EDIT: After some feedback, I have chosen to edit portions of this essay to better represent how Native Peoples in the USA prefer to refer to themselves. For a more detailed explanation on some of these issues, from a person who is actually directly affected by the use of these stories, see this essay from Dr. Adrienne K.
In the news recently, I couldn’t help but notice a controversy starting over the way author J.K. Rowling has portrayed Native American peoples’ legends of the Skinwalker in the new Potter series. Most of the problem arises from how Rowling has interpreted these legends versus how many Native People’s see the use of their own culture. In Rowling’s vision of North American magic, “Skinwalkers” are Animagi who can willingly transfrom into the shapes of animals to help the tribe hunt or to evade capture by those persecuting them. The so called “myth” at play here was spread by charlatan wizards among the tribes, who claimed Skinwalkers were cannibals, monsters or dark spirits in order to discredit them and disguise their own evil acts/lack of real magical ability.
This is in stark contrast to the living legend of the Skinwalker that the Native American’s believe in. Firstly, it’s important to realize that Native American tribes do not inherently all share the same beliefs and stories, so there are a lot of generally different takes on what these legends mean. The most common understanding of the “Skinwalker” comes from the Navajo, where the creature comes from a witch (that can be male or female, but is classically male) performs a profane rite (or song) that allows them to take the shape of any animal. Skinwalkers do this for nefarious, generally evil purposes to control others with their stare or to murder or escape from their living rivals. Essentially while the tale has a lot of variance, it’s usually always portrayed negatively by Native American’s and considered a cultural taboo.
So what is the problem with how Rowling has interpreted this legend in her story?
There seem to be two core issues with the way Rowling has gone about using this legend in her stories. The first is that a lot of Native American’s commenting on the story seem to find the lack of consultation or discussion with them inappropriate. Given that Native American’s are currently still around and have often had their tales, legends and similar used without their permission, this seems to have offended them considerably. Many Native American’s firmly believe in the tales of creatures like skinwalkers as real things that occur today, which a part of the story is that mentioning or talking about these creatures openly is taboo – lest you draw their attention*.
At least part of this objection comes about because Rowling has conflated the Medicine Man, whose powers can also include appearing as an animal, with that of the skinwalker legend. In Navajo legends, the Medicine Man seeks to heal, remove curses and battle evil spirits, while the skinwalker “witchery ways” are consistently viewed as evil and directed at cursing or harming the tribe – not outsiders. In the Potterverse, both are witches or wizards but skinwalkers are effectively Animagi who are demonized for their ability to turn into animals. It’s worth noting, as I mentioned earlier, this seems to forget on Rowling’s part that the Medicine Man has the same power in Navajo legend as well.
Particularly offensive to Navajo people would be the implication in the text that many Medicine Men are charlatans, who are “No-Majs” that spread rumors about actual witches or wizards being Skinwalkers. They do so in order to avoid their own exposure to the tribe as being non-magical and puts a negative implication on the role of some Medicine Men, while portraying the Skinwalker as being persecuted. Naturally given that in Navajo legend as I mentioned, Medicine Men are revered as protectors of the tribe from sinister curses, while Skinwalkers are uniquely evil for their sinister rites and harmful intent – not the fact they turn into animals.
In essence, Rowling has understood the difference between there being “good” witches/wizards in Native American lore with the Medicine Man and Skinwalker, but not understood what the difference *means*. Rowling thinks the issue was transforming into animals on one hand and not on the other (which isn’t true), while the real significance to the Navajo is the intent each role carries within the tribe.
Further a great problem with this is the inherent assumption that all Native American tribes are culturally similar, such that this particular legend generalizes their beliefs well. In fact this myth is generally associated with the Navajo tribe most strongly, but isn’t inherently universal to all Native American tribes. Many other tribes have vastly different interpretations, myths and legends surrounding magic – making such a “catch all” kind of history essentially erasing a wide array of other beliefs. A good example of how Native American beliefs are often routinely conflated is the Skinwalker and Wendigo myths.
Wendigo, as represented by Ithaqua up there in the header image, are malevolent spirits that either posses humans after performing the act of cannibalism or are terrible monsters resulting from a curse on the tribe. Wendigo can resemble various animals, with the bipedal disemboweled deer being one such example but some myths portray it as a humanoid giant made of ice. Like Skinwalkers, they are always malevolent and have an array of different powers – including the ability to shift into different animals. There are far too many variations to really list here, but the point is that you can get a similar monster but vastly different interpretations.
About the only thing common between Native American tribes tales of the Wendigo and Skinwalkers is that they view them as universally evil. Rowlings mistake here is in not understanding the cultural significance of where these legends came from and their significance to different tribes. It’s especially baffling as a summary of non-European magical traditions, because there are a vast array of Native American myths, legends, spiritualism and magical traditions already existent. Part of what causes the offense seems to be this conflation of one tribes legends with how all the other tribes think – which given the amount of variation on say, the Wendigo, is actually vastly disappointing in terms of Rowling’s research on the issue.
I think the core point here and the main source of offense isn’t from a sense of “White people should never write about Native American legends”, it’s the way you use and portray those legends in your writing. By turning universally regarded evil spirits into good guys, while turning the revered individual of the Medicine Man into something potentially negative, she’s managed to offend members of the tribe this tale is from. Especially because I’m not sure what her distinction actually adds to this story or lore. Further, by taking these largely Navajo inspired elements and then making them the main description of all Native Peoples experiences, it erases large parts of their culture and differences.
Yes, it’s absolutely okay to write about the traditions of other cultures and similar – I’m a huge fan of a game called Until Dawn that prominently uses Native American legend in its story – but it also helps to understand what you’re writing about as well. Here, I think Rowling hasn’t grasped the nuances present in this particular tale. She’s tried to put her own “twist” on things, but instead just accidentally been blatantly offensive to the culture the story originated from. Hopefully she will understand and appreciate the criticism on this issue, gaining a desire to learn more about different Native cultures. Most importantly, that there isn’t one “singular” Native culture or attitude. Resulting, I hope, in adding a deeper and more inclusive variety of Native Peoples tales and mysticism to her stories.
*Rather like how using the real name of the King in Yellow is a really terrible idea.