J.K. Rowling recently released short essays on Pottermore outlining the history of wizards and witches in North America, entitled “History of Magic in North America”, as a promotion for the upcoming film series Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find. The History of Magic in North America series is as problematic as its title suggests.
Rowling groups the diverse nations and tribes of Turtle Island under the monolithic term “Native American”, equates Indigenous cultural practices and traditions to “magic”, and describes skinwalkers – a specifically Navajo belief – as being a Native American “legend” that grew out of the existence of Animagi. She has been called out for appropriating and misrepresenting living traditions, and for relying on offensive stereotypes about Indigenous peoples, but has yet to respond to the criticisms.
In Part 1 of “History of Magic in North America” Rowling 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.
Rowling also tweeted:
.@Weasley_dad In my wizarding world, there were no skin-walkers. The legend was created by No-Majes to demonise wizards.
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) March 8, 2016
Misrepresenting a Living Tradition
Adrienne Keene, the creator of the website Native Appropriations, where she discusses representations of Native peoples, called Rowling out on claiming and taking “a living tradition of a marginalized people.”
You can’t just claim and take a living tradition of a marginalized people. That’s straight up colonialism/appropriation @jk_rowling.
— Dr. Adrienne Keene (@NativeApprops) March 8, 2016
It’s Not “Just Fiction”
Responding to Rowling’s critics, some have argued that “it’s just fiction”. While it’s true that Rowling is writing fiction, it’s extremely important that identities and cultures of marginalized peoples be accurately and appropriately represented even in fictional worlds, as it impacts people’s lived realities and the perceptions audiences develop about cultures they may not be familiar with. Being an author with such a global audience, Rowling’s portrayals of the Navajo and Indigenous communities of Turtle Island is especially damaging.
— Dr. Adrienne Keene (@NativeApprops) March 10, 2016
Writing As Colonialism
Moreover, writing fiction about cultures different from yours comes with immense responsibility and must be navigated with humility, consent, honesty. It is also important to understand and respect that maybe you don’t have the permission to fictionalize traditions and stories sacred to communities of which you’re an outsider. Indigenous cultures and traditions – including oral traditions – are not there as a free-for-all, take-what-you-want and construe and misrepresent them how ever you desire. They belong to people. To take living traditions, oral stories and histories that are carefully passed down generations – stories and traditions that aren’t yours – and misuse them to your advantage, while overlooking the concerns of those to whom these traditions belong, is akin to stealing. It is colonialism.
In an op-ed for Ottawa Citizen, Aaron Paquette, a Metis author and artist, explains:
Rowling’s new foray is different than borrowing from old traditions no longer practised, or from cultures that are safe and thriving. She’s taking the property of a marginalized people for her own use simply because she can and wants to.
This is colonialism. Simply put, it’s cultural theft and these are not her stories to tell.
Rowling’s White Privilege
Writing from a white, European background, it appears Rowling can easily get away with appropriating, stealing, and misrepresenting Indigenous traditions, and making millions while doing so (implicating herself in the ongoing colonization of Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island).
It’s a very western entitlement to believe you have a right to access everything. Respect can easily be given w/out access. @emancipatedmimi
— Dr. Adrienne Keene (@NativeApprops) March 13, 2016
I’m broken hearted. Jk Rowling, my beliefs are not fantasy. If ever there was a need for diversity in YA lit it is bullish!t like this.
— Brian Young (@hungrynavajo) March 8, 2016
Rowling has yet to address the concerns directed toward her, and she’s had quite some time. In her post “Magic in North America Part 1: Ugh.”, Keene notes: “Rowling is known for responding directly to fan questions on twitter, and overall being accessible to her fan base. Despite thousands of tweets directed at her about these concerns, she has not addressed it at all. The silence is noted, and it’s deafening.”
And Rowling joins the long, not-so-proud tradition of white women ignoring criticism from Native scholars.
— Sarah Hamburg (@sarahrhamburg) March 8, 2016