Technologically inferior, but at one with nature – JK Rowling’s ‘History of Magic in North America’ amounts to little more than a Eurocentric collection of reductive stereotypes that betrays the depth and diversity of indigenous American cultures.
Appearing recently on Pottermore, the articles act as background for her latest venture, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them with an accompanying trailer that explains this is about Ilvermorny:
Another world running parallel to our own… skin-walkers, the witch trials and the Magical Congress of the United States of America, [these] aren’t myths, for the history of America is more amazing than you could ever imagine.
The articles, which are inexplicably divided into ‘Fourteenth Century to Seventeenth Century’ and ‘Seventeenth Century and Beyond’ have provoked a furious backlash on social media (much of which was focused around the Native Appropriations blog of Dr Adrienne Keene).
It’s not “your” world. It’s our (real) Native world. And skin walker stories have context, roots, and reality. https://t.co/mRZD0M1UCf
— Dr. Adrienne Keene (@NativeApprops) March 8, 2016
And I can see why. As a PhD researcher of pre-Hispanic Nahua (or Aztec) religion and ritual, I was tentatively intrigued by the articles, particularly by the title claiming to be a ‘History’. It turns out that I was right to be wary. I’m not sure what I expected to find, but I was exasperated and disappointed by Rowling’s cultural appropriation, the level of Eurocentrism and reductive language she uses.
First of all, Rowling’s constant references to ‘The Native American community’ are extremely troubling. They completely ignore the diversity of indigenous traditions, languages, music, art and writing which existed, and continue to exist, throughout North America.
The perspectives of the Canadian First Nations, for example, vary enormously from those of the Navajo, the Nahua or the Apache – to just name a few. Rowling’s neat labelling does a huge disservice to those fighting to have their existence as real and diverse people recognised.
My biggest eye rolls were reserved for Rowling’s abject stereotyping. Her observation that ‘the Native American wizarding community was particularly gifted in animal and plant magic’ perpetuates the tedious typecast of a “spiritual Native American” being “at one with nature”.
The hint at European technological superiority was also particularly worrying. Rowling claims the absence of a wand is ‘the most glaring difference between magic practised by Native Americans and the wizards of Europe’. Although, apparently, ‘Native American’ wizards were capable of complexity with their aforementioned innate natural power, Rowling explains they lacked the sophisticated ability permitted by the wand which ‘originated in Europe’.
Also, according to Rowling this was ‘a country with few amenities’. Such comments hark back to Todorov’s Conquest of America which maintains that the Aztecs were conquered because of their over-reliance on superstition and lack of technology. 1 This feeds into the arguments of early modern colonisers (who, incidentally, Rowling whitewashes as ‘explorers’), who argued that uncivilised ‘Native Americans’ needed saving from themselves.
Of the more egregious of Rowling’s missteps is her unfortunate cultural appropriation of the Navajo shape-shifting ‘skin-walker’ (or, in Navajo, yee naaldlooshii, ‘with it, he goes on all fours’). As a researcher of Nahua ritual I would never claim to understand the supernatural importance of the skin-walker to Navajo peoples, but would I venture that this complex figure represents far more than an ‘evil witch’.
But isn’t this meant to be fiction? The problem is that Rowling appropriates aspects of real cultures and religions which people still practise today and repackages them as myth and legend, then confusingly calls this whole thing a ‘History of Magic’.
Her cherry-picking of cultural aspects divorces them from their contexts and divests them completely of their meaning. Given her influential voice as one of the world’s most famous authors, Rowling threatens the ongoing, fragile process of protecting indigenous peoples’ rights. 2 Of course Rowling is free to write whatever she pleases, but I would have thought that as a person with a record of advocating the rights of ‘minorities’, she would have been less thoughtless. 3
Harriet Smart is a second-year PhD researcher of pre-colonial Nahua religion and ritual. She hasn’t read any of the Harry Potter books. You can find her on twitter at @harrietlcsmart. You might be interested to know that she is organising an international conference on indigenous languages and cultures in September 2017: http://www.indigenousculturesconference.wordpress.com.
Image: Navajo Girl [via Wikicommons].
- Tzvetan Todorov,Conquest of America: The Question of the Other (New York, 1982) ↩
- For example, ‘Native American Religions’ were technically outlawed in the United States of America until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. ↩
- Rowling has yet to respond to the social media reaction to her controversial pieces. However, it seems that the header image of the articles was changed from a ‘Native American’ person to an eagle sometime before 10 March 2016. http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/did-jk-rowling-change-images-on-her.html ↩