March 10, 2016

Rowling's Magic in North America

JK Rowling's problems began with the first trailer for her expansion of the Harry Potter universe, Magic in North America:

“Magic in North America”: The Harry Potter franchise veers too close to home

By Adrienne KeeneI don’t really know what to say beyond my original letter, but I’ll reiterate it again. Native spirituality and religions are not fantasy on the same level as wizards. These beliefs are alive, practiced, and protected. The fact that the trailer even mentions the Navajo concept of skinwalkers sends red flags all over the place, and that it’s mentioned next to the Salem witch trials? Disaster. Even the visual imagery of the only humans shown in the trailer being a Native man and burning girls places the two too close for comfort.

We fight so hard every single day as Native peoples to be seen as contemporary, real, full, and complete human beings and to push away from the stereotypes that restrict us in stock categories of mystical-connected-to-nature-shamans or violent-savage-warriors. Colonization erases our humanity, tells us that we are less than, that our beliefs and religions are “uncivilized”, that our existence is incongruent with modernity. This is not ancient history, this is not “the past.” The ongoing oppression of Native peoples is reinscribed everyday through texts and images like this trailer. How in the world could a young person watch this and not make a logical leap that Native peoples belong in the same fictional world as Harry Potter?
When Rowling released snippets of Magic in North America, Keene continued her analysis:

Magic in North America Part 1: Ugh.

By Adrienne KeenePart 1 of MinNA, The 14th to 17th century, starts with this:

Though European explorers called it ‘the New World’ when they first reached the continent, wizards had known about America long before Muggles (Note: while every nationality has its own term for ‘Muggle,’ the American community uses the slang term No-Maj, short for ‘No Magic’).

So first off, we’re centering Europeans, calling brutal colonizers benign “explorers” (yes, it’s written for children, but I don’t think anyone would argue the HP canon is absent of intense violence).

The Native American magical community and those of Europe and Africa had known about each other long before the immigration of European No-Majs in the seventeenth century.

“The Native American community.” Oh man that loaded “the.” One of the largest fights in the world of representations is to recognize Native peoples and communities and cultures are diverse, complex, and vastly different from one another.

The legend of the Native American ‘skin walker’–an evil witch or wizard that can transform into an animal at will–has its basis in fact. A legend grew up around the Native American Animagi, that they had sacrificed close family members to gain their powers of transformation.

What you do need to know is that the belief of these things (beings?) has a deep and powerful place in Navajo understandings of the world. It is connected to many other concepts and many other ceremonial understandings and lifeways. It is not just a scary story, or something to tell kids to get them to behave, it’s much deeper than that.

The magic wand originated in Europe.

Wands are a European invention, so basically she’s demonstrating Eurocentric superiority here–the introduction of European “technology” helps bring the Native wizards to a new level. AKA colonial narrative 101.
Others quickly chimed in, often quoting Keene's remarks:

J.K. Rowling's New Story & Cultural Appropriation

By Carolyn L. Todd"No doubt you'll use the cloak of artistic license." Keene contended, "It's not 'your' world. It's our (real) Native world. And skin walker stories have context, roots, and reality."

And that, right there, is the issue, isn't it? Are we living in Rowling's world—where magic is real and all inspirations are fair game? Or are we occupying the real world, where there is a real heritage and history that merits respectful and accurate portrayals? And who gets to decide? Isn't Rowling the arbiter of her own universe? But then, aren't Native Americans entitled to ardently defend their culture and history, one that has been decimated in the real world and repeatedly mangled by pop culture?

I don't have the answer to these questions, and I won't pretend that I have the experience or knowledge to speak on the issue with any authority. What I can say for sure is that had I read this piece in a bubble, without knowing about the accusations of cultural appropriation beforehand, I probably wouldn't have thought twice about how the tale might affect Native Americans.
J.K. Rowling's latest wizardry prompts criticism from Native Americans

UNDERSTANDING CULTURES: Harry Potter fans in Native American communities are disappointed with the depiction of their cultures and history in the British novelist's latest stories.

By Cathaleen Chen
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. “What happens is that you’re taking an assumptive fictional community–the wizarding world–and you’re trying to apply it to a culture where it’s not an assumptive fictional world. There are elements that are believed and practiced.”

For instance, some Native tribes really do believe that “charms” have certain powers, and that “medicine men” can conjure supernatural abilities to heal wounds. But when Rowling renders such concepts in a fictional context, the pertinent cultures are thereby simplified, or even erased, to become stereotypes.

Rowling's depictions become all the more dangerous, Houska says, because these misconceptions of Native people already exist in American culture.

“Her fiction isn’t far off from what kids are learning in school books,” she says. Houska recalls being the only Native student in a school of white kids, and how discouraging it was to be taught a skewed version of her culture’s history.
J.K. Rowling's History of Magic in North America Was a Travesty From Start to Finish

By Katharine TrendacostaOne of the many things that made Harry Potter so great was the specificity. Rowling was drawing on real places to create Wizarding Britain. It was all based on things she knew backward and forwards.

But American history and culture are not her fields. And the beliefs of the various Native American tribes and their histories was something she was especially not qualified to speak on. If you absolutely have to include these things, speak to some people.

Creating a second history for an existing place that is not your own is not easy. It requires a lot of research. Research Rowling clearly didn’t do.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see Pocahontas in Harry Potter.

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