March 19, 2016

Fictional Potterverse vs. real Native religions

What J.K. Rowling’s New Story Can Teach Us About Cultural Appropriation

Rowling messed up big time. What next?

By Claire Fallon
Reading and listening to Native American and First Nations activists, authors, and readers reacting to the treatment of their cultural heritage, certain important points keep emerging: “History of Magic in North America” relied on worn-out stereotypes that erase tribal distinctions, ignore the true cultures and traditions of different nations, and reinforce conceptions of Native American people as mystical beings rather than real people who continue to exist today. The story was shallow and poorly researched, not a detailed and thoughtful exploration of the histories of the peoples who have lived on this continent for centuries.

Scholar Amy H. Sturgis, who is of Cherokee descent, told me, “Some of her descriptions—the claim that the Native American wizarding community was ‘particularly gifted in animal and plant magic’ for instance—refer less to Native American cultural traditions than to stereotypes of the mystical Noble Savage that have been used for centuries by non-Natives to make Native Americans seem exotic and Other.”

Regarding the skinwalker narrative, which has garnered particular outrage, she noted that it was particularly troubling to see Rowling make use of a Navajo tradition “as legend, a smokescreen for ‘real’ magical history, and to divorce this tradition from its specific origins and apply it to all of Native America as a whole.”

One thing’s certain: Rowling didn’t have much idea what she was writing about, and it showed. “I don’t think she has the knowledge necessary to do justice to marginalized peoples,” Debbie Reese, a Nambe Pueblo Indian scholar, told me. (Reese writes the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature, which carefully reviews young people’s literature with representations of American Indians to tease out the often glaring misrepresentations, appropriations, and damaging stereotypes within.)
The Rantin’ Raven: Harry Potter and the… WTF?

By Dana CorbyHere’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.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see Rowling Colonizes and Vanishes Indians and Rowling's Magic in North America. Also see:

Native People Respond to Rowling

Why it's more than fiction

Native People Respond to Jason Aaron's SCALPED and JK Rowling's Magic in North America

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