Native Americans, J. K. Rowling, and the new American wizarding school

Apparently, there’s some unhappiness among Native Americans about the new information J. K. Rowling has been releasing about the American wizarding school, Ilvermorny. Here’s an article about it.

I hadn’t heard about this until today. On the on hand, it seems like nobody can do anything anymore without somebody getting their undies in a bunch. But as I read further into it, I see how they have a point: Native Americans aren’t magical fantasy creatures, and appropriating bits of their culture (such as the skinwalker, which Rowling gets completely wrong, or the names of the houses) does seem a bit tacky, especially given that the magic school wasn’t even founded by Native witches and wizards, by by a transplanted European.

It’s certainly not going to stop me from seeing (and in all likelihood enjoying) the movie, but I do wonder if Rowling is going to address it at all or just pretend it didn’t happen.


I understand that the descendants of Sir William Cubitt (designer and chief architect of Kings Cross Station) are furious that their noble ancestor’s work has been pictured as having a secret entrance into the Wizarding realm, and are considering getting a motion up in Parliament to denounce this heinous slur.

Or, maybe, like most people, they just don’t give a f*** about a work of fiction aimed at children.

Dear assorted media outlets: Twitter is not a valid cite, and a few random tweets are not necessarily a movement.

They aren’t part of a culture that was oppressed and marginalized by modern Western culture. They don’t have a huge, huge history of misrepresentation in media with tons of racist tropes like the Magical Indian or Pan-Indian society. And their ancestors are not being presented as evil people, unlike the medicine men in Rowling’s history.

I get so tired of this. A minority makes a statement about something that bothers them, and, rather than listening and trying to work things out, the majority just makes fun of them and belittles them for caring. All you are doing is widening the rift and making things worse.

I admit that Rowling is in a hard place. It seems like she’s kinda already incorporated this stuff. And, yet, she’s also the type that is trying not to offend. She’s really big on making everyone feel welcome.

Yes, she should have contacted them to see if there was a way to get things worked out. It’s just the thing to do now when you are dealing with any culture other than your own in a fictional work. But I don’t know if she can fix the problem now.

This isn’t Star Trek and the Rubber Tree people bad (where white aliens actually gave American Indians “gifts” 2001-style) but I can see how it steps on peoples toes, given the history of how these people have been treated. Unless you are actually making an anti-religious book, you probably shouldn’t turn all priests and rabbis and Imams into evil people.

The thing is, she’s already appropriated her own native culture of Britain and Europe for the original Harry Potter stories. I can see why she felt that it was okay to do more of that with other cultures. If I was going to write a fantasy movie set in ancient New Zealand, I would crib from all over the Pacific Island myths and twist them to fit my story, and wouldn’t think twice about it (apart from consulting some historians). It’s how fiction has always worked. In fact Disney is doing exactly that for their upcoming movie Moana.

Not that they don’t have a legitimate issue, but, as usual, context is being ignored for the sake of expressing outrage.

Someone cannot “appropriate their own culture”, it’s already theirs.

I meant English, Scottish, and Irish culture. The UK is a huge mix. Rowling is English, but she lives in Scotland, and there’s a bunch of ideas from throughout the UK and their huge history of other cultures (Roman, Viking, etc) that have passed through and influenced their mythology. She took ideas from everywhere.

This quote, right here, is the poster child for why Buzzfeed pisses me right the hell off.

A handful of random people comment on something and suddenly “EVERYONE is (hyperbolic adjective) about (random thing)”

Rowling used the culture of the British Isles. I couldn’t make it past the first HP book–but she’s probably aware of the different elements of her own culture. She’s been exposed to that history all her life.

When she decided go after the lucrative American market, she should have done more research. She seems to think there was one “Native American” culture instead of many.

Some critics cry “appropriation” when anyone else writes about their culture. Others object when it’s done badly.

So, I sometimes hang out at Tumblr. Other North Americans are critiquing Rowling’s new stuff…

Hey, she thinks Tom Waits is the best voice for a major character. I’m good with it. :slight_smile:

JK Rowlings knows a lot about British culture and history, but precious little about North America and it was perhaps a bit foolish to come out with what she did without a lot more research and consideration.

She wrote a fucking STORY, a FICTIONAL story. She has no obligation, nor any reason at all, to check with anybody about how offensive it is or not. If her publisher has qualms about negative publicity, let the publisher check things out and publish it or not based on what the research shows.

Native Americans are not fictional.

By sheer coincidence, I was at the peak of Mount Greylock yesterday. There’s a nice view of Adams, MA, and a lot of slightly lower mountains. The war monument at the peak is being renovated and is covered with scaffolding, so it loses all of its interest.

No wizards, though. I would have known. My car has detectors up the wazoo and they go off for invisible things all the time. Not here.

I did hear about this the day it broke–it was all over my Twitter feed. People in tears, people feeling that a “safe place” had been taken from them, people vowing never to read Harry Potter again.

Those people were overreacting.

But yes, Rowling failed in some basic due diligence in this matter (anything from getting a NA beta to look at the stuff, to spending an hour reading Wikipedia). I see it as the kind of innocent mistake everyone makes from time to time, because no one can foresee every shitstorm. I’m glad that it’s mostly blown over. She’s not one of the people who needs to be “gone after”.


But, I would suggest that in 2016 if you are creating a work of art that involves representation of traditionally marginalized or oppressed cultures, if you choose to not check in with those people about whether or not you’re reinforcing that marginalization; whether or not someone from that group will read your book and go, “ah, there’s another person reducing us to Western colonial cliches,” . . . well, I think that makes you either clueless or an asshole.

I’m not sure what your argument is Boyo Jim. That someone of Native American heritage shouldn’t be bothered about how they are represented in fiction? That that person shouldn’t express their frustration about it? That illustrators should keep drawing buck-toothed Chinamen in cartoons, because it’s FICTION after all?

When people say “she should have” they’re not saying that she was obligated by law. But that if she didn’t want to piss people off, she should have checked to make sure she wasn’t (I concede that often this becomes an impossible line to walk, as no group is monolithic).

I think there’s a discussion to be had about the degree to which Rowling’s representation is or is not problematic, but your statements seem to imply that under no circumstances should the opinions of Native Americans be considered in this instance. That would be true, perhaps, if Rowling didn’t care about looking ignorant about Native American stereotypes, in the grand tradition of Euro/American cultural superiority. My guess is, though, that she doesn’t want to look that way.

The ones in her story are. She is not writing history books.

There is no “those people”, there are millions of individuals each with their own opinion. Some will be offended no matter what you do, the only sane way to deal with it is to ignore it.

No, her stories are allegedly set in the ‘real world’, in the secretive wizarding world that lives along side ours. At no point does she indicate that this is a completely different world than ours.