We Aren't Magic, We Are Real
J.K. Rowling's "Pottermore" website launched the first of four pieces regarding the "History of Magic in North America" today. While I have the feeling that they were generally received well by most Harry Potter fans, there was definite and immediate backlash among many Native Americans.
Here's an example from Buzzfeed - J.K. Rowling Is Getting Major Backlash For Her Depiction Of Native Americans: The Harry Potter author, who just released a new story on Pottermore, is being accused of colonialism and cultural appropriation.
And Dr. Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations is always on top of these things and does a wonderful job of explaining her take on the situation here: Magic in North America Part 1: Ugh.
Of course, there is always a backlash to the backlash. If you read comments and replies on the critical articles and tweets, there are plenty of folks telling offended Native Americans some version or another of, "This is just for entertainment, it isn't real, get over it."
I can easily see why a lot of people don't understand why many Natives are SO upset about this. I totally agree that Rowling's foray into incorporating Native American lore into the Harry Potter universe is pretty brief so far. And Dr. Keene's analysis is clearly coming from a place where she is zeroing in on any and all forms of cultural appropriation and looking at them through an extremely critical academic lens. There probably isn't a lot there that looks very offensive to a non-Native and/or "untrained" eye. And sure, it could have been a LOT worse. But the subtlety of why this is problematic is, in my opinion, the biggest part of the problem.
Rowling's giant, global fanbase and huge reach in various forms of entertainment media means that she will have an enormous impact on how millions of people form their opinions of Native Americans. (Much like the misinformation that many coastal tribes in Washington State had to deal with because of the popularity of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series.) How she chooses to represent Native peoples will have a direct impact on Native peoples. For instance when she writes "the Native American community," she is essentially confirming many non-Natives worldview of Native Americans as one vast, homogenous group. It may seem like a small detail, but it overlooks the reality that North America housed hundreds (probably thousands) of distinct Indigenous cultures before European contact--as well as the current 560+ federally recognized tribes in the United States alone.
There are additional troubling aspects to what little of the North American Native magic has been revealed so far. It plays into the dominant culture's continued fetishization of Native peoples as exotic others, as mystical beings connected to the Earth. It furthers the myth that Indigenous people were given the gift of civilization by benign European explorers. And while these things aren't stated explicitly, that is the subtext underlying the language Rowling uses and the things she says and chooses to leave unsaid. See the problem here? It is both subtle AND substantial.
I have no doubt that Rowling didn't intend to offend. Why would she? What author, especially one who has previously defended inclusivity of race and sexual orientation in her work and how it is interpreted, would actively court this type of negative press? To what end? I'll wager that an attempt to avoid this kind of offense is what kept the information on Native magic in the Pottermore universe so brief and non-specific. But that is also the trouble with writing about real, oppressed cultures and trying to incorporate them into an imaginary world based around the culture of their opressors. You have to be extremely careful and respectful to pull it off successfully.
And what could she have done differently other than to avoid writing about Native magic entirely? What can she say now to redeem herself to those she has offended? I appreciate that she didn't just decide to invent a non-existent tribe in the vein of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan or Chakotay on Star Trek Voyager. And while I appreciate her (so far) light touch on details, there definitely could have been more research and more specifics used to successfully give a brief overview of this part of the Pottermore universe's history. Like, oh I don't know, an acknowledgement of a vast diversity of cultures that had lived on the continent for millennia and held their own types of magic, but that also tended to be very guarded and secretive about their own traditional knowledge? And then, without trying to mold any actual Native traditions to the world of Harry Potter, she could go into the Euro-American history of North American magic, because that's really what she will likely be writing about the most and what the majority of her fans are seeking.
Oh yeah, and Rowling didn't have any response to the backlash today. I'm hoping an apology will be forthcoming. I'd like to believe that she has gone silent while she figures out how best to address her critics and disappointed fans. Rowling controls the canon of Harry Potter and she can determine whether to continue down this damaging path or to apologize and find a way to do things better. Perhaps that can include doing away with the stereotypical view of an Indigenous man/warrior/wizard in a breechcloth standing on the edge of a cliff like the image above, which is currently the first thing you see when you go to the "History of Magic in North America" section of the Pottermore website.
Ultimately, I'm less angry about this than I am disappointed and tired. I'm tired of Native cultures and people being overlooked and/or attacked. I'm tired of the abundance of ignorance when it comes to Americans' knowledge of Native history. I'm tired of non-Natives projecting their spiritual/historical fantasies onto the millions of Native people who live in America, or onto my own tribe, or onto my own identity and body. But I'm also happy to see so many strong Native women in academia standing up and calling out J.K. Rowling on this. Whether I am seeing it happen in a formal blog post like Adrienne Keene (Cherokee), or via Twitter like Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo), or via Facebook and Twitter like Cutcha Risling-Baldy (Hupa/Yurok/Karuk), it is powerful to see them speak out.
Yootva to all of these amazing women! May their words and actions help others to understand that Native people aren't magic. We are real.