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Magic on Turtle Island - Some Thoughts

Sara General

Over the weekend, between two holidays celebrating two countries that have developed their identities on Turtle Island, my husband and I had a conversation about how we'll approach certain discussions with our daughters, who we hope will grow up enjoying reading and books as much as we do (including Harry Potter). In particular, we were referring to literature that erases the presence of Indigenous Peoples on Turtle Island, the way J.K. Rowling's most recent Pottermore stories that take place in North America have done. Some of our discussion was also prompted by reading this article and thinking about the responsibilities we have as parents to speak up when things like this happen or to help educate others so that ours and other children experience less incidents of discrimination and racism in the world. 


The answers we came to were not really simple. For the most part, they involved a lot of compassion, a lot of empathizing, a lot of patience, a lot of resilience and a willingness to flag when something doesn't feel right and to be able to talk about it with our girls in a good way. (Also a lot of learning of our language, sharing of our oral histories and writing of new stories). 


I come into this particular discussion in a lot of different ways. I love to read and I'm a writer. I'm also an Indigenous woman and a mother. For many years, I worked for an advocacy body for First Nation communities in Ontario. And I am so grateful for that opportunity. It showed me how rich our communities are and how greatly misunderstood we are by mainstream culture and governments—and kind of on purpose too, thanks to the ongoing legacy of colonialism. I also learned that our communities are not all the same. We carry unique knowledges and experiences. We have a lot to learn from one another, a lot to share and ways of sharing it.  


Over the course of my life I've come to care very deeply about the inherent and treaty rights of Indigenous People on Turtle Island. I care that Indigenous children—including my own—have an opportunity to connect with our responsibilities—that they have a chance to engage with the knowledges, languages, ceremonies and oral histories that belong to the over 600 First Nation communities across the country. Especially because there have been points in our history where those opportunities were made scarce and a lot of stories that should have been told—weren't.  


In this work of writing and telling stories—so much matters. Nations matter. Clans matter. Families matter. And communities matter, including those that have formed in urban settings. Our identities are complicated. They have deep roots. It's hard for anyone to wade into our experience and write about it in a way that doesn't risk doing more harm to the process of reconnecting and healing. Mistakes have been and will probably continue to be made. 


I’ve experienced this as a reader. There've been a few times when I've read something someone wrote about my people that hurt or unsettled me. And this isn't to say that only non-Indigenous writers will write things that are upsetting. I'm not sure exactly which community they come from, but when a well-known writer wrote about my people in one of their books people became upset. Some spoke up, challenging the portrayals in the book. Some were attacked for speaking out. People who cared about that author and liked their book didn't understand why others couldn't just let it go. Wasn't it all ancient history anyways? And as a writer I found myself asking all these different questions about who should be writing what. Because I believe in my people and I believe in the power of writing to heal as well as entertain, and encourage, and inspire, and educate. But I also believe that writers have to be true to the stories and characters that are inside them, asking to be written. And I believe that writers need to be free to write their truth. So where does that leave us? What do you do when these things happen? Serious things like misrepresentation and appropriation. 


I don't have all the answers. As a writer, I've chosen my own way of trying to balance these issues—and make no mistake they are difficult to balance. For example, it's a challenge for me when people say enough with the magic and spirituality when it comes to Indigenous peoples in literature because so much of my work includes magical, fantastical elements. But I also understand why people say that and why they want characters with more depth—spiritual and otherwise. 


I want characters with depth, as well. I also want to represent spirit well, in my life and in my writing because acknowledging spirit was such a huge part of my own growth. It made my life a lot more awesome than it was and it started me on a journey that brought me to where I am now —happy and grateful for my life, my relationships and for the chance to honour Creation through ceremonies and through my actions. In a way, I have only spirit to thank for that.


Still, feeling this way doesn't automatically mean I will write great characters. I still have to work hard at writing and I can say with no shame that it will take much more practice to do it as well as I'd like to. What will help me are the things that have always helped me: asking questions, listening, communicating, reading in a discerning way, writing with care, reflecting on what I've learned or experienced. Activities which in many ways can be captured by the word research. And even in doing these things there may come a point where people will dislike what I've written or feel I've reinforced a stereotype or I've gotten it wrong. It’s part of the process of entering the ring and sharing my work.  Indeed—every bit of non-fiction I've read about publishing has led me to accept the eventuality that criticism will come and when it does, I’ll have to remind myself I'm not a failure of a human being if someone doesn't like my writing. Instead I'll have to face that criticism and I'll have to grow from it. 


All that being said, if someone had said that in their world, a certain ceremony or knowledge or practice that was important to my people "didn't exist", it would have hurt. It did hurt—even though the world was fictional and even though the practice being talked about did not belong to my nation. It was a similar hurt to other times Indigenous voices were devalued. When the Papal Bulls stated that explorers could kill Indigenous Peoples if they couldn't be assimilated. When the settler state determined that the best way to assimilate Indigenous Peoples was to take children from their homes and place them in schools far from their families. When the resulting lateral violence of these atrocities made it difficult for us to have much needed conversations in our own communities.


But we are having them. Slowly. Surely. In many different forums. In many different spaces, some of which overlap. 


It will take time. There is a lot of hurt to heal. Colonialism is a wicked thing, a systemic and deeply ingrained attitude. I've seen the evidence of that in my own community—and myself—time and time again. Moving forward and trying to heal and decolonize is hard work. It's wonderful work—the kind that can have a tremendous and rippling effect on individuals, families and communities—but it’s hard. Most of the people I know who are engaged in the process or care about the process are therefore very careful with their words and how they choose to say things. They feel a responsibility to represent things well, to do no further harm and to treat others as best as they can. 


What is my way? I think it's still evolving. I've written about it in this book and in a way I'll continue to write about it in all my books, some of which will continue to include magic and a fantasy filter that I happen to love in stories I read. But I suppose when you remove those fantasy filters from my writing, there are issues beneath them that I'm thinking very deeply about on a daily basis. Issues that require certain kinds of discussions and ones that can't just happen in books or on paper. They are issues of land. Issues of treaty. Issues of peace. Issues of spirit. 


Those are the kinds of things I want my daughters to know about as well.  I want to create things—books and art—so that my own children don't grow up believing that we aren't "real".  That these issues I mentioned aren't "real". That our stories aren't "real". That a dream or a vision isn't "real". That's how I grew up. And though my spirit knew it wasn't true, it took a long time to convince the rest of me. And I'm sure wherever you are you know or have learned or have heard that not believing in yourself can hurt. That's true. It can. 


I want to make sure that my children know the truth about Turtle Island and that if they read things that erase us  (whether intentionally or not), they will know an important part of the story is missing and they will not have to search and struggle to fill in what those missing parts are. And honestly, I'm excited and grateful to be able to share those stories with them. I'm excited to find out about other peoples' stories with them. I can see this great future where they are empowered with knowledge and compassionate and confident enough to share it with others; a future where they're good listeners, able to hear and appreciate the stories of their friends and neighbours, as well. My big hope is that we'll get to do all this work and learning together, and make really cool stories and art along the way. 


So this weekend, prompted by the appearance of new merchandise and articles and advertisements and instalments about magic in North America, my husband and I spent a lot of time talking about how we will make this future a reality. As parents. As a family. As people who are Harry Potter fans. And what we resolved (at least as much as we could resolve anything given that so many issues came up that the whole conversation feels far from over) was that the most immediate actions we will take will be to maintain our focus on the language and becoming good speakers and speaking the language in our home. And then to keep to keep writing and learning, in English and Cayuga. To support other writers in sharing their work, including writers from my own community. People with passion and vision and stories to tell.  It's why I started a publishing company, after all. To have a place to put my energy—my love, my care, and my respect—so that someone in the future would be able to find our stories and realize that it didn't matter what anyone said about us.


Magic is real. We have a relationship with land. Spirit matters. Treaties matter. Our voices matter. Our histories are alive. And there really are Turtles All the Way Down. 


I truly believe sharing stories can help bridge the gap in understanding between cultures. I believe that the process of sharing can be respectful, invigorating and exciting. It's what I hope to achieve with some of my own work, like Spirit & Intent and Treaty Baby and The Tiny Queen. And for this reason, I want to share my books with everyone—people who love to read and people who want to have a conversation and people who are looking to uphold the peace for present and future generations.  I may make mistakes along the way. I'm still learning, after all. But if you want to you can support and follow my efforts to grow by signing up for my newsletter here or by following my company's journey here. And if you're interested in watching as we learn the Cayuga language, you can do so here:


Nya:weh. Thank you. Sge:no Swagwe:goh, and as always, happy writing,