Remember back in June when it was announced that the new Harry Potter prequel-of-sorts had an American Wizarding school? Remember how I was concerned? If you don’t, here’s a link to that post. Basics of my argument were:
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 acknowledged in the post that it was pure speculation based off a few tweets, and then the name of the American wizarding school was announced as Ilvermorny, and I relaxed a little bit, because (from what I understand) it’s totally made up and not a direct reference to anything Indigenous. But then, today. Oh today. Entertainment Weekly posted a trailer for a new series of short stories written by JK Rowling, in conjunction with the release of Fantastical Beasts and Where to Find Them in November. It’s called “Magic in North America.” Immediate reaction when I saw the clip? Actual audible cussing in my office. Ready?
— Entertainment Weekly (@EW) March 7, 2016
The narration of the video is as follows:
“The wizarding world you thought you knew is much larger than you imagined. History has many secrets. The official story is never the full story. Look beyond the surface, and you will find another world parallel to our own. A secret world, where magic is real. Ilvermorny, skinwalkers, witch trials, and the magic congress of the United States of America. These aren’t myths. for the history of America is more amazing than you ever could imagine. Everything you know is about to change. Magic in North America. A series of original stories by writer JK rowling. Read them exclusively at Pottermore.com.”
It actually makes me kind of want to cry. Harry Potter was such a formative series for me, and holds such a deep place in my heart–and to see and hear this feels like such a slap in the face to me and other Native Potter nerds. It’s exactly what I worried would happen in my original letter to Jo.
Accompanying the narration are images of a Native man in a breech cloth who transforms into an Eagle:
And screaming girls being burned alive.
I don’t really know what to say beyond my original letter, but I’ll reiterate it again. Native spirituality and religions are not fantasy on the same level as wizards. These beliefs are alive, practiced, and protected. The fact that the trailer even mentions the Navajo concept of skinwalkers sends red flags all over the place, and that it’s mentioned next to the Salem witch trials? Disaster. Even the visual imagery of the only humans shown in the trailer being a Native man and burning girls places the two too close for comfort.
We fight so hard every single day as Native peoples to be seen as contemporary, real, full, and complete human beings and to push away from the stereotypes that restrict us in stock categories of mystical-connected-to-nature-shamans or violent-savage-warriors. Colonization erases our humanity, tells us that we are less than, that our beliefs and religions are “uncivilized”, that our existence is incongruent with modernity. This is not ancient history, this is not “the past.” The ongoing oppression of Native peoples is reinscribed everyday through texts and images like 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?
We are also fighting everyday for the protection of our sacred sites from being destroyed by mining, fracking, and other forms of “development.” These sites are sacred. Meaning they have deep roots in our spiritual beliefs, hold sacred power, and connect us to our ancestors. If Indigenous spirituality becomes conflated with fantasy “magic”–how can we expect lawmakers and the public to be allies in the protection of these spaces?
This isn’t a joke, this isn’t something that can be laughed off and just enjoyed at face value. As I often say, when you’re invisible, every representation matters. And the weight and impact of the Harry Potter brand can’t be ignored.
ETA: I want to address what I already see as the flipside of this argument: Would I rather see Indigenous peoples erased? Is there a way they can be represented in this that is not harmful?
I want Native peoples to be able to represent ourselves. I love the idea of Indigenous science fiction, of indigenous futurisms, of indigenous fanfiction, and indigenous characters in things comics and superhero storylines. I know it can be done, and it can be done right and done well. 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.
If there are any Native people that worked with Rowling on this, feel free to reach out. I’d truly be happy to be proven wrong.
UPDATE: I read the first installment. You can read my thoughts here: “Magic in North America Part 1: Ugh.”
Read the earlier post: Dear JK Rowling, I’m concerned about the American Wizarding School (June 2015)
The twitter convo is using the #MagicinNorthAmerica hashtag if you’d like to join
PS: Lots of comments and emails this time around reminding me that the other books have many highly problematic aspects as well. I know. To quote Anita Sarkeesian from Feminist Frequency, “remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects.” I can have love for Harry Potter and simultaneously be critical of the colonial values the original series puts forth in its portrayals of other ethnic groups, as well as this recent development. Don’t worry.