Using Creatures From Native American Beliefs
I have been working on a fantasy series and my world has 9 nations of people, each with somewhat loose real-world influences. Each nation has its own kind of… guardian animal I guess (I formerly called them totem animals but have recently thought I should avoid that word since it specifically originated from Ojibwe culture) and while most of them are animals I have made up, a few of them are taken from real world mythologies and legends. One is the Wyvern, which doesn’t have any significant purpose in its origin so I think should be fine to use, but the others are the wakinyan (Lakota - thunderbird) and the amarok (Inuit) which were significantly more important to their originating cultures.
The wakinyan is the guardian animal of the nation influenced by some Native American cultures, where the Amarok is similarly the guardian of the nation influenced by Inuit cultures. I hoped this would give representation to those cultures and their mythologies but have worried that in reality it might just be disrespectful. I was hoping you could give me some feedback on whether this use is problematic or appropriative. Thank you! (PS I love this blog, it has taught me a lot, so thank you!)
I’d caution you to make sure that the “Native American” cultures you’re pulling from all use the Thunderbird, because it is specific to a few tribes. It would feel very off to have a culture that didn’t have the Thunderbird at all suddenly have it be incorporated. I’d prefer it if it was one specific tribe, but if you’re pulling from closely-knit nations who have a common history as allies then you’ll run into a lot less raised eyebrows for mixing a few together. I should note that a shared language family does not indicate a shared ally history; the Huron and Iroquois both shared a language family, but they’re traditionally enemies. They had periods of allyship, but that wasn’t the norm.
Other than that, this doesn’t look appropriative to me because you’re pulling from the entirety of the culture when selecting those animal protectors. The key to at least beginning to respect a culture’s religion (another caution is calling Native American religions “mythologies"— we’re still alive and practicing our traditions!) is to take the whole of it, not just the “cool” or pretty parts.
Of course, the usual cautions of sensitivity readers and making sure you’re not relying on the white versions of our beliefs apply. But as a general rule, if there’s the culture to go along with the creature, you have solid representation.
~ Mod Lesya