by Travis McKay Roberts
Grandpa’s voice was weak, forced. I’d never heard him like this, not in the first round of chemo, nor in the weeks after he’d decided that enough was enough and he would let the cancer take its course. Years later, after advanced radiation therapies and hormone treatments and inexorable time, he and I were talking together for what would become the last time.
‘I’m working on a story,’ I told him. I had never told him about any of my writing before. ‘It’s sort of a re-telling of Cherokee history but fictionalized. There’s a seed of a story this anthropologist recorded, and I want to dive into it a little bit.’
‘I always thought the story of Louis Riel would make a good movie,’ he told me. That script would be one of the last that my grandpa would work on before he passed away.
Raoul McKay was a documentarian, historian, and a champion of Indigenous education in Canada. He was also Metis, and passionate about sharing our people’s stories with the world. Time was, you could see an exhibit he helped put together at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. I would make the pilgrimage every other month or so, from my home in the northwest of the city. There’s a new exhibit there now. I haven’t been.
What I have been doing is continuing on my grandfather’s work from a different perspective. Over the past few years, I have been blessed enough to pursue passions in both fantasy worldbuilding and Indigenous representation via prose, tabletop game design, and conversations in conferences and forums like this. Through it all has run a single thread: while the culture and history of native North America has been repressed, it cannot be forgotten.
We can imagine the stories of Indigenous peoples burning like bonfires across the Americas. Each one distinct, with its own fuel, smoke, and flame. Many have been dashed to embers when colonists rolled across the continents like a wave. But despite displacement, forced assimilation, and even genocide, there are embers yet alive. They have been handed down from elder to child, again and again – and now, they are being relit.
But from time to time, just as a fire is starting to go, someone powerful comes in, admiring the flame and wanting to make it their own. So, in it goes, into a great heap of other torches, and a unique glow is lost amidst a pyre of a hundred thousand stories.
When Indigenous stories are separated from the communities that made them, they often lose what made them special in the first place.
To the untrained eye, the act of appropriation might look like salvation. A tiny flame is coaxed into something much bigger, even more significant and impactful by western standards. But a closer look betrays the truth: when Indigenous stories are separated from the communities that made them, they often lose what made them special in the first place.
JK Rowling illustrated this for us in 2016, when she published a brief history of magic in the Americas on Pottermore. The most controversial part of the passage had to do with Skinwalkers, or as they are known to the Diné (Navajo), yee naaldlooshii. The Diné have traditionally taught their people about this shape-shifting witch as a stark contrast to what is held as good and proper in Navajo society. In JK Rowling’s retelling, she 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.
The outcry was instantaneous. Dr. Adrienne Keene, a Cherokee academic who writes on Indigenous appropriation summed up the general outcry well:
What you do need to know is that the belief of these things has a deep and powerful place in Navajo understandings of the world. It is connected to many other concepts and many other ceremonial understandings and lifeways. It is not just a scary story, or something to tell kids to get them to behave, it’s much deeper than that… What happens when Rowling pulls this in, is we as Native people are now opened up to a barrage of questions about these beliefs and traditions (take a look at my twitter mentions if you don’t believe me)–but these are not things that need or should be discussed by outsiders. At all. I’m sorry if that seems “unfair,” but that’s how our cultures survive.
Navajo writer Brian Young responded to the Pottermore piece with anguish, tied to the vital role traditional Navajo culture has played in his survival:
I’m broken hearted. Jk Rowling, my beliefs are not fantasy…. my ancestors didn’t survive colonization so you could use our culture as a convenient prop.
Young responded with more than critique. He also took the moment as an opportunity to self-reflect and live out a best practice, writing:
I’ve decided to seek advice from the diné medicine men association for their opinion on how I depict my culture in my young adult book.
Young demonstrated the antithesis of what Rowling practiced. Rowling’s writing lumped the hundreds of nations, tribes, and bands Indigenous to North America into a single people group, and took a vital piece of their culture out of context without consultation. Young went to the source of the stories. Doing so allowed him to ensure that when he took real cultural practices into a fictional setting, he was doing so with humility and respect.
Of course, JK Rowling hasn’t been the only one to take a stray step in terms of appropriation. Last year, when Firaxis announced the inclusion of the Cree chief Poundmaker in Rise and Fall, the latest expansion to the 4x strategy game Civilization 6, a headman from Poundmaker’s own band responded in force. In an interview with the CBC, Milton Tootoosis lambasted the game, saying that it ‘perpetuates this myth that First Nations had similar values that the colonial culture has, and that is one of conquering other peoples and accessing their land. That is totally not in concert with our traditional ways and world view’. He also noted that Firaxis hadn’t approached Cree peoples as they developed the character and associated nation, but didn’t seem surprised, saying ‘This is not new. Hollywood has done a job for many decades of portraying indigenous people in a certain way that has been very harmful’.
To understand Tootoosis’s critique, you need to understand a little bit about the Civilization franchise, and the 4x genre. 4x games are strategy games, built on four core mechanics: exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination. Civilization plays this out by having players control a nation, exploring a blank map, conquering rogue barbarian tribes, extracting resources, and developing a network of cities that allow the nation to exert cultural, scientific, religious, or military dominance over the world. To many Indigenous observers, these mechanics are rooted in the same colonial mindset that brought European colonizers into ‘the New World’, and lead to the breaking of treaty bonds in pursuit of oil extraction in places like the Athabascan oil sands in Canada’s Treaty 8 land today.
For Tootoosis, placing Poundmaker in this genre was inherently counter to the man’s legacy of striving against colonialism. Although the game’s mechanics encourages a player controlling Poundmaker to develop alliances with other players, those alliances are still created in the context of the 4x genre, and lead to eventual global domination.
However, there were in fact positive aspects to the portrayal, which were done via a process of consultation. Each civilization is given a unique, unfolding, soundtrack that develops over the course of the game and is rooted in a traditional song of the nation. In order to develop the Cree theme, Geoff Knorr worked with the Poundmaker Singers, including one Clyde Tootoosis. The CBC reports that Clyde saw his work with Knorr as ‘an awesome experience’, though he ‘felt sorry that certain people were offended’. In contradiction to Milton, Clyde sees the game as an opportunity to share the name and culture of Poundmaker and his Cree – a clear sign that consultation can go a long way towards making a people feel heard and respected.
The balance between Clyde and Milton’s views has led me to the unique challenge of attempting to tell my own stories inspired by the cultures of the Americas, while still respecting the communities who made them in the first place.
Atohi and Nanye
The story I told my grandfather about has grown into my own story of Atohi and Nanye. In this work, I seek to retell a traditional Cherokee story, but in the fantasy genre (a similar pattern was followed by George RR Martin when he plopped the War of the Roses into Westeros). In it, a woman named Nanye roots out a corrupting force at the heart of the priestly clan’s power, and her beloved Atohi starts a revolution to bring her safely home. I first learned of this bit of history through American anthropologist James Mooney, who in turn learned it from the Cherokee:
The people long brooded in silence over the oppressions and outrages of this high caste, whom they deeply hated but greatly feared. At length a daring young man, a member of an influential family, organized a conspiracy among the people for the massacre of the priesthood. The immediate provocation was the abduction of the wife of the young leader of the conspiracy. His wife was remarkable for her beauty, and was forcibly abducted and violated by one of the Nicotani while he was absent on the chase. On his return he found no difficulty in exciting in others the resentment which he himself experienced. So many had suffered in the same way, so many feared that they might be made to suffer, that nothing was wanted but a leader. A leader appearing in the person of the young brave whom we have named, the people rose under his direction and killed every Nicotani (Ni-go-ta-ni), young and old. Thus perished a hereditary secret society, since which time no hereditary privileges have been tolerated among the Cherokee (Myths of the Cherokee, James Mooney, p. 393).
The events described here are ripe for fiction. There is romance, corruption, and revolution. A chosen one defeats his enemies utterly and brings lasting salvation for his people. A story grows out of such fertile ground quickly. But it has never been my goal to simply tell a good story. I want to tell a good story that illuminates the better story about the people behind it. I want to guide readers towards the living people who have inherited the legacies of my inspirations, and let those people speak for themselves. To do so, I must avoid stereotype and colonialist tropes. As much as possible, I must allow the Indigenous worldview to seep in, breaking apart the frameworks I learned from my favorite fantasy authors. To achieve my goals, it is not enough to tell American stories in the European tradition. I have to go beyond. And to go beyond, I go to the community.
In 2016, I was connected through the Smithsonian with the archivist of the Cherokee Nation, a bright and caring storyteller named Jerry Thompson. As I pitched the idea of my story and goals to Jerry, he was patient in explaining to me the various aspects of Cherokee culture he wished others would focus on, and places where Mooney and others had gotten the story wrong. He introduced me to the Cherokee concept of lying – or storytelling. In Cherokee culture, the word does not necessarily have the same negative connotations that it has for us. Instead, it offers up a unique paradigm on narrative and truth, and admits the two may diverge, and it is up to the listener to determine where they do, and how that affects him or her. It’s also a tool of respect, and a way to safeguard precious knowledge. For example, a young boy may come to his grandpa many times before his persistence is rewarded with the “real story”. Even many of the formulas for ceremonies that Mooney recorded simply aren’t accurate. They are true in form, but the specific medicines are held as property of the families, so as not to be shared with outsiders. They told Mooney the truth about the general form and function of the ceremonies, and “lied” about the details.
Paradigms like this offer us a unique insight into the culture of the Cherokee, and they help me as a content creator. Given this knowledge, I can layer it in with my own ideas. This led to me fleshing out the concept of another race I’ve developed – the Aghazi nomads. The Aghazi travel my world to bear witness to disaster and atrocity and record the stories of those they meet. When they travel to Tsalagi lands (inspired by Mississippian cultures like the Cherokee), they find themselves called – what else? Liars. From that small seed grows a whole bevy of questions that must be answered as Tsalagi and Aghazi collide. Can the Aghazi be trusted? Are their auguries genuine, or just tall tales? How might the priestly class use this appellate to discredit them, and how might that backfire?
As I continued to investigate Cherokee culture, I stumbled across the practice of a young man learning his clan’s skills and role from his mother’s male relatives. Parallel research for a tabletop RPG setting (looking to the Lakota, Pawnee, and Kiowa for reference) brought me to Plains Sign Language. The byproduct of interviews with Thompson and this research brought me one of my favorite characters: Rayoteh Hanging-Jaw, Atohi’s uncle, and a veteran of wars with a neighboring nation. In those wars, he both learned the art of his enemy’s sign language, and found need to use it when his face was mangled by a brutal attack. A brief excerpt with him in focus follows:
Rayoteh Hanging Jaw wrapped a scarlet scarf around his old war wound, and set to preparing a fire as the first rays of light came darting in through the cracks in the daub walls. A few coals still glittered in the pit in the middle of his home, and there was still wood enough for the day’s needs.
Rayoteh prayed that his portion would be fair today, and began to work.
In minutes, a fire was lit, and sage leaves tucked in the coals let off opaque white smoke that danced in the motes of the morning’s first sunbeam. The smell of char filled the home, and the old warrior knelt in the earth by the fire. He breathed the scent in, and closed his eyes. The moment Rayoteh’s eyes shut, smoke billowed out the door, and his nephew stormed in.
Dustu sputtered and wiped his eyes as smoke rolled over him. He feigned a salute, and quickly crouched under the smoke. “Uncle, Athoi is- “
Rayoteh swept Dustu’s legs, and he went sprawling. Crouching next to Dustu, he signed: Do not move to sit before your elder bids you welcome.
“Of course, Uncle,” Dustu said.
Now, how can I help you? Rayoteh patted the ground next to him, bidding his nephew to sit under the smoke.
Dustu paused, and took in a deep breath. He coughed, and started again. “Atohi’s gone. He was out on hunt with Nanye this morning, and I think,” he cradled his head in his hands. “I think they took her.”
Rayoteh’s eyes flared, and his hands moved furiously. They? He signed each letter individually now, slowly and methodically. K-A-T-U-N?
Dustu nodded, and Rayoteh groaned, his voice rasping with years of disuse. Standing, he motioned towards the door. We need to be clear-headed, he signed. Atohi will be rallying for warriors. If he strikes now, they will roll off the mounds like a wave breaking on stone.
“Atohi’s a fine warrior, uncle.” Dustu stood opposite Rayoteh, feet planted, arms crossed.
I didn’t say he wasn’t.
The two men stood in silence for a few moments. “We can’t let him stand alone.”
We can’t let him stand at all. Not yet.
“But what about Nanye?”
Rayoteh stopped and slumped. His fingers began moving, once, and once again. His shoulders sagged, his eyes fell. I don’t know, he finally signed.
“That’s not good enough,” said Dustu. “We can’t- “
Rayoteh’s hands snapped up, and his nephew stopped cold. He finished the sentence for Dustu. We can’t do anything.
“I won’t accept that.” Dustu had wheeled around to Rayoteh, standing in the old warrior’s face. Dustu was young, taller than Rayoteh had been at his age. He had the same fire in his eyes, and a reckless edge to his voice. Rayoteh dropped his eyes.
There is nothing for you to accept. There is only what is, and what cannot be.
Rayoteh’s hands were still moving when his nephew turned his back and stomped out from the hut, war club unslung and ready in his hand.
Though this is still in rough form, I know Rayoteh will play a vital role in the story to come, in no small part because of research and consultation. Not only did consultation help me avoid a trite adaptation of Cherokee culture, it actually made my world more complete and led me to characters I wouldn’t have otherwise considered. Thompson’s help wasn’t relegated just to culture, but also to historical knowledge that’s almost impossible to find anywhere else. Thompson himself has done a great deal of research into the history of the Ani-Kutani and the similarity to legends found far away from the Cherokee’s homeland in the Appalachian foothills.
Not only did consultation help me avoid a trite adaptation of Cherokee culture, it actually made my world more complete.
Ani-Kutani, according to Thompson, translates to something along the lines of ‘People of the Dragon’. Dragon might be better translated to horned serpent, a crucial figure in Cherokee mythology. As it happens, similar creatures are found in stories throughout North America. Thompson indicated that the oral tradition regarding the migration of the Ani-Kutani maps well to the existence of the stories of horned or flying serpents elsewhere, particularly in regarding the feathered Quetzecoatl of Mayan and Aztec mythos. Similar mythological migration can be found with tropes like Spider Grandmother, shared by Navajo and Aztec cultures (though expressed in different ways), or the figure of the coyote trickster, found in Ojibwe and Yakama cultures. These bonds have inspired similar bonds in my constructed world and have led me down paths to create content inspired not just by the Cherokee, but by the Navajo, the Lakota, the Pawnee, the Olmec, the Aztec, and the Ojibwe.
These cultural exchanges help illustrate that stories from one culture can be told in a different setting. They push against the idea that any one people group truly owns a story. At the same time, they reflect a different paradigm than what’s commonly practiced now. These cultural exchanges were just that – exchanges. People told each other their stories and received stories or shelter in turn. There’s a deep network of respect and relationship that lies behind these common figures, and there’s not a 1:1 representation of that in the modern day. It’s impossible to compare googling about a culture on the internet and slapping traditional beliefs into colonial settings with the ancient patterns of trade and reciprocity that led to stories being shared far and wide. It is possible to mimic those patterns, enter into genuine relationship, and enrichen the narratives authors and designers create. Those same relationships can guide us to aspects of culture that can and should be shared and proclaimed and guide us away from teachings that are sacred and require protection and custodianship by the community. Though it can be difficult to hear that a piece of culture is off-limits, the cost to the content creator is much lower than the risk the community is concerned with.
Because of the relational nature of the process and the potential risk for creative constraints, cultural consultation is often depicted as a painful, expensive, and unnecessary step, foisted on creators by a PC culture run amok. I’ve found that it’s almost entirely the opposite. Consulting with the communities you find yourself inspired by is not only a way to build relationships and mutual respect, it’s a way to improve the product. And when content grows richer, communities feel respected, and stories guide readers to Indigenous peoples on their terms. Everybody wins. Consultation isn’t a burden, it’s a blessing – and one that basic human decency demands.
Travis McKay Roberts is a writer and public health social worker in Washington, D.C. Born in Canada, Travis is a citizen of the Manitoba Metis Federation. You can find more of Travis’s writing at callingallwayfarers.wordpress.com and at Relevant.com, and can reach him on twitter @TravisWMRoberts.