Bouzhoo, gakina awiiwa! J.K. Rowling’s new “Magic in North America” had barely reached the servers when the howlers began to land, screaming “CULTURAL APPROPRIATION!” then bursting into flame, leaving hints of sage and sweetgrass in the air. Native American Community? Gaawiin! Skin Walkers?? Fuggedaboutit! Within hours, the Internet was a flutter with Tweets, Articles and Satire. Here is a site on Native Americans in Children’s Literature which has made links to opinions on the subject, including this very article, for your circular enjoyment. Another site is devoted to the topic of appropriation and if you follow her on Twitter you will be met with the steely gaze of a Native Woman in full warrior pose, primed and ready shove a ricing stick up your ass if you even think about touching that fake headdress, motherfucker! Rez Girl to the Rescue!! Rowling is no stranger to polemics and she has earned her share of battle scars in her dealings with angry Scots, but I suspect this particular controversy has caught both her and Scholastic with their wands in their pockets. If that’s the case, neither she nor her publishers have a bloody clue about modern Native American culture and politics because if they did, they would have seen this coming a mile away. As with Custer, the signs were everywhere, but no one wanted to read them. Too late now. The bison dung has hit the fan. Welcome to Indian Country, J.K.!
For readers unaware of the brewing controversy, the revered author of the Harry Potter Series has published a collection of stories on “The History of Magic in North America.” She made an unforced error right off the bat with the use of the phrase “Native American Community.” Memo to non-Natives: There is no more a “Native American Community” than there is an “African Community” or “European Community” or “Asian Community.” Instead, there are numerous languages and tribes, people with various religious practices and cultural ties, who consider themselves quite different from one another. A Flathead is not an Ojibwe is not a Dene. Rarely is there uniformity of opinion among Native Americans, even within a single tribe as anyone who has witnessed a tribal election will tell you. Another truism about Native Americans: They are singularly unimpressed with fame, money and titles, and if they sense you are trying to play them, they will merrily tell you to go fuck yourself. Ask Adam Sandler. After 500 years of invasion, lies, broken promises and more broken promises, Indians can smell white BS quicker than a Firebolt can cross the pitch and they will send you packing with a big middle finger in a nanosecond no matter what your last name is. JK’s second mistake is tying medicine men with wizardry and using the name “skin walker” for a Native who is able to transform into an animal. The term, it turns out, is specific to the Navajo but unknown in many other parts of the continent, including where I live. By doing this, Rowling is brushing all Native Americans with the same broad stroke and that is a no-no. It is simply not cool to attribute a sacred story from one tribe onto another. Further, the whole notion of “magic,” transformation and relationships to the Earth and its creatures is a deep and complex one. Many Navajo report that it goes against tradition to speak aloud about “skin walkers” at all.
Anyone worth their fry bread will tell you that Native Americans are sensitive about the use and portrayal of their images, totems and traditions by non-Natives, and they sure as hell deserve to be. After all that was taken, no one could – or should – blame them. Amazingly, stunningly and depressingly, they still are. To those folks, I say this: If you think Natives are being too sensitive about misappropriating their cultural or religious practices, try re-writing the story of Jesus and the Disciples using wands and potions and see where that gets you. I’ll bet a cup of swamp tea against a pint of butterbeer that it gets you your head on a silver platter. Native Americans were dealt genocide on the battlefield, in the halls of Congress and in the classrooms. Their religious and spiritual practices survived by a thread and they are Sacred. This is not Rick Riordan farting around with Greek, Egyptian or even Norse mythology. The unique White-Native history on Turtle Island makes this a different ballgame, altogether. If any author thinks they are going to mess, wily nilly, with Native American spiritual tradition – especially someone from the country that sent most of the genocidal maniacs over here in the first place – she has got another think coming.
J.K. Rowling is, by all accounts, a deeply good person. She fights the good fights and spends her money on great causes. She is progressive, thoughtful and has donated so much to charity that she dropped from the Forbes List of Billionaires for crying out loud. She is no Death Eater. But, as the French like to say, vous n’etes pas chez vous! (This is not your home). Rowling was, I suspect, unaware of the waters she was wading into and likely doesn’t have a good grasp of Indigenous sensibilities. Most young Natives, growing up in the inner city or on the Rez have had experiences very, very far from the world of the white European. Young Natives in my community have seen things by age 12 that would curl the hair on Ms. Rowling’s lovely British head. Authors need to be sensitive to these realities before they even open their laptops. So then: what on Earth is a non-Native writer to do?
Last year, I attended a writer’s conference in Minneapolis during which a presenter argued that, “if you aren’t from the culture, you shouldn’t write about the culture.” Nonsense. If that were the case, we should all spend the rest of our lives penning our own autobiographies. If we, as writers, can’t muster enough empathy and observational skills to describe the feelings, struggles and lives of the people around us then we aren’t worth a damn. This is our job. Sometimes, deep and insightful commentary can come from outside a culture. Think de Tocqueville, whose commentary on American culture and politics is still regarded as one of the most brilliant ever made. Johann Kohl wrote a book about the Lake Superior Ojibway – in German! Did he understand the language perfectly or catch the nuance of each and every tradition? No. But he lived with them. He watched and he learned and his insights are important even through the prism of a 19th century European.
It is okay to share – share – cultural traditions. It makes communities richer, more diverse and more understanding. People will have to decide when something is sharing and when it is appropriation. If a white person marries into an Indian family and takes on some traditions, is she appropriating? If my kids learn to make a dreamcatcher or play the moccasin game with local Elders, are they? Should someone of mixed race choose sides or only write half Indian stories? Messy stuff, and Indigenous identity is its own honking can of worms, worthy of a volume of dissertations, alone. Once upon a time, an Apache Elder named Stalking Wolf shared his wisdom and mentored this man and the result has been tens of thousands of people closer to the Earth, and following their own sacred path. Most of them are not Native Americans and do not pretend to be, but they are Children of the Earth. I am one of them.
It is okay to write about different peoples and cultures, but you had better have your shit together and you better have some cred. In Ojibwe Country, you should know that “sweat” and “Quest” can be nouns while “rice” and “sugar” can be verbs. You should understand the terms “ceded territories” and “boarding school” and “allotment.” You should be aware of the acronym MMIW. You should know that the word “family” almost never means a couple of kids and two parents. You need to know about diabetes and drugs and alcohol and gangs and suicide. You also need to know about survival, resilience and, yes, humor. There is always humor. Preferably involving flatulence and body parts.
If you are not immersed in or at least near the culture (that might be you, writers across the pond), it is never a bad idea to read some works by Indigenous authors (actually, read them even if you are in the culture. There’s great stuff here): Sherman Alexie, Richard Wagamese, David Treuer, Louise Erdrich and Anton Treuer are all great. Wab Kinew recently wrote a very touching and poignant autobiography that will give you a good understanding of the struggles of Indigenous peoples in America. He also makes very good teaching videos and even a few great songs. You could begin to follow scholars, authors and activists on Twitter (watch out for that ricing stick!) and see what is important to them on a daily basis. When you are writing, if only one of your characters is Native (or any cultural minority) you need to have a good reason for putting her there and you need to make her complex. One minority character with one side = stereotype. If there are many such characters, mix it up! Make them as diverse as possible within their own culture. After all, there are good Natives, bad Natives, smart Natives, dumb Natives. Traditional, agnostic and (gasp!) Christian. Handsome and ugly. This is life.
Native Americans sure as hell don’t need white advocates getting in the way, taking over the conversation and fighting their battles for them – they are tough and will step up when appropriate (if they haven’t had to deal with it already five times that day). But it doesn’t hurt to be an ally. I am not Native, but the Ojibwe play a strong role in my stories because they are my friends, neighbors and mentors. I have taught Ojibwe kids and worked ambulance on a Reservation. I work with Natives and non-Natives towards Truth and Reconciliation and I listen to their stories and I see their struggles. I have sweat. I have Quested. I have participated in ceremonies of all types. I even speak some of the language. I have very close Ojibwe friends with whom I have played and laughed and cried. I would go to the mat for them. They are my community and, in a sense, my family. I am not Native, but where I live, there is a fair amount of cultural sharing. Even so, even given all this, you can bet your buckskin that I am keenly aware of the dangers of a white guy writing fiction including Ojibwe characters. I know that, no matter how thoughtful and careful I am, someone at some point will be pissed at me. Welcome to Indian Country, Robert! I mentioned this to an Ojibwe buddy once and his response was simple: “You can handle it.” Okay, I’ll handle it, but I’ll do my best to write my story in a good way. I’ll try to stay humble and I’ll try to learn from my mistakes (you listening, JK?). To be sure, not everything should be shared. There are just some cultural practices and traditions that deserve to be guarded from the greater non-Native public. Any writer worth his laptop needs to be aware of this and honor that truth.
Part of my Vision is to tell Ojibwe stories because, really, they deserve to be celebrated and honored. They echo across the granite and through the pines of the north country. Some stories will remain as they have been passed down. Others will evolve along with the people and the seasons. I will honor the spirit of their intent. Another part, is to find areas of common interest and inspire people across cultures to step up and fight for their common communities. I walk my own path and no one elses’, but it weaves back and forth, sometimes crossing the paths of others and I hope that my writing will provide insight, inspiration and laughter into their lives. When I screw up, jot down a howler and send it my way. I’ll get together with J.K and have a butterbeer and we’ll learn from our mistakes and be better writers (and better Native allies) for it. See you out there.
(I welcome your thoughts and comments)