Showing posts sorted by relevance for query touching spirit bear. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query touching spirit bear. Sort by date Show all posts

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Review of Ben Mikaelsen's TOUCHING SPIRIT BEAR

Editor's Note, March 10, 2008: A lot of people come to this page from "Web English Teacher" and may be surprised to read the critical review below. I hope that you'll consider it and the other essays on this site about Touching Spirit Bear. Share what you read here with your students. How does information provided here compare to positive and favorable reviews? Does the negative review change your view of the book in any way?
SEPTEMBER 20, 2006: Beverly Slapin's review of Ben Mikaelsen's Touching Spirit Bear

Editor's Intro to Slapin's Review: American society loves to love Indians and things-Indian. Or rather, things they think are Indian. There’s a long history of exploiting our ways of being. Touching Spirit Bear is another example of that exploitation. You don’t have to buy or read it. There are better books available. To find them, visit the Oyate website.

[Note: This review is used here with permission of the author, Beverly Slapin. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.]

Mikaelsen, Ben, Touching Spirit Bear. HarperCollins, 2001, 241 pages, grades 5-up; Tlingit

For centuries, restorative justice or circle justice has been practiced in one form or another by many Indian communities. The object is to restore the wellbeing of the victim or the victim’s family, rather than to punish the offender. This is done through a multi-step talking-circle approach, in which the people most affected by the crime, along with community representatives, come together to heal and to try to agree on a fair and reasonable settlement. The sentencing plan involves commitment by the community, family members, and the offender. In 1996, a pilot circle justice project, in conjunction with the criminal justice system, was initiated in Minnesota

In Touching Spirit Bear, Cole Matthews is an angry, out-of-control Minneapolis teen, the son of wealthy, abusive alcoholic parents, convicted of viciously beating a classmate. This manipulative and violent young offender is given one more chance: to take part in the circle justice program. Soon Cole finds himself on a remote Alaskan island in Tlingit territory, banished for a year, overseen by a Tlingit parole officer and a traditional elder—and watched by an enormous white “spirit bear.” Here, he resists, wrestles with, and ultimately comes to terms with this chance to take responsibility for what he’s done. 

Ben Mikaelsen’s writing, in places, is evocative and a dead-on accurate portrayal of a troubled teen. After the bear near-fatally mauls Cole, there are excruciatingly detailed descriptions of his struggles to survive by eating worms and bugs, a live mouse and even his own vomit. With broken ribs, legs and an arm, and too weak to get up, he defecates in his pants, and fights to stay alive. It is during this time that Cole begins to understand his vulnerability and his relationship to everything that surrounds him. It is here that his transformation begins. 

All of this having been said, Touching Spirit Bear is fatally flawed by Mikaelsen’s inexcusable playing around with Tlingit culture, cosmology and ritual; and his abysmal lack of understanding of traditional banishment. It is obvious that what he doesn’t know, he invents. Edwin, the Tlingit elder, instructs Cole to: jump into the icy cold water and stay there as long as possible; pick up a heavy rock (called the “ancestor rock”) and carry it to the top of a hill; push the rock (now called the “anger rock”) back down the hill; watch for animals and dance around the fire to impersonate the animal he sees (called the “bear dance,” “bird dance,” “mouse dance,” etc.); announce what he’s learned about the characteristics of that animal from his dance; and finally, carve that animal on his own personal “totem pole.”

This is all garbage. The purpose of banishment is to isolate a person so that, in solitude, he can think deeply about his life and relations, and prepare to rejoin his community. When someone is banished, he is left to learn on his own whatever is to be learned. It is not about white boys “playing Indian.” It is not about teaching white boys the rituals of another culture. And most especially, it is not about carrying rocks up a hill and performing a bunch of stupid cross-cultural animal impersonation dances.
The author’s own relationship with bears and his supposed almost-close-enough-to-touch encounter with a “three-hundred-pound male Spirit Bear” notwithstanding, Touching Spirit Bear is a terrible book.

—Beverly Slapin

[Update, 5/7/2008: Please read further information about Touching Spirit Bear here.]

Sunday, May 04, 2008

A response to Richie's review of GHOST OF SPIRIT BEAR, and a critical look at TOUCHING SPIRIT BEAR

In the last few weeks, Richie Partington's review of Ben Mikaelsen's sequel to Touching Spirit Bear has been making the round on Internet listservs.

He opens his review with this excerpt from Black-Eyed Peas "Where is the Love?"

"Wrong information always shown by the media
Negative images is the main criteria
Infecting the young minds faster than bacteria
Kids wanna act like what they see in the cinema
Yo', whatever happened to the values of humanity
Whatever happened to the fairness in equality
Instead of spreading love we spreading animosity."

He goes on to praise Ghost of Spirit Bear, but again and again, I come back to the lyrics he opened the review with...

"Wrong information always shown by the media" --- That describes, perfectly, the way that Native peoples are portrayed in the movies, cartoons, advertisements, commercial products, and, of course, children's books.

"Wrong information" also perfectly describes Mikaelsen's first book, so it is puzzling that Partington uses that phrase to describe the book. Either Richie hasn't read criticism of Native imagery in Touching Spirit Bear, or, like so many others, he thinks a critique of Mikaelsen's misuse and misrepresentation of Tlingit people doesn't matter.

Touching Spirit Bear relies on and draws heavily from Mikaelsen's ideas about American Indians. His writing includes stereotypes, old and new. 'Old' meaning those older ones that put American Indians in the same class as animals; 'new' meaning the new-age use of Native spirituality.

Chapter 1 opens with Cole in a boat on his way to spend a year on an island in Alaska. This is "banishment" and the outcome, we are told later, of Circle Justice. With Cole are two men, both of them Tlingit. One is Garvey, who is "built like a bulldog with lazy eyes" (p. 3). The other is Edwin who "stared forward with a steely patience, like a wolf waiting" (p. 4)

Bulldog? Wolf? Is this a style Mikaelsen uses to describe all his characters? Here's how he describes Cole:

"He was an innocent-looking, baby-faced fifteen-year-old from Minneapolis..." (p.5)

And here's Peter, the kid Cole beat up:

"...the skinny red-haired boy," (p. 7)

Cole's parents:

"His mom acted like a scared Barbie doll, always looking good but never fighting back or standing up to anyone" (p. 9)

"His dad was a bullheaded drinker with a temper" (p. 9).

Bullheaded is certainly derived from an animal, but the term is common usage for someone who is determined to do what he wants, regardless of what others might think or want. Given that, I think it is different from the ways that Garvey and Edwin are described.

It is through Garvey that Cole learns about Circle Justice. Based on my reading about Circle Justice, Mikaelsen (through Garvey) does a reasonably accurate job of laying it out on pages 10-12. Where Mikaelsen goes astray is when Cole gets banished. Several meetings of the Circle have taken place, but Cole isn't making any progress. In frustration he tells the people at the meeting: "Send me someplace where I'm not in your face and can't hurt anyone. But why do I have to go to jail?" (p. 55).

Garvey replies "I'm a native Tlingit," he said. "I was raised in Southeast Alaska. It is possible I could make arrangements to have Cole banished to a remote island on the Inland Passage" (p. 55-56).

This banishment to an island comes straight out of the pages of the newspapers in 1994. "Indian Boys' Exile Turns Out to Be Hoax" ran in the New York Times. Reading it is much like reading the early part of Touching Spirit Bear. Except for the part of the article that reads:

"Now it turns out there is no such thing as banishment in Tlingit culture, according to tribal leaders and elders in Alaska."

Hmmm... That gives me pause. Let' see... the article came out in 1994. HarperCollins published Touching Spirit Bear in 2001. Apparently the book wasn't vetted. Maybe they don't do that with fiction? MAYBE THEY SHOULD!!! Course, I know of two books that experts critiqued prior to publication, but the writer/publisher chose to ignore the suggestions (those two are Ann Rinaldi's My Heart is on the Ground, and one of those Indian in the Cupboard books by Lynn Reid Banks).

Course, the book reading world loved Touching Spirit Bear! It's on all manner of "Best Books" lists, it has gotten many awards and glowing reviews. The Horn Book Guide is the only major review journal that panned it, giving it a 5 (out of 6) and calling it "Marginal, seriously flawed, but with some redeeming quality." I'm not sure what the redeeming quality is. "Marginal" and "seriously flawed" are dead on, though.

If you're an editor, get fiction manuscripts reviewed by experts, and when the experts point out problems, listen to the problems. Do not assume that the research the author has done is sufficient. It is likely that he/she is ill-informed.

Be mindful of the sources that you use when creating/writing/reviewing a story with Native characters or content. Today, more than ever, it is possible to find material written by Native people. You don't have to rely on biased and outdated material to do your research!

I know---there's a lot of people out there who are huge fans of Touching Spirit Bear. Seems there's a strong feeling that this book helps kids who are bullies. It may do that, but it also helps everyone stoke their incorrect stereotypical ideas about who Native people are. For that reason, I cannot and do not recommend it.


(1) Touching Spirit Bear has been written about twice before on this website. See Beverly Slapin's review and a piece I wrote about comments posted to her review "Reaction to Slapin's review."

(2) Also see resources that can be used to evaluate the Tlingit content in Touching Spirit Bear.

(3) Read Ben Mikaelsen's response here.

Monday, November 08, 2010

"Bestsellers in Children's Native American Books"

A colleague wrote to ask if I know of a study of the most-assigned Native author in schools. I don't know of one, but will be looking for one, or, trying to figure out how to get the answer to the question, which is basically, "What book about American Indians is most-often taught/assigned in school?" Course, that would vary by grade level and school and other factors like state, public/private, etc.

One thing I (always) wonder about is best-selling books. One source of info is Amazon. In their "Bestsellers in Children's Native American Books" (time/date of list: 7:23 AM, Central Time, November 8, 2010) are the following titles. Some are on their more than once. In some cases, its clear that the duplicate is a Kindle edition, but others seem to just be repeats. There isn't, for example, a note that says it is an audio copy.

It is, overall, a disappointing list and it makes me grumpy on this Monday morning...  I'm glad to see Native authors on the list, but duplicates of some really problematic books like Touching Spirit Bear?! And it is pretty easy to see that Amazon's customers want works of historical fiction or "myths, legends and folktales."  

#1 - The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie.
#2 - Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Dell
#3 - One Little, Two Little, Three Little Pilgrims, by B. G. Hennessy
#4 - Island of the Blue Dolphins (Kindle), by Scott O'Dell
#5 - Squanto's Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving, by Joseph Bruchac
#6 - Touching Spirit Bear, by Ben Mikaelsen
#7 - North American Indians, by Douglas Gorsline
#8 - Tapenum's Day: A Wampanoag Indian Boy in Pilgrim Times
*#9 - Encounter, by Jane Yolen
#10 - Sing Down the Moon, by Scott O'Dell
#11 - The Rough-Face Girl, by Rafe Martin
#12 - Paddle-to-the-Sea, by Holling C. Holling
#13 - Diamond Willow, by Helen Frost
#14 - Red Fox and His Canoe (I Can Read Book), by Nathaniel Benchley
#15 - The Sign of the Beaver, by Elizabeth George Speare
#16 - The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush, by Tomie de Paola
#17 - Arrow to the Sun: A Pueblo Indian Tale, by Gerald McDermott
#18 - Touching Spirit Bear (Kindle) by Ben Mikaelson
#19 - Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George
#20 - Touching Spirit Bear, by Ben Mikaelsen
#21 - Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison, by Lois Lenski
#22 - Mountain Top Mystery (Boxcar Children), by Gertrude Chandler Warner
#23 - Grandmother's Dreamcatcher, by Becky Ray McCain
#24 - On Mother's Lap, by Ann Herbert Scott
#25 - Horse Diaries #5: Golden Sun, by Whitney Sanderson
#26 - The Indian in the Cupboard, by Lynn Reid Banks
#27 - Sacagawea: American Pathfinder, by Flora Warren Seymour
#28 - Code Talker: A Novel about the Navajo Marines of World War II, by Joseph Bruchac
#29 - The Heart of a Chief, by Joseph Bruchac
#30 - Little Runner of the Longhouse (I Can Red Book 2) by Betty Baker
#31 - Paddle-to-the-Sea, by Holling C. Hollins
#32 - Love Flute, by Paul Goble
#33 - Soft Rain: A Story of the Cherokee Trail of Tears, by Cornelia Cornelissen
#34 - The Journal of Jesse Smoke: A Cherokee Boy, Trail of Tears, 1838, by Joseph Bruchac
#35 - The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
#36 - The Birchbark House, by Louise Erdrich
#37 - The Legend of the Bluebonnet, by Tomie dePaola
#38 - Buffalo Woman, by Paul Goble
#39 - Cheyenne Again, by Eve Bunting
#40 - Where the Broken Heart Still Beats: The Story of Cynthia Ann Parker, by Carolyn Meyer
#41 - Julie, by Jean Craighead George
#42 - Children of the Longhouse, by Joseph Bruchac
#43 - Sacred Fire, by Nancy Wood
#44 - Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Dell
#45 - Mama, Do You Love Me, by Barbara J. Joosse
#46 - The Year of Miss Agnes, by Kirkpatrick Hill
#47 - Sweetgrass Basket, by Marlene Carvell
#48 - Sitting Bull: Dakota Boy, by Augusta Stevenson
#49 - The Talking Earth, by Jean Craighead George
#50 - Rainbow Crow, by Nancy Van Laan
#51 - The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses, by Paul Goble
#52 - The Polar Bear Son: An Inuit Tale, by Lydia Dabcovich
#53 - The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses, by Paul Goble
#54 - Song of the Seven Herbs, by Walking Night Bear
#55 - Ten Little Rabbits, by Virginia Grossman
#56 - The Lost Children: The Boys Who Were Neglected, by Paul Goble
#57- Moccasin Trail, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw
#58 - Thunder Rolling in the Mountains, by Scott O'Dell
#59 - Meet Kaya: An American Girl, by Janet Beeler Shaw
#60 - When the Legends Die, by Hal Borland
#61 - Sacajawea, by Joseph Bruchac
#62 - Knots on a Counting Rope, by John Archambault
#63 - The Porcupine Year, by Louise Erdrich
#64 - Star Boy, by Paul Goble
#65 - Jim and Me, by Dan Gutman
#66 - Kaya: An American Girl: 1764/Box Set, by Janet Beeler Shaw
#67 - Between Earth and Sky: Legends of Native American Sacred Places, by Joseph Bruchac
#68 - Touching Spirit Bear, by Ben Mikaelsen
#69 - Weasel, by Cynthia Defelice
#70 - When the Shadbush Blooms, by Carla Messinger
#71 - On Mother's Lap, by Ann Herbert Scott
#72 - The Captive Princess: A Story Based on the Life of Young Pocahontas
#73 - Powwow's Coming, by Linda Boyden
#74 - The Gift of the Sacred Dog, by Paul Goble
#75 - Streams to the River, River to the Sea, by Scott O'Dell
#76 - Weetamoo: Heart of the Pocassets, Massachusetts - Rhode Island, 1653 (Royal Diaries) by Patricia Clark Smith
#77 - Indian Trail (Choose Your Own Adventure) , by R. A. Montgomery
#78 - Arrow Over the Door, by Joseph Bruchac
#79 - At Seneca Castle, by William W. Canfield
#81 - Pocahontas, by Joseph Bruchac
#82 - Squanto's Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving, by Joseph Bruchac
#83 - Christmas Moccsains, by Ray Buckley
#84 - The Game of Silence, by Louise Erdrich
#85 - Encounter, by Jane Yolen
#86 - Beyond the Ridge, by Paul Goble
#87 - Death of the Iron Horse, by Paul Goble
#88 - The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper
#89 - Island of the Blue Dolphins (illustrated) by Scott O'Dell
#90 - Frozen Fire: A Tale of Courage by James Houston
#92 - Blood on the River: James Town 1607, by Elisa Carbone
#92 - The Give-Away: A Christmas Story in the American Tradition, by Ray Buckley
#93 - Mystic Horse, by Paul Goble
#94 - Eating the Plates: A Pilgrim Book of Food and Manners, by Lucilee Recht Penner
#95 - Mysteries in Our National Parks: Cliff Hanger, by Gloria Skurzynski
#96 - Jim Thorpe, Olympic Champion, by Guernsey Van Riper Jr
#97 - Good Hunting, Blue Sky (I Can Read Book) by Peggy Parish
#98 - Guests, by Michael Dorris
#99 - Hiawatha and Megissogwon by Henry W. Longfellow
#100 - Sing Down the Moon, by Scott O'Dell

Observations? Books by four Native authors are on the list: Sherman Alexie, Joseph Bruchac, Louise Erdrich, and Michael Dorris.  I'll return to this list later to share analyses and observations. Right now, I gotta head to class. The class? American Indian Studies 101, where, over the course of the semester, students gain insight and skills in recognizing problematic depictions of Native peoples. It is encouraging to see that development in them. I wish everyone in the US could take an Intro to American Indian Studies course. Then maybe there'd be some CHANGE in what they buy.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Response from Ben Mikaelsen re TOUCHING SPIRIT BEAR

Over on the listserv for California's librarians, I posted my critique of Touching Spirit Bear. It sparked some discussion. The moderator said he thought it was getting personal in nature and that the conversation ought to be dropped. In the meantime, he said he'd ask the book's author, Ben Mikaelsen, about my concerns. Yesterday, the moderator posted a reply from Mikaelsen. The moderator said the discussion is closed, that the author should have the final word. I disagree but respect his decision and will not continue that conversation on that listserv. However, I do think further conversation is necessary, so will do that here.

A brief note for now: I understand the desire to feel sympathy for Mikaelsen, or to defend freedom of speech and his freedom to write what he wants to. My concern lies with the children who read (in this case) his books:
  • the Tlingit children who read his book and know he misrepresents their culture, and
  • the non-Tlingit children who may think they've learned something about Tlingit culture.
When I first read Mikaelsen's book a few years ago, I read somewhere (can't recall) that he had been on an airplane with a Tlingit elder who told him about the Tlingit people and their ways. At that time, I wrote to Mikaelsen (through his website) to verify that story, and someone replied (not Mikaelsen) saying that had not happened. That person did not offer any additional information.

Below is Mikaelsen's response. I invite your comments, and am working on a reply that I will post in the next few days.

From: Ben Mikaelsen []
Sent: Friday, May 09, 2008 9:09 AM
To: Pilling, George
Subject: Touching Spirit Bear

Hello George,

So nice to talk with you. Please feel free to post this on the blog if you feel it appropriate. Normally I don't feel confronting people serves much purpose. In this case, however, this lady is using her position to spread such misleading and erroneous information. Let me know what you think.

Touching Spirit Bear has not received much criticism from inside or outside the Native American or First Nation Community since publication. Most people who know me, know how thoroughly I researched the Tlingit culture. I had any number of Tlingits review the manuscript for me to make sure I had it "right." The few criticisms I have received have been from people who subscribe to the notion that unless you share a perspective, you cannot write to it. Using this logic, I could not have written my book Tree Girl because it holds a female perspective. I could not have written Petey or Stranded because they contained a disabled person's perspective. Sparrow Hawk Red, Red Midnight and Countdown would not have been valid because of the Hispanic and Maasai cultures they portrayed. The irony of Countdown is the biggest criticism I ever received on that book was from a black professor. She accused me of not being remotely accurate with my portrayal of Maasai culture. Ironically, that book has been used for years in Tanzania in their public girls' schools specifically because they like the accurate portrayal of the Maasai.

As for my accuracy in Touching Spirit Bear, I stand by what I've written and can defend every word. The Tlingit culture was peripheral to my story so there was no need to go into cultural aspects in great depth. Anybody familiar with any of the First Nation Cultures knows that their cultures are very complex and a person can spend a lifetime learning all the nuances. This was not possible or necessary for my purposes. This said, all of the healing methods portrayed, carrying the ancestor rocks, dancing the dances, carving the totems, turning the clothes inside out, soaking the ponds, breaking the sticks of anger, etc., all were shared with me by a First Nation spiritual leader. How somebody would categorically say these methods aren't used in Tlingit culture resorts to a troubling level of stereotyping.

People within any culture can be wonderfully diverse in beliefs and life styles. The reality of Circle Justice is that it has been used in different forms by First Nation people for hundreds of years. I first heard about Circle Justice from a prosecuting attorney in Minneapolis who had gone up to the Yukon with several other lawyers and judges to learn Circle Justice methods from First Nation elders there. As for banishment, that is simply one form of Circle Justice. There was a case of banishment a few years ago that did not work in Alaska because the boys thought they were movie stars with the press coming out to the islands to interview them. Nothing about that event or anything written on that event had any influence on my book. I did interview three First Nation men in Canada who had each experienced banishment for an extended period when they were younger. Two of these men were Tlingit. I did not dream up any of the methods that I portrayed in the book which makes criticism of my use of these methods even more puzzling.

I offer the following thoughts. Over the course of my career, all of my books have drawn censorship challenges for a variety of reasons. A Newberry author who I choose to leave anonymous, sat me down once and said, "Ben, knowing you and how thoroughly you research your books, don't you realize that most criticism has nothing to do with your books. Most criticism comes from fanatical zealots who are trying to forward their own agendas. They are like bugs flying to a fire. They look for someone else's limelight because they do nothing to deserve their own." I also remember that same author's next admonition. "Ben, it is simple to avoid criticism and challenges, just write bland books that don't do you or the world any good. But I never thought that was what you were about."

I will end by saying simply that I have conducted my writing career with three simple rules. Every word I write must be well researched, be for the good of a child and come from my heart. I can proudly defend every one of my novels and say that every word written in both Touching Spirit Bear and its new sequel, Ghost of Spirit Bear, has met these tests. I can only dream of a world where all criticism meets that same standard.

Warmest thoughts, Ben Mikaelsen

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Resources for Evaluating Tlingit Content in TOUCHING SPIRIT BEAR

Teachers and librarians looking for resources to evaluate the Tlingit content in Touching Spirit Bear can use the items listed below. These resources will be updated whenever I find additional material. Please keep in mind there is a lot of material available about Native peoples, much of it prepared by people without the insight or expertise to interpret it accurately. As such, a lot of that material is biased.

Visit these sites. They are primary sources. There aren't any "answers" to specific questions, but they do provide background information about the Tlingit people.

On page 19 of Mikaelsen's Touching Spirit Bear, he refers to the "at.oow." Go to these sites to learn about at.oow. Does his presentation of it match what you learn?

Here are some print resources:

Dauenhauer, Nora Marks, and Richard Dauenhauer, Haa Tuwunaagu Yis, for Healing our Spirit: Tlingit Oratory (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990.)

deLaguna, Frederica, Under Mount Saint Elias: The History and Culture of the Yakutat Tlingit, Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropologu, Vol. 7 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990).

Emmons, George Thornton, The Tlingit Indians (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991).

Kan, Sergei, Symbolic Immortality: The Tlingit Potlatch of the Nineteenth Century (Washington: Smithsonian Institutions Press, 1989).

Olson, Wallace M. The Tlingit: An Introduction to their Culture and History (Auke Bay, AK: Heritage Research, 1991).

Worl, Rosita, "History of Southeastern Alaska since 1867" in Handbook of North American Indians, ed. William c. Sturtevant, vol. 7, Northwest Coast, ed. Wayne Suttles (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1990).

And, here are some news articles that sound a lot like the premise for the story told in Touching Spirit Bear:

"The Banishing Judge," in Time Magazine, September 12, 1994.
"Indian Boys' Exile Turns Out to Be Hoax," in The New York Times, August 31, 1994. (pdf)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Education of Little Tree (again) and Spirit Bear (again)

A North Carolina newspaper ran a column a few days ago, about the summer reading list for Kernodle Middle School. As teachers across the country plan for the coming year, the column, "Ahearn: 'Native' book on 7th-grade list a 'slap in the face'" is worth reading.

Ahearn (the columnist) did a fine job, noting the controversy that is the backstory of The Education of Little Tree, but also in her interview with Native parents and community members.

The school principal indicated the book is used at Kernodle, based on its inclusion on a list prepared by the National Middle School Association. I tried, unsuccessfully, to find the list. Is it on line somewhere?

Teachers across the country place great confidence in professional organizations. We should all remember that people in those organizations have been taught and socialized to view American Indians in limited, and too-often biased and stereotypical ways.

Change can happen, but it will be driven by teachers and parents and librarians who think critically about how American Indians are presented in books, stories, curriculum materials, movies, videos, cartoons, etc.

This blog/resource is intended to help with that effort. Read the articles and reviews. Visit the websites I link to.

I'm sure the teachers and staff at Kernodle are taken aback by the column and criticism's being directed at them. But as Ahearn noted, there's more information available now than ever before, and being proactive is necessary.

This blog has included discussion of The Education of Little Tree several times. I've also blogged several times about another book students at Kernodle are reading, Touching Spirit Bear. I hope you find them useful. Share them with teachers and librarians. Books like this cannot be used "as is." If you teach them, or read them, use the information presented below. Help children and teens to know that books are not sacred. They contain errors, and they often mislead and miseducate.

One family's experience with The Education of Little Tree

"Home of the Brave," by Paul Chaat Smith (critique of Brother Eagle Sister Sky and The Education of Little Tree

Forrest Carter's Education of Little Tree

A Review of Ben Mikaelsen's Touching Spirit Bear

Reaction to Slapin's review of Touching Spirit Bear


Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Not Recommended: THE LEGEND OF SKYCO: SPIRIT QUEST by Jennifer Frick-Ruppert

A reader asked me about The Legend of Skyco: Spirit Quest by Jennifer Frick-Ruppert, due out on April 4 of 2017 from Amber Jack Publishing. I was able to get an ARC. Here's the synopsis:
Skyco, an Algonquin boy, is heir to the great chief Menatonon, but he has much to learn before he can take his place within the tribe. He studies with the shaman Roncommock, who teaches him how to enter the spirit world and communicate with spirits and other animals, while he also learns practical skills of hunting, fishing, and starting a fire from other men in his village. But learning to throw a spear with an atlatl and shoot arrows with a bow are just precursors to the ultimate test, the husquenaugh, when he is challenged to use his hard-earned skills to survive the harrowing life-or-death ritual.
I am sharing detailed summary/comments for chapters 1-3, followed by general comments.

Chapter One: The Raid

The main character is Skyco. He's part of a war raid and has just missed being shot by an arrow. He's pulled to the ground. At first he thinks it is the enemy, but it turns out to be Roncommock, the shaman who is accompanying him. Skyco and Roncommock are Algonquin and speak Algonquian. The enemy tribe speaks a different language. It sounds like snakes hissing, so, the Algonquins call them the rattlesnake people, the Mangoaks.

As Skyco and Roncommock run to safety, hiding behind trees, Skyco sees a snake and, frightened, leaps up high. Soon, Roncommock tells Skyco they're safe. He's shot the warrior who had been shooting at them. He teases Skyco about how high he jumped when he saw that snake, and that maybe Skyco can turn that jump into a (p. 4):
"...good move for our next dance. Do you think you could teach the others? The snake jump?"
No longer worried about the enemy, the two head on back to their village, Chowanook. Skyco hears a noise. It is a bear. It knocks Roncommock down, mauling his shoulder and thigh. Skyco has no weapon to use, so decides to roar at the bear. That roar stops the bear from attacking Roncommock.

Skyco roars again and the bear goes away. Roncommock is bleeding heavily. Skyco takes off his loincloth and wraps it around Roncommock's thigh. He keeps an eye out for moss he can use to help with the bleeding. He also finds a brown puffball, which has dust that Skyco sprinkles on the wound. As they make their way, Roncommock leans heavily on Skyco.

Fearful of being in the woods alone at night when predators might smell the bloody wound, Skyco tells Roncommock he'll run ahead to the village telling Roncommock (p. 12):
"That bear was powerful and we need the medicine man's magic to help restore your spirit while it fights that of the bear."
Skyco realizes he is naked without his loincloth, but that it will be faster to travel naked. When he gets to the village, he goes right to Chief Menatonon and tells him what happened. The Chief assigns two "braves" (p. 13) to go with Skyco. They bring Roncommock back for the medicine man, Eracano, to work on, but he's lost a lot of blood. Eracano does all he can, but (p. 18):
"it is up to Roncommock to return to us from the world of the spirits." 
The next day, Roncommock is better and tells Skyco what he learned while he was in the spirit world, fighting the bear's spirit.

He tells Skyco that the bear is the strongest of animals, but wise, too. He knows when to fight, and when not to fight. This bear is Skyco's "guardian spirit" (p. 22). The bear has been looking out for Skyco all along. Its spirit knew that someone was trying to hurt Skyco. When it saw Roncommock, it thought Roncommock was the person trying to hurt Skyco, so the spirit of the bear told the bear to attack Roncommock. Roncommock explains why the bear made that mistake. Because they were on a war raid, he hadn't been wearing his shaman clock and medicine pouch. Instead, he was wearing a bow and arrow and was wearing a warrior's loincloth.

When Skyco roared at the bear, it got the spirit bear's attention. It realized that it had told the bear to attack the wrong person. So, the bear itself went away but its spirit continued to fight with Roncommock's spirit, in the spirit world. That fight continued until (p. 22):
"the bear stripped me of my physical being and searched my spirit in the spirit world"
 and realized that Roncommock was the Skyco's protector.

Now that Roncommock knows the bear is Skyco's guardian spirit, he tells Skyco that he must begin his training in the spirit world (p. 22):
It is very unusual that the bear recognized you so early, even before your spirit quest. The spirits are ready for you now and we will oblige them by beginning with learning the way of the spirits before you learn the ways of the warrior or the hunter. You must enter upon the sacred quest as soon as the spirits decree it, even before you enter the husquenaugh. Your training will differ from that of the other boys who will undergo the next husquenaugh as you pass from childhood to adult. You have more to learn." 
Skyco returns to his mother's wigwam. His mother's brother, Chief Menatonon is there, waiting for him. He was sitting on a mat and asks Skyco to sit, too (p. 24):
As I sat down, I carefully folded my legs so that each foot was underneath a thigh and rested my hands atop my knees, palms down, adopting the position I was taught.
Menatonon tells Skyco he is proud of what he's done, and that he is proud to call him his heir. Menatonon gives Skyco a new loincloth and tells him that he knows Skyco will succeed in the husquenaugh. Skyco admires the quality of the loincloth and then realizes that Menatonon said husquenaugh. Two of Menatonon's most trusted men enter the wigwam and the four go outside, where most of the village members are gathered. Menatonon raises his hands and says (p. 25):
"You see before you my kin and recognized heir. I submit Skyco for the next husquenaugh. If he succeeds and becomes a man, he will be your next chief."  
Everyone inclines their heads in agreement. That night, Skyco thinks about the "grueling ritual" (p. 26) that will test his body and mind to see if he is strong and worthy enough to become an adult. If he fails, he cannot become an adult. "To fail is to die" (p. 26).

My comments:

(1) In her author's note, the author says that Skyco was a real person, kidnapped as a child, by Sir Ralph Lane, who led an expedition to Roanoke Island in 1585-1586.  I found references to "Skiko" in several sources. This verifies that the author based this story on the life of a real person. 

Right away, I am concerned. The author, a non-Native woman writing in the 2010s, is imagining what a Native boy of the 1580s (and his family and members of his tribal community) would do, say, and think. As far as I know, we do not have records of these Native peoples' speech or thinking. The author has nothing to go on.  There are some resources (like Lawson, who she cites in the back matter), but they're written by people who were not of that tribe. They were Europeans. They brought their non-Native lens to what they were writing. What we have, in essence, is a Native people of the 1500s, whose ways of that time were recorded by Europeans, and now, a non-Native writer of the 2010s, imagining their lives. In short, we have an outsider perspective on top of hundreds of years of time. 

(2) Several words in chapter one signal outsider voice and, by extension, a lack of understanding of words and what they convey.  

First is the use of "braves" for men. I noted it once but it occurs more than once. Dictionaries often define brave (as a noun) that is dated, and, is "an American Indian warrior." Synonyms are warrior, soldier, or fighter. My goal, in the writing I do about words used to describe Native people, is to push writers to stop using "brave" or "squaw" ("squaw" is not used in this book) because in addition to being dated, those two words (there are others, too) invoke an Indian man or woman--but with qualities that mark them as very distinct from a English man or woman, or a French man or woman. Amongst those qualities are ones that frame Native peoples as not-quite-human. More... primitive. More... barbaric. They, in short, otherize Native peoples, making them exotic and markedly different from non-Native men and women. 

I also highlighted shaman. That, too, is used by writers as if all Native peoples, everywhere, use that word. We don't. 

(3) In that passage where Roncommock tells Skyco that he can make a new dance step out of that frightened leap when he saw a snake is troubling, too. It demonstrates a lack of understanding of the significance of Native dance. Many of our dances are prayerful in nature, or, done in preparation for a gathering or event. It may be helpful for you to think of prayerful activities or moments within your own religious practice. Would something like leaping into the air be easily turned into part of what you do, in this religious activity? 

(4) When I read that detailed passage about how Skyco sat on the mat, I did it, just to see what that might look like. Sure enough, it is sitting "Indian style" without saying that. I'm glad Frick-Ruppert didn't say "Indian style" but why go into that detail? Why can't Skyco just sit down?! 

(5) Most of chapter one is about that bear, the spirit of that bear, how they determine that the bear is Skyco's "guardian spirit," and then Skyco's anxiety over the husquenaugh. I find all of that especially troubling, for the same reason I noted in (1), above. Frick-Ruppert's story is about real people and their ways of being. As I noted above, what are the sources anyone can use, to accurately depict the ways of this particular nation? In that back matter, Frick-Ruppert references "the Chowanoke Indian Nation" (p. 292) that is trying to get federal recognition. What, I wonder, would they think of what she's written?

Chapter Two: The Black Drink

Skyco and his friend, Ascopo, are talking about the husquenaugh. Ascopo's mother submitted his name, too. The two boys will go through it, together. While they're out, Roncommock approaches them and says that the bear guardian is particularly interested in Skyco, and that he is to move into Roncommock's wigwam and begin his learnings (p. 28):
The spirits have decreed that you undergo the black drink ritual as a preparation for the spirit quest.
Roncommock tells Ascopo to go, right away, to Memeo, who will do his training. Roncommock tells Skyco to take off his new loincloth because the black drink they take will get soiled during the ritual. Both drink it and almost immediately the contents of Skyco's stomach and bowels are purged. They do this a second time and then go to the river to clean up. When they get to Roncommock's wigwam, he shaves Skyco's head on one side and trims the length of it on the other side.  Then they slather bear grease, tinted red, and then rest.

Roncommock wakes Skyco. It is time to start. He is to inhale tobacco smoke that Roncommock sprinkles on a fire. If his mind is relaxed and open, the spirits will come. The spirits are powerful. They could strike a man dead, or ignore him completely. Skyco is a bit anxious but remembers the relaxation techniques his mother taught him. Soon, he feels as peaceful as a baby, and sees his mother. She touches him and points toward something out of view.

That startles him. He wakes, and Roncommock tells him that his spirit is strong, that he hasn't been taught how to call the spirits, and yet, they came to him anyway. Skyco tells Roncommock he only felt his mother, touching him as if he was a baby in her arms, and that she had pointed. This, Roncommock says, means that the spirits have recognized him. They didn't reveal his quest, yet, but his mother, pointing, means they are ready to receive and teach him.

They leave the wigwam to have the evening meal with the people of the village. Skyco notices things he didn't notice, before. Walking by his mother's wigwam he sees the paintbrush by their door. It is her spirit guide. Men have animal spirit guides, but sometimes, women receive a plant guide from the spirit world. She is the only woman in the village with a spirit guide. She can tell that he has been accepted by the spirits and brings him water with sassafras leaves. He takes some into his mouth to clean his mouth and the words he is going to say, spits it out and thanks his mother and family for all they've given him. He bows low before her, and then takes another sip of the water, spits it out, and turns to Roncommock and says he wishes to join his household.

My comments:

As with chapter one, there is a lot in chapter two that feels to me that it is created by the author. Creating the religious ceremonies of others makes me uneasy for so many reasons. It feels sacrilegious and presumptuous. This is the sort of content that New Age practitioners will use as authentic ways to get in contact with a spirit world. 

An aspect that bothers me is the gaze on the loincloth, on peoples faces, and their bodies. In chapter two, Skyco removes his loincloth so he doesn't soil it when the contents of his stomach and bowels are purged. 

Chapter Three: The Day I Became An Ant

Roncommock takes Skyco for his first lesson. They go to a field where Roncommock slowly eased himself to the ground (p. 42):
... crossed his legs, folded his feet under his thighs, and placed his hands on his knees in the appropriate position of respect.
He tells Skyco to sit, too, but yells when Skyco nearly steps on an anthill. Skyco sits. He's given some herb water to cleanse his mouth and must wipe some over his eyes, nose, and ears so they, too are purified. Then he drinks some sacred water that will help him contact the spirits. Roncommock sprinkles some powdered uppowoc over the ant mound. The ants run about, picking it up. Roncommock tells Skyco to focus on them, and to try to reach one with his mind. He does, twice, and finds himself drawn to one, which is Roncommock. He scolds Skyco for thinking of the ants as male. All the ants are female. Skyco shifts his pronouns and thinks "she" rather than "he" as they move about. An enemy ant arrives and a battle between the two ant tribes ensues.

In the clean up of the battle, Skyco learns many lessons about how the ant colony is similar to his own village structure. One of the cleaner ants approaches him and tries to identify him, based on his scent. Since he's new to the ant hill, he doesn't have a strong scent. He's afraid the cleaner ant is about to call others to come and drive him out, but realizes he can lift his abdomen and squeeze, emitting a stinky odor. The cleaner ant backs away. Eventually, Skyco and Roncommock return to their own bodies and then to the village.

My comments: 

Here we have another instance in which someone's manner of sitting is carefully described. And again, this manner of sitting conveys respect. I would love to see a source for this! 

I understand the concept of training, of learning by watching others--be they insects or animals--but going into the ants, being an ant... that reminds me more of the Animorphs series than anything else. Perhaps the stinky odor is meant to bring a bit of humor to this story but given that Frick-Ruppert is asking us to think of this as part of a spiritual quest, I find it offensive. Please note that my offense is not that someone farts. I love Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi and have gifted it to children. My offense is that the author--in this imagined sacred space of a Native people--injects this particular kind of humor. 


I finished reading the book and have many passages in chapters marked. I am commenting on the more significant ones, here.


The overarching aspect of this book is spirits, the spirit world, communicating with the spirit world, spirit quests, and having a spirit animal or a spirit guide. Indeed, we see that in the subtitle "Spirit Quest."

Throughout the book, Skyco interacts with the spirit world. For each of the interactions, he will end up with an item to wear that will remind him that these creatures are his spirit guides. In chapter two, he was with ants. He can't really have something about ants on his body, so, he'll carry a bit of the sand from an ant pile in his medicine bag. Skyco is bit by a shark. He learns that a shark is one of his guides, so he wears a necklace of shark teeth to remind him of that.

There's a part where Skyco and three other boys in training kills a deer. They eat its organs, thereby "taking on the power of the buck" (p. 215). You've seen that sort of idea, too, right? Indians eat this or that animal, gaining that animal's special qualities.

All this sure as heck dovetails with people think they know about Indians, and it dovetails with tons of stories about Indians and what Indians do, but is it accurate?! And if it is, should it be written about in a book for children--a book written by an outsider to whatever nation the book is about? (My answer: NO.)

The Legend

In one of the chapters, Skyco tells Roncommock about visions he's had. Roncommock can't interpret any of this for him until after Skyco completes the husquenaugh, but as Skyco is telling him about what he saw, Roncommock gets up, walks around, and says to himself "could he be the one?" (p. 200).

We aren't told what "the one" means, but, it sounds like the author is developing this story in a way that Skyco is going to be--as the title suggests--a legend. What Skyco saw in that part of the story is white people who will be coming to their lands. They won't understand boundaries, Roncommock tells Skyco. But, Skyco's training is important. He has spirit guides from the earth (the ant), the water (fish/shark) the sky (falcon) and land (bear).

Towards the end of the story in the husquenaugh, we learn that Skyco will be a shaman and a chief. The others exclaim over that power and standing. The book ends with Skyco emerging from the husquenaugh. There, is, however, a second book in the works.

Closing Remarks: Not recommended!

As I noted in my comments to chapter one, I am concerned with the ways that Frick-Ruppert imagines the Native people in this story. She's relying on very old sources, written by Europeans, whose interpretations of what they saw then, in the 1500s, are--in fact--white Europeans who felt superior to the Indigenous peoples of what came to be known as the United States. There were differences, yes, but notions of superiority are highly subjective. Romanticizing anyone is no good, for anyone, least of all children.

Most Native peoples do not write accounts that delve deeply into our respective spiritual or religious ceremonies. We guard all of that from people who want to appropriate it, or use it in ways that are harmful to us. Did Frick-Ruppert know that? Did her editor know?

Bottom line: I do not recommend Jennifer Frick-Ruppert's The Legend of Skyco: Spirit Quest.