Dear JK Rowling, I’m concerned about the American Wizarding School.

In open letter by Adrienne K.49 Comments

hogwarts

Dear JK Rowling,

I am unabashedly a huge Harry Potter fan. I first encountered Harry when I was in Junior High, volunteering at the public library (nerd status, I know). The children’s librarian handed me book 1, and I was hooked. I even used to frequent Harry Potter message boards back in the day with my friend Kathleen (we were “Parvati” and “Lavender” cause we also shared an interest in divination, ha). Anyway, all this is to say, Harry holds a sacred spot in my heart. But I’m not one of those fans who can recite things verbatim, or remember every tiny detail, so if I’m missing something, I hope one of those fans will help me out.

I’ve been interestedly following the news that there is a new Harry Potter prequel-of-sorts in the works, for “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” following “magizoologist” Newt Scamander. I hadn’t been following it closely, but a few days ago, I saw your exchanges on Twitter about the name/location of the American Wizarding School–and I started to get a bit concerned. 

So, here are the things that make me a little uncomfortable. But first, I smiled when you referred to the name of the American school as “immigrant origin”–rather than saying something like “American” or “normal” or something else that normalizes settler language and naming on our lands–10 decolonizing points for Gryffindor! Bonus points for using the term “indigenous” and for realizing not only are there many, many tribes, but that they are tied to place and specific location. Much more effort than most folks, even here in the US.

But I’m nervous about “Indigenous magic” and specific tribes being associated with the wizarding school. Part of the pure joy of Hogwarts is that it is completely and totally imaginary. The wizarding world you created for us through Hogwarts is nothing short of incredible, and allows us as readers to be immersed in a world and history and peoples completely outside our own. Hogwarts has roots in the British schooling system, yes, but there aren’t any strong references to actual traditions from the lands Hogwarts occupies (like Druid or Celtic “magic”).

(ETA (6/9): I stand corrected. Apparently there are all kinds of references to Celtic/Druid/other local traditions–which actually lends credence to my points. As an American kid with no frame of reference, these traditions with actual histories, cultures, and backstories, became “completely imaginary.” Can you imagine if the reverse becomes true? If an international audience is exposed to Native traditions without any basis for understanding, and therefore absorbs them into a fantasy wizarding world? Especially since our struggles and oppression is not something of the past…)

The problem, Jo (can I call you Jo? I hope so), is that we as Indigenous peoples are constantly situated as fantasy creatures. Think about Peter Pan, where Neverland has mermaids, pirates…and Indians. Or on Halloween, children dress up as monsters, zombies, princesses, disney characters…and Indians. Beyond the positioning as “not real,” there is also a pervasive and problematic narrative wherein Native peoples are always “mystical” and “magical” and “spiritual”–able to talk to animals, conjure spirits, perform magic, heal with “medicine” and destroy with “curses.” Think about Grandmother Willow in Pocahontas, or Tonto talking to his bird and horse in The Lone Ranger, or the wolfpack in Twilight…or any other number of examples.

But we’re not magical creatures, we’re contemporary peoples who are still here, and still practice our spiritual traditions, traditions that are not akin to a completely imaginary wizarding world (as badass as that wizarding world is). In a fact I quote often on this blog, it wasn’t until 1978 that we as Native peoples were even legally allowed to practice our religious beliefs or possess sacred objects like eagle feathers. Up until that point, there was a coordinated effort through assimilation policies, missionary systems, and cultural genocide 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.

So I get worried thinking about the message it sends to have “indigenous magic” suddenly be associated with the Harry Potter brand and world. Because the other piece I deal with on this blog is the constant commodification of our spiritual practices too. There is an entire industry of plastic shamans selling ceremonies, or places like Urban Outfitters selling “smudge kits” and fake eagle feathers. As someone who owns a genuine time-turner, I know that marketing around Harry Potter is a billion dollar enterprise, and so I get nervous thinking about the marketing piece. American fans are going to be super stoked at the existence of a wizarding school on this side of the pond, and I’m sure will want to snatch up anything related to it–which I really hope doesn’t include Native-inspired anything.

I know at this point my concerns are complete speculation drawn off a few tweets, and so I hope these are things you’ve thought through as well. We just have so few representations of Native peoples or cultures in popular culture, and the representations that we do have are largely negative or stereotypical. We will be undoing the damage of the Twilight wolfpack and Tonto for years to come, and those audiences pale in comparison to the international appeal of Harry Potter. So Jo, I just hope you can remember that Indigenous peoples are real, and the choices you make around the American Wizarding School, as ridiculous as it seems, will have real implications and impact on our continued struggles for recognition, decolonization, sovereignty, and justice.

Wado (thank you),

Adrienne

 

(Thanks Debbie for first bringing this to my attention!)

  • RiverSong

    “Hogwarts has roots in the British schooling system, yes, but there
    aren’t any strong references to actual traditions from the lands
    Hogwarts occupies (like Druid or Celtic “magic”).”

    I have to say that I disagree with that point. Hogwarts is not, in that sense, “completely imaginary”. In fact, it has deep, deep roots in British culture in that it uses British mythology as a basis for its “real magical beings”. Kelpies, Grindylohs, Boggarts (!), Banshees, Leprechauns, Werewolves – these are all based on British traditions. As are the four houses of Hogwarts and the house point system. As is the Ministry. As is Hogwarts with its roots in the British boarding school novel, which you correctly identified. As for tradtitions in the more cultural sense: there is the Yule Feast, Halloween (based originally on the Celtic Samhainn).
    The Wizarding World has never been purely imaginary either, there’s always been close connections to real-world equivalents. Quidditch could be seen as European football, while the more brutal Quodpot (more popular in the usa than Quidditch!) could stand in for American football.
    As I am not a native person, I wouldn’t want to say anything about your concerns, it’s just this particular point that I feel I must argue against. 😉 Of course, you might not see these references as strong as I consider them and might have already taken them into account, but I thought I’d point them out.

    • Adrienne_K

      No, I appreciate that–and why I put in the disclaimer that I hoped someone would call me out if I missed things. haha. I think the big difference (I might edit to add this), is that there’s not a systematic and ongoing oppression of Druid and Celtic peoples in Britain (though maybe there are folks that would argue with me?). Native peoples are under a current and ongoing system of colonialism, which makes the effects of representations and misuse of our cultural traditions even more acute. But I guess for American kids (like me) with no knowledge of British cultures or traditions–then they become “completely imaginary,” which I guess is my point? For folks who have no understanding of Native cultures, it might be the same thing.

      Thanks for the info!

      • Charlie Hohn

        I think there was very severe and real oppression (and for that matter genocide) of Celtic and Druid affiliated people, but very long ago. Not the same at all as ongoing oppression, but I would argue it’s in the same vein and even by the same belief/cultural system. I agree it’s really different here when it relates to Native Americans for a lot of reasons. Like you said I just hope it ends up being thoughtful and respectful.

        • Kele Lampe

          Pagan reconstructionists in Celtic and Druidic traditions (among others) do face marginalization/oppression currently, although it tends to be individual rather than systematic.

          • Corbin Moon

            My Celtic animist religion is not thought of as a real thing, but as an element of fantasy fiction. Harry Potter includes some examples of that. If I wear the traditional regalia of my people, folks will assume I’m going to a costume party, not expressing cultural identity. I think that is systemic?

            But I think the level of harm is pretty different.

            • Kele Lampe

              I guess by “not systemic” I meant more like “not a stance that’s culturally sanctioned” the way genocide of Indigenous Peoples and the Highland clearances were. My experience is it’s more out of ignorance, excepting where it comes from Fundamentalist religious sects. It’s true, though, that it’s common. I’ve come under fire myself recently for asking people treat Pagan religions with the same respect as they would other minority religions, because of the prevailing idea that Pagan religions are “imaginary.” And let’s not forget the college lad who was murdered by a Christian neighbor last year for practicing witchcraft.

              • Corbin Moon

                Mmm. I guess I’d say it’s very deeply systemic. The case in point being how the very words ‘pagan’ and ‘heathen’ have negative connotations to the point that ‘connotation’ is an understatement. Such that the name Latin-speaking colonists gave the traditional religions of Celtic and Norse peoples was later applied to Native American peoples as an insult and a way to affirm their ‘savagery’ and justify said genocide.

                Certainly it’s far from respected as a ‘genuine’ religion, and does not inform public policy in the slightest, outside of Iceland.

                And racists have appropriated a bunch of it. Displaying some of the symbology will cause folks to think you’re a neo-nazi, and I have been accused of trying to say that white supremacy qualifies as a religion when telling folks that the traditions predate the concept of ‘whiteness’ and perhaps the very idea of ‘race,’ are not racist as practiced by the people who are not white supremacists stealing and resignifying the tradition, should not be condemned as a racist practice.

                Really, it’s sort of disturbing to me to think that there’s a bunch of people out there reading Harry Potter and thinking that stuff is ‘wholly imaginary. “We’re contemporary peoples who are still here, and still practice our
                spiritual traditions, traditions that are not akin to a completely
                imaginary wizarding world…” Indeed. I don’t find it offensive that JK Rowling played around with these things, turning elements of traditional beliefs into imaginary creatures that are, in her imaginary world, the basis for real beliefs common to both worlds. But it does totally creep me out to learn that Adrienne (and presumably many others) do not get the references. I now have a strong desire to sit Adrienne down and start telling her about grims, barghests and Padfoot.

                • Kele Lampe

                  It occurs to me that no one needs to make policy of erasing us because we already have been.

      • David Grant

        Oh, there is indeed, and there has been. Many of the Celtic peoples were murdered, and both Scottish and Irish people were forcibly removed from their lands, imprisoned, murdered, starved, forced onto non-arable land, and put on ships and sold into slavery or indentured servitude and sent to the Colonies (where, of course, they were part of the machine that oppressed indigenous peoples of those lands). The Celtic languages were outlawed as was the wearing of traditional clothing or regalia, customs, songs…sound familiar at all?

        • Chris

          I would say that the Scots and Irish are similarly exoticised, thought not in the same way and perhaps not to the same widespread degree.

      • cathteg

        I hope you don’t mind another person jumping in here–I just want to clarify one small thing, though am totally on board with your concerns. There absolutely is/has been a systemic and ongoing oppression of Celtic people in the UK, particularly speakers of Celtic languages. (Look at the Daily Mail comments on literally any article involving the Welsh language and get a truly appalling taste.)

        England conquered Wales in 1282, and began a campaign of colonialism that has been going pretty much nonstop ever since. In Chester there’s still technically a law on the books (or so I understand; it’s possibly apocryphal at this point – but that it was there for centuries still makes a point) that you can shoot Welshmen from the city walls. In York the law was (is?) that should an Englishman encounter a Scotsman on the city walls, he was legally obliged to throw said Scot off. For a long time, Welsh people weren’t allowed to live within their own cities, or have jobs that could be given to English people, or own land, or serve in political capacity…you get the idea.

        In 1847, around the time the British were doing the same horrible things in India, a report was commissioned on the state of education in Wales, and the English, Anglican commissioners concluded that the Welsh (mostly Welsh-speaking Noncomformists) were lazy, immoral savages who needed to be civilised properly, and that the sure way to accomplish this would be to keep them from speaking their own language. (Look up ‘Treachery of the Blue Books’ on Wikipedia if you want to know more about it.) This probably sounds familiar to you! From that point, speaking Welsh was highly discouraged and at various points illegal. Even in the mid-20th century schoolchildren were punished with what’s called the ‘Welsh Not’: if they were caught speaking Welsh at school (including before, after, and during recess) they had to wear a wooden sign around their neck that said WN. It was passed to the next person caught speaking Welsh, and so on, until at the end of the day whatever kid was wearing it got a beating. And this is even into our own grandparents’ time! A large nationalist movement managed to get some status for the language in the late 20th century, though it’s only been since 1993 that it’s had any legal standing so we can have bills and bank statements in Welsh. Even that is under constant attack, because ‘oh, bilingualism costs so much money.’ To this day we don’t have the power to run our own affairs, because even devolved government still means asking Westminster for permission to do anything.

        Finally, there is the ‘Otherness’ of all of it which you mentioned. I honestly don’t know enough to say whether there is ‘as much’ or ‘more’ or one or the other, but there is defintiely a significant market for ‘Celtic’ New Agey druid/shamanism – look up Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism if you have the spare time and inclination, which takes a lot of things that probably never existed in the first place but which Victorian-era antiquarians decided were ‘Celtic’ things (you know the whole ‘noble savage’ thing they were so keen on). Not that there is anything wrong, I think, with finding spirituality wherever it speaks to you, but an authentic Celtic tradition it definitely isn’t. (You also might find this situation familiar: a lot of Celtic peoples tend to use this whole image to sell stuff, because if you’re going to be steroetyped anyway you might as well get some tourist money off it. I mean, King Arthur was from Wales, before England coopted him.)

        Anyway, apologies for going on a bit –as I said, I’m totally on board with your concerns and hope they’re addressed! This is by no means meant to diminish them, just to bring attention to how we can all understand each other better. I don’t think the situations are anywhere near as different as you might think, but have found that such was the PR power of the British Empire that Americans frequently don’t have any idea just how much the Welsh, Scots and Irish were not actually part of the British power structure. There are still some signficant differences, of course, but there is absolutely still a system of colonialism going on in modern Wales that is the legacy of an 800-year-old conquest.

        Cofion cynnes, a diolch yn fawr am ddarllen! (Warm regards, and thank you very much for reading.)

  • David Grant

    Well said, Adrienne.
    I truly hope that J. K. Rowling will have already taken many of these points under consideration, or if not, that she receives your message. She often seems to be a thoughtful and compassionate person. However, her mention of “indigenous magic” gives me doubts. Very few people in the UK know very much about the indigenous peoples their ancestors colonised and murdered, and often (as many British people have yet to shake-off their false sense of superiority that Empire provided them for so long) see other cultures as “exotic”, fetishising traditions and ways of living, making them ripe for appropriation. I can’t tell you how many “Indian Warbonnets” I’ve seen at music festivals and dance parties.

    Again, I truly hope she does not make a misstep on this – she has certainly made mistakes in the recent past that have alienated a large section of her fan base (who are responsible for lifting her out of her poverty into lofty heights of wealth). The problem with people like her is that once they have wealth, they tend to forget their own humble beginnings and side with the colonisers. For example, she sided with the political party here that is bent on dismantling the very social safety net that allowed her to write her best-selling novels in the first place. So, I won’t be surprised if she gets this wrong but I’m hoping she doesn’t.

    • Chelsie Bowman

      David, I’m curious what mistakes has JKR made in the recent past that have offended a large portion of her fan base?

      Adrienne, have you considered sharing this blog post with JKR via twitter? She seems to pay a good amount of attention to fans when they ask questions or have legitimate concerns to raise on that platform.

      • heleninedinburgh

        I haven’t noticed any JKR fans getting offended except Conservatives who think ‘children’s writers’ should keep out of politics and doctrinaire Scottish nationalists who think if anyone’s anti-Scottish separatism they’re right-wing. JKR is Labour, not Conservative. At the last election Labour ‘was bent on’ stopping some of the massively cruel things which the Tories have done since the last election, ostensibly to save money, in reality to punish poor, unemployed and disabled people for not being rich and powerful. Google ‘bedroom tax’ some time. (And don’t give me that line about the Scottish Nationalists being better socialists by the way. They’re in government in Scotland. They could have done something to mitigate the effects of these cuts straight away. It took a huge campaign by the trade unions and, er, *the Labour Party* to shame them into doing it.)

        JKR has certainly not forgotten her humble beginnings – she speaks out whenever the Tories start blaming single mothers and people in poverty for the crash.

        Just thought I’d correct some factual inaccuracies which detract from the valid points made in his first paragraph.

        • Dawn Mckenna

          Labour had no interest in stopping the tories, they were peddling the same agenda, just not quite as nasty. They brought in the flawed WCA after all. If Labour had really come out swinging for the tories and their hatred of the average person, they might have won by a landslide.

    • Eddie Flett

      yawn..nice of you to bring JK’s politics into it, and by doing so invalidate your own argument and diminish the original point.

    • Dawn Mckenna

      David,

      If someone in is the UK, then their ancestors probably didn’t invade North America. Unless they’re descended from White immigrants who moved to the UK from North America. While you can certainly say that England as a whole played a role in colonising the world, individuals people ancestors? Not so much, especially for those of us who are actually descended from nations England conquered.

  • debreese

    Hi Adrienne,

    I noted Native imagery in DEATHLY HALLOWS. I’m traveling quite a lot right now and can’t dig in to this news story, but I do wonder if what I saw in DEATHLY HALLOWS was a cue to this? I have to think this through, but if you’ve got time right now, here’s that post from 2007: http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2007/07/native-imagery-in-harry-potter-and.html

  • Goldfish

    It sounds like you’re saying only “white people” can do magic. But magic appears in all cultures. I just hope that Rowling addresses it in an appropriate fashion. For what it’s worth, Chinese “wizards” can fly without brooms and such. 😉

  • tutoredwhisper

    This is a bit dramatic, isn’t it?

  • MistyH

    Have you read “Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality?”
    If not, you may enjoy it because it touches on many of the same points as your article.

  • irritated

    You should remove the point you were trying to make about Halloween… People also dress up as astronauts, fire fighters, police officers, nurses, doctors, cowboys, white trash, thugs, gangsters, etc. all not magical or mystical. Also, pirates were and are real, not in the least bit mystical. So the Peter Pan point, you only have fairies and mermaids going for you. Remove the point you tried to make with pirates as an example.
    Also, I feel like this whole article is completely dramatic and a ploy to try and get jkr to notice you.

    • Dane La Born

      Peter Pan painted us red, we could barely speak English or any language, kept holding our bloody hands up and saying “How” and again, were bright fucking red.

      tell me again how Peter Pan doesn’t count?

      ffs her name was Tiger Lily. *liz lemon eye roll*

      • Corbin Moon

        I know it doesn’t really help, but I never saw the cartoon movie and for years thought that the Indians in ‘Peter Pan’ were supposed to be little kids, like the rest of the ‘Lost Boys’ who were playing at being Indians and were ignorant as heck, because they were British and seven years old. I was horrified to learn that this isn’t the case.

    • Corbin Moon

      Erm, when I dress up as an 18th century pirate, it doesn’t inform people’s opinions about modern pirates, nor reflect my own, and 18th century pirates do not have websites asking me not to do it and telling me that it harms them.

      Indians-as-Halloween-costumes do. And you probably know a hell of a lot better than to dress up as a Zulu, because it will offend people. It is not actually hard to extend the idea that wearing blackface is distasteful and rude.

    • Ana Merrick

      The point. You missed it.

      Methinks because you wanted to.

  • Glen Schade

    A lot of children dress up as cowboys for halloween as well. Are they imaginary? Perhaps American children are poorly enough educated to not know/understand about the indigenous peoples of American, but in Europe, thankfully, nobody has the impression that they are imaginary. J.K. Rowlings books reference magic from all over the world, through commonly known real world mythology. How about the Weaslys going to Egypt on holiday, looking at cursed pyramids and such? Strong reference to real world culture and superstition. I think the way Rowling does this tends to normally be way more respectful than how Hollywood normally approaches these things. I think any potential references to indigenous Americans in her stories will most likely be of a positive nature.
    And let us not lose track of the fact that it’s fiction. Most people don’t take it very seriously.

    • Brad Erickson

      Cowboys are a poor comparison. They were not subject to genocidal campaigns, are not racialized others, they are not living as a society of people dispossessed of their lands, shamed for their poverty yet criticized when they attempt to make money by opening casinos, etc. Cowboy spirituality is not commodified and cashed-in on by non-cowboys while real cowboys live in poverty. Imaginary characters have real world consequences for real people and that is what the author is rightly concerned about. She’s raised it in a respectful, dialogue-seeking way that more of us could embrace to our benefit.

      • Glen Schade

        My point by mentioning cowoys was not to compare their treatment to that of the indigenous American peoples, but simply to point out that just because children dress up as something for a fancy dress occasion, does not mean that they think of those things as fictional. Dressing up as a “red faced indian” isn’t the same as saying you think that any of the indigenous Americans are simply fictional like fairies or dragons. Nor is it by definition insulting, although some people will choose to see insults wherever they can. As I said, I’m sure Rowling will treat the subject with due care and respect.

        • Dawn Mckenna

          Cowboys are a largely fictional idea though, the real west was nothing like that. Cowboy costumes are based on the Hollywood fiction.

          It’s completely different.

        • Ana Merrick

          “. Nor is it by definition insulting, although some people will choose to see insults wherever they can”

          YOU DO NOT GET TO DECIDE THAT. The people being portrayed get to decide that.

          Having lived in Europe for a long time, It is insulting, even when well intentioned.

          The European racism toward the First Nations of the Americas is of a different nature than that of Canadians, Americans, Mexicans, Central and South Americans…but it is still there.

          You are displaying it unintentionally.

    • Ana Merrick

      “but in Europe, thankfully, nobody has the impression that they are imaginary.”

      As someone who has lived in Europe and the USA, you are deluding yourself. The Europeans in general, and Germans in particular, are much, much worse with their reductionist portrayals of First Nations people.

      For all the racism that I encountered in the USA for being Indian, the racism from the Germans was the worst because they think they are above and beyond it and it’s only an American problem.
      Just because it is of a “positive nature” doesn’t mean it’s better.

      I was absolutely fetishized in German in very disturbing ways, even when people were trying to be positive. I heard the same from many friends and collagues.

      I think your POV is pretty skewed.

  • Chris Handforth

    Well written Adrienne! I would echo the posts suggesting that you tweet this to Jo, as I’m fairly certain she would read it.

    A question for you as someone who is non-Native but enjoys writing fantasy and tries to ensure that all types of people are represented. How do you think that First Nations can be represented in fantasy literature in a way that respects their traditions without minimizing them? I’ve always strove for accuracy to actual First Nations beliefs and traditions in my personal writings (none published, so I still have time to learn and improve), but this article has raise a good point as to how that could also cause a real tradition to be conflated as a fantastical one. In the case of Harry Potter, I would error on the side of depicting both Wizarding and Muggle as having similar customs to ensure that it was understood that the traditions and beliefs are what people actually believe. Does that seem like an appropriate approach?

    Sorry if that was rambling. This is the first one of your articles I’ve read, and it prompted some new thoughts for me.

  • derpletonsmith

    This seems like an overreaction, and a pre-emptive overreaction as well. Everybody is looking for some outrage to cash in on these days. Bonus Social Justice points to the person who finds some first!

    • Dawn Mckenna

      Indigenous people have watched time and time again as their worst fears come true, they are more than entitled to be worried about this and it’s not an over reaction at all.

  • Dane La Born

    But… and you said Wado, so I assume you, like me, are Cherokee…. There was a mysticism to many of our practices, and it’s something that, if used right, could very easily become part of American Wizarding lore.

    think of all the legends we have about Skinwalkers, men and women who could change their form to that of animals. That would be the perfect setup for explaining how the first Animagus came into being; something the wizarding world learned from Native wizards. And that’s another thing. I’d love to see the world of Native magic be completely separate from anything we know as “the Wizarding World”, sort of in the same way that our religions, languages, and customs were completely separate from the Colonists.

    Your essay, while very well-written, doesn’t take into account our own mythologies and traditions, that do have an air of mysticism in the same way the celt’s and the druid’s traditions did. Our ties to nature, and to the Great Spirit, are well documented. And as you pointed out, Jo has already proven to have done more research and shown more respect to our people than citizens of our own country. That’s definitely something. I have faith in my Queen.

    • Chris Handforth

      Dane, I’m going to ask you the same question I’ve asked below, since Adrienne brought up a good point about appropriation that I hadn’t thought of, which has gotten me reexamining how I depict people of cultures that are not my own. I also know from my experiences teaching both in Kainai Nation school and in the Middle East that one will stick their foot in eventually and the only way to get around it is to ask advice, so I’m asking around. How would you represent First Nations in fantasy literature, especially the type like Harry Potter, that use the real world as a background? I’m not Native, but I always try to shoot for diversity when I’m writing, even if I’m just writing for myself, and especially if I’m setting something in Canada (hence why I say First Nations). What works for you in terms of finding the balance of representing the First Nations within a diverse cast without appropriating at the same time, especially in a fantasy context?

      Anyhow, I’m with you in trusting that Jo will do a good job. She definitely does research, and does it well.

      • Dane La Born

        Sorry, I just saw this

        Just write a normal thing. Like, represent them by REPRESENTING them. If your characters come from different tribes, learn the traditions of those tribes and apply them accordingly. But other than the specific ways tribAL traditions apply to individuals, native people aren’t any different from anyone else. We want and hope for the same things and everyone does. Don’t write characters specific to their race or ethnic background, just write a character. If they happen to be native, make that a part of who they are, but not so all encompassing that it makes other people incapable of relating

        • Chris Handforth

          No worries Dane, that happens, thank you for taking the time to reply. That’s pretty much the aim that I’ve tried to take in the past, so thanks for helping to reaffirm my direction :)

    • http://www.valeriekaelin.net Valérie Kaelin

      Bonjour, Aaneen,

      Animal and human transformation form an important part of French lore too, reaching back to the Old Religion. I am as distressed as anyone to have Disney trivialize the beauty and spiritual meaning of *La Belle et la Bête* (*Beauty and the Beast*), for instance, just one of many French Celtic tales. Remember that prior to the extended Romanization of Europe, but after the Hallstatt civilization (before 500 bce) from which it evolved, Celtic culture in its apogee (about 270 bce) extended from the Middle East and Central Europe to Portugal, as well as the northern shores of Scotland. We can even see its influence on the surrealism of André Breton, as the guise of a tradition that continues to evolve.

      Studying Ojibwe was deeply unsettling in the sense that I could recognize themes that arose from my own ancestral village in Southwestern France: disruption of pre-Industrial life, state dismissal of the older language of our region, herbalism as medicine, living symbiotically among animals…

      Further, state treatment of children or of the poor could be exceedingly cruel among Europeans themselves, especially in Britain, though this is not as well known unless we treat the world of Dickens as “imaginary.” I would recommend the documentaries: *The Horrific World of the Workhouse* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=53XuU2HP_N8 or *The Unknown History of England’s Domestic Servants* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4uc3fNCyxg4 to corroborate the point I make here: that the systemic cruelty evident in Canada’s residential schools, for instance is one facet of a terrifying and cannibalizing culture.

      Back to the period of my study, one, day-long conference featured speakers, most who were genuinely knowledgeable, while one irritated me somewhat. As a PhD, she had made no effort to study her language of origin and of her ostensible area of research. Further, she wore for daytime a black lace evening dress giving the impression of a 16th century European noblewoman as she lectured on the appropriation of Indigenous North American regalia, seemingly without irony. One might argue that it is important to investigate primary sources from as many vantage points as possible before too readily drawing well-meaning conclusions.

      If necessary to bring JKR into it, one has only to read *A Casual Vacancy,* or to examine her education and career profile, especially her extensive writer’s preparatory techniques to grasp that the lady is far from shallow. And she gives back.

      The magical and disconcerting effect of spending some time with Ojibway language class was for the government’s “cloak of invisibility” to fall away: I came to more deeply decipher the phonemes of all the place names where I had lived, even as their surrounding parallel societies became increasingly transparent, in all their syncretic complexities. The adventure intensified my own experience as a member of a multi-ethnic birth family.

      Thank you to all the thoughtful contributors to this forum.
      Merci beaucoup. Chi-miigwetch.

  • Jonathan Burns

    This sort of reminds me of the Sheikhs who got offended by Rowling’s novel the Casual Vacancy, without reading it first.
    They simply took certain passages out of context and got offended.

    • Dane La Born

      I didn’t take any of this as ‘dammed if she does’. As a Cherokee myself, I also get sick of the Native Mystic that Hollywood likes to portray. The author did seem to jump to conclusions that has already been disproven just by the nature of who JK is, but she has also been willing to listen to a dozen people tell her the why and how instead of just plugging her ears and going LALALALA

      • Jonathan Burns

        The British were concerned initially about Hollywood adapting the Potter books, because it often has a bad reputation in the UK.

  • President of Magic

    One of the things I think is important about understanding JK’s world is that the Muggle/Wizarding world are always treated as two halves. There would theoretically be Muggle Native Americans and Wizard Native Americans.

    Consider simply the Wizarding side of Indigenous America. Immigrating wizards probably encountered a population of Native Americans that already had their own system of magic, customs and traditions. It’s likely that these wizards, probably surprised to find other Magickind, were more inclined to partner with local tribes than their Muggle counterparts and establish a school to serve Wizarding America. This is what I believe she’s referring to. I think her acknowledgement of the Native American influence on the Wizarding School is more to emphasize that they played a role in its creation, rather than trying to reinterpret the traditions of indigenous Muggle tribes as fictional wizardry. JK typically builds around the culture instead of redefining it.

    She’d do well to underscore that there is a difference between Muggle/Wizarding American Indians. However, she seems to be culturally aware enough not to declare that all Native tribes were Wizards that used eagle feather wand cores or something equally stereotypical.

    • Adrienne_K

      This makes a lot of sense, actually. Thank you!

  • Divya Kohli

    I think the question has to be whether you prefer appropriation or erasure. If JKR uses indigenous culture as an element of her world building, some appropriation is probably unavoidable. Hopefully she will do it in as respectful a manner as possible but there’s basically no way to NOT do it without committing the contrasting sin of erasure.

    It would be just as easy to posit that wizardry is a European thing brought over on the ships and didn’t exist in North America before. But isn’t that MORE insulting?

  • easynow

    At what point does appropriation become transmogrification? And at what point in the process does the transformation stop being offensive?

    In other words, how far removed does a reference have to be from its donor culture before it becomes inoffensive?
    Does it have to bear absolutely no trace of that reference before it can become its own entity?

    At what point can a person simply be trusted to discern the difference between a tasteless appropriation and the real deal? If a Headdress has pencils instead of feathers? If a ‘dreamcatcher’ is made out of lego?

    Do you see the point i’m heading for?
    You’re trying to halt a transmogrification that has already long been made, when really you should be simply asserting that the vandalisms committed upon the glyphs of that culture are so brutal as to be indelible, and as such, have become entirely distinct from that culture. Do you think everyone to be stupid enough not to tell the difference?

    You made it absolutely crystal clear how little you had thought about this, when you decided to address Harry Potter, of all things, as ‘completely imaginary’. You then corrected yourself, and claim that it actually illustrates your point, when in fact it does the opposite!

    Harry Potter didn’t wipe out the Welsh or the Scots or the Irish. You’d struggle to find someone of either ‘tribe’ that takes any real offence to the series. Harry Potter simply made something new from all kinds of different cherrypicked pieces of different cultures. So does most fantasy. So does most fiction! In fact, many of those things (no matter how significant and spiritually important in the past) would be completely unknown, dead, if it weren’t for romanticism like this. Native American culture faces the same journey.

    Offer the alternative to the representation you take issue with, offer it loudly and sincerely, and the distinction between it and the monstrous popular icon will be acknowledged (if it isn’t already). Keep it alive. Continue being you, and don’t attack others for being them and creating their own world. You have every right to be offended, but the right to offend is much, much more important for a healthy, varied, progressive society.

  • David Webb

    Tremendous letter, Adrienne.

    For those concerned that her concerns are dramatic or don’t take into consideration the plight of others, I fear you’re missing an important point. While many of us are in fact genetically connected to celtic races, spiritually connected to our euro-indigenous roots, and face hegemonic oppression from a dominant culture we do so without the ability to live within our cultural framework and we have the ability to disappear within the dominant culture. None of us will ever be at home in the dominant, oppressive culture, but we do not have to wake up every day and face the full on assault of racism indigenous people face here in America and in other places.

    When “trivial” matters such as language, sport’s teams mascots, place names, and language arise I don’t hear anyone saying: “You know, this is a big deal we face this kind of subtle, crippling racism every day as conquered, oppressed people.” I hear:”Those are petty problems.” I don’t hear people saying: “As a person of celtic ancestry I know what it means to have my culture and ancestors exterminated, and live in the wake of oppression created by the dominant culture, therefore I want to stand in solidarity with others facing a similar reality.” Instead I hear: “I’m just as oppressed as you! Don’t tell me I’m not. ”

    The issues raised in this letter are so vastly important because it involves us all and gives us the chance to ask the questions which we need to ask to live.”What does it mean that we live in societies where indigenous cultures have been so significantly oppressed? What does it mean that many of us are living without our roots, without our community, without our elders, without our connection to the land, without our hearts? What does it mean when the dominant culture labels us “magical”? How can we begin to stand together and live in solidarity so that sovereignty can be honored and respected?

    We live in societies in which we are so far divorced from ourselves, the land, and our past that the stuff of life is so far removed from our experience we call it “magic.”

    The Harry Potter cycle brings the issue into full view. Like Vernon Dursley we want to sell drills and believe there is nothing irregular about life (Nothing that exists outside of the dominant culture.) We want to walk past grimmauld place, and diagon alley, and people who don’t look like us or act like us (like the dominant culture tells us). We want to believe science or religion or economics has already explained everything and we don’t need to ask questions. Or like a host of other characters we want to believe that blood purity and noble ancestry or fame or wealth or power, or immortality are what define life.

    Or we believe inviting others to be in community and have a voice means losing power. We believe there is a pie being split into ever smaller pieces of pie. We don’t believe love, justice, and community are the strongest forces in life. We operate out of fear and greed. We want house elves to stay in their place or we want muggles oppressed or werewolves or goblins or giants or centaurs or the imprisoned, or dragons or squibs or the diffegiantrently abled (Dumbledore’s sister, Ariana). We want to believe that equality is good for one group at the expense of another. When in fact none of us can be free when anyone is oppressed.

    This is what the Potterverse has invited us to confront. Rowling has demonstrated an openness and sensitivity to these conversations but at times has left us disappointed using stock characters to represent women and characters with Asian and Indian decents, perpetuated gender stereotypes. How many times does Hermione cry or become emotional? How many of the boys have the emotional capacity of a teaspoon? The questions Adrienne raises are vital. Rowling herself has said “hate speech must be challenged” and allies must be vocal.

    So I share your hope, Adrienne, that this is a significant moment when the questions will be asked and the conversation will be continued. I also share your reticence. There is so much money at stake and so many unwilling to listen. Above all I am grateful for your courage in asking the questions so many of us need to be asking and yet have forgotten how to ask them.

  • wendy

    Great article