J.K. Rowling, author of the absurdly-popular Harry Potter series (of which I'm a massive fan), recently waded into controversy with her four-part "Magic in North America" series, which outlines the Potterverse's American history. Even before it went live, she was being criticized for her apparently blatant cultural appropriation of Native American folklore, and since publishing the criticism has only grown more pointed.
When first hearing this criticism, I, as a wannabe author of fiction (by the way, you can buy my debut novella here) rolled my eyes and whitesplained to myself why Rowling wasn't doing anything wrong. It's just fiction, I thought. Lots of stories have aped Native American folklore before her, including some of mine.
And that's exactly the problem. When I got over my initial bout of self-defensiveness, I realized I was totally wrong.
I can't say for sure how much research Rowling did when writing her series, but others have pointed out that it doesn't seem like much. Certainly Navajo "skin walkers" are one of the more common Native American legends that non-native writers reference (the only other example I can think of that comes close is the Algonquin Wendigo), but like I said, it would be presumptuous of me to guess at Rowling's research style.
However, when reading Magic in North America, it's hard not to get the sense that Rowling did not understand the thin ice she was treading on when it came to representation of Native Americans, nor did she make any effort to treat these themes with the weight they deserve.
Sentences like "The Native American wizarding community was particularly gifted in animal and plant magic" are cringe-worthy if you give them a little thought, and the notion that only European wizards were clever enough to invent wands, which make magic "more precise and more powerful" borders on horrific levels of cluelessness. Rowling tries (and fails) to mitigate these implications by saying "although it is generally held to be a mark of the very greatest witches and wizards that they have also been able to produce wandless magic of a very high quality." Clunky prose aside, this is the "noble savage" trope repurposed for Rowling's universe, with just a pinch of Magical Negro thrown in for good measure.
I mentioned above that I was guilty of doing the same thing. In an as-yet unpublished urban fantasy novel of mine, I basically did the same thing; I made a supporting character an Acheri, completely bungling any semblance of folkloric accuracy in my attempt to come up with a "cool" and "unorthodox" monster. It never occurred to me that what I was doing might be offensive, because I've never even met a Native American person in real life.
So, now I realize, what the hell was I doing, thinking I could write about Native American folklore with anything approaching honesty?
My intentions were pure, as were Rowling's, I imagine. Representation in media is crucially important, something I have become very aware of as I've grown older and consumed more entertainment. The heroes of books I read, movies I watched, and games I played almost exclusively looked like me when I was growing up, people I could easily identify with. Not so for anyone who isn't a straight, white male, and this trend in entertainment forces many people to seek out "niche" markets to find characters who look like them and are portrayed honestly and realistically.
But Native Americans shouldn't be a "niche," and neither should women, LGBT people, or people of color. In my blind quest to represent everyone, all I did was reinforce the problem.
White authors should be able to write about non-white people. Doing so is an honorable endeavor...but only if we actually do our homework first. I have not always done so, and it appears that in this case, J.K. Rowling did not either.
I'm just glad I learned this lesson from her before actually getting my book published. Now time to go back and make some changes.