Guest Post: Magical Indians That Aren’t Magical Indians: Faith Hunter and Patricia Briggs get it right

cover of Invisible 2This post is part of a series of interviews and guest posts from contributors to Invisible 2, edited by Jim C. Hines. You can find our review here. In this post, Jessica MacDonald talks about how to write Native American characters without resorting to stereotypes.

In April, news broke about a new Netflix-based movie by Adam Sandler where he and his producers showed extreme disrespect for indigenous people. It served as a reminder that in 2015, Natives are still fighting to be seen as part of the world, not as historically inaccurate stereotypes. Reading books, watching movies—it’s like playing Are You Kidding Me bingo. Magical Indian here, Noble Savage there, Red Devil over here. Tropes so ingrained that most viewers or readers don’t even realize how off base they really are.

Which is why it’s refreshing to come across series that put in the legwork to not only craft multi-dimensional Native characters, but also ground their mythology in actual Native legends. Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson series and Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock series both nail it.

Let’s start with Mercy Thompson. She’s a mixed-race protagonist, another rarity—Blackfeet and white. She’s a mechanic who owns her own garage in the Tri-Cities area of Washington state, and she’s also a skinwalker: she can change into a coyote. A distinction is drawn in the series between werewolves, who are beholden to the moon and must preserve mass (so a 200lb man becomes a 200lb wolf), but Mercy can shift at will, and becomes a true coyote, small size and all. More of her story and power is revealed through the series, tying her ability not to her status as an indigenous person, but more because of her specific backstory. This point matters: In many Magical Indian portrayals, no explanation is given for the character’s abilities other than her Native status. This form of positive stereotyping is othering; it confers that Natives are magical, connected to the earth, control the elements, whatever, simply by being Native. As if we are not human. But with Mercy’s story, there are specific reasons related to the Blackfeet legend of Napi that explain her powers. Hers is a hero’s story, where she is indeed special, but with reason and depth.

Jane Yellowrock is a Cherokee vampire hunter, and also a shapeshifter. Her mythology is a little different: the animal spirit, “Beast” as she calls it, is a consciousness living inside her. They share one body but are two entities. Where Briggs keeps the Blackfeet legends at the edges of her world, Hunter brings Cherokee myth front and center, both as an explanation for Jane’s powers and as part of her overall world-building. It’s a nice break from European-centric mythos, even as both authors do a great job of blending European monsters with Native myths. There’s a specific scene in the first Jane Yellowrock novel with a tribal elder that’s offering some information that Jane needs. This elder is not dressed in buckskins and a headdress; she is modern, speaks proper English (as opposed to Tonto-ese), and lays the foundation for revelations about Jane that come later in the story. This flushes out both Jane and the mythos; it’s not a hack job pulling a few Native legends in for flavor, but a well-developed, rich world that remains respectful of the Cherokee origins that inspired it.

Briggs and Hunter do exactly what we’re asking for when we say we want representation. They give us dynamic, multi-dimensional indigenous characters that are not defined solely by their Native-ness. It can seem like a fine line to white authors—how do you bring in Native stories without stereotyping characters as Magical Indians, Indian Princesses, or Noble Savages?

The answer is fairly simple: Create real human beings. Research the experience of indigenous people, maybe even meet with a tribal government and interview them. Ground characters’ powers in a rich backstory rather than in what amounts to “because Indian.” Be respectful of the mythologies. Your Native characters can be magical, badass, savage, noble, murderous, heroic, powerful, weak—but make them real, the way Briggs and Hunter have. Our race is part of who we are, but it is not all we are. Your characters should be the same.

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Jessica McDonald lives in Denver and is a writer, technophile, gamer, and all-round geek. She serves as the marketing director for RF Digital, where real life magic happens. She earned her Master’s degree from the University of Denver and holds undergraduate degrees from The Pennsylvania State University, and has worked for everything from political campaigns to game design companies. She has published original research on online user behavior, and writes about marketing, technology, women in STEM, and diversity in media. Her background in the technology and defense industries makes her an insightful critic of gender representation in fiction, film, video games, and comics. Growing up looking white but with Cherokee heritage, she also advocates for representation of people of color and mixed-race characters. Jessica has presented at SXSW Interactive, Shenzhen Maker Faire, American Public Health Association’s national conference, and Pikes Peak Writers Conference. She is the author of the urban fantasy novel BORN TO BE MAGIC and currently is writing a YA novel based on Navajo mythology. Find her on Twitter at @coloradojess or on her website at

Book Review: The Shambling Guide to New York City

Cover of Shambling Guide to New York CityIn The Shambling Guide to New York City, Mur Lafferty upends urban fantasy by being completely matter of fact about it.  Her main character, Zoe, accepts a job at a publishing firm that makes books for monsters – the politically correct term is coterie.  Zoe has to fend of the advances of the office incubus, decide whether or not wearing perfume to a meeting with vampires would be a good move (it might make her smell less like lunch) or a bad move (it might offend their sensitive senses of smell).  She learns to take coterie taxi’s and pay for thing with Hell Notes and cope with the fact that there are human brains in the office fridge.  Above all, Zoe never stops using her publisher’s brain – even during her first, shocking exposure to the coterie world, part of her is wondering what might publish well with this demographic.

I loved this book right up until all the plot madness kicked in and frankly, I lost track of what was going on.  Eventually Zoe has to go out and fight evil, but I preferred just watching her buy coffee.  There was a golem made out of a plane, and lot’s of explosions, and you, know, action type stuff happened, but that was all pretty confusing.  The strongest stuff of this book is definitely its matter-of-fact, funny, and at times horrifying look at what it would be like to work in an office full of monsters.  For instance, here’s one of Zoe’s coworker’s to-do lists:

To Do:

Eat Brains

Meet With Zoe regarding writing assignments

Learn where Wesley lives

Follow Wesley

Report back to Phil, Montel, or Zoe

Be Discreet

Eat More Brains

And no matter what kind of horrible carnage is happening, Zoe’s boss still expects her to keep to her deadlines.  Hence my new favorite office sign:



Come back tomorrow, and I’ll be happy to cope with anything.  For today, I have to do my job.

I thought this book was hilarious, but it was also not for the faint of heart.  Innocent people get eaten and coterie think very, very differently than humans, even those coterie that Zoe thinks of as friends.  There’s a scene of sexuality that involves what might best be described as attempted mental rape.  This book takes on a whole range of possible consequences of working with coterie, from the cute (the water sprite can flow under the office door and bother you even when you locked the door) to the horrific (when zombies run out of brains, bad things happen).

I loved this book even when it horrified me or grossed me out – I was rather impressed that the author kept the humor without shying away from the bad stuff.  I was less impressed by the chaotic ending – I still don’t know what happened, to be honest.  But I’m very much looking forward to the Shambling Guide to New Orleans.  Incidentally, humans who work with coterie can wear talismans of protection and guess what!  You can get your own!  Aren’t these pretty?  There goes my disposable income *sigh*:

photo of talismans


You can order these from surly-amics.  Practical and pretty – my favorite kind of thing!