J.K. Rowling & the Imagining of Native People

For most summers in my life I’ve worked at my parents’ gift store on Martha’s Vineyard. The store is part of the only major tourist attraction in town, the famous colorful clay cliffs, where there are about a half dozen stores, all owned and operated by members of my tribe, the Aquinnah Wampanoag. I’m used to people asking if it’s hard to live off of hunting and gathering or why I don’t look more like an Indian, but every year I get some new ones. Last year, one woman asked me if we use cell phones. When I said yes, she asked, “but I mean, like, you know—iPhones?”

neiwupuifxn3mr_2_bFor whatever reason (probably a combination of revisionist history and oversimplified elementary school lessons), Americans seem particularly bad at interacting with and imagining Native people. So when J.K. Rowling wrote new stories about early North American magic as part of a promotional effort to bring her magical world across the Atlantic for the upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie, I was afraid of how she might handle Native magicians. Is Rowling just the latest white author to overwrite Native history (in fiction or not)? Native critics have slammed Rowling for using a real Navajo legend, failing to include any human Native magicians, implicitly validating colonialist perspectives, and for muddling various Native myths and legends. Outcry against cultural appropriation grows with each viral story, but in many ways “cultural appropriation” is not a useful critical judgment for works of imagination.

I think there’s an important distinction between criticizing how Rowling uses Native culture and that she uses it at all. Non-Native writers should be allowed to write about Native people and traditions. Suggesting that Native culture is secret and exceptionally sacred only reinforces the belief that Native people are an exotic relic from ancient times. I see the confusion on people’s faces when they find out I live in New York City and use Facebook just like they do. That doesn’t match up with how they imagine Native people. Native culture should be respected, but that means treating it like we treat other cultures, not a uniquely arcane way of life.

jk-rowling-800These new stories are posted on the Pottermore website, which acts as an online home for extra material for eager fans. Besides the tab boasting “Writing by JK Rowling,” the site also offers maps and profiles of important magical objects. The website also has a popular “sorting” feature, which allows users to get sorted into one of Hogwarts’ famous four houses. The stories themselves are designed to function in a similar way—brief sketches that expand Rowling’s magical world. “A History of Magic in North America” explains in several short paragraphs the differences between American magic and the British magic that readers of the books have come to know and love. Another popular piece tells the story how North America’s school of magic was founded by magicians fleeing Europe.

Some Native critics have been put off by the stories’ assertion that magic technology comes from Europe: “The magic wand originated in Europe. Wands channel magic so as to make its effects both more precise and more powerful, although it is generally held to be a mark of the very greatest witches and wizards that they have also been able to produce wandless magic of a very high quality.” Like many Native people, I’m sensitive to descriptions of Native culture and technology for two reasons. Most Americans still accept that early European settlers were light years ahead of the Native people they encountered and often struggle to believe that today Native people live just like they do. Any story, fictional or not, has a responsibility to take this reality into account. But early European settlers had technology that Native people did not. That’s a fact. And indignant Native activists insisting on stories that glorify Native culture above European culture will do little to change common perceptions; there is a distinction between narrating the outcome of a colonial encounter and validating it. Changing attitudes requires careful work that reflects the truly complicated colonial situation: there was no superior culture and art should mirror that reality. Even the most Euro-centric stories acknowledge that Native people were generally better at living in North America—better at hunting and farming and surviving winters. I think it’s fair to see Rowling’s use of wand technology as a reasonable allegory for the cultural and technological discrepancies between the two cultures. Maybe it takes too much effort to read into the true history of Native-European relations, but one of Rowling’s greatest strengths has always been letting readers learn about social problems as her characters do too.

The original Harry Potter books are as much the story about an oppressed group of people as they are about a boy with a scar on his forehead. Class, race, gender, and heritage are all to varying degrees the issues over which the battles are being fought in the books. For example, Rowling leans on Hermione’s moral compass to help readers determine right and wrong. House elf enslavement could easily be an aspect of the magical world that we as readers simply accept, except Rowling uses Hermione’s outsider status to gradually bring us on board. By the time we get to the end of the series, free house elves provide one of the most chest-thumping moments in the books when they storm out of the kitchen to fight alongside Harry and his friends in the final battle. Or consider how discrimination against magicians without magical blood is shown to be wrong in the most explicit terms possible—Rowling herself has admitted that she at least partly based Voldemort and his followers on Nazi Germany—but we still have to be told, just like Harry does when he first learns that he’s a wizard.

2016-03-10-51-Magical_Con.79ee9By comparison, these new stories lack the deep consideration of how the imagined and real worlds fit together when it comes to questions of racial justice and equality. This shortcoming raises concerns about how the upcoming movie and other additions to this world might handle social issues. Ultimately, Native critics of Rowling’s latest addition to her fictional world miss the real problem: setting her fictional social conflict in the midst of a very real historical social conflict between colonists and indigenous people. The original seven books benefit from their disconnected British boarding school setting, but these new stories cannot escape increasing scrutiny on the colonial period. Setting a fictional story in a period and place of extreme conflict comes with the responsibility of addressing that conflict.

Rowling didn’t misstep by incorporating Native culture and history into her fictional world, but she may have by not respecting it with the same space that she gave to other important issues she tackles in her books. For me, the most serious problem facing Native representation in culture is that most Americans still think we all live in teepees and smoke peace pipes, and I think by grounding these stories firmly in the colonial period, Rowling mostly avoids that problem. The real question might be how Rowling would address Native magicians in modern times. Since we know from the original books that magic makes electronics useless, at least we know they wouldn’t be using iPhones.

Joseph V Lee: iPhone user, seasoned giggler