June 14, 2008

Tlingit elder derides Mikaelsen

Some of us doubted that Ben Mikaelsen depicted Tlingit culture accurately when he wrote the children's book Touching Spirit Bear. Now it seems we were right.

Tlingit Elder's Comments on TOUCHING SPIRIT BEAR and Ben MikaelsenTo me, the first thing that comes to mind is embarrassment. When the banishing incident happened in 1993, two teenage Tlingit boys were taken to Klawock, Alaska, by Rudy James, who claimed to be a tribal judge. The whole tribe felt embarrassed by his misrepresentation of our tribal customs. And then to have this book, which was obviously based on this incident, just felt insulting. I just know that Mikaelsen flat-out copied this event for his book. I felt that it was totally bizarre that Mikaelsen would use this incident, even though he denies it.

The animal dances, the ancestor rock, the anger rock, the anger stick, I don’t even have any words for this. I kept thinking, where did he come up with this? I can’t even imagine any of these rituals happening today. And the animal-impersonation dances: I thought I’d die. Even if these things all existed, this is a white boy from Minnesota. How would he know how Tlingits move when we dance?

Eileen Baustian
Eagle/Shark Clan, Tlingit
A commenter adds:The reason authors and illustrators and publishers ought to be concerned about how Native lives are portrayed is NOT that "somebody might be offended" if it's done wrong. The reason for concern is that misrepresentation is lying. People have multi-layered, complex responses to books like Spirit Bear, as Ms. Baustian's post shows, and to dismiss those responses as "being offended" ignores the ethical questions involved in misrepresenting lives other than one's own. When someone lies about you, you're not just "offended."

As a reader or potential reader, I don't want to be lied to about someone else's culture. It doesn't "offend" me--it ticks me off.
(Excerpted from Debbie Reese's American Indians in Children's Literature, 6/13/08.)

Comment:  For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Books.


Anonymous said...

As a teacher, I feel I need to defend Mr. Mikaelsen and his genius work. I did not for a minute think that this book was a nonfiction account of the Tlingit culture. However, the messages in this book are so powerful and healthy, I am shocked that anyone would attack Mr. M. for any reason whatsoever. I use this book in my classroom and my students learn what it is to forgive others and themselves. And......they have never even heard of the Tlingit Indians before this book and after reading it, they have a great respect for them. This book is a win win for readers. Ben Mikaelsen is a win win author!

Rob said...

Increasing awareness of Indians is a worthy goal. But there are several books that could teach schoolchildren about the Tlingit with accurate information. Why use a book with mistakes and stereotypes when you could use another book instead?

Anonymous said...

I am also a teacher and I heartily recomend Mr. M.'s book. My students are in an alternative educational classroom grades 9-12 and they relate very closely with Cole's anger since they live it every day themselves.This book stimulates active, healthy discussions about domestic abuse, anger, communication and bullying behavior. The Indian Tlingit culture is a wonderful literary add which links us to study Native American myths and culture, but let us not forget this novel is mostly a story about child abuse and self forgiveness. It is a great NOVEL and not supposed to be a history book. It literally captivates all my students who do not normally read. I use it every year to set the mood of our program. It is awesome.

Rob said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Janis. I've addressed arguments that works such as Touching Spirit Bear are "just fiction" many times. See Debate Over Touching Bear Spirit for one such response. Feel free to address it if you can.