When JK Rowling announced in June that the Fantastic Beasts spin-off movie would feature an American school of magic, some were concerned that Rowling would appropriate native American culture and religion.
“I’m nervous about ‘Indigenous magic’ and specific tribes being associated with the wizarding school,” Adrienne Keene wrote on her blog Native Appropriations last year.
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.”
Judging by the trailer Warner Brothers posted last week, her concerns may have been realized.
This 100 second long trailer was released to promote Fantastic Beasts, as well as History of Magic in North America, a series of short writings by Rowling which set the background for the upcoming movie, and as you can see it clearly borrows/appropriates from native American sources.
Keene has yet to comment on the texts Rowling released on Pottermore (they weren’t published until after Keene’s post), but she did have this to say about the video:
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.
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.
Keene fears that when these images are shown to an uninformed audience, they’ll only reinforce “the stereotypes that restrict us in stock categories of mystical-connected-to-nature-shamans or violent-savage-warriors”.
And she has a point, one which she proved last year when she wrote that “Part of the pure joy of Hogwarts is that it is completely and totally imaginary. … 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”).”
As a reader explained in the comment section of that post, that’s simply not true.
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.
Keene was unaware of the historical aspect of the creatures and cultures referenced in the Harry Potter books, and so she assumed that it was completely fictional. (To be fair, she called herself on this point in an update to her post.)
And that, folks, is exactly what she is afraid is going to happen with Fantastic Beasts, and History of Magic in NA.
And sadly, she’s probably right.