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10 March 2016

It’s not only a story: why it matters how J K Rowling depicts Native American history

When an update is made to the Harry Potter universe, it makes news around the world – whether for good reasons or bad.

By Elizabeth Minkel

The combined word count of the seven Harry Potter novels is 1,084,170 words – and in the near-decade since Deathly Hallows was published, it’s sometimes felt like J K Rowling has offered up just as many words about the series. (This is a fairly facetious exaggeration, I apologise, but bear with me here.) Over the years, Rowling has given readers additional “canonical” information about the Wizarding World and its characters, releasing numerous extra scenes and short stories, giving extensive interviews, offering up a barrage of tweets (some prompted by readers’ questions, some not). Since 2009, new official information has also been released via the vast canon-sanctioned universe that is the Pottermore website.

The Harry Potter extra-canonical universe isn’t unique – plenty of fictional worlds, particularly in sci-fi and fantasy, are fleshed out beyond the original source material. (The Star Wars expanded universe – which I know is no longer official canon, but that’s a story for another day – is arguably the most famous current example.) But what does make Rowling’s world unique among its contemporaries is how singly-authored it is: she doesn’t write everything that appears on Pottermore, but this post-book information comes from her, often delivered, as I once wrote to complain about the habit, “as if she is [her characters’] publicist rather than their creator”.

When Rowling announces new material, no matter how trivial, it makes the news. Media sites across the web seem to have created a “new Harry Potter facts” beat, and most of the time, the information is pretty benign, random items about characters or magical life. But this week even people far outside the Harry Potter world were likely to have seen mention of the Pottermore series “History of Magic in North America”, to be released in four parts this week.

The series follows on from the reveal of four new magical schools around the world, in addition to the three – Hogwarts, Beauxbatons, and Durmstrang, all in Europe – named in the books. The new quartet includes Ilvermorny, which appears, based on that swirly map, to sit somewhere between northern New England and southern Canada. This world-building, an attempt to fill in the gaps after seven books set almost exclusively on British soil, are in advance of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a trilogy of films set in wizarding New York in the 1920s, the first of which is released in November.

Fantastic Beasts has come under fire since its blindingly un-diverse cast was announced last year, with Eddie Redmayne in the lead as magical zoologist Newt Scamander. The original books and films were pretty damn un-diverse as well, but many fans – especially fans of colour, looking for significantly more visible representation than the series has offered in the past – were hoping for more from a film series premiering in 2016, especially one set in New York City.

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But the “History of Magic in North America” stretches back centuries before the 1920s: it starts in the 1400s, before colonisers set foot on the continent. What follows, at least in the two instalments that were revealed at the time of writing, is a shoddy mix of cultural appropriation and misrepresentation, a bastardisation of Native American religion and traditions. When Europeans arrive, we’re offered the sort of narrative I and many Americans were taught in school decades ago, about “friendly” cooperation between “explorers” and native populations, like the myth of the first Thanksgiving.

With full awareness that I’m writing for a British publication, I know that many readers outside the United States – and in fact, plenty of my fellow Americans – probably haven’t understood the nuances of just what went wrong in Rowling’s North American history stories. Many Native American writers, including Dr Adrienne Keene, Debbie Reese, Taté Walker, and others, have been extraordinary resources these past few days, combining knowledge with their own experiences (and bearing the brunt of defensive Rowling and Potter fans in the aftermath, the sort of people who assert that it’s “only fiction”). I urge you to read their writing as soon as you can.

Let’s start in the obvious place: there’s no such thing as “only fiction”. Reese writes, “It isn’t only fiction. Stories do work. They socialise. They educate. Or – I should say, they mis-educate.” On her website, fantasy author N K Jemisin’s comments about how careful she is with others peoples’ cultures and beliefs struck an important note, too:

“It’s even more crucial for religions that are alive, and whose adherents still suffer for misconceptions and misappropriations. But these are easier to research, and it’s often much easier to figure out when you’re about to put a foot right into a morass of discrimination and objectification. All the evidence is there, sometimes still wet with blood. You just need to read. You just need to ask people. You just need to think.

Fiction isn’t some cloistered thing, cut off from real life: it is written by humans and read by humans; it is shaped by our beliefs and it shapes our beliefs. The Harry Potter books are some of the most widely-known on the entire planet, written by one extraordinary woman with a specific background and perspective, but read and discussed and loved by millions, each of us with our own unique backgrounds and perspectives.

I know I’m not alone when I say that I understand what Rowling was trying to do. It’s something she’s been trying to do for years. The books, full of allegorical explorations of issues like race, class, privilege and bigotry, rarely intersect with real-life explorations of race, class, privilege, and bigotry, and the omission of these real-life counterparts was often glaring. From the relegation of the few people of colour to minor characters (many of whom were drawn with lazy stereotypes) to the obliteration of potential for queer narratives with the heteronormativity fest that marked the end of the sixth book straight through the epilogue (what epilogue?), life at Hogwarts often felt like it was telling one kind of story, even as it espoused progressive themes.

In the years following the books’ publication, Potter fans have watched Rowling retroactively attempt to fix these omissions, from tweets reassuring fans that students from all faiths and ethnic backgrounds attended Hogwarts (despite giving no indication of that in the books) to Dumbledore being gay (aside from pretty obviously telegraphed subtext around his youthful relationship with Grindewald, also something she gave no other indication of in the books).

For some fans, Rowling’s say on the matter isn’t incredibly important. Harry Potter fanfiction is ripe with queer characters, gender- and racebent characters, characters with disabilities, frank discussions of class, and nuanced depictions of wizarding communities from all over the world, things people might have been looking for in the text that they couldn’t find. In fanart, these desires are made visible: I spend a lot of time on Tumblr, and I haven’t seen an artist depict Hermione as white in ages, and often Harry is drawn as a person of colour as well (I’ve seen many fans cast Harry and the Potter family as people of South Asian descent, for example).

But for many fans – and this is hardly surprising – Rowling’s say on the matter is vitally important. (And fans, of course, often want to cast stories in their own fashion and see canonical progress.) I was reading some of the responses to one of her tweets about the series, and I saw fan after fan asking for explicit validation: “Can a wizard be x?” “Can a wizard be y?” This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the series’ lack of diversity and attempts at post-series diversification; tonight I saw what I observed when I wrote about this last time: “You can’t blame someone for reading the books and wondering: if I didn’t see myself there, was there anyone like me?” Thousands of kids, wondering, “Can a wizard be like me?”

As the years go on, Rowling appears to be learning and trying to make things right, despite fumbles big and small. When Noma Dumezweni, a black actress, was cast as Hermione in the upcoming stage play The Cursed Child, Rowling trampled firmly over racists’ responses. It stands to reason that her conceptions of Native American communities and history are most likely borne out of ignorance, not malevolence. But that’s still a huge problem. Thousands of people have spent the past few days explaining just how harmful that ignorance can be; we can hope that she listens, and takes their responses with the same good grace she’s shown in the past.

After watching what Rowling (or, maybe, the people working on Pottermore) made of historically and still-marginalised communities in North America, one can’t help but worry about the world-building to come, as we delve into the backstories of the other three named wizarding schools, in Japan, Brazil, and “Africa” (yes, just plain “Africa”, and check out that description while you’re at it), and presumably, off to other parts of the world. Whether Rowling should be depicting cultures – and their mythologies and religions – other than her own is an open question, one I saw hotly debated on social media as all this unfolded. One thing that’s certain, though: if she does continue to travel around the magical globe, she needs to really listen to the people she finds there before she starts writing.

It’s never “only fiction”, and we have such a clear example in Harry Potter, so widely read and so widely beloved, changing (and perhaps even creating) a generation of passionate, curious, and empathetic readers. Millions of people took Harry Potter into their hearts without ever seeing their own lives reflected back. This is changing – this has to change. The wizarding world is more than Hogwarts Castle – it’s the entire world, and all those readers across the globe. Now that we’ve all finished reading, it’s time to start talking back – and to start listening.

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