We examine and discuss how J.K. Rowling’s fictional history of Native American wizardry affects the lives of real Native peoples today.
Cultural stereotypes aren’t the most uncommon thing in the original Harry Potter series, from the redheaded Weasleys’ abundance of children and impoverished state, to the films’ depiction of Beauxbatons’ French students as oversexualized teen girls, and Durmstrang’s Russian boys are presented as barbaric and sinister, with a fascination with Dark magic. Considering Irish, French, and Russian stereotypes, none of these depictions are particularly positive, and deserve to be analyzed in their own right.
So why is this different from Rowling’s Pottermore writing on Native American wizarding culture? That’s an easy question to answer—because stereotypes of white people don’t actually hurt white people. We have never been oppressed or marginalized because of our whiteness; our stereotypes boil down to a predilection for Ugg boots and a complete misunderstanding of why there isn’t White History Month.
But here’s why what Rowling did here is so wrong—because Native people say it is. Rowling has taken their stories and made them her own, and in doing so has both negatively impacted representation of their cultures—which, despite the indication that Native peoples can be piled together in one lump sum, is a widely diverse array of communities, traditions, and beliefs—as well as erasing the true origins of these stories. Harry Potter and all its constituents are Rowling’s stories, but the ones she uses to build this universe, in this case, aren’t.
Tumblr user prongsmydeer put it succinctly when she wrote the following post on the matter:
I think what JKR’s most recent content fails to take into account is that projecting a fictional narrative onto an actual history is how colonization works. The British reshaped India based on their notions of “Hinduism” and caste and truth. They took land away based on their idea that it had been abused by the native population. Many of these actions were painted as altruism, a sense of kinship with “British subjects.” And creating a narrative that not only takes traditions and beliefs out of their original context but also ignores the fact that indigenous people in North America are still combating post-colonial structures only further contributes to that cultural genocide from which all other North Americans benefit.
As stated above, Rowling rewrote Native stories to suit her fictional world, and in doing so disrespects and further marginalizes real people in a real world. While she meant her depiction of Native American wizards to be positive, her “twist” on their culture negates that intent, as explained by numerous Native fans who took to Twitter after the new writing was dropped on Pottermore.
One of these fans is Dr. Adrienne Keene, who took to her blog to point out the major issues unveiled with the expansion of the Potterverse. In regards to Rowling’s rewritten legend of the skin-walker, Keene explains that “the belief of these things (beings?) has a deep and powerful place in Navajo understandings of the world. It is connected to many other concepts and many other ceremonial understandings and lifeways. It is not just a scary story, or something to tell kids to get them to behave…. What happens when Rowling pulls this in, is we as Native people are now opened up to a barrage of questions about these beliefs and traditions […]—but these are not things that need or should be discussed by outsiders. At all. I’m sorry if that seems ‘unfair,’ but that’s how our cultures survive.”
Had I not read Dr. Keene’s post on the matter, I wouldn’t have known how deeply personal this issue delves. As someone who isn’t particularly religious or interested in others’ personal relationships with their respective beliefs, it’s just not something that would have crossed my mind unless it was presented as it is above. But this is why listening and learning are so essential—because ultimately what Rowling has done here is take something deep, meaningful, and personal, and turned it into an all-encompassing, mass-produced misrepresentation of Native peoples’ belief systems.
Not only have Rowling’s writings presented a completely distorted history of Native communities and cultures, but Dr. Keene goes on to describe how fan response to her (and other people who have spoken out about the problematic nature of these writings) has been hateful and mocking. This is a direct result of Rowling’s writings here, and quite frankly it’s fundamentally wrong to tell someone that their personal, real-life experience is irrelevant next to the shiny appeal of new Potterverse information.
“Harry Potter is fictional,” people have (and will continue to) insisted, and that’s true enough. But the history that Rowling has rewritten to suit that fictional world isn’t—that history is real and valid and important, and not to be used as a malleable narrative prop.
As a white person, I can’t sit here and say that what Rowling did was permissible; I can’t and won’t attempt to justify it, both because I don’t think it’s worthy of justification, and at the end of the day it has nothing to do with me, anyway, and everything to do with the Native peoples whom it affects. While I don’t think Rowling purposely set out to colonize Native American history, the point is that’s precisely what happened and it needs to be addressed by her. When any person sets out to explore a culture that isn’t their own, it’s that person’s responsibility to do the proper research, and that responsibility goes double for white people. We have a wide and vast history of colonization and cultural appropriation, which we still benefit from and are ignorant of (see: a few notable American sports teams/mascots, white people on Halloween, etc.) today.
For years, Harry Potter has been a safe haven—we have felt comfortable, validated, and at home in this universe. While the new writings aren’t the first problem to arise from the series, fans have acknowledged and discussed those problems, but new ones continue to crop up. Harry Potter should be a place where everyone feels accepted, but these new writings have misrepresented so many and made them hurt, angry, uncomfortable, and a number of feelings I can only begin to imagine from listening to their criticisms of what Rowling has written.
This comes down to a total misunderstanding of Native peoples’ beliefs, and in order to combat this misrepresentation, they are pressured into discussing the intricacies of these beliefs when—as Dr. Keene explained—they’re not meant to be discussed in such a way. For the fans who are personally unaffected and have taken to Twitter in attempts to invalidate the feelings of those who are, all I can say—in the words of Louis C.K.—is, “When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.”
Yes, Harry Potter is fictional, but it has affected all of us in so many real, life-affirming ways; however, despite what fans may wish to believe, those effects aren’t always positive. This is one of those occasions, and we would all do well to learn from this rather than unduly attack those who address the problems presented here. The Potter generation is reportedly a tolerant, open-minded one, and now’s the time to put up or shut up. Listen and learn.
For a more personal and comprehensive account of how Rowling’s writing negatively impacts Native people today, visit Dr. Adrienne Keene’s blog.
If I engaged in any problematic speech or other ignorance, please don’t hesitate to comment or tweet me @kattymaj, and I will work to be more conscientious in the future.