Professor’s poem draws fiery conflict

In mid-December, a controversy between a UAA graduate student and a professor got the attention of Anchorage. This conflict-over a poem published in a recent anthology called “Ice Floe”-simmered into full boil within weeks. Local media stated that professor Linda McCarriston’s recently publicized poem “Indian Girls” offended student Diane Benson and others.

“Ice-Floe” was distributed on Dec. 1 and by Dec. 11, a swarm of e-mail began circulating about the poem.

Specifically, people were offended by a reference to the Snail house of the Raven clan, as well as McCarriston’s negative depiction of Native women.

The Anchorage Daily News printed the article in full. In the accompanying Daily News article titled “Student attacks professor’s poem,” Benson invited people offended by the poem to attend the last day of class on Dec. 12, which was not allowed by the university. By about 5 p.m. that evening, a small group gathered outside the Eugene Short Building to protest McCarriston’s poem.

According to McCarriston, “The actions of two students aggressively undermined the class.”


The protest

Shrouded by the glow of pale moonlight, they chanted and sang Native songs to the beat of drums. Some supporters wore garments with red and black tribal designs imprinted on them. They carried hand-made signs during the frosty evening that read “McCarriston speaks (but) not for us `Yupik’ real people,” “McCarriston has no right to place her savage old body of words over any Indian Girls,” “Hate hurts everyone over and over” and “Stereotyping hurts.”

The criticisms of protesters varied, as did their ages-the youngest was in middle school and the eldest was a senior citizen.

“It’s degrading poetry, which is very insulting to Native women and men,” said Glen Elliott, a 1994 UAA justice graduate.

“They magnify one old stereotype, and it gets tiring after a while,” said 66-year-old elder, Harriet Beleal, a Tlingit who dances in the NAA Luudisk Gwaii Yatx’i dance group as a means of preserving the cultural heritage that had been suppressed during her mother’s lifetime. “What about the other 96 percent who are upstanding citizens? Nobody pays attention to them. How much more do they want us to prove?” asked Beleal.

During the break, Associate Dean Kerry Feldman, who attended the poetry class that evening, approached Benson as she sat on the stairway with supporters and asked if the group would consent to a panel discussion, instead of a meeting.

A female student taking a final in a second-floor classroom approached protesters by leaning over the railing and asking the group not to sing and beat the drums inside the building. Complying with her request, some supporters went outside to continue protesting.

When the poetry class ended, protesters climbed the stairs and gathered outside Room 210, where the class met. They sang to the beat of drums as the students quietly filed out of the classroom. The only exchanges made between the protesters and classmates in the crowded hallway were glances.

After the poetry students left, the protesters spoke. Benson thanked each person after they spoke, saying “Gunalcheesh.”


The class atmosphere

Poetry student Matt Childs said the class atmosphere plummeted after Nov. 7. He remembers presenting a paper that evening about the Indian and Mexican American poet Jimmy Santiago Baca. “Benson turned a discussion about the maturity of Baca’s works and gender issues into an ethnocentric matter,” Childs said.

Childs said if Benson and McCarriston had been on good terms, the poem’s content would not have become a controversy. “I don’t agree with the manner in which Benson has gone about this,” said Childs, who believes the incident became a “witch hunt.”

“When the University does not support its faculty employees, it just empowers pupils to do this type of thing,” Childs said.

“McCarriston’s poem became a classroom issue, but it didn’t belong there,” said classmate Amy Crawford. “It was a form and theory class, and I really never understood where the controversy really lay.” Crawford thought it was fine for Benson to voice her opinion but said she was disturbed when the whole class got dragged into it. “I was really disturbed, and it upset a lot of people in class,” Crawford said.

Crawford thinks Benson brought her life with her into the class. Benson didn’t feel like the class treated her equally, said Crawford. Benson felt distanced and Crawford remembers trying to comfort her with regard to her feelings.

“I know she was not treated any differently,” Crawford said.

“We are lucky to have a professor of Linda’s stature,” said classmate Peter Gianni.

The poetry seminar was about four left-wing poets who had been left out of the literary cannon because of their politics, said Jeremy Shiok. They were activists through their art, he said. The class had about 13 students, who discussed the works of two female and two male poets, all of whom had differing platforms and were from different walks of life. The class curriculum was to apply what they learned about these poets to their own lives.

“At one point during the semester, Benson stopped contributing to class discussions in a way that was relevant to the course,” said Shiok.

“Benson wasn’t about asking questions,” he said. “She could not rise above anything that was going on in her life and just wanted to tell us how it was,” Shiok said. “Benson felt slighted, and she wanted everyone to be upset.”

In the fall semester, in a Native literature class, Shiok and Benson were previously classmates. Shiok said Benson was “a celebrity” in that class, standing up and telling the students about her struggles and history. Shiok said he brought up to Benson the personal nature of her subject matter. He told her that it had no relevancy to that class.

“In the graduate class, I don’t think she could handle the fact that it wasn’t all about her,” he said. Shiok said he felt it was disheartening and sad for everybody involved.

Classmate and Benson supporter Michael Queen heard McCarriston’s reading of “Indian Girls” at UAA’s Author’s Day in the fall, said Shiok. This event allowed UAA professors to read their works at the UAA Campus Bookstore. There, McCarriston discussed the poem and its sensitivity before she read it. “The poem wasn’t an issue back then,” said Shiok. “We were all excited about McCarriston’s poem being published in ‘Ice-Floe.’

“UAA has remained hypersensitive to Benson and has let her drag the issue in and out of the public spectrum,” he said. “For political reasons and for protection, UAA has not supported McCarriston and the students of the poetry seminar. UAA is a public university and is contributing to academic silencing. By not responding, they are ignoring it,” Shiok said.


Should poets apologize for their poems?

A Benson supporter from the class, Michael Queen, tells a different side of the story. Benson and McCarriston had known one another for about four years prior to this class, Queen said, occasionally dining together and sharing confidences. “These confidences surfaced in the poem, and that was a breach of trust. The poem insults Diane and her entire family,” Queen said.

Queen thinks the issue is about respect, not censorship. “Benson was offended by the poem’s content because it names her tribal clans and focuses on a couple of hundred Natives. The reason Benson spoke out was because McCarriston’s poem insulted her and her traditions personally,” he said. “The appropriate amends need to be made to those people McCarriston offended, and it’s up to the offender to make the appropriate amends.” As an instructor, McCarriston teaches that poets have to take responsibility for our words, Queen said.

Sarah Kirk, who chairs UAA’s Developmental Education Department, said calls for submissions for the Winter Solstice 2000 edition of “Ice-Floe” were sent to various agencies, including UAA’s Creative Writing Department.

Because “Ice Floe” is not a university publication, McCarriston felt that the university has nothing to do with her “Ice-Floe” poetry and should stay out of it, but it didn’t.

When McCarriston attempted to set up a mediation session between herself and Benson, she said she was dismayed when Benson turned up with Kimberly Martus, the former head of UAA Native Justice Center who served as legal advocate. “They read me the riot act together,” McCarriston said.

She said Ron Spatz, the Creative Writing Department chair, nixed any chances of a discussion in public between the poet and a reader when he “hastily handled the problem and compassionately retreated in an inappropriate way.” McCarriston said that if there were a forum about the poem’s impact at this point, it should be “about sexual issues, alcoholism and physical abuse.”

Other students’ responses

UAA students not in the poetry class shared their responses to McCarriston’s poem. “I found it to be empathic and very poetic,” said Monica McClellan, an African American student. “If there was any offense taken, it is because McCarriston is a white woman writing about very intimate social dilemmas of Native life. Speaking from the point of view of a minority woman, the one thing that minority groups in this country don’t find favor in is when someone outside of one culture writes about them, particularly white people.”

McClellan said she doesn’t blame groups for responding negatively in circumstances like this one. “I read somewhere it is best not to write about other groups of people, especially if it involves certain social ills because of this fact.

“Ms. McCarriston wrote a heartfelt poem and there was a tone of empathy and honest reflection. Don’t apologize! And if for some reason you did, don’t stew over it. I think writers should be careful that they feel no regrets when they write,” McClellen said.

UAA student Noala Austin, who is of Mexican American and Anglican descent, said, “She has a message, which to me only expresses the need of all women, Native or non, to respect themselves.”

Austin said that although McCarriston’s words may be harsh to some, “We are all born into this world with hardships. I only hope that tolerance and truth can help us all to accept each other and ourselves.”

Schools: University of Alaska Fairbanks Cases: University of Alaska: Investigation of Protected Speech