Magical Maladies and Injuries: Cultural Appropriation in J. K. Rowling’s Ilvermorny

Although the final book in the Harry Potter saga, The Deathly Hallows, was published almost a decade ago, J. K. Rowling has been quietly building the Harry Potter universe through Pottermore and other creative projects like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and a stage production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The world of Harry Potter has made steps towards diversification with the announcement of Albus Dumbledore’s homosexuality and Rowling’s public support of a black Hermione Granger, but the latest installment, Ilvermorny—the North American magical institution modeled after Hogwarts—has gained notoriety not for expanding witchcraft and wizardry across the pond, but for its problematic appropriation of Native American culture.

Rowling’s world has long been premised upon European folklore and mythology, from the bad luck of the black dog to Oedipus’s riddling sphinx. The creatures and legends that infuse Hogwarts with its magical charm are informed by a diverse corpus of texts and transcripts that are nonetheless situated primarily within a Western context, disregarding yokai like the Japanese kappa. Yet Rowling’s transition to an American context is riddled with a poor conception of history and an even poorer grasp on the politics of cultural appropriation. Rowling’s latest story connects the North American institution of Ilvermorny with the historical magical families we’ve come to know—Salazar Slytherin, one of the founders of Hogwarts, the Gaunts, connected to both Slytherin and Tom Riddle, and the witch Morrigan, a figure of Irish mythology—through Isolt Sayre. Raised by Gormlaith Gaunt—of the same ill-bred ilk towards “mudbloods” or Muggles as her extended family—Isolt escapes to North America on the Mayflower. Isolt goes on to found Ivermorny, an institution for witches and wizards in the style of Hogwarts. Although Rowling writes that Isolt befriends a Pukwudie, an indigenous creature she names William, the young witch seems to have almost no contact with any humans, Puritan or otherwise, in the woods of Massachusetts. Despite this seeming isolation from the other cultural and social traditions that suffuse the northeast, Isolt decides to name the four houses of Ilvermorny after Native American creatures.

Isolt’s adopted sons, Webster and Chadwick Boot, name the houses after their favorite creatures, which include the Thunderbird and the Wampus. Isolt and her partner James select the Horned Serpent and the Pukwudgie to round out the set. All of these creatures are pulled from indigenous lore. There is no consideration in this naming process of whether or not Isolt has the privilege or the right to name the magical school’s houses after creatures that belong to entirely separate cultural traditions, with their own history, mythology, symbolic and spiritual importance. Nor does Rowling seem to consider the fact that the category of Native Americans is not unitary, but rather made up of numerous tribes and groups, each with distinct and unique traditions, legends and epistemologies. Rowling’s depiction eliminates the heterogeneity, creativity and diversity of the tribes that populated the continent upon Isolt’s arrival, including Aboriginal communities, which are hardly mentioned at all. The creatures named as Ilvermorny houses are separated from their particular native context, treating Native mythology as a singular corpus shared across all tribes and indigenous communities across the country, which simply wasn’t and isn’t the case. Nor is there a clear sense of geographic locality. The Thunderbird is a legendary creature in the Pacific Northwest. Neither of the Boot boys is likely to have been familiar with such a creature.

There is a distinction between inclusion and cultural appropriation. Just as early anthropologists stole artifacts from sacred Native American sites, Rowling takes concepts of great cultural and spiritual significance and uses them for the supposed edification of other primarily white witches and wizards. Rather than being placed in a glass case at a museum, the Wampus and the Horned Serpent are emblazoned upon the Ilvermorny tapestry, forever memorializing the misconception that these creatures somehow belong to the public domain. In many indigenous communities, creatures such as the Thunderbird as highly symbolic, representing key figures in a community’s oral history and sense of identity that is carefully protected and kept by stakeholders. The signifier is separated from the signified, scrambling the semiology that enchanted the creatures in the first place. To share such secrets with outsiders was, for some, to bleed them of their power and their special significance within a particular community. As Dr. Adrienne Keene writes, “Native spirituality and religions are not fantasy on the same level as wizards. These beliefs are alive, practiced, and protected” (2016). Native peoples have been subject to a long legacy of brutalization and genocide, much of which was enacted by diminishing and sabotaging the linguistic, spiritual, material and cultural traditions with which indigenous peoples identified.

Rowling’s “History of Magic in North America” not only cherry picks aspects of indigeneity but also ignores the mixing pot out of which a truly syncretic breed of American magic could emerge. There is no mention of the slave trade or the admixture of cultural traditions brought to the colonies from Africa and the Caribbean with their own models of the supernatural. Nor does Rowling attend to the fact that its neighbor, Latin America, also informs North American identity. Her history skips from the seventeenth century Salem Witch trials to the 1900’s, with no consideration of the wholesale dispossession of Native peoples—the Seven Years War, the Trail of Tears, the substitution of reservations for indigenous sovereignty. Even without paying attention to the Native peoples Rowling clearly wanted to establish as partners, if inexpertly, what of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Manifest Destiny, the Industrial Revolution, the World Wars, the Civil Rights Movement, the moments in American history that would presumably render Ilvermorny magic a different animal entirely? These inconsistencies could be excused by the short story medium, but good writers invest in convincing world building and Rowling is a good enough writer to realize that you cannot fabricate a universe without situating it within a historical context that is convincing. Libba Bray’s The Diviners series accomplishes this brilliantly because Bray allows the magic of New York in the 1920’s to emerge organically from waning traditions of Spiritualism, the rise of the radio, and the friction between the Eugenics movement and immigrant communities in the city.

Why is this a big deal? Some might argue that Rowling’s cultural appropriation doesn’t matter because at the end of the day, Harry Potter is still a work of fantasy. But this ignores the fact that for many cultures, magic remains an epistemological and an ontological reality. What we take as fantasy may be another person’s fact, informed by these very same cultural traditions and spiritual legacies that Rowling ignores, poaches and occludes. These issues resonate in other communities too, particularly when we consider the appropriation of African-American culture, the emergence of #BlackGirlMagic, and the dangers that still accompany breaking out of the heterosexual paradigm, glitter and unicorns included.

To study other cultures means to complicate a unitary worldview and instead learn to recognize the truth of others’ perspectives and interpretations of the world. Part of this process means acknowledging our culpability in racist, homophobic, sexist, ethnocentric systems of oppression. Rowling should know this. Her books, above all else, teach that love, respect and acceptance are the most powerful forms of magic humans possess. She condemns speciesism against centaurs, house elves and giants or the prejudice of the purity of blood. The battle against Voldemort was essentially a fight to make the world safe for difference. The books are didactic without being too heavy-handed about the ethics of empathy and equal dignity across all magical and non-magical populations.

Growing up in the heyday of Harry Potter mania, I found my people through the books. I could identify as the know-it-all Hermione Granger or the quirky Luna Lovegood and still find a group of steadfast, loving friends who accepted me for being a little different. Harry Potter was an enormous part of my adolescent education. As a Griffindor primary and Ravenclaw secondary, I am disappointed that Rowling didn’t take this responsibility more seriously. Fiction, and popular culture more generally, helps to build critical consciousness and develop models of alternative social possibilities. Many have indicted Rowling for recapitulating a neocolonialist stance on indigeneity. Perhaps it’s someone else’s turn to teach a history of magic, a lesson that reminds us that matters of right or wrong are never as simple as light vs. dark. This type of discussion is part of the reason why The Geek Anthropologist exists—to apply the hard-won lessons, and pitfalls, of anthropology to the mundane matters we care about but don’t think to contextualize within broader conversations. Public anthropology is not simply about making ethnography and anthropological theory more readily accessible for public consumption. For me, it’s also about demonstrating the applicability of anthropology to instances and incidents caught up in a tangle of cultural politics that may seem natural or normal. Even if Ilvermorny is only an imaginative incursion, it is still a violation that has been permitted and tacitly accepted for centuries. In the wake of yet more acts of violence and evidence of corruption with ministries, magical or otherwise, let us not forget that representation matters, that allyship matters, that our culture has an afterlife, spectral images that haunt humanity rather than elevate it. After all, as Jesse Williams said, “Just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.”

Recommended Articles

Brainstew (2016). http://jangojips.tumblr.com/post/146781596428/j-j-j-jenny-and-the-cats-standbyyourmantis

Keene, Adrienne (2016). “’Magic in North America: The Harry Potter franchise veers too close to home.” Native Appropriations. http://nativeappropriations.com/2016/03/magic-in-north-america-the-harry-potter-franchise-veers-too-close-to-home.html

Lee, Paula Young (2016). “Pottermore problems: Scholars and writers call foul on J.K. Rowling’s North American Magic.” Salon. http://www.salon.com/2016/07/01/pottermore_problems_scholars_and_writers_call_foul_on_j_k_rowlings_north_american_magic/

/r/YAwriters! (2016). “Pottermore, Ilvermorny and Colonialism.” Reddit. https://www.reddit.com/r/YAwriters/comments/4qczb3/pottermore_ilvermorny_and_colonialism/

Trendacosta, Katharine (2016). “J.K. Rowling’s History of Magic in North America Was a Travesty From Start to Finish.” io9. http://io9.gizmodo.com/j-k-rowlings-history-of-magic-in-north-america-was-a-t-1764311530

#WizardTeam (2016). “Pottermore Edition Part 3: History of Magic in North America.” Black Girls Nerd Out. http://www.blackgirlsnerdout.com/wizardteam/2016/3/9/episode-28-and-34-po

 

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About Emma Louise Backe

I graduated from Vassar College, which makes me an official liberal-arts witch, where I majored in Cultural Anthropology and English. I focused on the intersection between medical anthropology and folklore, indigenous narrative practices and healing techniques, and the role of language and storytelling in healing. I'm a logophile at heart--the bookish type that's always carrying around three or four books, loves experimenting with language, and has something of an Indiana Jones complex. I've worked in South Africa at the Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit; interned with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, The NAMES Project Foundation, and the UCLA Center for Art and Global Health; served as Head Consultant of Vassar College's Writing Center; volunteered with Peace Corps on community health empowerment; and worked as the Research Assistant at The Global Women's Institute at George Washington University. I have spent most of my professional career working on human rights issues, specifically violence against women and girls and reproductive health rights. I am currently pursuing my Master's at George Washington University.

There are 3 comments

  1. Dr. K

    Perfect analysis of the issues. I read her history of the American magic tradition and wondered where all the real Americans were in it, all the ones you mention and others. I wonder if it is impossible to institutionalize the magic of the Americas the way she did the European magical schools. Seems to me that our north and south continental American magic is rooted in communities, not overarching institutions like Hogwarts or Durmstrang. Community based magic would be a much more interesting thing to explore.

    Like

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