David Beagley, editor

Colonialism in Wizarding America: J. K. Rowling’s History of Magic in North America through an Indigenous Lens

Allison Mills

Allison Mills is an MAS/MLIS candidate at the University of British Columbia, where she also obtained an MFA in Creative Writing with a focus on writing for children. Her research interests include the portrayal of First Nations and Indigenous peoples in children's literature and the care of Indigenous knowledge in libraries and archives. She is of mixed Mushkegowuk Cree and French-Canadian ancestry.

In March 2016, the Harry Potter-branded Pottermore website launched four new short stories by J. K. Rowling entitled the History of Magic in North America. It is safe to say that Rowling did not anticipate the reactions from Indigenous critics that these stories incited. In what was probably a well-intentioned attempt at inclusivity, Rowling’s stories reference “the Native American community” (“Fourteenth Century”) and their place in the world of Harry Potter. In doing so, she stepped on a land mine. Magic in North America’s treatment of North American Indigenous communities is, at best, misguided, and at worst stereotypical and appropriative. Although Indigenous fans, critics and their allies spent much of the month following the release of these stories tweeting Rowling, as of this article going to press in July 2016, she has yet to respond in detail to the criticism she has faced, and the articles are still available at Pottermore. Although Rowling is certainly not the first white author to misstep in her treatment of Indigenous cultures, she has an unprecedented level of visibility and fame, as well as a passionate fanbase—one which includes many Indigenous children and adults, and as a Mushkegowuk Cree and White Canadian woman, I count myself amount them. The wide reach that her work has makes it especially problematic, and Rowling’s lack of response to the criticism she has faced is disheartening, especially in light of the launch of racial micro-aggressions now faced by Indigenous Harry Potter fans who want to speak out regarding the treatment of Indigenous cultures in Magic in North America.

One of the most glaring problems with Rowling’s story is her treatment of the many Indigenous nations in North America as one monolithic group, as in “the Native American community” (“Fourteenth Century”) reference earlier. It is a hint that expectations for cultural sensitivity when reading beyond the couple paragraphs of the stories should be set low. There are many Indigenous nations within North America, and the concept of “Native American” is one that came to the continent with colonialism – the term “American” comes from a Spanish name, while “Native” can only exist in a binary of Indigenous and non-Indigenous and implies the incursion of the latter. Using the term “Native American” to talk about pre-contact Indigenous societies shows a lack of depth to Rowling’s research. Its homogeneity flattens out the diversity of languages, belief systems, and cultures that exist in Indigenous communities, allowing stereotyping to persist. The more people believe that there is one definition of what a Native American is, the harder they find it to imagine complexity existing within Native American cultures. The coded language here is one of the reasons why, in Canada, the preferred term is First Nations. There is an implied plurality in Nations that is lacking in Native American. This erasure of complexity is how stereotyping works, and it is extremely prevalent in children’s literature, where typically there have been two depictions of Native American or First Nations peoples—the noble Indian and the bloodthirsty savage (Reese 39).

While Magic in North America avoids the use of the bloodthirsty savage stereotype—often used in historical fiction, the savage attacks settlers with primitive weaponry, scalps parents, rides a horse, and lives in a teepee (39)—Rowling does make ample use of the noble Indian trope. Native American wizards are “particularly gifted in animal and plant magic,” (Rowling, “Fourteenth Century”) but did not have access to wands, making their magic less precise, especially for Charms and Transfigurations. (“Fourteenth Century”) This plays directly into the romantic notion of the noble Indian, who "exists in harmony with nature" and is able to communicate with animals, rocks, and trees (Reese 39). It also simultaneously denies scientific advancements made by Indigenous peoples because being talented with “plant magic” and at potion-making effectively glosses over medicinal uses for plants discovered by Indigenous peoples and folds them up into magic. This mirrors the Western tradition of “discovering” uses for plants from colonized countries by learning them from the local population, and then marketing that use at home without crediting the peoples whose traditions have been taken (Gari 9). The lack of wands, here, also equates to traditional colonial beliefs about Indigenous peoples, namely a supposed lack of technology in North America before contact. In a segment for Al Jazeera's The Stream, Anishinaabe and Métis writer and game designer Elizabeth LaPensée actually equated the treatment of wands directly to guns. White people had them and were more powerful because of this, while Indigenous peoples did the best with what they had.

When reading these stories, it is important to remember that even seemingly “positive” stereotypes, like that of Indigenous peoples as “fallen nature gods” (Zitzer-Comfort 161), are damaging. They are “obscuring projections” which plant images and ideas about Indigenous peoples in our head from a young age that become hard to shift later in life (162). When these stereotypes are embedded in your consciousness, it becomes difficult to imagine people complexly, to think of Indigenous people as real. Especially if all you ever encounter are stereotypes which, in addition to lumping all Indigenous peoples into one group, also historicize their cultures, placing them firmly as things of the past, not living peoples. Rowling falls back on easy stereotypes that have existed for hundreds of years, continuing them instead of attempting to present a more complex portrait of the cultures she references. Given that Rowling is well-known for doing her research when it comes to her white characters, the lack of care that went into crafting Magic in North America is glaring.

Even more glaring is her use of “skin walkers” and “medicine men,” which was the subject of the most intense criticism launched at her on Twitter. In Magic in North America, there is no such thing as a Skinwalker. Their existence is a derogatory rumour spread by No-Maj (Muggle) medicine men to discredit Wizards and force them out of the community to prevent Wizards from exposing No-Maj medicine men faking magical powers (Rowling, “Fourteenth Century”). In response to a question asking her to clarify whether or not Harry Potter’s Skinwalkers were evil, Rowling tweeted: “In my wizarding world, there were no skin-walkers. The legend was created by No-Majes to demonise wizards” (jk_rowling). This is problematic for several reasons. Perhaps most importantly, Skinwalkers are a real part of Navajo culture. Skinwalker stories have cultural context and history, which Rowling is completely overwriting, ignoring especially the religious significance of these stories. Navajo writer Jacqueline Keeler pointed out too that “in the Navajo-way you are not supposed to talk about them much [because] it encourages them to come to you” (jfkeeler, a) and that if Rowling had been Navajo, she would have been heavily criticized by her elders for doing so (jfkeeler, b). Rowling is, of course, not Navajo, and Twitter responded very strongly that Indigenous people should “get over” her depiction of their culture, or that they should be grateful to be mentioned at all.

The idea that Indigenous peoples should “get over” appropriation or be grateful for mentions of our cultures and not critical of how outsiders depict them is pervasive. Often it comes from a lack of knowledge or understanding of what colonized peoples have been through. If you are not a member of an Indigenous community, it is easy to go through life without having to think about the connection between colonialism and the current state of affairs for Indigenous people living in colonized countries like the United States and Canada. Indigenous communities occupy a social and political space that disadvantages them in very real, basic ways. They live with “extreme levels of poverty, chronic ill health and poor educational opportunities” (Smith, 34) as a direct result of the actions of the states in which they live. In Canada, the potlatch ban saw the outlawing of Indigenous religious ceremonies between 1885 and 1951 (Hawker, 138), while in the United States successive federal bans on sacred items like eagle feathers and peyote (Getches, Wilkinson, and Williams, 764) meant that Indigenous peoples could not freely practise their religions under the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978 (AIRFA). Museums around the world then collected pieces of those religions to display to outsiders as relics of dead cultures (Hawker, 17). We should also keep in mind that missionaries and governments in both countries tried to stamp out religion, language, and culture through Residential or Boarding School systems up until the 1990s (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 1). In this context—one coloured by a long history of government sanctioned racism—control over Indigenous religions and the way they are portrayed is tied directly to “reparation of past injustice, survival of cultural identity, and respect for Indigenous legal and social orders” (Bell and Shier, 41). It is about ensuring respect for us as people and not just broadly painted, semi-fantastical beings.

Although Rowling implies that Medicine People are frauds, tricking people into believing they have magic powers, in reality they are an integral part of some Indigenous cultures. Their role varies from nation to nation, but in general Medicine Men and Women serve as healers, educators, and cultural consultants, and are often well versed in traditional spiritual practices, cultural knowledge, and language (Hartman and Gone 272). Medicine People occupy a space akin to the role of an Elder and not unlike that of a priest, offering both spiritual guidance and counselling to people in their community (272).  Their role and their practice in the community is very real, and at a time when multiple Indigenous nations have declared states of emergency because of the outbreak of suicides and attempted suicides in their community (CBC News),  their job is vitally important. They are not necessarily doctors themselves, but some, in addition to their cultural knowledge, also have a background in counselling or social work (Hartman and Gone 272). Rowling likely draws her knowledge of Medicine Men from pop culture depictions of “shaman” figures or, perhaps, from anthropological texts, primarily created by and for outsiders, which perpetuate the myth of Indigenous cultures as heathenistic and uneducated, intended to document a “dying race” and not necessarily the truth (Gidley 13). Rowling is simultaneously erasing the real role of Medicine People in their communities and mythologizing Indigenous peoples.

Aside from the perpetuation of the mythical, natural-communing noble Indian stereotype, perhaps the most glaring instance of this equating of Indigenous peoples with mythical beings comes from the fourth instalment in the Magic in North America series, where Rowling, in passing, mentions the “Great Sasquatch Rebellion of 1892” and a fictional, “highly-acclaimed book” entitled “Big Foot's Last Stand” (“1920s”). The idea of a Sasquatch Rebellion is likely intended to call back to the various Goblin Rebellions mentioned in the Harry Potter books, (Rowling, Goblet of Fire, 449) which fans will be well acquainted with and which keen Pottermore readers will know led to the resignation of two Ministers for Magic (Rowling, “Ministers for Magic”). It implies, because of this association, that the Sasquatch is an intelligent being like goblins, which is in line with most traditional wild men stories from the Pacific Northwest, where these legends originated (Snow 249). The word “Sasquatch” is an anglicized version of the Halq'emylem word ssq'ets (Yamalt and Deck, 1), and although Rowling’s use of Sasquatch here is not problematic in the same way as her use of Skinwalkers, it is still troubling. This is also a clear reference to Custer’s Last Stand, more properly known as The Battle of Little Bighorn or The Battle of the Greasy Grass (Moore, “The Battle of the Greasy Grass”), an infamous battle from the Great Sioux War of 1876, and a decisive victory for the Lakota and their allies. For those of us familiar with this part of American-Indigenous relations, this reference seems tone deaf. They reference a brutal, bloody time in history for both colonized and colonizing peoples, with this imaginary rebellion occurring just fifteen years after the end of the actual Great Sioux War. It is hard, here, not to read Sasquatch as a metaphor for Indigenous peoples. Territory encroached upon by outside forces, Sasquatch fights back to try to main control of their land and continue their way of life. They rebel—just like the Lakota, Dakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho did in the Great Sioux War. Implied in the title “Big Foot’s Last Stand,” though, is that this rebellion was as brutal a loss for Sasquatch as it was for Custer. So not only is a truly violent part of history being parodied by someone who clearly has not researched into what she is referring, but the actual victory won by Indigenous peoples is being over-written for the sake of a book title.

It is likely that Rowling approached her stories without thinking about how Indigenous peoples would respond to them. Even in North America, where people should be more familiar with this history, outsiders are often uninformed about the past actions of the countries they live in. Although there are multiple perspectives on the issue, the vast number of Indigenous critics seem to agree that the issue here is not that non-Indigenous writers cannot write about Indigenous characters, but that when they do they need to be prepared to research what they are referencing (Al Jazeera). The problems that arose from Magic in North America largely stem from both this lack of research and a lack of understanding about the cultures Rowling decided to write about and misrepresent. This misrepresentation matters. Stereotyping is damaging, especially for young people. It has a negative impact on their self-esteem and performance in school (Solorzano, 9-11), and classics of children’s literature, such as Peter Pan, The Indian in the Cupboard, and Little House on the Prairie, already perpetuate these harmful stereotypes. The continued caricature of Indigenous groups through widely circulated sources like Harry Potter is also damaging. Already Indigenous Harry Potter fans, protesting Rowling’s depiction of Indigenous peoples, are being told that they are wrong about their own cultures. Makalesi Moore captured this on Twitter with the tweet: “Imagine how many Native Americans are going to be gaslit about their own culture under the guise ‘well in canon it's actually like this...’” (Moore, fangirlJeanne).

Rowling is not the first children’s author to take Indigenous culture and appropriate it for her own means, and she, unfortunately, will not be the last, but right now she is the most well-known. She has the power to change the conversation that is happening around her stories simply by acknowledging the Indigenous voices that have risen up to protest the inaccurate and stereotypical portrayal of Indigenous cultures and histories and the insensitivity with which Rowling treated them. But the longer we go without this acknowledgment, the more unlikely it seems that Rowling will issue any kind of apology or admit to a lack of research or knowledge on her part. Harry Potter is a fandom with deep meaning to a lot of people. Part of the reason the reaction from critics and fans was so immediate is because of how important Harry Potter is to people who have been in the fandom for a long time, who grew up with the books. I count myself among those fans. When something is meaningful to you and suddenly starts perpetuating the same kind of hurtful stereotypes that your people and culture have been subject to for years, it hurts. Magic in North America is tone deaf. It continues a long history of colonial texts which ignore that Indigenous peoples still exist. Rowling’s lack of response to her critics echoes this, ignoring criticisms while acknowledging non-Indigenous fans praising her stories. In the Wizarding world, as in the real world, Indigenous histories have been over-written and our cultures erased.


Works Cited

Al Jazeera. “Reimagining Native Americans in the arts.” The Stream. 22 Mar. 2016. Web. 8 April 2016. <http://stream.aljazeera.com/story/201603211442-0025176>.

Bell, Catherine, and Caeleigh Shier. “Control of Information Originating from Aboriginal Communities: Legal and Ethical Contexts.” Inuit Studies 35.1-2 (2011): 35-56.

CBC News. “More details emerge about suicide crisis at Pimicikamak Cree Nation.” CBC News. 10 Mar. 2016. Web. 8 April 2016. <http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/more-details-emerge-about-suicide-crisis-at-pimicikamak-cree-nation-1.3485074>.

Gari, Josep-Antoni. “Biodiversity Conservation and Use: Local and Global Considerations.” Science, Technology and Development Discussion Paper 7 (1999): 1-19.

Getches, David H., Charles Wilkinson, and Harold L. Williams. Cases and Materials on Federal Indian Law. 5th ed. St. Paul, MN: Thomson/West, 2011.

Gidley, Mick. Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian Project in the Field. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

Hartmann, William E., and Joseph P. Gone. “American Indian Historical Trauma: Community Perspectives from Two Great Plains Medicine Men.” American Journal of Community Psychology 54 (2014): 274-88.

Hawker, Ronald William. Tales of Ghosts: First Nations Art in British Columbia, 1922-61. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2003.

Keeler, Jacqueline (jfkeeler). “@NativeApprops @jk_rowling Also, in the Navajo-way you are not supposed to talk about them much. It encourages them to come to you 1/2.” 9 Mar. 2016., 1:05 p.m. Tweet. <https://twitter.com/jfkeeler/status/707673777094529025>.

---. “@NativeApprops @jk_rowling If you were actually a Navajo writer you'd heavily criticized by your elders for writing about them. 2/2.” 9 Mar. 2016., 1:06 p.m. Tweet. <https://twitter.com/jfkeeler/status/707673969327865857>.

Kets de Vries, Manfred F. R. “Abominable Snowman Or Bigfoot: A Psychoanalytic Search for the Origin of Yeti and Sasquatch Tales.” Fabula 23.3 (1982): 246-61.

Moore, Kristin. “The Battle of the Greasy Grass.” Smithsonian. Web. 9 April 2016. <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/videos/category/history/the-battle-of-the-greasy-grass/?no-ist>.

Moore, Makalesi (fangirlJeanne). “Imagine how many Native Americans are going to be gaslit about their own culture under the guise "well in canon it's actually like this..."” 8 Mar. 2016., 7:34 a.m. Tweet. <https://twitter.com/fangirlJeanne/status/707227994822041600>.

Reese, Debbie. “Contesting Ideology in Children's Book Reviewing.” Studies in American Indian Literature 12.1 (2000): 37-55.

Rowling, J. K. “1920s Wizarding America.” History of Magic in North America. Pottermore. Web. 8 April 2016. <https://www.pottermore.com/collection-episodic/history-of-magic-in-north-america-en>.

---. “Fourteenth Century - Seventeenth Century.” History of Magic in North America. Pottermore. Web. 8 April 2016. <https://www.pottermore.com/collection-episodic/history-of-magic-in-north-america-en>.

---. “Ministers for Magic.” Pottermore. Web. 9 April 2016. <https://www.pottermore.com/writing-by-jk-rowling/ministers-for-magic>.

---. (jk_rowling). “.@Weasley_dad In my wizarding world, there were no skin-walkers. The legend was created by No-Majes to demonise wizards.” 8 Mar. 2016, 7:00 a.m. Tweet. <https://twitter.com/jk_rowling/status/707219455621857280>.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books, 2012.

Solorzano, Daniel G. “Images and Words that Wound: Critical Race Theory, Racial Stereotyping, and Teacher Education.” Teacher Education Quarterly 24.3 (1997): 5-19.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 31 May 2015. Web. 8 April 2016. <http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Findings/Exec_Summary_2015_05_31_web_o.pdf>.

United States. American Indian Religious Freedom Act. 1978. Web. 9 April 2016. <https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/1996>.
Yamalót and Jared Deck. Sásq'ets: The Story of the Sasquatch. Ed. Gwen Point. Victoria, BC: Trafford, 2004.

Zitzer-Comfort, Carol. “Teaching Native American Literature: Inviting Students to See the World through Indigenous Lenses.” Pedagogy 8.1 (2008): 160-70.



Allison Mills

Volume 19, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, July 2016

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