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! 

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Back Matter in 2022 book from Charlesbridge -- THE GARDENER OF ALCATRAZ

This morning on Facebook (in a discussion of books by region), I saw mention of The Gardener of Alcatraz. Written by Emma Bland Smith and illustrated by Jenn Ely, it came out in 2022 from Charlesbridge. In my experience, Charlesbridge is one of the publishers that is really trying to be conscious of content about Native peoples. 

I know the history of Alcatraz. Would any of that history, I wondered, be in The Gardener of Alcatraz

The answer is yes. Information is included in the back matter. I think solid info in a book's back matter as a step in the right direction. 

Here's the description for The Gardener of Alcatraz:
When Elliott Michener was locked away in Alcatraz for counterfeiting, he was determined to defy the odds and bust out. But when he got a job tending the prison garden, a funny thing happened. He found new interests and skills--and a sense of dignity and fulfillment. Elliott transformed Alcatraz Island, and the island transformed him.

Told with empathy and a storyteller's flair, Elliott's story is funny, touching, and unexpectedly relevant. Back matter about the history of Alcatraz and the US prison system today invites meaningful discussion.
I do hope that the back matter invites meaningful discussion! Many (most?) kids won't read the back matter--but teachers, parents, librarians--you certainly can! Read and study it so you can give more depth to students when you teach or book talk The Gardener of Alcatraz. Here's what I see:
  • In the Time Line is "1969-70: Native American occupation of Alcatraz" (p. 36).
  • In Alcatraz and Its Gardens (p. 37), there are several subsections:
The first paragraph of "The Early Years" says "Because there was no source of water, Native people did not live on the island (although historians believe the members of the Ohlone tribe may have hidden there to avoid being captured and forced into slavery in the California Mission system)." 

The second paragraph says "Native Americans were also imprisoned there for refusing to allow their children to be taken away and placed in boarding schools." 

There's an entire subsection called "The Native Occupation." The first paragraph is about the prison being expensive to maintain, and so it was shut down. The second paragraph is: 

Then, in 1979, a group of Native activists from different tribes occupied Alcatraz. Their goal was to raise awareness about the brutal ways in which Native people had been treated and to protest the recent closings of reservations across the country. The Indians of All Tribes occupied Alcatraz for nineteen months before the government evicted them. Signs of their presence remain on the island to this day, inspiring visitors to reflect upon Indigenous people's ongoing fight for their rights.

I wish the author had included sources or books for this information. There's a selected bibliography but none of the primary sources, books, online resources, or DVD's that they list are specific to Native people at Alcatraz. She cites books that are not ones for children. For example, she cites Michael Esslinger's Alcatraz: A History of the Penitentiary Years. She could have cited one of Adam Fortunate Eagle's books. You can read his Heart of the Rock: The Indian Invasion of Alcatraz at the Internet Archive (or get a copy from your library). Another option is Troy Johnson's books about the occupation. They are primarily photo records of that period and I find them gripping. The National Park Service hosts a page he wrote about the occupation: We Hold the Rock.  She includes links to online resources and could have added ones about the Hopi parents who were imprisoned there. The National Park Service has this one: Hopi Prisoners on the Rock.  

  •  In Author's Note, Smith writes that Corrina Gould, Tribal Chair of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, "went over the passages concerning Native people's relationship with Alcatraz." (p. 40). 

I am psyched to see Smith's note -- and that she worked with Corrina Gould! I met her (virtually) last year when we were doing a session for caregivers in the San Francisco Bay area. 

As noted earlier, I think it is great to see inclusive back matter! I hope teachers use it when they use the book in the classroom.