Sunday March 13, 2016

J.K. Rowling's History of Magic in North America draws criticism for cultural appropriation

A still from the trailer for The History of Magic in North America by J.K. Rowling.

A still from the trailer for The History of Magic in North America by J.K. Rowling. (CBC)

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J.K. Rowling, the British author of the popular Harry Potter series, is facing criticism from fans about a new series of online short stories called History of Magic in North America.

After a trailer was released on March 8, criticism started popping up on social media. 

Adrienne Keene is a self-professed Harry Potter fan and a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University. She also writes a blog called Native Appropriations that pushes back against stereotypes and cultural appropriation of indigenous people.

Keene said the first image in the trailer is a stereotypical one of a male in a breech cloth standing on top of a cliff, who then dives off and turns into an eagle. She compared it to the Disney film Pocahontas, where the title character also stands on top of a cliff, her hair flowing, and dives off.

Adrienne Keene

Adrienne Keene. (Twitter)

"Just thinking about the ways native peoples ... are represented in the media, I didn't have high hopes for the ways [Rowling] would be able to incorporate our real living traditions into this fictional world that she has created," she said. 

Keene was also disheartened to see Rowling's inclusion of skinwalkers, shapeshifters taken from Navajo beliefs. ​

"J.K. Rowling just took this belief and completely removed it out of context and put her own story on top of it, erased the original meaning — which is the direct meaning of cultural appropriation," she said.

"Since contact, native peoples' traditions, our land, our women, our beliefs have been seen as things free for the taking."

Keene has tweeted to Rowling, who says she is known for engaging with her fans on Twitter. But Keene hasn't heard anything back. In fact, she added there have been thousands of tweets lobbed at the author since the trailer's release.

"Her silence is noted."

Keene said that Rowling's silence suggests she was unprepared for this response. Although the stories are most likely already written and scheduled to be posted online, Keene still questioned the author's lack of response.

"With issues of cultural appropriation, people don't really know the proper way to respond. It's not something they are used to having to apologize for. Especially folks outside the U.S. and Canada," she said. 

J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling has faced criticism for her latest series of short stories, Magic in North America. (Debra Hurford Brown)

Keene also understands that it is not easy for creative people to hear this kind of criticism about their work. She has been attacked on social media as well for her stance on the subject. And some have even suggested that her alma mater, Harvard, has lowered their institutional standards because Keene is talking about popular culture.

"People don't like to hear that these fictional, fun representations have real weight in communities. They think it is not a big deal," she said.

"They think it is a frivolous issue, especially when you are going after folks who are really beloved, like J.K. Rowling."

But Keene has found support among some of Rowling's fans, who agree that this subject should be given more thought.

"She is J.K. Rowling and she does have a lot of power. And so it would say a lot if she would be able to open up and enter into this dialogue about the ways she used native peoples in these short [stories]," said Keene.