Rowling, the Navajo, and cultural appropriation

JK-Rowling-interview

A few days ago, J K Rowling began releasing a series of short writings called The History of Magic in North America. These pieces (of which there will be five; four are out, as of the writing of this post) provide snapshots of the development of the wizarding world in what is now the United States, setting the tone for the Fantastic Beasts movies, the first of which will be in theatres by the end of the year. The movies, which chronicle the adventures of Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne), are largely set in 1920s New York, seventy years before the events of the Harry Potter series. The writings are posted on the new Pottermore website, and are available for anyone, member or not, to read.

Rowling’s first post, ‘Fourteenth Century—Seventeenth Century’, mentions the Navajo legend of the ‘skinwalkers’. According to myth, a skinwalker was ‘a medicine man or witch who has attained the highest level of priesthood in the tribe, but chose to use his or her power for evil by taking the form of an animal to inflict pain and suffering on others.’ In her post, Rowling states that the skin walker legends had their ‘basis in fact’, the skinwalkers being Animagi who were unfairly prosecuted, often by fraudulent ‘No-Maj’ (the North American term for Muggle) medicine men who were afraid of the exposure of their own lack of magical skill.

It seems, on the surface, an innocent enough tie-in to Rowling’s extended Potterverse. The backlash however, has been angry, with a number of Native American activists accusing Rowling of stereotyping of First Nations peoples, generalising specific tribes’ legends and beliefs to encompass all their differing, specific cultures, and affronting their cultural sensibilities (for a well written piece on this, go here). Criticism was only stepped up with the publication of the second in the series (‘Seventeenth Century and Beyond’), where aside from a description of ‘Scourers’, unscrupulous magic users who ‘even went so far as trafficking their fellow wizards’, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade is washed out of the narrative altogether.

Now, as a general reader, I don’t think Rowling is under any obligation to write a detailed history of the United States, taking into consideration all its major historical landmarks and moments and tying them into her magical narrative. However, I do see the complicated nature of this particular sally. I’m not sure whose ‘side’ I’m on, in this affair, mostly because I find the accusation of ‘cultural appropriation’, most of the time, to be a not entirely unmixed affair. But let me lay out my view on this, and you can decide where I come down, if I come down anywhere at all.

  1. It’s true that the Native American genocide and the Slave Trade are both cornerstones of the modern United States, and their repercussions continue to ring through the country today. While Rowling does not dedicate much space to these tragedies, she does not, to be fair, talk of the Revolutionary War either, or the Civil War. The only ‘historical event’ she pays more than passing heed to are the Salem Witch Trials, which leads me to the second point.
  2. Rowling seems to be consciously offering no more than quick, picture postcard-like sketches of a vast history, and to do this, she latches onto the markers that already have some currency in popular imagination. The Salem Witch Trials are, arguably, the most famous mainstream evocation of ‘magic’ in US history. They have been immortalised on screen, in plays (you can’t argue with The Crucible) and are now cemented in the mainstream as a time when ‘witchcraft’ was believed to be real and punishable by death. Though far from the only instance of such widespread witch hunting (which continues to happen in countries across the world), they are arguably the most well-remembered, documented happening. Rowling’s decision, then, to focus on these Trials makes sense, given the context of the world she is building.
  3. To turn to that thorny term, ‘cultural appropriation’. As a reader and writer, I find the term…unnerving. I understand the history and hurt that is loaded onto it, when certain groups that have always been relatively more privileged make use, sometimes an insensitive manner, of the cultural products of those they have actively or unconsciously oppressed. But I think it is far too easy, now, to level this charge at people even when there is no malice intended in their use of such markers. It smacks, to my rather naive thinking, of policing, of wanting to draw lines about who is allowed to ‘use’ what to tell a story or make a song or video. Intention, such a difficult thing to assess and prove, seems to me the basic criterion that should help people decide whether something was ‘borrowed’ or ‘appropriated’. Again, this may just be my own privilege talking.
  4. To be fair, fantasy authors have always ‘culturally appropriated’ things. Martin’s World of Ice and Fire, for instance, talks about Eastern countries—in Essos or Sothyros—that sound remarkably similar to Mongolia, China, certain parts of the Middle East. Jordan’s Wheel of Time has an empire whose rulers behave a lot like the rulers of ancient China, lacquering their fingernails and wearing silken robes. When you’re building an entirely new world, you want lots of different cultures and peoples to feature in it, in order to make it realistic, well-rounded. Authors aren’t gods. They have to build something that, while new, also presents a familiar enough aspect that a reader wont be entirely put off (this is why I find fantasy a much more appealing genre than science fiction, but more on that some other time). To this, authors borrow from cultures and histories around the world, knowing that just sticking to their singular perspective does not a universe make. Hell, even Tolkien, who’s been raked across the coals for his racism, fused elements of different cultures together to build Middle Earth.
  5. The reason Rowling has gotten into ‘trouble’ on this front, despite being a fantasy author is because: 
    • The Potterverse, unlike Middle Earth or Westeros, is quite recognisably part of ‘our’ world. It is a secret part of the ‘real’ world we inhabit, and as such, any historical events and beliefs that play a part in our world, there is an understanding that the same should have repercussions on the Potterverse.
    • For this reason, skinwalkers in the Potterverse are held to be the same, in readers’ minds, as skinwalkers in real-world Navajo belief. Rowling is not even pretending to create them anew in an entirely different universe (as Basu reinvented rakshasas in the Gameworld Trilogy, or Stroud djinn and afrits in the Bartimaeus Trilogy), and is borrowing them while making alterations that change their moral position in the original mythology, turning negative beings into misunderstood characters. She is changing not her ‘own’ version of the skinchangers, but those that belong to the Navajo belief system.
    • She is J.K. Rowling, arguably one of the most famous and successful writers working today, and anything she does is bound to attract notice of a lot more people than the writing of most authors. If she writes ‘wrongly’ about a particular group of beings, a lot more people are going to read it and gain what might be, to some people, a ‘warped’ understanding of a folklore that is, sadly, far from the mainstream experience of most readers.

I’ve blathered on. In sum, I’ll say this: i dislike the term cultural appropriation. I don’t like putting down lines about who should be allowed to use what from other cultures. In an age where a lot of us have so much information at our disposal, so many different pantheons and treasure chests of stories to work with, I see no reason to stick to only those marked out as ‘yours’ because of an accident of birth. The longer we police other people, the longer we are policed in turn, I think. As stated, it’s all about the intent. I don’t think Rowling meant to harm anyone, simply to have fun building on a world that’s delighted so many people for years. That being said, I see why activists have gotten upset, and can only be sorry about the history that’s led to this state.

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2 thoughts on “Rowling, the Navajo, and cultural appropriation

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on that matter! I was wondering if you were going to write about this, and this was wonderfully eloquent, as always.
    I agree with a lot of what you wrote. Just some random thoughts:
    1) These new texts just seem so lazy to me, as if Rowling had not done any research at all. It’s not only in these North American pieces, but also in what she wrote about the other wizarding schools. It’s all very, VERY stereotypical, even for Rowling, who plays with stereotypes a lot. I think authors still should do proper research – if only to make their own stories better. We’ve all read so many stereotypes, we don’t need any more of them, and without them, stories become so much more interesting.
    If she had substituted the stereotypes with a bit of research, this whole backlash could have been prevented. Because:
    2) Of course, writers borrow all the time, but I think it’s quite different when we’re talking about groups who have been victims of genocide and who still have to fight so very hard to have their culture being taken seriously (especially if you have such a huge audience as Rowling). Borrowing from such cultures is tricky. She should have known that. As I said, research or talking to actual Native Americans might have helped.
    3) Cultural approriation aside: A white British author glossing over Native groups and twisting their myths just to go back on focussung on the European-based mostly white wizards AND ending the piece with European wizards introducing the clearly superior pagic tools of wands to the natives … this just leaves a very bad taste in my mouth.
    Sorry for the ramble… but she definitely got people into heated discussions 🙂

    • I totally agree! It’s such a thorny issue. My problem with cultural appropriation is that I feel it’s often a double edged sword, like people from certain non-mainstream cultures are expected to adhere to certain kinds of writing. for instance, in India now, you’re not considered ‘literary fiction’ if you don’t write a certain idea of the country that a Western publisher would be interested in, iterating certain themes and stock figures (the poverty, the dirt, the ‘exotic’ nature of various things). And if you don’t include these elements, you’re not a ‘serious’ writer. I feel the problem with charges of this are that it ends up policing what you can do, even for the marginalized groups. Of course, in this case it’s much more clear that it wasn’t done respectfully enough.

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