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Do ethnic groups or religious believers own their myths and legends? That is the question raised by a controversy involving British author J.K. Rowling. The creator of Harry Potter and Hogwarts has been condemned for incorporating Native American traditions — for example, stories about supernatural “skinwalkers” — into her expanding literary mythology.

It is impossible not to sympathize with the complaint. Few groups have suffered more than Native Americans from having their traditions stereotyped or appropriated by white Americans and Europeans. Outright caricature, like the big-nosed, red-skinned Indians in old cartoons, is the least of it. From the American patriots who dressed up as “Indians” to vandalize British ships during the Boston Tea Party of 1773 to the New York political machine named “Tammany Hall” after Tamanend, a Lenape leader, to the modern Washington Redskins football team and the appropriation of Native Americans as New Age sages and environmental heroes, the casual and disrespectful borrowing of Native American motifs and imagery by white Americans has paralleled the white supremacist tradition of blackface minstrelsy. More… “Who Owns Myths and Legends?”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.
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The last passenger pigeon

In the last years of her life, Martha began to lose her feathers. Sol Stephan, General Manager of the Cincinnati Zoo, where Martha spent most of her years, began collecting the feathers in a cigar box without much idea of what he would do with them. Martha lived a sedentary life at the zoo. Her cage was 18 feet by 20 feet — she had never known what it was to fly free. When Martha’s last friend George (who was also named for a Washington) died in 1910, Martha became a celebrity. She watched the people passing by, alone in her enclosure, and they watched her. Martha ate her cooked liver and eggs, and her cracked corn, and sat. On the outside of her cage, Stephan placed a sign announcing Martha as the Last of the Passenger Pigeons. Visitors couldn’t believe that Martha really was the last. They would throw… More…

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The Victorians were apparently much plagued by fairies. Accounts suggest that these little creatures flitted around the margins of mid and late 19th century life, all skittish and shy and showing up when one least expected them. Painters such as Richard Dadd made a career of depicting these beings of “a middle nature between man and angels;” in 1894 William Butler Yeats famously implored, “Faeries, come take me out of this dull world.” They were most readily spotted in Europe, but were also intermittently active across the Atlantic, some possibly having arrived on these shores as stowaways with Irish immigrants.

Fairies persisted beyond Queen Victoria and even King Edward VII. The noted Cottingley fairies appeared in grainy black and white photographs shot in 1917, which depicted wee, winged fairies gamboling with two young sisters. These became even more famous after Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle lent his not-inconsiderable credibility… More…

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Since the age of the Druids, bees have been a symbol of wisdom. The Greeks and the Celts used the symbolism as well, as did cultures in India and Egypt, Sumerian mythology, and Christianity. Bees were the symbols of sun gods, earth goddesses, and the Virgin Mary. In the Jewish story, Deborah — whose name means “bee” — was a prophet who saved her city from invaders. In English, Welsh, Irish, Greek, and assorted other languages, the word “bee” is caught up by sound or by root with the word for “to live” or “alive.” Even Charles Darwin was scared of the knowledge to be found in the bee hive, afraid their cooperative, altruistic lives could disprove his theory of evolution, perched as it was on that vicious idea of survival of the fittest.

Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience by Stephen S…. More…

Uhhhh...aliens, you say?

It wasn’t until the end of our few days’ drive together through the extraterrestrial landscape of northern Colorado that this distant cousin of mine started talking about aliens. He was a bit older than my parents, and a Vietnam vet. Along the way he had shown me the remains of an old family farm, the high Rocky Mountain passes, and the endless shrub brush ranches on the other side. Then, back in the library of his home outside Denver, he showed me Zecharia Sitchin’s The 12th Planet.

That summer, waiting for college classes to start again, I read Sitchin for myself and almost converted. His beliefs could have consumed me entirely if the books weren’t dressed in such pulp sci-fi packaging. A few footnotes, a respectable cover, or a university press publishers, and I might have been done in for good.

The idea goes like this: If you read the… More…