Friday, January 13, 2023

"Tlingit don't exist for the benefit of bad teenagers."

In a recent conversation, an educator told me about people in her networks who are still using Touching Spirit Bear.  That educator has read my posts about the book and is frustrated by those who continue to use it. Here, I'll paste the cover and overlay it with a red X:

In reading through comments about the book and Slapin's review of it, I remembered the one submitted by Mike M. in February of 2018. I'm sharing it here to bring it more visibility. Mike is Tlingit. Here's what he said:
Tlingit don't exist for the benefit of bad teenagers.

Sorry I seem to be late to this party. I've known about Touching Spirit Bear for years, but have avoided reading it, until just this week. I'd read about it here, and in Clare Bradford's essay, and figured that I would not like it. Now I have read it, and I do not like it. The book bothered me. Many of the comments here bother me. Some who defend the book use the argument that reading it is helpful for many troubled young readers, so any minor factual inaccuracies don't matter. There seems to be some formula that can be used to balance the benefits against the harms; I don't know what that formula is. The harms do seem to be undervalued by those who make the argument. I have to ask: if thousands of sports fans are made happy by acting out an ugly caricature, does that joy outweigh the tragedy of dehumanizing whole groups of people? How many happy fans balance one young suicide? What exactly is the Stereotype to Redemption exchange rate--and is it a fair transaction?

I am fairly certain that I am not the only Tlingit person who has been informed, as soon as his tribal affiliation is discovered, that "Ooh! I loved Touching Spirit Bear." This has happened to me, more than once, if not in these exact words. That it is intended as a positive statement does not erase the realization that a whole culture is reduced to a couple of characters. (And worse, that these are characters whose creator claims that their culture is not relevant to the important matter of his book.) One wonders how many young readers (or adult readers--many of them teachers, apparently) put down this book, fiction or not, believing that at.oow is kind of like Linus Van Pelt's comic-strip blanket, or that Tlingit villagers can cure a sociopath by letting him dance out his feelings after dinner.

The book may indeed be helpful for some troubled youth. I can't say, but I don't like the cost. Touching Spirit Bear would have been better if the whole Tlingit angle had been left out. The character of Edwin, the Tlingit elder, was more Hippie than Tlingit. Garvey, the parole officer, could have been anyone from Southeast Alaska. Rosey, the Tlingit nurse, was believable, as were the teenagers who carried the stretcher: they would have been acceptable as irrelevant Indians. I read that the author claimed that Touching Spirit Bear was not based on the controversial real-life Tlingit banishment case that hit the national news a few years before his book; neither have I seen any mention of the real-life Circle Peacemaking Program in the Tlingit village of Kake (rhymes with Drake): so it must be assumed that the Tlingit connection in Touching Spirit Bear is mere New-Age appropriative garbage.

Mike is not the only Tlingit person who has said no to Touching Spirit Bear and he's not the only Native person who has said no, either! 

Many people talk about a book that changed their life. Some argue that Touching Spirit Bear changes lives of children who bully others. That is certainly possible but it does that at the expense of other peoples and factual knowledge of Tlingit people. Does that make it ok? If the book that changed your life had derogatory content of a people, would you use it with young people? My hope is that you'd hold on to the lessons you took from it but that you'd not use it with others.

Teachers: let go of this book! 

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