J.K. Rowling is releasing a new set of Harry Potter stories that focus on magic in North America, but her portrayal of Native Americans is angering some who say she is perpetuating stereotypes and positioning fact as fiction. Before Rowling takes fans back to 1920s New York City in the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, she's filling them in on the history of magic beyond the walls of Hogwarts with the series, The History of Magic in North America. In a set of four original stories, which will be available on Pottermore later this week, Rowling will tackle topics that she hasn't discussed before, including the U.S. Hogwarts, the Salem witch trials, America's Ministry of Magic, and the Native American legend of the skin-walkers, who have the ability to turn into any animal they desire. But after a trailer for the stories was released via Entertainment Weekly, the latter topic is angering fans, including Dr. Adrienne Keene, the writer behind the website Native Appropriations, which acts as a forum to talk about representations of native people.
In an open letter to Rowling, which expands on a previous letter Keene wrote to the author in 2015, Keene writes that for too long Native Americans have been portrayed as magical, mystical, and spiritual people who are able to "talk to animals, conjure spirits, perform magic, heal with 'medicine' and destroy with 'curses.'”
"But we’re not magical creatures, we’re contemporary peoples who are still here, and still practice our spiritual traditions," Keene writes. "Traditions that are not akin to a completely imaginary wizarding world (as badass as that wizarding world is)."
Keene explains that until 1978, native peoples were not legally allowed to practice "our religious beliefs or possess sacred objects like eagle feathers." She asserts that this was a form of cultural genocide that worked to "stamp out these traditions, and with them, our existence as Indigenous peoples." We’ve fought and worked incredibly hard to maintain these practices and pass them on," Keene continues. "So I get worried thinking about the message it sends to have 'indigenous magic' suddenly be associated with the Harry Potter brand and world." Keene's main concern after watching this trailer? "How in the world could a young person watch this and not make a logical leap that Native peoples belong in the same fictional world as Harry Potter?" She would like to see more representation of Native American history and beliefs in pop culture, but wants "Native peoples to be able to represent ourselves." "I know it can be done, and it can be done right and done well," she writes. "But it has to be done carefully, with boundaries respected (ie not throwing around Skinwalkers casually in a trailer), and frankly, I want Native peoples to write it. We’ve been misrepresented by outsiders every which-way, and it’s time for us to reclaim our stories and images, and push them into the future, ourselves." In the original 2015 letter to Rowling, Keene makes it clear that she is "unabashedly a huge Harry Potter fan," but expresses concern over Rowling's use of "indigenous magic" in a way that makes it seem fake, when in fact, it's very real. After the release of the trailer Keene tweeted to fans to see whether any Native people have spoken with Rowling about these stories, writing, "I'm happy to be proven wrong."
Other fans have also started speaking out on Twitter, questioning the way Rowling is portraying Native American history.