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Scholars and writers call foul on J.K. Rowling’s North American magic

A few months ago, when J.K. Rowling released “A History of Magic in North America” on the Pottermore website, Native critics, scholars, readers and writers voiced their concerns with her appropriation of living traditions cherished by Native peoples.

Pottermore problems: Scholars and writers call foul on J.K. Rowling's North American magic

Rowling’s silence presaged the cringe-worthy content of “Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry,” the latest instalment in the unfurling backstory of the North American wizarding school. It’s the 17th-century story of Isolt Sayre, a magical Irish lass who sails with the Puritans on the Mayflower to land at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts. Running away to the mountains, she finds a magical sidekick—a Pukwudgie she promptly names William—only to stumble across three young white colonial settlers in various states of distress, and ends up co-founding a magic school with them. “Pukwudgie” becomes one of the four houses at Ilvermorny, each of which is named after a magic totem animal. You can now go onto the Pottermore site and take a quiz that will sort you into one of the houses.

So…no magical human Natives in this story, like maybe a couple from the tribe known as the Massachusetts, as in the state of? How about the Wampanoag, who populated the land nearest the Plymouth colony? Rowling never mentions Natives living in the area, let alone the fact that things didn’t go so well for them once the colonists stopped being grateful. Instead, she gives us a Pukwudgie, an anthropomorphic creature from Wampanoag lore, but which in her hands becomes a resentful, English-speaking, voluntary bondservant who refuses to tell Isolt his given name and so she names him “William” after her father. Together, they forge a “unique” friendship that sounds suspiciously like the Lone Ranger & Tonto with a dash of her man Friday, precisely because it echoes stereotypes regarding good/guide Indians-as-interlocutors and specifically the history of Tisquantum, or Squanto, an English-speaking Native American of the Pawtuxet tribe, who escaped slavery and helped the first Pilgrims survive—much in the same way that William the Pukwudgie helps Isolt — by showing them how to hunt, fish, gather wild plants, and cultivate domesticated seeds.

As proud Ravenclaw (and author of the forthcoming fantasy “Wintersong“) Sarah Jae-Jones summed up: “The whole William the Pukwudgie thing left a really bad taste in my mouth because it was playing the Squanto role for her with nary an actual Native human in sight.”

On Twitter and on her blog, “Native Indians in Children’s Literature,” Nambe Pueblo scholar Debbie Reese has made it clear that Rowling’s immense reach and influence on young minds means she has a responsibility to get the representation right.  Yet “the new story makes it clear that she [Rowling] is, in fact, in too deep to revise this story,” Reese wrote in an email to me, referencing back to the issues in the “History of Magic in North America.” Reese added: “I dread what Native and non-Native children will contend with from her. The movie — and, no doubt, merchandise for the theme park — will be yet another assault on Native peoples.”

The Young Adult writing community has been voicing its concerns. “Reading the short piece on Ilvermorny,” young adult science fiction writer Beth Revis noted in an email to me, “all I could think is that it was written with a colonial lens. This was the story of an outsider in America ‘fixing’ what was already there. Rather than integrating Native Americans into her world, they are reduced to background set pieces.”

Revis was sufficiently troubled by Rowling’s colonialist perspective to start a thread on Reddit. The ongoing thread is worth reading in its entirety, as it neatly — and civilly!— unpacks the most problematic issues in the Ilvermorny story. The three main issues are these:

It uncritically valorizes and replicates the power structures enacted by British colonialism.
“Magic” gets organised when the white people show up (what, the Algonquin, Pawtuxet, Wampanoag and other tribes didn’t have schools to teach their kids how to use their powers?), and appropriates Native traditions while erasing Native peoples.
It misunderstands American culture, geography, and history, and there are so many errors that they undermine the integrity of the story, while just plain confusing readers.

She also caused concern this week by saying Harry Potter supported Israel. 
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