It had to happen sooner or later: Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling has crossed the pond and found a massive new set of sorcery traditions to garnish her output for her Potter prequel movie. The only problem: She uses symbols and names from American history and Indian sources. Things like Navajo myths and the Salem witch trials of the 1690s.
The Guardian (UK) is already onto this new movie "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" if you want news about that, but the mere idea of transmitting the world of Potter onto American soil is getting ridiculed by some.
Whereas some folks would be more than glad for the world's richest author to toss some PR toward neglected tribal shamans this side of the Atlantic, not everyone is thrilled. Here's how the Los Angeles Times described the matter:
While some American "Harry Potter" fans were ecstatic over J.K. Rowling's new writing about "the history of magic in North America," her story has angered some Native Americans.
The first two installments of Rowling's four-part story have been published on her Pottermore website, and they've drawn ire from some readers who are accusing the Scottish author of appropriating Native American traditions.
The first part of Rowling's story, which was intended to set the scene for her forthcoming movie, "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," deals with Native American wizards…
"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," (Brown University researcher Adrienne) Keene wrote on her blog Native Appropriations. "There is no such thing as one 'Native American' anything. Even in a fictional wizarding world."
As you would expect, much of this debate is unfolding on Twitter and in alternative forms of media:
On Twitter, Johnnie Jae, the Otoe-Missouria and Choctaw founder of the radio show A Tribe Called Geek, accused Rowling of cultural appropriation.
"When we say that non-native writers, filmmakers, artists are not entitled to our history, identities, culture & imagery we mean just that," Jae wrote. "We're saying there is a problem with non-natives who take without permission, without understanding and without respect for native people."…
Keene was unimpressed with the first part of Rowling's new story, especially Rowling's writings about "skin walkers," who in Navajo traditions are people with the ability to shapeshift into animals.
"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," Keene wrote. "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 article goes on to say how many readers are defending Rowling, along with quotes from a member of the Choctaw tribe who also criticized the author.
So what is the journalism issue in here?
I wish the reporter had done a bit more research on the background of the the argument against Rowling, including the obvious fact that all kinds of people in mass media and the arts have have appropriated Native American symbols. I’ve not heard complaints about that.
Need an obvious example that would clarify matters? How about the best-sellers by the late detective novelist Tony Hillerman, one of which was even called “The Shape Shifter.” Hillerman's works borrowed from Navajo traditions and beliefs all the time.
I do know that literally anything about J.K. Rowling means instant click bait, and she has lots and lots of money. But, journalists, perhaps you can provide some context?
Why didn’t the reporter challenge the Choctaw leader who claims that non-Native writers, authors, filmmakers, etc., are not entitled to the use of Native imagery? That wipes out an awful lot of films that have been done over multiple decades and for years to come, as Hollywood is not exactly packed with Native American filmmakers.
I used to live in a part of New Mexico that is 28 miles away from the Navajo reservation (which encompasses part of Arizona as well) and everyone appropriated Navajo cosmology from the names of the four sacred peaks encompassing the Four Corners area to tourist brochures that hyped Canyon de Chelly as the home of the quasi-deity Spider Woman.
Obviously, Rowling is newly introduced to Indian lore and, like Hillerman, has found it a rich trove of images, indeed. Take a look at her site and what she’s done with her tales and decide if her concepts translate into American history -- or not. Some of us have long wondered what her magic would look like when transported across the pond and now she’s giving us a chance to find out.
Anyway, we only have two people quoted in the piece who are criticizing Rowling: A college professor and a radio personality, only one of whom appears to be Native. Since Navajo cosmology is involved here, why wasn't a Navajo interviewed? Or Mitch Horowitz, author of "Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Has Shaped Our Nation," which is a very good book. Even though the caption reads that “some Native Americans” aren’t happy with Rowling’s stories, I only hear one.
This doesn’t sound like a rising flood of sentiment to me. The Times should call it what it is: a tempest in a cauldron and leave it at that.