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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. 

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    In this April 9, 2015 file photo, Author J.K. Rowling speaks at the Empire State Building during a lighting ceremony and to mark the launch of her non-profit children's organization Lumos in New York.
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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. “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.

“It’s difficult to be already an extreme minority that’s marginalized to read a history that paints us as these savage people that died out,” she adds. “It’s hard as a kid to go through that.”

The Washington, D.C.-based attorney, who also works as the Native American advisor to presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and is a leader in the Native-led Honor the Earth organization, reached out to Rowling on Twitter Wednesday afternoon, using the Ojibwe word for "thank you."

Rowling has yet to address the criticism, but some of her fans have jumped to her defense.

Native representation in media, advocates say, is always important, as such populations are routinely compartmentalized in historical narratives and are still reeling from government policies, both historical and recent, that have harmed the livelihood of tribal reservations. According to 2014 report by Pew Research, one in four Native Americans and Alaska Natives live in poverty – far above the national average of 14.5 percent.

“I certainly don’t want people to think that they can’t write about Native Americans, but I think there are ways to go about it that are a lot more respectful,” Houska says.

“Talk to a tribe, talk to someone who can give you a more informed perspective. And that’s part of the problem across the board, is that Native Americans are still left out of the conversation.”

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