J.K. Rowling’s New Story & Cultural Appropriation

Photo: David M. Benett/Getty Images.
On Tuesday morning, J.K. Rowling published the first in a series of short writings the Harry Potter author is rolling out this week called The History of Magic in North America. The four-part collection is intended to lay the groundwork for next fall's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a Rowling-penned Harry Potter prequel film set in 1920s New York City.

The first piece, "Fourteenth Century — Seventeenth Century," is a quick historical rundown of the wizarding world between the 1300s and 1600s. (You can read it on Rowling's fandom platform Pottermore.) At less than 500 words, the story is slight. And the content, while fascinating and enjoyable to any Harry Potter fan (including this one), is nothing particularly breathtaking or newsworthy. But what was intended to be a small treat for Potterheads has quickly become a Twitter-fueled shit storm of unhappy readers accusing Rowling of no small transgression — and something we consider to be one of the biggest pop culture no-nos: cultural appropriation. So let's talk about it.
The piece traces the magic community's connections between the Old World and New, as well as the witches and wizards who lived in America before Columbus ever set foot here. "The Native American magical community and those of Europe and Africa had known about each other long before the immigration of European No-Majs [muggles] in the seventeenth century," Rowling writes. "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."
This, friends, is where we start treading into tricky territory. The Harry Potter universe has always straddled the world we know and the one in Rowling's imagination. Since The Sorcerer's Stone, that's been a key aspect of the series' irresistible charm. Cracking open Harry Potter means living in a world where magic is real, however briefly. What kid didn't fall asleep crossing her fingers she'd wake up to her Hogwarts acceptance letter? And by setting the books in a world that looks just like our own, Rowling has made it delightfully easy for you, the rational reader, to seriously ponder the possibility that magic exists — just out of sight, in invisible Patronuses and ordinary-looking Portkeys — long after you close the book.
But it's that blending of reality and fantasy that is pissing people off about Rowling's latest. Native American readers and leaders are taking to Twitter to express their anger with Rowling for incorporating elements of their history and culture into a fictitious canon. This mashup of the real and the fictional has resulted in what people are calling problematic portrayals that misrepresent, disrespect, and perpetuate stereotypes about the traditions of Native Americans. And her dissenters are not mincing words. "Fuck you, @jk_rowling for appropriation/misrepresentation of Native peoples... You've added to too high pile of BS," wrote Native American scholar Debbie Reese. "It is clear that she is writing as an outsider who is using Native story/imagery for her own purposes," Reese said in another tweet. Dr. Adrienne Keene, the writer behind the website Native Appropriations, also took sharp aim. "You can't just claim and take a living tradition of a marginalized people. That's straight up colonialism/appropriation."
One passage in particular has inflamed critics. In it, Rowling writes about "skin walkers" — a very real piece of Native American culture that Rowling re-imagines as a cover story for wizards on the run.
"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."
A fan tweeted at Rowling asking for a clarification about the "skin walkers" she writes about. "Were the skin-walkers evil or not? Or were they simple animagus?" Rowling replied, explaining, "In my wizarding world, there were no skin-walkers. The legend was created by No-Majes to demonise wizards." That statement was, of course, immediately pounced on. "So much wrong with this tweet," wrote Reese. "No doubt you'll use the cloak of artistic license." Keene contended, "It's not 'your' world. It's our (real) Native world. And skin walker stories have context, roots, and reality."
And that, right there, is the issue, isn't it? Are we living in Rowling's world — where magic is real and all inspirations are fair game? Or are we occupying the real world, where there is a real heritage and history that merits respectful and accurate portrayals? And who gets to decide? Isn't Rowling the arbiter of her own universe? But then, aren't Native Americans entitled to ardently defend their culture and history, one that has been decimated in the real world and repeatedly mangled by pop culture?
I don't have the answer to these questions, and I won't pretend that I have the experience or knowledge to speak on the issue with any authority. What I can say for sure is that had I read this piece in a bubble, without knowing about the accusations of cultural appropriation beforehand, I probably wouldn't have thought twice about how the tale might affect Native Americans. Is that the problem in itself, though? I don't know.
What I can definitely speak to is the fact that Rowling usually comes down on the right side of these contentious public discussions, with a level head and focused conscience. She has stood up to hate-mongering Muggles on issues like gay marriage, racism, and xenophobia. In fact, virtually everything Rowling has ever said or written would suggest that she is a sensitive, intelligent, and open-minded person. I'm not sure how many critics believe that she intentionally meant to hurt anyone with her portrayal of Native Americans. As the debate continues to heat up — and the rest of her series gets published — Rowling will have to speak her piece. Let's hear what she has to say.

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