Sunday, November 06, 2022

"Never fear," said Gramps. "My great, great grandmother was one quarter Native Bear and I am ready to share."

This morning on Twitter, I saw a tweet that included a photo of a page from a Berenstain Bears book. The person who shared it characterized it as 'yikes' and most of the people who commented about it agreed. Because a lot of what we see online is satire or parody, I wondered if someone was playing around with the Berenstain Bears books. 

Some of the books have stereotypical content and are cringeworthy. In Berenstain Bears Go to Camp (published in 1982 by Random House) shows Grizzly Bob in a feathered headdress and fringed buckskin. In Berenstain Bears Give Thanks (published in 2009 by Zonderkids, a Christian publishing house) the bear family has a turkey named Squanto. This is supposed to be their dinner on Thanksgiving Day but Sister Bear objects and they decide to keep Squanto as a pet. 

I looked for the book where Gramps says his great, great grandmother was "one quarter Native Bear" and found it right away. It is in The Berenstain Bears Thanksgiving Blessings. Like Berenstain Bears Give Thanks, it is from Zonderkids, the Christian publishing house. It came out in 2013.

Thanksgiving Blessings is one of the too-many books that puts forth the feel-good Thanksgiving story (in this one, the "Native Bears" gave the "Pilgrim Bears" food and they all shared in a great feast), but it is also one of those that goes a step further by having a character claim to be Native. That character talks about what they will "share" with others. Some readers will see "share" and think it is a good moral lesson, but some of us read that and see it as an attempt to depict harmony that looks away from the facts of history.

Here, it is Gramps saying that his great, great Grandmother was "one quarter Native Bear." Here's a screencap of the page (I put the red arrow there to draw your attention to Gramps and this bogus claim):

And here's the text on that page:
The whole family helped set the table. It was, indeed, a magnificent Thanksgiving feast. 
"It's a shame there aren't any Native Bears here to share it with us," said Brother. 
"Never fear," said Gramps, seating himself at the head of the table. "My great, great grandmother was one quarter Native Bear an I am ready to share. Let's eat!"
If you follow Native people on social media, you know that there are many conversations about people who claim they are Native. Social media makes it possible for this topic to be more visible than ever before. 

I ran into these claims a lot in the 1990s when I was a student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). It had a stereotypical mascot they called "Chief Illiniwek." Before I arrived there, Native students, staff and faculty had been asking the university to get rid of it. 

Without fail, we encountered fans who claimed that they are part Native and--with that claim to Native identity--said that the mascot was a good thing. Some of them may have had an ancestor, but some of them were simply recounting family lore, and were using that family lore to dismiss Native people who resist being stereotyped and misrepresented via mascots, children's books, television shows, and movies. 

That dismissal is precisely what I see in Thanksgiving Blessings. Obviously, Mike Berenstain (his parents launched the Berenstain Bears books in the 1960s), uses Gramps and his "one quarter Native Bear" as an attempt to validate the bogus Thanksgiving story. 

If you have a family story that tells us an ancestor was Native and you have no idea what that ancestor's nation was, and you speak from that space of not-knowing, I urge you to stop doing that, especially if you're doing it to counter Native people who speak up about stereotypes, and/or biased and inaccurate information. You are harming the very people you claim to be. You are undermining us. Please stop! 

To learn more about fabricated or unsupported claims to Native identity, you can read through resources I've compiled: Native or Not? And if you see that sort of thing in a children's book, please let me know!

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