J.K. Rowling, with the release of the Ilvermorny School and Magic in North America stories on her website Pottermore, has joined the long list of people who portray indigenous cultures in a contextless and offensive manner, but she could become one of the most dangerous people on that list.
For those of you not familiar with the recent developments in the Wizarding World, Rowling has a new Harry Potter-universe movie set to be released in November, titled Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which follows famed magical-creatures-curator Newt Scamander as he travels to the United States.
Isolt Sayre and her husband, the white saviors of Ilvermorny.
To set the stage for this expansion of magic into North America, Rowling released a series of pieces that explain both the history of magic on the original lands of Native America, and how the American Wizarding School, named Ilvermorny, was founded. As you can imagine, this is incredibly colonial and, at times, frustrating.
Rowling has over seven million Twitter followers and millions of fans who would take anything she gives them as scripture. According to the 2014 US Census, there are only five million American Indians. This many people receiving and consuming these incredibly colonized, flattened, and whitewashed depictions of indigenous cultures can cause serious harm to how the modern Native American is viewed, or if the modern Native American is even acknowledged as existent.
Harry Potter has grown to be much more than a book series and movie franchise; it’s spawned fan-fiction, roleplaying forums, nerdy tattoos and baby names, cookbooks and literary theories and theme parks, blogs that are dedicated to dissecting each book word by word, each movie frame by frame, to milk out every bit of magic Rowling has soaked it in. Harry Potter has become more than just fiction. For many people it was and is a way of life.
Before the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie, the only Wizarding World we’ve been exposed to has been centered in England with Harry Potter and Hogwarts. There are allusions to other Wizarding schools, with students Bulgaria and France making an appearance in the fourth book, but no specifics of the Wizarding school in the United States have been previously made.
I suggest you go look at these pieces on the Pottermore website, and interpret them as you will. I’ve hashed out my feelings and opinions about these incredibly appropriative and offensive pieces in this blog post on Natives in America and in this interview with CBC Aboriginal.
I’m upset because J.K. Rowling seems to have done nothing more than read a few Wikipedia pages and Googled “Native American tribes in Massachusetts” as research for these stories. Not only that, she pays no homage to the true stories which the creatures she’s stolen have come from; in case you’re not familiar, Hogwarts and Ilvermorny both have a house system (which is a very British school structure) in which wizarding students are sorted into their first year.
J.K. Rowling, author of Harry Potter books - Photo: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP images
At Hogwarts, the Houses are Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin, all of which have animal mascots and certain traits associated with each house that its members identify with. Here are the Hogwarts mascots: Eagles, badgers, lions, and snakes. Pretty standard animals, and the traits seem to make sense (although I’m really not sure about Hufflepuff… But then again, no one is).
And here are the Ilvermorny houses: Thunderbirds, pukwudgies, Wampus cats, and horned serpents; unlike lions, eagles, snakes, and badgers, all originate from Native American mythologies. Please, if you come from the tribes whose stories contain these creatures, please tell me if these house traits make any sense at all. Or if this artwork is accurate. Or if how they’re portrayed in the Ilvermorny story is accurate. Because as far as I know, it really isn’t. At all.
The Harry Potter fandom can be a beautiful thing. Harry Potter is a timeless, wonderful universe that has brought so much joy and escape for young people, and has integrated more young readers into the literary universe than ever before. To see so many young people come together to discuss one thing, to create art and media inspired by that one thing, and to love one thing… It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful and wonderful and inspiring. But with the introduction of these creatures and indigenous peoples into the mix, it’s very possible that indigenous Harry Potter fans who once felt at home in these circles can become alienated and be forced out of them.
The farther the fandom takes this new Ilvermorny source material, the less connected with indigeneity these creatures and stories become and more with Harry Potter. The stories we have held onto for generations are stolen from us with a click of a button and a Tumblr aesthetic board. We still have them within our own tribes, but instead of us being able to share our cultures with mainstream world society in a respectful and contextual manner, we’ve had the chance stolen from us by a Scottish woman with a bloated platform and no resources besides Google and colonized assumptions.
People are asking why we’re so upset over “fiction,” but it’s important to remember that mythologies aren’t fiction. Mythologies are born from a collective, from years of tradition and a connection to the land on which they stand upon, and have survived for generations despite what obstacles lay in the way of them carrying on. Mythologies are sacred. Fiction is beautiful and wondrous and creative, but it can always be attributed to the individual and said individual receives glory for their work. It doesn’t seem right to me for an individual to be praised and to be recognized for using ancient mythologies to make a profit without giving them appropriate and accurate context, and without giving them the respect and recognition they deserve. It is especially disrespectful if, like Rowling, it is an individual who doesn’t hold the cultures of the mythologies within them, is using these mythologies to paint an outdated and inaccurate picture of an already marginalized group, and is using these mythologies to fatten their already morbidly obese cash cow. I believe that if Rowling had seriously consulted tribal communities about their stories, about how they would have wished to be represented, about their histories, and about the world in which they exist in, then she would have been able to create the American wizarding school respectfully. But she didn’t.
J.K. Rowling has refused to acknowledge that we still exist, and that we’re humans, and that we’re not plot devices or selling points for her to use lazily in her fiction. She has yet to acknowledge that several of us are outraged over her recent stories, and her silence is deafening. Her dismissal of our voices has led the way for her diehard fans to launch racist, sexist, violently worded attacks on indigenous critics via social media (myself included); I wonder if she’s seen the racist slurs, the sexual comments, the stereotypical jabs at us being stuck in the past, being too savage and simple, being too drunk or stupid or stuck on the reservation to acknowledge the “real world” and know “real history.” Part of me wonders if she would even care. Her silence hurts, and the harmful effects of this misrepresentation have already begun to spread and infect.
J.K. Rowling taught a generation to stand up against discrimination and injustice. She inspired us to speak up against prejudice, to fight for the greater good, to be brave and to listen to our hearts, and to spread love, not hate. But her silence is deafening, and it makes me wonder if she’s ever going to acknowledge the harm and the hate she has caused by the release of these stories.
Rowling has a responsibility as an author, an artist, and a creator with a massive fan base to uphold the integrity of her universe, and to respect the cultures from which she is borrowing from, especially if they are not her own. She has failed indigenous peoples, she has failed her fans, and she has failed the Harry Potter universe through her misrepresentation of Native American cultures. Because of her massive influence, we need to call on her acknowledge her mistakes.
We’re still here, and we are idle no more. We’re waiting, J.K. Rowling, but not quietly, not patiently. We won’t be silent. We won`t be content with the drivel you have dumped on us. As much as your fans can lecture us, harass us, insult us, and make fun of us for being too PC and childish and stupid for taking this to heart, we will always carry our right to be respected in our hearts.
It's not that radical to ask for respect. It`s not that radical to ask that you respond to us instead of ignoring us and dismissing our critiques as unimportant. As Sirius Black once said, “If you want to know what a man's like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”
Loralee Sepsey is Owens Valley Paiute from the Big Pine Paiute Reservation in California, and is currently studying English, Education, and Native American Studies at Stanford University. Follow her on Twitter at @LSepsey.