Enter J.K. Rowling: a well-meaning white lady whose work, “History of Magic in North America,” debuted with some criticism concerning its depiction of Native Americans. The work was reductive, alluding to Natives as ‘generally welcoming and protective people’ who were ‘gifted in animal and plant magic,’ but weren’t as powerful as Europeans with their wands. She mentions a ‘Chocktaw [sic],’ Native, and yikes. Scooby Doo handled Natives better. At least there was campy music, and a gigantic sandwich to undercut the racism.
It’s as if she thinks she’s doing us a favor with her inclusion. Really, she’s well known for writing a trope of European literature: the orphan, “Harry Potter.” Did we really need another orphaned white kid? Didn’t white people kind of do that to death in “The Secret Garden,” “Oliver Twist,” “Great Expectations,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” “Jane Eyre,” “Villette,” “Tom Sawyer,” and so many others? She’s progressive, but latently, and her work is not reaching. She’s the type of liberal who might backtrack after criticism becomes too overwhelming and say Harry Potter was part Native after all.
Imagine if she wrote about seventeenth century African American magic in North America? Imagine if she included enslaved people in her narrative? Writing fantasy about Native Americans in the seventeenth century is like writing fantasy about Jewish people in Nazi Germany. A writer can do it, but it has to be tactful, well researched, and good. I believe in art. Sometimes fiction can tell the truth about the world. Art can transcend and heal, but she’s not the type of writer who can do it. She’s tactless. She wrote about ‘Sasquatch,’ and ‘Bigfoot’s Last Stand,’ as no doubt an allusion to our brutal history, and no doubt a careless, tagged on reference to an icon within my own culture.
Some are thinking beyond the scope of the conversation, and thinking of semiotics, representation, and sovereignty. They’re stating that representation matters, but determining what positive representation is would be deeply problematic, since it engages in a collectivism that could negate the diversity within our own groups. In my own work, I deal with the relationship between sign and meaning by bleeding out on the page in the hope that the humanity shines through, and that readers identify with the character as not Indian, or Woman, but Individual, even if the character is part of a collective or continuum of Native women. It’s a difficult process, and I’m sure I regard Native identity, iconography, and signs and signifiers more than Rowling does. It’s the plight of a Native author to consider the implications of writing from experience.
Some of my contemporaries are saying we should care about the bigger issues. I’ve heard that one before. It’s the argumentative fallacy of relative privation, which is, in short, like telling a girl who’s repeatedly hit on by her professor to, “Get over it. Women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia. Your first-world problems don’t matter.” It’s disheartening to see that J.K. Rowling’s bizarre transgressions in representation are getting more traction than the stories of a remote Manitoba Native community dealing with six suicides in two months, and a hundred-and-forty attempts in only two weeks. I started writing editorials to draw attention to early death on my own reservation, where there had been five deaths in as little as four months. So it’s hard for me to criticize those who are tired of talking about white people getting it wrong, when there are so many people dying without a voice. I can regard poor rhetoric, and say that, ultimately, who cares about classic Athenian rhetoric and making good claims. They’re right, and I’m right. All these conversations matter when we’re being ripped apart at the seams. Kids who should be reading rinky-dink novels about orphaned white kids, fantasizing about magic worlds, are being forced to face some of the dank realities of being Indian.
I think of the Native kids finding solace in Harry Potter. The ‘rez kids’ who resent the pejorative, but don’t hesitate to say, ‘Yeah, it’s not great to boil water and wonder if the lights will come on, or wait for someone to notice me.’ I think of myself, a ‘rez kid’ who made good. I’m glad my mother would have slapped Harry Potter from my hand. I was Dickensian, and I knew it. I even had tuberculosis. She would have replaced the book with “By Any Means Necessary,” or some Marxist text, or her own work. I didn’t have a conventional education. I was a child of resistance. She made me resent most white ways of knowledge. I didn’t know simple math, but I could break down the injustices of the Indian Act. I wasn’t sure about college, but I had already read the canon, and Native authors, and the historical text my mother was compiling. Every kid should be given the knowledge it takes to understand what’s going on at Chief and Council meetings, and the knowledge it takes to navigate the binaries of traditional academe.
I feel urgent: about the deaths, the rhetoric, the signs and symbols, the white women writers, their characterizations, and where I fit within it all. Concerning my lineage, and the statistics, I am at the ripe age of thirty-two and women don’t live long in my family. The exception was my grandmother, and I don’t plan on being exceptional. I’m already so tired. I have, at best, another twenty years of writing left to do. The harsh reality of being Native, battling with generation hurt, navigating as an academic with a voice, is that I have little time on this earth to make things meaningful. So, yes, J.K. Rowling matters, and so does sovereignty and so do the deaths, and so does the art I’m creating. It’s all worthwhile and tangible. I refute J.K. Rowling while turning inward and asking what’s left to do for the very real, very fantastic people at home.
Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island band. Her work has been featured in The James Franco Review, The Offing, and Yellow Medicine Review. She is an SWAIA Discovery Fellow and she’s a student at the Institute of American Indian Art.