June 14, 2009

Negotiating Bearstone

Educator Debbie Reese brings Bearstone, another non-Native attempt to write Native fiction, to our attention.

The context: A teacher who likes Bearstone asked a professor to address her class about "American Indian myths and folklore, religion and burial practices, etc." The professor read Bearstone and suggested she critique it for the students. The teacher balked at this idea.

Desecrations and Desires:  White Male Fantasy in Will Hobbs’ Bearstone

By Jane Haladay, Ph.D. I did want to try to negotiate something with her and her students. But I think, since she clearly enjoyed the story as Hobbs wrote it, that she preferred not to have her image of Hobbs’ novel intruded upon with a critique of its offensiveness to Native people, in the same way Hobbs preferred not to have his story intruded upon by the addition of cultural appropriateness and complexity regarding Native lives. This teacher was looking at Bearstone as an ultimately happy tale of cultural bridging, of an elderly white stand-in father who eventually soothes all the wounds of a “wild” Indian boy who is trying to figure out who he is. And, she was looking at a book that reinscribes white fantasies of “love conquers all,” where relationships with biological family, returning to one’s cultural community, and leaving Indigenous sacred objects in the places they were found are antiquated notions of a primitive past that block real progress in relations between the so-called “races,” in the spirit of “we’re all the same beneath the skin.” In Bearstone, Will Hobbs’ equation of Cloyd minus parents minus tribe minus homeland plus kindly white widower equals new family and new home is good enough for the teacher, and thus good enough for her students.

We were definitely looking at Bearstone differently. I was looking at a book I hoped would offer the junior high school students, Native and non, of rural Southeastern North Carolina a tale that both outlined and explained some of the reasons around the complexities of being a Native adolescent in the twentieth century; a story in which the way out of the troubled adolescence of one Native boy did not automatically require rescue by yet another incarnation of the Great White Father; a novel in which a young Ute man who was raised by his traditional grandmother would at least have known, despite having left his community for extended periods of time, that to steal a burial item from an infant ancestor was an unthinkable, egotistical breach.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Books.

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