J.K. Rowling's Latest Wizardry Prompts Criticism from Native Americans

By Chen, Cathaleen | The Christian Science Monitor, March 10, 2016 | Go to article overview

J.K. Rowling's Latest Wizardry Prompts Criticism from Native Americans


Chen, Cathaleen, The Christian Science Monitor


While Harry Potter fans worldwide have breathlessly awaited J.K. Rowling's latest installment that explores her universe of witches and wizards, the best-selling author has recently drawn ire for her portrayal of Native Americans in her "History of Magic in North America," published Tuesday on Pottermore.com.

In her story, Ms. Rowling applies her imaginary world of witches and wizards into Native American history. It's the first of a four- part series meant to "enlighten readers about a previously unexplored corner of the wizarding world," a Pottermore statement says, "and introduces audiences to a new era of the world that J.K. Rowling has created."

But there's a problem. Substantial elements of "the wizarding world" are, to many Native Americans, part of tribal reality - not fiction - and some scholars say Rowling failed to address the diverse cultures of native people in a fair and respectful way. Native Americans were and still remain, after all, marginalized in the fringes of American society.

Both on the page and off, Rowling has been an outspoken champion of human rights and social justice. She founded the nonprofit organization Lumos, which aims to improve the lives of children who live in institutions and orphanages around the world, and has passionately spoken out against LGBT discrimination.

But the author's latest retelling of North American history, critics say, is shortsighted and lacking in research.

Tara Houska, a tribal rights attorney, said she was excited when she'd heard that Rowling will incorporate Native American history into the Harry Potter world. But when she read the stories, she found them disappointing.

"It was this kind of a happy telling of colonization, the story of pilgrims, wizards being forced out of Europe and discovering the new world, with Native Americans in these primitive stereotypes," she tells The Christian Science Monitor.

And the fact that Rowling lumped the vast array of Native tribes into one category of people, Ms. Houska added, is problematic. There are currently 567 federally recognized Indian tribes, bands, and nations in the US.

Rowling, for instance, alludes to "legend of the Native American 'skin walker'" when, in fact, only the Navajo tribe recognizes this lore.

Critics also say that, in Rowling's conflation of diverse Native cultures, some of whom hold sorcery as a real and sensitive topic, it's obvious that she neglected to consult with any tribal experts.

"Ultimately I think she may have needed to vet this a little bit, by asking tribal people who are very willing to share what they feel is appropriate to share some of these ideas," says Walter Fleming, the head of the Native American Studies department at Montana State University.

"And I don't think it would have taken so long before someone would say, 'we have problems with this.'"

The biggest challenge, Mr. Fleming tells The Monitor, was for Rowling to have recognized that charms, potions, and spirituality are already deeply entrenched in Native cultures.

"It's very flattering that she would want to extend her world into [the Native American] world, but it's not a very good fit, because it's too good of a fit," he explains. …

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