Magic & Marginalization: Et tu, JK? :(

Let’s establish something off the bat: I am a huge fan of Harry Potter.

  • I’ve written research papers;
  • I’ve written blog posts – heck the WordPress title of my blog is Walker Wrackspurt;
  • I collect books (paperback, hardcover, British/English versions, illustrated editions, digital books, audiobooks, coloring books) movie paraphernalia, costuming;
  • My daughter and I have spent the last year working our way through the series (we’re mid-way through Order of the Phoenix);
  • I spent way too much money at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Florida last year and REGRET NOTHING;
  • My friends and family know Harry Potter is a quirky but important part of my identity – many a HP-themed birthday party has been thrown in my honor;
  • I connect with people on the subject, even those who could care less or haven’t read the books/seen the movies, because it’s such an iconic pop culture topic.

Like most fans, I’m super-jazzed about the upcoming continuations on stage and in theaters.

But with this week’s release of History of Magic in North America, a collection of what will be four episodic essays as a lead-up to the Hollywood version of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I’m having a serious crisis of fandom specific to the (mis)representation of Native people in Rowling’s new writings.

Here are some of the problematic passages released March 8:

In the Native American community, some witches and wizards were accepted and even lauded within their tribes, gaining reputations for healing as medicine men, or outstanding hunters. However, others were stigmatised for their beliefs, often on the basis that they were possessed by malevolent spirits.

And:

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.

The Native American wizarding community was particularly gifted in animal and plant magic, its potions in particular being of a sophistication beyond much that was known in Europe. The most glaring difference between magic practised by Native Americans and the wizards of Europe was the absence of a wand.

OK so I pretty much copied and pasted the whole thing. It’s all problematic. Native women much smarter than me have already written the analytical whys and wherefores – please go read their criticism, as I totally agree with everything they say: Dr. Adrienne Keene on Native Appropriations and Dr. Debbie Reese on American Indians in Children’s Literature both give Rowling a piece of their amazing minds (my girl Johnnie Jae, founder of A Tribe Called Geek, has also been in the Twitter fray). And it being JK Rowling, you can imagine the kind of violent backlash these Indigenous women are receiving from fans who couldn’t care less about Natives or our issues (or our women, obviously).

For me the representation issue boils down to this: The mass media narrative around Natives is intensely problematic; if we’re mentioned at all, it’s within a stereotypical or fantastical sense, and very rarely goes beyond 1 or 2-D. Many consumers of this media have no idea we still exist as contemporary, multi-dimensional individuals, which makes these fantastical/fictional perpetrations very much a part of the problem in that NO ONE knows or cares to know any of the very real issues our communities face. Who cares about the epidemic levels of Native youth suicide when OMG JK ROWLING IS WRITING ABOUT MAGICAL INDIAN SKINWALKERS!!!

We’re marginalized in real life and we’re marginalized in media. To have a powerhouse like Rowling (though any non-Native author really) profit off our continued erasure and harmful representations is something I am totally not here for. The argument that it’s “fiction” is worthless to me. If we (as consumers) had diverse representation of Native people the same way white people do, Rowling’s latest wouldn’t be so problematic, because consumers would have other representations to base opinions off of. As it is, so much of the Native narrative is romanticized and fantastical and now one of the world’s most successful authors has thrown her mighty magical empire against our fragile reemergence from near-total cultural genocide.

And I write this knowing full well I’m also a fan of the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, which I’ve written about here. However, unlike Rowling, Meyer’s Native fantasies were expressed at the outset of the series, not as an afterthought (so I had a trigger warning of sorts: bullshit ahead! Not so with the Harry Potter universe).

Beyond this, I’m writing because as a fan, I’m so… hurt and disillusioned to discover a world I escape to so often and with people I love like my young daughter is now an unsafe space that takes the very real cultural histories, practices, and belief systems of a hyper-marginalized group of people and casts them into the realm of myth and fantasy. Ironic, isn’t it, that I’m disillusioned with a fictional world based on magic? As someone who carefully curates the pop culture I promote and allow my child to consume, I can’t in good faith continue to support one of my favorite storytellers. If I want to read a misrepresentation of Native people, I’ll just pick up the nearest K-12 history book.

While I (used to) look forward to reading the series with my daughter at night, I’m not eager to witness the disappointment I’m sure she’ll feel when I tell her the author of Harry Potter has decided Natives don’t deserve dignity or respect and that the values of Native people can be torn apart and packaged as a fictional commodity for profit. And you might think: Well, you can still read Harry Potter and be a fan of that series and boycott FBAWTFT. To that I say, no, I can’t separate the Rowling who wrote the problematic Native prose from the Rowling who wrote HP1-7. It’s like making room for The Wizard of Oz‘s L. Frank Baum, who wrote in support of Native genocide, supporting President Abraham Lincoln (and other ethically questionable leaders), or being OK with American history textbooks because everything except the little bits about Natives and other marginalized groups is accurate.

 

When heroes disappoint, the letdown is very real heartache. Yep. It’s just a book. Got that. But a large chunk of my life has been utterly devoted to the story and characters and I simply can’t help the betrayal I feel. Coming off of her awesome pro “Hermoine as a Black woman” storyline for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I was sure Rowling would embrace creativity and leave her white-washed, European-centric version of Native culture out of the canon. Or perhaps she’d develop a wizard character who just happened to be Native. 

As a lover of pop culture, I often have to check my Lakota feminist lenses at the door, or else spend the whole TV show or movie being angry and dissatisfied (I’m thinking of “The Revenant,” right now as a for instance). Sometimes I’m able to get past the ignorance and marginalization. But… Rowling could have done this so much better. SO MUCH BETTER. I’m not willing to give Rowling a pass here.

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26 thoughts on “Magic & Marginalization: Et tu, JK? :(

  1. I just heard today about this new book. I’m not a huge JKR/Harry Potter fan, although my son did love HP when he was little and I saw (and enjoyed) the first movies. I posted in a Facebook discussion on it that it just seems to me like nothing more than another Anglo attempt to “multiculturalize” a dominant culture phenomenon, in this case British magic/wizardry. These attempts at multiculturalization by a dominant (white) society are always about benefiting the dominant society (by disguising their commitments to white supremacy) than they are about benefiting communities of color with their projects to assimilate those communities into the mainstream. People of color are expected to be grateful for their assimilation. This is true but especially problematic for indigenous communities who would rather maintain a “degree of measured separatism” (in the words of Robert A. Williams) in the interest of political and cultural sovereignty. To say nothing of the problems of JKR’s painting Native Americans as one monolithic community, and appropriating the Navajo concept of skinwalkers.

    Anyway, I think that you shouldn’t have to check your Lakota feminist lens at the door as a lover of pop culture. On the contrary, you should be casting that lens unapologetically every chance you get, just as you have done with your JKR FBAWTFT analysis. As indigenous women we can be lovers of pop culture and still not tolerate its racist bullshit. My own personal project is to unerase indigeneity in everything I do as a Native woman (surfer) living in a lily white Orange County beach community.

  2. Thank you! Also, there’s no ONE tribal understanding of skinwalkers. Each tribe has their own stories and mythos. For example, for us, especially Dakota, I immediately think of “Soul of the Indian,” by Charles Eastman. First man had several wives who were various creatures that became human, beget children, then went back to their former selves. Just an example of what can be found in our tribal literature.

    1. Oh totally. I remember, like, every adult and older cousin scaring the shit out of me with shapeshifter stories. “Don’t look back at dead animals on the road – might be a spirit following you if you do” or “Don’t pick up hitchhikers at night because that’s how spirits follow you.” We never said “skinwalker” but the shape-changing similarities are there.

      There’s just so much wrong…

      1. Yeah, you’re right. Not that term. One of the Lakota elders teaching Lakota have my kids still scared of the Tall Man. I can’t hardly get them to take the garbage out after dark. lol

  3. First off, the Potterphilia is strong with you. Your adorable cosplaying daughter ftw. I’ve only read the first two books and saw the first two movies. To me, this seems similar to how Star Trek writers have treated Natives. Instead of researching, writing for and casting a Native character, producers instead hired a “Native consultant” (look up Jamake Highwater, who was actually…*dramatic pause*…Armenian). Full disclosure: I’m African-American not Native American, but to me this is still upsetting. Worse, I don’t see JK being motivated to change it.

  4. First of all, your “Solemnly Swear” shirt is AWESOME.
    I realize that as a white woman I’m very unqualified to talk about this. I recognize how problematic what JKR wrote is, but I’m trying to understand the specifics a little better? Thanks for bearing with me.

    1. If JKR had started her history of magic in North America with white colonists, that would have been bad, too, right? (Honestly not attacking, I’m just trying to understand better the concept of erasure as applied to this)

    2. Can you provide an example of a better way to handle this? Would writing magic as generally being present in Native cultures been ok? Rather than appropriating “skinwalker” and being generally derogative toward the Native spiritual cultures?

    3. Is one problem the generalization of “Native Americans” in her writing?

    4. I guess my overarching question is this: since a large part of the HP1-7 magical world is taking historical/contemporary culture and giving twists to it (“look, these events were caused by magic!”) what would have been a better way to do that without cheapening Native culture?

    1. These are great questions, Becky, and I appreciate the respectful way in which you ask them. Here’s the thing: If she’s going to talk about Native Americans, Rowling really needed to take a step back and realized she’s got a GREAT OPPORTUNITY to really do some good work here. A Native wizard (as an actual developed character, mind you, not an afterthought) would have been fab! But the magic the Native wizard has should NEVER be explained through culture and spirituality (or because of the culture and spirituality). I mean… Rowling has never talked about where magic comes from – she’s never taken another character and been like, “Jesus Christ was a wizard.” She’d be (excuse me) crucified for that, right? So why does she feel the need to explain Native wizards within the context of our STILL PRACTICED FOR REAL traditions? Our medicine people are NOT fake or phony – in fact, half the prescription medications used worldwide come from plants Indigenous people have been using successfully for THOUSANDS of years. To equate our knowledge and skills and practices to magic is devaluing us COMPLETELY. The message is we are not real, but fiction. And this is the message we get all the time. ALL.THE.TIME. You, Native people, are for white entertainment only. Hopefully this provides a better foundation for which to answer your questions:

      1. Yes. It would have been bad to start the history of America with the colonists. Just like it’s bad to start America with Columbus (mostly mythical accounts are taught in schools, actually – there’s some magic for ya). You can’t give a history of anything in “America” (Ugh – America is only it’s most recent name, btw – Natives called it MANY things pre-white people) without mentioning Native people. I’d have written an angry blog on that, too.

      2. I’m actually re-writing that first piece we’re all upset with – a Native-friendly version, if you will. Hang tight for another blog 🙂 Yes, there is a way! In short, however, she could have done better by actually consulting with some actual Natives. We’re on Google.

      3. Totally. Go read Adrienne Keene’s blog, Native Appropriations. Link is in this blog. She talks specifically about how dangerous the pan-Indian sentiment Rowling projects is.

      4. See intro and stay tuned for the longer version. For now, here’s a quick one: Native American cultures do not equal magic. One is not dependent on the other. There was magic on the continent for sure, but it wasn’t anything to do with practices and beliefs we were already doing. A vision quest is NOT magical. Our medicine people were NOT magical. Spirituality isn’t magical. Those all provide a great road map for Rowling to really be the creative genius we all know and love – I mean, it’s like she tried her very LEAST for these little vignettes and couldn’t give a shit now that they totally alienate a large swath of readers. That, to me, rankles the most: Natives are so far off her radar she just couldn’t care less except to promote and sell her product.

      1. Thank you so much for your patient reply!! I’m excited to see your rewrite. I think I understand much better now. And let me express my sorrow for JKR’s participation in marginalizing your culture.

  5. I am the whitest possible person, but I still support you. Even my translucent pasty self thought “But there’s LOTS of different Native tribes! You can’t just roll them all up into one blob!”

    I’m sad your fun fandom is now so tainted because JKR couldn’t even be bothered to Google, FFS.

  6. I’m as white as they come, so I can’t really speak with much authority regarding the representation of Native Americans — although I do recognize that many of the tribes are vastly different from each other, so why on earth would anyone lump them all together?

    But there are other issues with JKR’s posts too, and a couple other commenters have pointed out — it’s like JKR couldn’t be bothered to Google, which is kinda bothersome, given her seemingly extensive research in books 1-7. Any simple Google search, Wikipedia search, or grade school level book in the public library will tell you that the so-called “witches” of Salem were never burned. They were hanged. And that’s something history books AGREE on!

    I’ve been offended by JKR’s knowledge (or lack thereof) and assumptions about Americans ever since she wrote about them in Goblet of Fire. This just reiterates it. I expected better from her.

  7. Yes, what JKR is doing is wrong.

    That said, can we please stop framing this discussion as (to paraphrase) “things were just fine when she was writing about witches, but now she’s writing about *real* cultures, practices, and beliefs…”? Rowling appropriated, fictionalized, and, in some cases, outright mocked a number of elements from European spiritual practices and beliefs. To their practitioners, they are no less real than your own sacred beliefs.

    1. Imma help you out since it sounds like you’re *trying* the whole ally thing. “Yes, what JKR is doing is wrong.” That’s it. That’s all you needed to say with this discussion and be on your way.

      Instead, you invoke the spirits of colonizers past and COMPLETELY recenter this on you and whiteness. Ya’ll had like 15 years, seven books and eight movies to air your grievances and now that she’s jumped the pond and we Indigenous folks have the mic you wanna snatch it out of our hands?!?! No, this is NOT about you or whatever beliefs you’re referencing from Europe. Your people did not/ARE not suffer(ing) systemic oppression and genocide on Turtle Island soil. Your people’s issues like suicide and health care and education don’t get cast aside because no one sees past racial stereotypes against you. The police don’t arrest or kill you at the highest rates of any racial demographic.

      Guess what Rowling didn’t write about in her piece, what none of her fans care to know: ALL of the above happens to Natives. No Death Eaters necessary – just 500+ years of good ol’ racism.

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