Sunday, May 25, 2008

Meyer's Twilight: second post

A few days ago, I posted passages from Stephenie Meyer's Twilight. Passages of the Native content in the book... I talked about the Quileute boy, Jacob, but didn't include the physical description of him. Here it is:


"looked fourteen, maybe fifteen, and had long, glossy black hair pulled back with a rubber band at the nape of his neck. His skin was beautiful, silky and russet-colored; his eyes were dark, set deep above the high planes of his cheekbones. He still had just a hint of childish roundness left around his chin. Altogether, a very pretty face" (p. 119).

A plausible description; realistic, predictable.

On page 234, Bella and Edward are in his car, in her driveway, talking. At this point in the book, Bella knows Edward is a vampire. Edward sees a car approaching. Staring at the car, Edward's expression is a "mix of frustration and defiance." Bella gets out, Edward takes off. In the approaching car is Jacob and his dad, Billy. Meyer describes Billy like this:

"In the passenger seat was a much older man, a heavyset man with a memorable face--a face that overflowed, the cheeks resting against his shoulders, with creases running through the russet skin like an old leather jacket. And the surprisingly familiar eyes, black eyes that seemed at the same time both too young and too ancient for the broad face they were set in. Jacob's father, Billy Black. I knew him immediately, though in the more than five years since I'd seen him last I'd managed to forget his name when Charlie had spoken of him my first day here. He was staring at me, scrutinizing my face, so I smiled tentatively at him. His eyes were wide, as if in shock or fear, his nostrils flared."

Another complication, Edward has said.

Billy still stared at me with intense, anxious eyes. I groaned internally. Had Billy recognized Edward so easily? Could he really believe the impossible legends his son had scoffed at?

The answer was clear in Billy's eyes. Yes. Yes, he could."

Meyer's physical description of Billy is not as well done as her description of Jacob. Cheeks resting on his shoulders? Yikes! And black eyes? Actually, there is no such thing as "black" eyecolor. Dark brown, yes, but black? No. Meyer is not alone in that error; lot of writers say Indians have black eyes. Eyecolor aside, consider the adjectives: too young, too old. Conveying... vitality? wisdom?

Update: Tuesday, May 27, 2008
A reader wrote to say that her father's cheeks rest on his shoulders. She says that is what gravity does to the face, and wonders if I'm trying to make the point that a Quiluete wouldn't have that happen to them. She's being a bit sarcastic, saying explicitly that my comment on Billy's cheeks and eyecolor are nit-picky and take away from the validity of my other concerns. In response to her.... Yes, I do know that age and gravity effect the skin tone, but cheeks resting on shoulders.... the only image I could come up with in my mind was of Jabba the Hutt! The question on eye color: I stand by it. It is not biologically possible to have black eyes. They may be very dark brown, but not black. That in itself is not a big deal. Put the remark into context, however, and it becomes important. When trying to convey the idea that Native people are scary and threatening, writers often use 'black' eye color to invoke a sense of fear. I know... Bella is not afraid of Billy and Meyer is not trying to make Billy out as a scary person.

Charlie (Bella's dad) is the chief of police in Forks. On page 236, he says to Jacob:

"I'm going to pretend I didn't see you behind the wheel, Jake,"

to which Jacob replies

"We get permits early on the rez."

That line "we get permits early on the rez" stands out to me. I wonder if the Quileutes do, in fact, give drivers permits to 15-year-olds? As sovereign nations, some tribal nations issue automobile license plates that are valid, just as any state-licensed-plate is. With a tribally issued license plate, a tribal member can drive anywhere. As yet, I don't know about driver's permits/licenses.

Update: Tuesday, May 27th, 2008
Some tribes do issue driver's permits, but the Quileute's do not. I called their tribal offices and asked. All driver's licenses held by Quileute's are issued by the State of Washington.

I'm digging into research on Meyer's novels because Twilight is being made into a movie. The part of Jacob will be played by an actor named Taylor Lautner. In this interview, he says that in preparing for this part, he learned that through his mother, he is part Potawatomi and Ottawa. It doesn't sound like he was raised Potawatomi or Ottawa. In the interview, he talks about meeting Quileute tribal members.

About his character, he says he loves the contrast in Jacob's Native American side and his werewolf side:

Lautner: His Native American side ... he is very friendly and outgoing. He loves Bella and is very loyal to Bella and his dad. But on the werewolf side, they're very fierce and just attacking, and they have this huge temper. So there's a lot of stress and things going on inside him as he's trying to keep his temper to himself. I love that part, which Stephenie [Meyer, on whose novel the movie is based] created, with the contrast between the Native American side and the werewolf side of him.

At the close of the interview, he talks about a line he likes, about being half-naked. I think he's referring to a part in the second book, New Moon, where he transforms into a werewolf. That suggests that parts of New Moon will be included in the film.


In Meyer's stories, there are white vampires that do not hunt humans. White humans, that is. But, they might hunt their natural enemies--the Quileutes who were wolves before being turned into men--who they might attack if they are in a weakened condition. To protect the Quileutes, an elder made a treaty with the vampires. They promised not to expose the vampires presence to the whites (pale-faces) and in turn, the vampires promised not to go onto the reservation.

My thoughts...

First, you have to accept the premise that the vampires and Quileute ancestors are traditional enemies. Then, you have to imagine that the elders have decided to give these enemies a chance. The elders think this particular group of enemies/vampires--because they are controlling their urge to attack humans--are deserving of a chance to co-exist nearby. But they don't quite trust them, so, the all agree that the vampires will stay off the reservation. In return, the tribe will not expose the vampire's identity to the good people of Forks.

In telling Bella about the identity of the vampires, Jacob laughs that he has violated the treaty.


Tension between vampires and Quileutes, but no tension between the white people in Forks and the Quileutes. Because it is fantasy, we've got to suspend disbelief and accept the vampire/Quileute tension. And, because it is fiction, we're encouraged to believe that the people of Forks and the Quileutes get along. But, relations between whites and Quileutes have been complicated. In the 70s, the northwest tribes were engaged in legal proceedings to have fishing rights based on the treaties honored. Here's a line from this document: "
More than a century of frequent and often violent controversy between Indians and non-Indians over treaty right fishing has resulted in deep distrust and animosity on both sides. "

A treaty between the vampires and the Quileutes, but no mention of treaties between Quileutes and the federal government. Is Meyer assuming her readers know about such treaties and reservations?

A Native laughing about violating a treaty. Possible, but not likely. Particularly unlikely for a reservation-raised Native. There's always an exception to every generalization, but I doubt that an actual Quileute teen would say the things that Jacob does.

I've got the second book on order...

Saturday, May 24, 2008

New blog: Deborah Miranda

In December of 2006, I posted a review of Deborah Miranda's book, The Zen of La Llorona (click here to read the review.)

Take a look at her blog, "When Turtles Fly."

Friday, May 23, 2008

Interview: Veronica Tsinajinnie

In April, Veronica Tsinajinnie was awarded the 2008 Lacapa Spirit Prize for her story, Jóhonaa’éí: Bringer of Dawn. According to its website, the Lacapa Spirit Prize is “a literary prize for children’s books about the peoples, cultures and landscapes of the Southwest.

Here’s a paragraph about the book, excerpted from the Lacapa Spirit Prize website:

Jóhonaa’éí: Bringer of Dawn is a beautiful and peaceful story of the relationship the sun has to the earth and its inhabitants as he rises every morning and brings dawn. Veronica Tsinajinnie’s bilingual narrative is powerfully subtle in its presentation of Navajo culture. The story chronicles the journey of Jóhonaa’éí, the sun, as he passes over land, plants, animals, and humans, ushering in a new day. After Jóhonaa’éí wakes the field mice, the rabbits, and the sheep, he is “contented to know his job is done…” He finally arrives at a hogan door to wake “his children” who live inside. The sun then watches as the family offers “white corn to the morning spirits” and “give thanks to the bringer of dawn” before they begin their day also content to know that their job is done as well. Young readers will delight in Tsinajinnie’s progressive repetition, recognizing the daily path as one they, too, walk.

A few weeks ago, I had an e-conversation with Tsinajinnie about her book. Today, I share that conversation.


DR: Is Jóhonaa’éí: Bringer of Dawn your first book?

VT: Yes. It is my very first “published” book. I was a student at Dine’ College from 2001-2004 and took a children’s literacy class. One of our projects was to write a children’s book. It was a Navajo adaption to the story If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. My story was titled If You Give a Glissi Roasted Corn. Glissi is Navajo for goat. For this project, I actually drew the pictures to go with the story. So if, by chance, you decide to look it up online I must warn you that the pictures were drawn very badly and way before I began “seriously” practicing art/drawing. [Note from Debbie. The text is in Navajo. It is a multi-media project; you can listen to the book being read, in Navajo. Click here. Tsinajinnie's is one of many on the site.]

So technically, Jóhonaa’éí: Bringer of Dawn is not my first book because I did have to have a binding, pictures, table of contents, etc. for If You Give a Glissi Roasted Corn. But it is my first professionally published book.

DR: What prompted you to write it?

VT: At the time I was an educational assistant with a Family Literacy Program, in the preschool classroom. I was constantly reading to the children there and as the number of my nieces and nephews grew I began to feel a feeling of guilt because very few of the books we would read to them (at work and at home) were about them and the things they knew. So……I began to write stories for them about them and about the things they know.

DR: What sorts of books did you read when you were a child? Do you remember one with particular fondness?

VT: I remember my favorite books being Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina, Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag, and Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel. I’m not really sure why these were my favorite books but my father says that I would have him read them over and over again.

My all time favorite stories though were not in book form but orally told. I remember loving the summer times and winter breaks from school because that was when my family would stay with my grandparents. In the winter my grandfather would tell the coyote stories by firelight or around the lantern (they did not receive electricity until about 15 years ago). In the summer time they would tell us stories about when they were growing up; I was so fascinated. My grandfather was a great story teller because he loved to laugh. I have fond memories of him telling us a story and my grandmother getting a little bent because according to her, his story was completely untrue. An example of one would be the story my grandfather would tell about how he met my grandmother. The way he tells it he was riding his horse home from a one of his uncle’s house and he came upon a beautiful girl (my grandmother) as she herded sheep. He says she was so beautiful and he knew he wanted her to be his wife so he rode by her and picked her up from atop the horse and never took her home. This was one story my grandmother continues to deny happened. Regardless if it is true or not it is one of my favorite stories.

DR: Where were you born, and did you go to a public elementary school? Or a day school?

VT: I was born in the old hospital in Ft. Defiance AZ. (I really wish I had a cooler story like "in a hogan in the middle of winter" but I don’t.) From kindergarten until about second grade I went to Birdsprings Little Singer School. After that I went to Ganado for elementary, middle school, and high school. I always came back to Little Singer School for summer school though.

DR: Will you have another book out soon?

VT: I’d like to say that I’d have another book out soon although there is not one in the works right now. I have continued to submit more stories but sadly none have gone any further that that.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Stereotypes of Australia's Indigenous Population

The United States is not alone in its misrepresentation of its Native population. Take a look at "Prejudice in children's books" to see how Australia has portrayed its indigenous population in its children's books. The accompanying activities and worksheets at the site are worth a look, too.

One question... The books shown are old. Cynic that I am, I wonder what representations look like in books published in the last ten years?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Stephenie Meyer's TWILIGHT

Many people have written to ask me about a young adult novel called Twilight. Written by Stephanie Meyer, Twilight is the first book in the "Twilight Saga." The "Twilight Saga" has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 40 weeks and as of this day, is in the number 1 spot.

I've been asked about it because the books include werewolves who are Native. Quileute, to be precise, from the La Push reservation in Washington. Quileute is not made up, and neither is La Push. Both are real.

I read the book, quickly. Here's passages that begin on page 124. The Quileute boy, Jacob, is with the protagonist, Bella, on an outing. Bella's love interest is a guy named Edward Cullen. Bella suspects Edward is different (doesn't know yet that he's a vampire), and is trying to get information out of Jacob. I'll start with Bella speaking to Jacob, and his reply:

"What was that he was saying about the doctor's family?" I asked innocently.

"The Cullens? Oh, they're not supposed to come onto the reservation."

Jacob feels he's said too much, but Bella promises she won't tell anyone. Assured with her promise, Jacob goes on, saying:

"Do you know any of our old stories, about where we came from--the Quileutes, I mean?" he began.

"Not really," I admitted.

"Well, there are lots of legends, some of them claiming to date back to the Flood--supposedly, the ancient Quileutes tied their canoes to the tops of the tallest trees on the mountain to survive like Noah and the ark." He smiled, to show me how little stock he put in the histories. "Another legend claims that we descended from wolves--and that the wolves are our brothers still. It's against tribal law to kill them.

"Then there are the stories about the cold ones." His voice dropped a little lower.

"The cold ones?" I asked, not faking my intrigue now.

"Yes. There are stories of the cold ones as old as the wolf legends, and some much more recent. According to legend, my own great-grandfather knew some of them. He was the one who made the treaty that kept them off our land." He rolled his eyes.

"Your great-grandfather?" I encouraged.

"He was a tribal elder, like my father. You see, the cold ones are the natural enemies of the wolf--well, not the wolf, really, but the wolves that turn into men, like our ancestors. You would call them werewolves."

"Werewolves have enemies?"

"Only one."

I stared at him earnestly, hoping to disguise my impatience as admiration.

"So you see," Jacob continued, "the cold ones are traditionally our enemies. But this pack that came to our territory during my great-grandfather's time was different. They didn't hunt the way others of their kind did--they weren't supposed to be dangerous to the tribe. So my great-grandfather made a truce with them. If they would promise to stay off our lands, we wouldn't expose them to the pale-faces." He winked at me.

Jacob goes on, eventually telling her the cold ones are vampires. Then he says:

"Pretty crazy stuff, though, isn't it? No wonder my dad doesn't want us to talk about it to anyone."

I couldn't control my expression enough to look at him yet. "Don't worry, I won't give you away."

"I guess I just violated the treaty," he laughed.

"I'll take it to the grave," I promised, and then I shivered.

"Seriously, though, don't say anything to Charlie. He was pretty mad at my dad when he heard that some of us weren't going to the hospital since Dr. Cullen started working there."

"I won't, of course not."

"So do you think we're a bunch of superstitious natives or what?" he asked in a playful tone, but with a hint of worry. I still hadn't looked away from the ocean.

There's more as the book progresses, but none of the reviews mention the werewolf/Quieluete material...

More later. (And if you've read the books, please comment.)

If you want to read more on the ways that the Quileute's are portrayed in the series, look over to the right side of this page. Scroll up or down till you see the section labeled TWILIGHT SAGA. There you'll see several links to posts about the series.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


Got the review (below) yesterday... Sounds terrific, and with its length of five minutes, would work well in a classroom, leaving time for meaty discussion! The image shown here is from the website of the American Indian Film Institute. (Note: This review may not be published elsewhere without permission of its author, Beverly Slapin.)


I’m Not the Indian You Had in Mind. 2007, 5 minutes, color, grades 7-up.

I’m not the Indian you had in mind. I’ve seen him, I’ve seen him ride, a rush of wind, a darkening tide, with wolf and eagle by his side…” In this brilliant, fast-paced visual and spoken-word performance, Tom King and actors Tara Beagan and Lorne Cardinal juxtapose themselves and other contemporary Indians with cringe-inducing media images of Indians—“the clichés that we can’t rewind.” But there is more than stock footage of tomahawk-wielding Indians, a cigar-store Indian and a haute cuisine Indian-themed restaurant whose waiter wears war paint. I’m Not the Indian You Had in Mind is razor-sharp social commentary with visuals of pollution-spewing smokestacks and gas pumps and freeways and drained lakes and war rooms and a world gone “Monsanto-mad,” and this, muses King: “Sometimes late at night when all the world is warm and dead, wonder how things might have been had you followed and we led.”

(Note from Debbie: The DVD is $15.00, available from Oyate.)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"I" Still Isn't for Indian, by Nina Lindsay

In November, 2003, School Library Journal published an article by Nina Lindsay. Called "I" Still Isn't for Indian, Nina's article is an overview of children's books about American Indians, published around the turn of the century (2000). Her article is nearly five years old now, but definitely worth a look, click here to read it.

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)

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Powhatan statement on Pocahontas

On the website of the Powhatan Renape Nation is a statement I want to direct your attention to... It is called "The Pocahontas Myth." Here's the first two paragraphs:

In 1995, Roy Disney decided to release an animated movie about a Powhatan woman known as "Pocahontas". In answer to a complaint by the Powhatan Nation, he claims the film is "responsible, accurate, and respectful."

We of the Powhatan Nation disagree. The film distorts history beyond recognition. Our offers to assist Disney with cultural and historical accuracy were rejected. Our efforts urging him to reconsider his misguided mission were spurred."

If you teach about Pocahontas, or are selecting books about her for your library or classroom, you might want to read the entire statement. In fact, you might want to have your students read it!

Update: Sunday, May 10, 2010
The link to the statement in the original blog post has been replaced with a link to the Internet Archive because the Powhatan Renape Nation's website is down.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Congratulations to Eric Gansworth

Some weeks ago, I posted Eric Gansworth's poem "Loving That Land O'Lakes Girl." Eric is an enrolled member of the Onondaga Nation. The poem is in his book, A Half-Life of Cardio-Pulmonary Function. Eric wrote to me earlier today with terrific news.

It is on the Spring 2008 National Book Critics Circle's "Good Reads" list. Congratulations, Eric!

To read details, go to the blog called "Critical Mass: The Blog of the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors." Click here to get there. If you're developing a syllabus for a senior English lit class, consider adding Eric's book to your list.

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.