J.K Rowling, the author of the esteemed Harry Potter books, has recently come under fire for equating her fictional entity of “Animagi” with the Navajo legend of skin walkers. Rowling published the first part of her four-part series, The History of Magic in North America, on Tuesday. Rowling writes, “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 medicine men, who were sometimes faking magical powers themselves, and fearful of exposure.”
This assertion, albeit fictional, has heavy implications that are not immediately obvious. At first, it sounds rather creative. It can even be assumed that Rowling assumed that this addition to her story would be inclusive and garner her praise for the inclusion of non-white cultures. Actual Native Americans however, have largely disagreed with this sentiment.
Adrienne Keen writes on her blog Native Appropriations, “Beyond the positioning as “not real,” there is also a pervasive and problematic narrative wherein Native peoples are always “mystical” and “magical” . . . But we’re not magical creatures, we’re contemporary peoples who are still here, and still practice our spiritual traditions, traditions that are not akin to a completely imaginary wizarding world (as badass as that wizarding world is) . . . I get worried thinking about the message it sends to have “indigenous magic” suddenly be associated with the Harry Potter brand and world. Because the other piece I deal with on this blog is the constant commodification of our spiritual practices too.” Keen also adds,” If Indigenous spirituality becomes conflated with fantasy ‘magic’–how can we expect lawmakers and the public to be allies in the protection of these spaces?
The equation of Native American mythology equaling a fictional entity is not “woke” or something to be applauded. In schools, in films, in books, in all forms of written culture, Native American culture is not considered tangible or comprehensible.
The way that we discuss Native culture today is trivializing and it is merely an extension of the “white savior” trope that resulted in genocidal erasure of Native American peoples.
Americans today consider the manifest destiny concept as incomprehensibly racist, but the implications of manifest destiny are still present in the way we talk about Native culture today. We still send the message of Native culture continuing to be primal and unrefined when juxtaposed with a generalized American culture just like we did in the nineteenth through twentieth centuries.
Children in schools learn about how the Native Americans would “use all parts of the animal so it wouldn’t go to waste” and live in flimsy tee-pees and adorn themselves with feathers, but not about the spirituality of these actions nor the depth of what they represent. This erasure is a continuation of the formal cultural erasure inflicted in the Native American Boarding Schools of the 1800’s. It’s time we start treating Native culture with the respect it deserves, instead of curtailing its depth and importance and rendering it as a token for entertainment.