Honoring Native American traditions in fiction

hawk-679771_640I was just wrapping up Possum Kingdom when a new controversy du jour hit my Facebook feed: Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling had written about Navajo skinwalkers in her “History of Magic in North America,” and in doing so had grievously offended some Native readers.

English newspaper The Guardian reported:

But campaigner Dr Adrienne Keene told Rowling on Twitter that “it’s not ‘your’ world. It’s our (real) Native world. And skinwalker stories have context, roots, and reality … You can’t just claim and take a living tradition of a marginalised people. That’s straight up colonialism/appropriation.”

The academic also took issue with Rowling’s use of the phrase “the Native American community”, saying that “one of the largest fights in the world of representations is to recognise Native peoples and communities and cultures are diverse, complex, and vastly different from one another.”

It was a wake-up call, and time for some soul-searching. I knew on the second count against Rowling, the over-generalization of the many Native tribes that once populated this land, I was probably okay. I’d made sure to differentiate Abenaki from Wampanoag and Mi’kmaq. Shannucke’s tribe of squirrels, for example, is Wampanoag, the hunter-gatherer tribe that was most populous in eastern Massachusetts; his name is taken from the Wampanoag word for “squirrel.”

As far as I could tell, the hawk is a messenger and a protector. Abby, an Abenaki Native, embodies both of these qualities, in both her rescue of Theo and her return to his life at a time when he needs her friendship most. Perhaps most importantly, her longevity throughout the centuries, however supernatural, symbolizes the persistence of her people’s culture in spite of repeated attempts to quash them.

If you’re part of a Native nation and there’s something you think I got wrong or could improve upon, please don’t hesitate to let me know, either in comments or via email!

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