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Rowling’s History of Magic in North America Criticized for Cultural Appropriation

magic in north americaWhen 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.

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Bill Smith March 16, 2016 um 6:53 pm

I believe Jo is in a "damned if you, damned if you don’t" situation.

If you are going to discuss a magical tradition in a fictional North America, not discussing Native American beliefs is a glaring omission and opens her up to accusations of exclusion.

But by including Native American beliefs as a basis for some elements of her fictional world, she is now accused of cultural appropriation.

There was no way to avoid a controversy. In my opinion, Jo has always presented herself as a person of the utmost integrity and compassion and I eagerly await seeing her future stories.

Nate Hoffelder March 17, 2016 um 2:11 pm


I really don’t see a way for her to not be criticized, aside from not writing the works at all. And to give in like that is defeatist.

Ben Garner March 17, 2016 um 7:47 pm

What was she supposed to have done? Should she have begun magical history in North America with the arrival of European explorers? I’m sure that would have gone over well. The charge of "cultural appropriation" is being tossed around with no restraint and is going to have the opposite effect of that intended by the accusers. Rather than encouraging fair inclusion, it will marginalize and isolate various ideas and cultures into a literary ghetto as being 'too controversial' and something generally understood by all as not socially acceptable to be included in writing.

tarwin March 20, 2016 um 3:49 pm

Yeah. As has been pointed out the stuff in Harry Potter has its roots in British/European history and mythology. Also, Peter Pan had pirates and Indians, not because they were imaginary (neither of the two was) but because they were exciting and exotic.
I think the most important parts will be HOW she deals with all of it. If she portrays ALL natives as either shamans or wicked witches then there’s a real problem. If she portrays them as a real/normal society, with certain members of said society having use of magical powers (i.e. how the rest of the Potter world is portrayed) it should be fine if done properly. Plus, that trailer is made from the perspective of the "Magical Congress". Which could be a way of Rowling mocking the close-minded and prejudiced ways of a governing body in those times.
A good indication of this is the Salem witch trials, which are generally considered to be a horrible case of injustice which used fear and stereotypes for manipulating people, finding scapegots and whatnot else. I somehow doubt that the witch trials would be seen in a positive light by the magic community in the Potter-world. So while cultural appropriation might be a sensitive subject for Native Americans/Aboriginals/Indigenous tribes (whatever term you prefer) but generally it must be recognized this is fiction in a speculative world and the inclusion of the aforementioned culture will present a challenge as any inclusion is likely to offend someone to some degree (and as others pointed out, its exclusion would be equally, if not more, offensive).
I think Dr. Keene is taking it a little bit too personally. The reason I say the comparison she makes with that image on the cliff and Disney’s Pocahontas. Now yes, Pocahontas is in no way true to the original story and yes it does portray aboriginals (sorry, that’s the term I got used to using in Canada) in a stereotypical manner but basically ALL their animated films bastardize the original tale/culture and several non-animated ones. Chimney sweepers were presented as happy-go-lucky, nearly magical, people (actually there’s a superstition where running into a chimney-sweep is good luck) and does not really portray their poverty and health issues. The original ending to Andersen’s Little Mermaid is much more beautiful in my opinion and there must surely be real issues with the Lion King’s depiction of African culture (despite having it transposed to the animals). I’m not saying it is right, just that it’s not personal, Disney does it to basically everybody.
So I think it’s important to see how it’s carried out. If it is done well and not majorly offensive it can actually be a good thing. As Keene complains that it will make people, especially those outside of North America, think of aboriginals as "imaginary" because they know nothing of them, just as she had thought the same about the content in the Harry Potter books, well, there’s a flip side to it. It will expose a lot of people to elements (whether faithfully and respectfully based, or extremely loosely based) of that culture which can invite people to want to learn more about it. I personally learned more about Greek mythology after watching Hercules (the animated one), in part because I knew enough to know that there were things wrong with it and wanted to learn the origins for what they showed. After seeing creatures and elements from other cultures included in things I’ve read or seen I am often spurred to investigate a bit of how those elements really are. Anyways, excuse the ramblings. The point is it’s a touchy subject but it’s most likely too late to do anything about it so let’s wait and see what it’s actually like before jumping down Rowling’s throat.

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