The Matriarch, Harry Potter, and Native Appropriations

There’s been a bit of flack surrounding the previews on JK Rowling’s Pottermore website regarding “magical” North American history, specifically in the way it includes Native American culture. If you weren’t aware, this is all advertisement for the new Harry Potter film entitled Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them arriving in theaters November 2016; the Pottermore website has published four installments of the abbreviated “History of Magic in North America.” While there are many issues pointed out by various news outlets, this is the one that hurts the most and that I’m most familiar with.

The Problem With Magic Folk

“So what?” people post online. “It’s fiction. She can make up whatever she wants.” None of this is real, so who does it hurt? The actual people, for one thing. Native Americans are real people with a real culture; they haven’t died out or ceased to exist. It’s not just one culture, either; there are currently 562 federally recognized Indian Nations (source: ncai.org), and their uniqueness is hanging on in spite of centuries spent actively destroying it. No, not just the English colonists; the French and Spanish both had equal hands in it.

LoneRangerJohnnyeppTontoIn Hollywood, there has long existed a trope of “the helpful Indian who appears from nowhere,” so clearly they must be magical. Think Peter Pan and The Lone Ranger; help is needed, the indigenous mystics appear, do their thing, then conveniently disappear. It’s a plot device: deus ex shamana. Like faeries, trolls, and goblins, the truth can be lost to legend. Using Britain’s own fables as an example, there were reportedly a dozen Robin Hoods who all became one man, and King Arthur’s stories can be traced to several individuals who were embellishment through oral tradition.

Native Americans do exist and want to keep their cultures and traditions alive. Learn about it all you like and tell others, but embellishing the facts — changing them — and attributing details to all tribes as a whole dilutes its uniqueness. Like a game of telephone, the truth is being lost because the details are wrong.

Why Include Native Americans at All?

CherokeeArtJaneSo the idea is that North America also had a wizarding society; if we go back to before the Europeans arrived, the Native Americans were the only ones here. Details are vague, reportedly because the details reveal surprises in the upcoming movie: what and where is the Hogwarts of North America? From the Pottermore website:

The legend of the Native American ‘skin walker’ – an evil witch or wizard that can transform into an animal at will – has its basis in fact. A legend grew up around the Native American Animagi, that they had sacrificed close family members to gain their powers of transformation.

Even referring to this as “the Native American wizarding community” is a problem. Skinwalkers are a Navajo legend; while other tribes have stories of shape shifters, this isn’t an all-inclusive term or idea. It paints a false picture of all Native Americans as one culture: an amalgamate entity. Will their appearances be blended as well? A thousand languages? Their temperament? Are the filmmakers aware there were no written versions of these spoken languages until the Europeans arrived? If any Native American witch or wizard has an ancient spell book or potions manual, it’d better be written in French, Spanish, or Mayan ideographs.

Always Respect the Source Material

WestVirginiaTribesAfterEuropeanArrivalOne of my recent novels featured a vampire who was born a Cherokee woman. Since the series is set in central West Virginia and I needed a character who had witnessed the birth of the United States, I decided to go away from the expected Scot-Irish colonial immigrant and opted for a Native American. My own family likely has both Shawnee and Cherokee within our ancestry, but records may also have been obscured to hide their true heritage. While I could have created anyone, my research turned up an individual who was not only ideal for the character but added the weight of actual history; where her story ended, her fictional counterpart as an immortal could begin.

I agonized over getting the details correct, including having both a native Cherokee and a fellow writer of indigenous descent advise me to ensure I presented her characterization appropriately. There was a lot of gray area to play in, but I wanted to include as many details as my research could provide. I was praised in my depiction for breaking with modern stereotype and presenting the character as successful, a recognized educator, and a positive role model. For that alone, I could be proud of my work.

As writers doing research to ground our fiction in the real world, what does it hurt to be respectful? Don’t gloss over the details; learn and incorporate them. Harry Potter is an established franchise with hundreds of millions of fans; at the mere hints of an indigenous culture being included, readers wanted to know more. Providing real detail with an established history while playing with the gray spaces only makes the world feel more realistic. A police procedural should get the forensics right. A mission to Mars needs working rocket science. When you’re dealing with immortals having lived for centuries, history happened, and your character was either involved or affected.

I love the Harry Potter series and have the utmost respect for its author, but I sincerely hope that research was done to enhance the details the final story before it reaches theaters. If not, this will have been a terrible opportunity to have missed.

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5 thoughts on “The Matriarch, Harry Potter, and Native Appropriations

  1. I’ll reserve my final judgment until I see the movie, but it must be conceded that even Stephenie Meyer stuck with one tribe (the Quileutes), and tied their “spirits from wolves” legend in a way that made some sense. It would be a disappointment if Rowling falls short here….

  2. Agreed. The lack of detail may be in keeping surprises under wraps — that only makes sense — but people want to know what research was done since the details feel glossed over. Here’s the link to the relevant sections:

    https://www.pottermore.com/collection-episodic/history-of-magic-in-north-america-en

    There are more details and specifics listed under the 1920s with regard to a wandmaker of Chocktaw descent, Shikoba Wolfe: “primarily famous for intricately carved wands containing Thunderbird tail feathers (the Thunderbird is a magical American bird closely related to the phoenix). Wolfe wands were generally held to be extremely powerful, though difficult to master. They were particularly prized by Transfigurers.”

  3. So now that we are past the knee-jerk reaction and I’ve had a chance to take a look at your post, I can give you a more thought out opinion. – Not that my opinion means a whole lot, but I get to voice it because… internets. 😉

    For the most part I still stand in the camp where an author is not obligated to get all the details right in a fantastical story. Though doing so can make the story richer so it certainly can add value. I am far more akin to world-building and adverse to research. It may sound lazy but it can be just as much work, it’s all on the author.

    Creating a world from scratch, when done well involves writing (or at least knowing) a complex history, The political landscape, the economy, the culture, everything down to the questions like, how is waste dealt with, and how does their entertainment work. The finese comes from understanding all these details and ensuring your story remains consist with these details.
    on the flip side,
    Historical fiction has a community of readers who are voracious with their reading and if you get something wrong, prepared to be called out. The more details you can add, the more true to life the story will feel and generally more compelling.

    The issue with Rowling is her genre, she writers Urban Fantasy.
    This world is clearly NOT the one we live in, we know this. I get it it’s a “secret world” fantasy but unless you’re open to the idea of Hogwarts being real, it’s not ours. In this Potterverse, maybe there was only one native group all over North America. It’s not technically accurate compared to our world but neither are wizards.

    The Self-Publishing Podcast guys talk about their story Unicorn Western. (I may butcher the story, but I’ll tell it as best I can remember it) The story is an old western tale, and one of the guys was starting to get frustrated about the amount of detail they need. He was obsessing about not getting anything wrong for fear of the backlash from the readers if they make some major or minor error.
    The answer? – put a unicorn in it.
    Why? Well, when the comments come in saying “that gun wouldn’t ACTUALLY do that.” The response could be, “dude, he’s riding a f***in unicorn, clearly it’s not the real world”

    So with that logic, Rowling can get a pass.
    Though, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t straddle the fence, this overly sensitive uber-PC world has conditioned me I need to speak to both perspectives else I’m a bigot.. SO.

    Objectively lifting aspects from a specific culture and twisting them is something I don’t necessarily approve of either, especially an already dying culture. Blending the line between fact and fiction on a dying culture further obscures the line between the actual culture and what society believes it to be, (Especially if the fiction has the potential scope to reach as many readers as Rowlings fiction will certainly reach.)
    Your navajo example is well put.I don’t believe it is appropriation to take shape shifters and put it in her book – even if they are portrayed as Natives… if she calls them skinwalkers specifically, and goes at length describing them using Navajo terms and ideas… then she SHOULD (not need) to at least make a comment somewhere, as the narrator or a character, to mention them to be Navajo, or “these are the people muggles call Navajo” or something like that… establish the real world counterpart and highlight the deviation.
    A.k.a: If she’s willing to do the research into skin walkers to get everything right about the tribe and traditions of these natives, she’ll be educated enough to know they are Navajo and SHOULD (though doesn’t need to) label them as such.

    I write urban fantasy, and there are some ancient beings who populate my story… but I was not prepared to go through the history books and learn everything there is to know about St. John’s, Newfoundland. So, my fiction takes place in the fictional city of Janus. It is the capital of Newfoundland (and in this world St. John’s never existed) and aside from some liberties I’ve made with its design, it’s basically identical in structure. (Side note, I enjoy driving around the city after a long writing session, because I can actually identify where certain events too place.)

    Anyway, I will draw on the rich history of the real world city, and although I’m not representing it to a huge degree of accuracy. I understand the history of a modern day (albeit small) city is not the same as an entire culture already in danger of fading away. But as far as obligations go, I think it’s comparable.

    Now.. if she was worried about being socially responsible? that’s something I can lean more on the “yes” side. But obligated? I can’t say that she is.
    Um, I think I rambled enough, haha Kev, I hope I haven’t said anything too offensive (if you’re offended by someone being redundant than I apologize twice…)

  4. There is a certain line of thinking that suggests no ideas are exclusive and that nothing is truly appropriated since we’re making it all up as we go. The problem is when the image suggests something specific good or bad: a Hitler mustache; an actor in Black Face; a red dot in the middle of the forehead; a feathered headdress. These are things that suggest a people or an individual that are widely understood — and no, there are no laws preventing you from using these descriptions or costumes — but taking the time to understand the meaning of these things can go a long way toward appreciation instead of mere appropriation.

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