On JK Rowling and cultural appropriation

JK Rowling reading Harry Potter at the Whitehouse.
Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons.

JK Rowling has been expanding the universe of Harry Potter by writing stories about the history of magic and, in her exploration of the development of magic in America, used a Navajo legend of the skin-walker as a part of her story.

In the past week, there has been a significant reaction from Native American groups calling Rowling out for using their legends in her stories, and, as expected, a lot of Potterheads are getting defensive and upset right back.

I love Harry Potter and I love equality and respect for all humans and I am a creative person who also draws inspiration from a variety of sources and I know that I am part of a privileged class, so naturally I wanted to try to wade into sorting this out.

Let's start with the side that is not okay with it:

Dr. Adrienne Keene writes a fantastic post on her blog Native Appropriations about her concern on the basis that "Native spirituality and religions are not fantasy on the same level as wizards. These beliefs are alive, practiced, and protected", and cites the historical problem of Native American spirituality being turned into fantasy/magic/pretend in general by westerners.

"We fight so hard every single day as Native peoples to be seen as contemporary, real, full, and complete human beings and to push away from the stereotypes that restrict us in stock categories of mystical-connected-to-nature-shamans or violent-savage-warriors."

She also talks about the personal pain she felt watching the trailer and seeing Native American imagery used next to references to the Salem witch executions.

I certainly can't argue with that.

What does the other side have to say?

Amidst the adults acting like children and misspelling racial slurs, there are some thoughtful responses.

One such response came from the first comment on Keene's post.  Bryan Fields, who identifies himself in the comment as a Native person (from Ottawa) and a fantasy writer:

"I see a big difference between inspiration and appropriation. Appropriation is something done without respect or regard to meaning and context. ... The difference is in how the author handles the material. Charles de Lint, for example, frequently mixes Native and Celtic traditions. Respectfully. Lovingly. What he creates is brand new, but rooted in the heart of both traditions."

He then reserves judgement, not having read the History of Magic and seems to have some trust that Rowling will treat the legends well.

As a creative person, this makes sense, too.

On one hand

Inspiration comes from all sorts of places, and limiting what can inspire people gets us into dangerous territory.  By now every belief system and culture has been used in storytelling by someone from a different background, and that's not necessarily bad.

If every aspect of culture could only be used by people from that culture, well, that doesn't feed into the growth of understanding, unity, or peace in humanity, let alone creativity and art.  When it happens with respect for the original material, in general (and let's emphasize the "in general"), I don't think that is a problem.

Of course, I'm clearly showing a "this was inspiration, not appropriation" bias by saying that.  That's because, as far as I can tell, there is no clear definition of when something is appropriation or inspiration.  A google search of "appropriation vs. inspiration" shows a whole bunch of articles that are equally confused in trying to figure it out, and the main thing I can see is that when a dominant culture that has historically been oppressive gets inspiration from the culture it oppressed, we wade into dangerous territory.

From my trip to London last year. I love Harry Potter!
Of course, love for HP doesn't mean I can't see its problems.

On the other hand

Speaking of context...

Let's go back to the "in general" two paragraphs back.  What are the exceptions to that?

First of all, there are things that are sacred.  Not globally, to every single person, but things that are sacred to specific groups.  Beliefs, practices, icons, legends, myths, and names that are revered and should not be touched or altered, according to those who follow them.

Take, for example, depictions of the image of Muhammed for a Muslim.  Now, I'm not going to say that an artist can't draw a picture of Muhammed, freedom of speech, right?  If you do, however, you have to do so with awareness that you are going to be alienating, hurting, and offending a large portion of the Muslim population.  You need to proceed with awareness and understanding.

Most importantly, there is the context of oppression.  When one culture has systematically oppressed (and in the case of Native Americans the term "oppressed" is putting it all too lightly) another, and then helps itself to aspects of that culture, especially its faith, well... This where we find real problems.

Of course, these problems only exist for people who want to avoid perpetuating oppression and/or hurting entire people groups.  If you're stoked on being a colonizer or don't really care about other people at all, then I guess you won't consider any of this a problem.

On another hand

Does the fact that a belief is real and powerful to those who follow it really mean it can't also be used for fantasy or incorporated into other stories?  Does putting something in a fantasy story really have to take away its real-ness?  Doesn't that, on some level, validate it as something that is culturally relevant enough to get included?

Ah, but the contexts of power and oppression are important in this point - plucking a piece of culture out of a group you've taken over is sort of like beating someone up and then stealing something precious of theirs and making it your own.

Here's one more hand

I would have considered it an egregious error to leave Native Americans completely out of a history of anything pre-colonization in America.  I don't think it would have been better to tell a story of magic being spread around the world by the Brits alongside their ships and guns.

To my (white, Mennonite, Canadian, middle class) ears, that smacks of ignorance and erasure.  Especially considering this is a story where people are spontaneously, naturally born to be magical.  If Rowling wrote a story where magic only spontaneously erupted in Europe, well, yikes.  Talk about self-appointed supremacy.

On a fifth hand

One of my first thoughts was that this could, at the very least, be a great opportunity for people to actually learn about Aboriginal cultures and beliefs.  I thought it a positive that people around the world might be inspired to actually learn about the Navajo.  However, in a follow-up post by Keene, she says that this particular legend is not one for non-Aboriginal people to know, and that this is not the right way for people to develop an interest in Aboriginal cultures.

Okay, I accept that I don't get to go hunt down a Navajo person and pepper them with questions about skin-walkers and expect them to joyfully fill me in just because it was used in this famous story.

What I struggle with here is the idea that there is a "right way" for a person to develop a genuine interest in any cultural group.  It might just be my privilege talking, but even if you don't like the reason a person got interested, isn't their interest that bit of good that came from the bad?  Isn't all of our ultimate goals to be understood?  Especially for people that are traditionally very misunderstood?

On yet another hand

What are the chances that some kid who reads this story will actually seek out real understanding of Navajo culture?  Probably low.

On one more hand

I would have expected someone like JK Rowling to do her research before including these cultural elements in her story.  Maybe they consulted Navajo leaders and were given the go-ahead, but if that's the case, I would have expected that by now she would have said something to that effect in response, and she has been silent.

The truth is that the story is written through a somewhat colonial lens.  Sure, that gives it the feel of a dusty old tome you'd find in a British private school's library shelves, but it's a modern piece of writing being posted on the internet, so that's not really a sufficient excuse.

If this was how your people were depicted
by your occupiers, you might be cautious, too.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

At the end of the day

I agree that Rowling fumbled this one.  I think it was right for her to include Native Americans in the history of magic in North America, but it seems she did it without consultation and she is definitely dropping the ball with her silence now.

Let this be a lesson to all of us who like to create things

If you want to be inspired by another culture, especially one that your culture has done horrible things to (yes, I know you didn't do it personally, I didn't either - "my people" showed up in Canada as refugees after WWI - we still benefit from it so we have to be aware of it), be careful.  Do real research.  Consult.

You may find out that what you want to do is not okay to the people whose culture inspired you.  Then you have a choice: will you use it anyway (your choice, at least now you're consciously stealing), or will you let the idea change or maybe let it go all together?

Not being able to act on your idea sucks, and that's okay.  Everyone has to accept limits in life, and this might be one for you.  Also, the entire creative process is basically one of finding out your original idea doesn't work and watching it morph into something that does.  You let go of that character who you loved but wasn't serving the story, and you can let this go to.

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