In preparation for the November 2016 release of her upcoming film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (which is set in 1920s New York City and features MACUSA, the Magical Congress of the United States of America), J.K. Rowling has shifted her focus from Harry Potter’s Great Britain to North America. Last month on her Pottermore.com website she published the stage-setting History of Magic in North America to whet audience appetites.
A Terrible Misstep?
Many scholars, students, and fans of the well-researched, allusive, and clever writing that has made Rowling’s Harry Potter saga a veritable cultural literacy test were surprised and upset by History’s “Part 1: Fourteenth Century-Seventeenth Century.”
In this section, Rowling’s customary deft touch with world history and global cultures appears to be somewhat missing in her treatment of Native America. Katharine Trendacosta of i09 highlights the problematic portrayal of Native America in “J.K. Rowling’s History of Magic in North America Was a Travesty From Start to Finish.” Claire Fallon of The Huffington Post makes it her focus in “What J.K. Rowling’s New Story Can Teach Us About Cultural Appropriation.”
What We Can Learn from Rowling’s Portrayal
Why should readers care if Rowling’s take on Native America is shallow and uninformed, or if it promotes stereotypes and obscures real history? No one owns culture, after all, and bad art isn’t illegal (nor should it be).
The fact is that this controversy offers important teachable moments, both for Rowling and the public. The missteps Rowling makes—treating all the diverse Native American nations as one monolithic whole, for example, and assuming that mystical Noble Savages had much to learn from technologically sophisticated Europeans—are some of the same missteps that have led to disastrous, paternalistic governmental policies toward Native nations, both historically and today.
These mistakes are worth learning about—and learning from.
More Teachable Moments
Speaking of teachable moments, the current controversy surrounding History of Magic in North America overlooks some of the useful insights that Rowling’s original Harry Potter series offers regarding North America and the Native American nations—not by name, but by metaphor.
These invitations for further thought, discussion, and research weren’t necessarily planned by Rowling, but they’re present in the Harry Potter books nonetheless.
Here are a just a few examples of many.
Boarding Schools. Harry’s experiences with his aunt and uncle in Little Whinging (where he is punished for being who/what he is and forced to “pass” as something else) and at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (where he was truly at home and free to explore his history) represent the inverse of the experiences of American Indian students under the non-reservation Indian Boarding School and Indian Residential School programs that existed in both the United States and Canada for more than a century. These functioned on the directive “Kill the Indian, and save the man.”
Legal Status. Remus Lupin’s separate and tenuous legal standing as a werewolf, in which his actions are dictated by the Beast Division of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, reminds us of how the Bureau of Indian Affairs affects the lives of Native Americans in the United States.
Past Mistakes, Present Difficulties. Rowling’s magical world, like our own, possesses a complicated history, and unacknowledged and often-repeated mistakes continue to exacerbate difficulties in the present day.
The giants, for example, experience forced removal and resettlement at the hands of witches and wizards, and relations remain strained throughout the Harry Potter series. It doesn’t require a history professor to connect the dots to our very real past.
For that matter, the goblins’ anguish at seeing their own treasures in the (often unrightful and unlawful) possession of witches and wizards is reminiscent of the protests against the looting of cultural items that eventually led to the 1990 U.S. Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. From Rowling’s descriptions, it’s easy to understand why the goblins continue to view witches and wizards with distrust.
The Imaginative Leap
The Harry Potter novels are the shared text and vocabulary of millions across the globe. What better starting point for dialogue could there be?
In her 2008 Harvard commencement address, J.K. Rowling says,
Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places.
Fiction is one of the means by which we can take that imaginative leap, empathize with others, and consider how we would want to be treated in their stead.
This exercise of putting ourselves in others’ places is particularly crucial when our government exercises power and control over them.
It seems that when Rowling takes this imaginative leap herself, her work inspires readers to engage and educate themselves. And when it appears as though she hasn’t, her audience members hold her accountable.
But her few missteps may prove as instructive as her many successes.
Want more to explore? Check out the resources below.
Amy H. Sturgis, “Harry Potter in a Native American Context” in “Looking Back on Genre History,” StarShipSofa podcast (June-August 2014): Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
Amy H. Sturgis, “Seeking Dumbledore’s Mother: Harry Potter in the Native American Context” in Harry Potter for Nerds 2, Kathryn McDaniel and Travis Prinzi, eds., Unlocking Press, 2015.
Hollie Anderson, “Reading Harry Potter with Navajo Eyes” in Harry Potter’s World: Multidisciplinary Critical Perspectives. Elizabeth E. Heilman, ed. RoutledgeFalmer, 2002.