualization references to significant circumstances in Indian communities such as the decline of original languages; child abandonment; the foster care system; Native youth who experience cultural disconnection from tribal heritages; and relationships toward sacred materials and ancestral remains. All of these are in Bearstone, but as Hobbs depicts them they exist only to reinscribe whitestream notions of vanishing Indians and the titillating markers of their apparently stagnant cultures. For a general reader unfamiliar with American Indian historical issues and their contemporary legacies, Hobbs’ references sprinkled throughout the text suggest that he is an authority on Ute experience, and thus that this portrait of the two Ute characters he paints -- Cloyd and his grandmother – are the way Ute people must be.

I’m not sure my exchange with the teacher who emailed me accomplished anything. And while it certainly didn’t prove to be any kind of teachable moment for her or for her students, it was definitely instructive to me, as this essay makes clear. By the time I finished reading Bearstone, I was quite horrified that I had been willing to come speak about anything in connection with this book. She, in the meantime, had decided that, based on my first email, if I were going to talk about Native literature in general, the school might as well capitalize on my time and gather up the entire eighth grade to listen to my presentation. In an assembly. On a Friday. Hmm; hold on a minute here. But I wanted to be a good citizen, so I initially agreed to this proposal. Yet as the teacher and I corresponded about the details, and I thought more about my former days supervising assemblies as a high school teacher, the more dubious I grew about the value of making any kind of educational presentation to a crowd of eighth graders. (On a Friday.) Even the teacher emailed that while I could have two combined class periods for the assembly, shorter might be better because “the kids lose interest, which you no doubt know.” Yeah, I know; in fact, I was rapidly losing interest myself.

I wrote to her then about my concerns around Bearstone and suggested something that I honestly thought might help be more helpful for everyone – the teachers, their students, and me:
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.
But this was not what she wanted. The same day I wrote, she emailed me back a terse one-liner stating, “I need to discuss this possibility with our principal. I will let you know what we decide and get back to you as soon as possible.” She expressed no interest in the idea of a workshop, and I never heard from her again.

It’s too bad, though. I did want to try to negotiate something with her and her students. But I think, since she clearly enjoyed the story as Hobbs wrote it, that she preferred not to have her image of Hobbs’ novel intruded upon with a critique of its offensiveness to Native people, in the same way Hobbs preferred not to have his story intruded upon by the addition of cultural appropriateness and complexity regarding Native lives. This teacher was looking at Bearstone as an ultimately happy tale of cultural bridging, of an elderly white stand-in father who eventually soothes all the wounds of a “wild” Indian boy who is trying to figure out who he is. And, she was looking at a book that reinscribes white fantasies of “love conquers all,” where relationships with biological family, returning to one’s cultural community, and leaving Indigenous sacred objects in the places they were found are antiquated notions of a primitive past that block real progress in relations between the so-called “races,” in the spirit of “we’re all the same beneath the skin.” In Bearstone, Will Hobbs’ equation of Cloyd minus parents minus tribe minus homeland plus kindly white widower equals new family and new home is good enough for the teacher, and thus good enough for her students.

We were definitely looking at Bearstone differently. I was looking at a book I hoped would offer the junior high school students, Native and non, of rural Southeastern North Carolina a tale that both outlined and explained some of the reasons around the complexities of being a Native adolescent in the twentieth century; a story in which the way out of the troubled adolescence of one Native boy did not automatically require rescue by yet another incarnation of the Great White Father; a novel in which a young Ute man who was raised by his traditional grandmother would at least have known, despite having left his community for extended periods of time, that to steal a burial item from an infant ancestor was an unthinkable, egotistical breach.

The conclusion of Bearstone finds Cloyd happily living at Walter’s ranch full time, beaming with delight when a nursery truck arrives with a load of young peach trees that Cloyd has purchased as a surprise gift for Walter to replace the trees Cloyd chain-sawed in his earlier killing spree. All’s well that end’s well, right? Not exactly. In Will Hobbs’ creating such questionable young adult literature, and in twenty-first century educators perpetuating the violent messages of Bearstone without understanding the damages of those messages to Native and non-Native students, I wonder who it is who actually lives happily ever after.