The Rantin’ Raven: Harry Potter and the… WTF?

The Rantin’ Raven: Harry Potter and the… WTF? March 19, 2016

Anyone who’s been following me here (thanks, by the way) knows I can occasionally be a bit insensitive on certain current issues from gender-fluidity to the definition of Wicca to cultural appropriation. In my own defense all I can offer is that I keep learning, and as I learn I try to be a good ally. One of the issues I’ve grown passionate about is Native American rights, especially the right they ask for most: that we Whites not misrepresent their cultures when we speak or write about them. I mean – it’s the simplest, easiest, bare-minimum thing we can do to be respectful. We can refrain from lying about them.

JK Rowlings sits reading her books to children
J.K. Rowling By Daniel Ogren, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Which brings us to Harry Potter, of whom/which I am a huge fan. Recently, Harry’s creator JK Rowling has expanded her fictional ‘secret history of the world’ to include the Americas. Great idea! After all, Europe and Africa, the only places mentioned in the original series, can’t be the only places where wizards exist, right? She posted the first three essays, on the history of wizardry in North America, on the Pottermore website, and sensibly started with Native American wizardry, on the basis that wizardry belongs to all peoples and must therefore predate the European ‘discovery’ of North America.

Boy, did she get it wrong!

In the Native American community, (she writes) some witches and wizards were accepted and even lauded within their tribes, gaining reputations for healing as medicine men, or outstanding hunters. However, others were stigmatised for their beliefs, often on the basis that they were possessed by malevolent spirits.

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. In fact, the majority of Animagi assumed animal forms to escape persecution or to hunt for the tribe. Such derogatory rumours often originated with No-Maj (muggle) medicine men, who were sometimes faking magical powers themselves, and fearful of exposure.

Native American activists immediately took Rowling to task. The first to go online with it, Dr. Adrienne Keene, a Cherokee scholar, tweeted:

Keene detailed her objections on her blog, saying that Native spirituality and religions are not fantasy on the same level as wizards. She suggested Native American subjects should be off limits to White writers. I would be content for what gets written about them to simply be correct and respectful. Not deferential, just respectful, as in not radically reinterpreting their beliefs and not calling their spiritual practitioners fakes.

This week, on a site devoted to fantasy fiction where I hang out a lot with both other fans and a number of writers, a huge controversy erupted over not just Rowling’s handling of Native American cultures but over whether fantasy writers have any responsibility to avoid misrepresenting living cultures. I was astounded at the number of people who though they don’t.

Here’s the problem, as I see it, I said: Ms. Rowling seems to be unaware that the cultures she talks about are real. That there are still living members of these still-living cultures whose cause and position in the real world are harmed by the publication of untruths about them – untruths that are too often unconsciously accepted by those not interested enough to look into them.

Most fantasy novels are set in an alternate universe, the future, the remote past, or in some other way are not part of the here-and-now. The fantasy becomes a shared game of “let’s pretend” and pretty much anything can go. But as eloquently pointed out by N.K. Jemisin in “It Could Have Been Great,” Rowling’s world purports to be a secret side of our real world, occurring in real time alongside everyday reality. The whole premise is that nobody who isn’t magical knows about those who are–with a few noted exceptions like the families of muggle-borns, of course. What a fun concept! But because it’s set in the real world, extra caution needs to be exercised not to do violence to what isn’t part of the fantasy.

It’s not just Rowling’s clueless assumption that belief in skin walkers was/is continent-wide rather than strictly a Diné belief, or her saying that “skin walker” is just an Indian word for animagus when in Diné culture they are living vectors of evil. It’s saying that non-magical Native medicine people were/are fakes. She’s talking about people outside her wizarding subculture, and suddenly it’s not fantasy anymore.

In all the Potter books, she never once so much as hints that Christianity and non-magical medicine might be fake, even when her wizarding characters are being condescending about the amazing ways muggles find to get along without magic. Christianity is assumed and respected in the Wizarding world, if not spoken of much, with crosses in the churchyard — and churches, for that matter — and St. Mungo’s Hospital. If Wizards aren’t Christians, how can there be a wizarding saint? Muggle medicine is shown to work fine for everything except magical maladies. But non-magical Indian medicine people are ‘fakes.’ Indians have been told this by Europeans for 500 years and it’s long past time we stopped doing it and they stopped being expected to tolerate it.

Navajo Shaman, by Edward S. Curtis, 1905 (Public Domain)
Navajo Shaman, by Edward S. Curtis, 1905 (Public Domain)

Even if you don’t believe in the myths, I said, compassion for those who do believe in them ought to lead us to champion their desire not to be misrepresented.

To which someone asked rhetorically “do we have compassion for the Greek and Roman gods, then?” Well, yeah. We have — or should have, I answered, compassion for their believers. And yes, there are modern believers in the Greek and Roman Gods and in the Norse and the rest of the European Old Religions. Personally, I think what Marvel has done to the Norse pantheon is little short of cultural genocide. But more to the point, the pre-Christian European Gods are part of the patrimony of Western culture, and if we want to mock them, they’re ours to mock. Native American cultural icons and beliefs ought not to be misrepresented, or worse, called ‘fake,’ by outsiders.

Cultural patrimony, I think, is the single most important issue here. Someone protested that the spells depicted in the Harry Potter stories were as insulting to real witches as Rowling’s ideas about Native Americans are to them, because they were patently impossible and too often what real-world witches would consider unethical, like turning a mouse into a teacup or Draco Malfoy into a ferret. But spells are mere technology. Myths are cultural patrimony. Spiritual practices are cultural patrimony, and their practitioners are culture-bearers. Those within the culture can be as disrespectful as they want. Those of us outside it can’t. At the very least it’s bad manners.

I got accused of not understanding fiction. As a long-time writer and editor myself, I understand how fiction works. Words have power to form unconscious ideas even when the reader knows it’s fiction. The way this ‘information’ was presented leads one to assume it’s fact-based with the magical fantasy part growing out of a background in reality. And it’s both incorrect and insulting.

I got accused of paternalism and was told the Native Americans should be allowed to take care of their own issues: History has shown over and over that unless White allies champion Native causes, White users will simply ignore and steam-roller them. The recent attempt by Congress to sell mineral-exploitation rights on Apache sacred land to Chinese mining interests is a prime example: it almost passed unremarked despite vehement Apache protests until Whites joined their voices to the Apache and said no. It’s all a numbers game in D.C., and there simply aren’t enough Natives to make an impression on the suits. That’s how genocide works.

Not everyone in the group was White. “ I am ready to just weep about this thread.” wrote one Canadian woman:“

I am Mohawk Metis. I don’t share my family’s sacred stories. I do share stories of how my brother used to get the shit kicked out of him on the way home from school. I used to hear ‘Put the boots to the Indian’ and the thuds of boots as they hit my brother’s flesh. And the overwhelming fear that they would catch me and I would be next. I am so furious and upset I am shaking. We are talking about real people, not myths. I am in favour of respectful sharing and educating of non-natives, especially if it has been blessed by our Elders. The more we understand each other’s cultures, the more we can empathize with each other. Above all be kind and good to all living creatures, and Mother Earth, as we are all part of our Creator’s web of life.

I appreciate Rowling wanting to show that magic was not only for White people, that Native Americans had their own equivalent traditions and powers. But, meaning well is not enough. Even fiction needs to avoid misrepresenting and insulting living peoples. Would it be OK, I asked, if when she gets to the African wizards, she presents them all as cannibals and naked savages sacrificing innocent colonials to bloody idols? Or Asia — she could dip into Sax Roemer and present them all as squint-eyed, opium-smoking rapists of White women.

I don’t think Ms. Rowling was malicious in her portrayal of Native Americans, only ignorant and lazy. If she were writing about an alternate Earth or a galaxy far, far away, she could say whatever she pleased. But the premise of her books is that they are set in a secret subculture in this real world — the one you and I, and Native Americans, live in. And these real Native Americans, in this real world, have asked us repeatedly not to misrepresent them in our writings. To use the excuse that ‘it’s only fantasy’ in order to avoid honoring those requests is disingenuous and dishonest. And as another member of the group powerfully observed, “Anyone who says ‘it’s just fiction’ is denying the power of words. I am amazed that people in this group, who ought to know the power of words, are taking the ‘get over it’ stance.”

It’s not just that J.K. Rowling got a few facts wrong. It’s the whole “what’s yours is mine” attitude toward the cultural artifacts of people who have been asking us for years — mostly politely — to be more respectful. We can’t excuse her just because we like what she’s done before. Which by the way I do, greatly.

Nor is it about how Rowling’s misinformation might influence or change Native cultures, which one member seemed to think was the concern and pointed out is highly unlikely. It’s about the cumulative effect of 400+years of dismissive attitudes and misrepresentation about Native cultures by Whites for mostly-White consumption. Rowling’s writings are a small thing, but small things form avalanches. I think it behooves those who know better to take corrective measures.

Yeah, even in fantasy.

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