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This was meant to be an article about shipping problematic ships. But then, last week, J.K.Rowling put on her culturally insensitive hat once again, publishing the Ilvermorny background, and so I find myself writing about Harry Potter two times in a row. Because this is so outrageous that I feel I cannot let it be, even though I also recognise that, not being Native American, it isn’t primarily my place to talk about this and above all, I want to encourage you to read comments by people who are personally affected by this. I will merely try to summarise some of what I have read, and also point out the things that jumped out even at me.
When Rowling first made her material about magic in North America available on Pottermore, there was a big backslash from Native American communities. The way she uses the Native culture, they said, is exploitative and culturally appropriative. She takes important symbols and ideas out of context, does whatever she wants with them, and uses them without any regard for the nation of provenance – in fact, no such thing as different nations existing was even mentioned in the bit of writing that dealt with Native American magic. She was being very disrespectful.
There were also more general complaints of not respecting the American differences enough, of not understanding the setting enough, and simply copying what worked with the UK.
Rowling did not react. Her silence on these issues was rather loud, since she generally engages with fans on Twitter quite a lot. And now, several months later, more writing on this emerged, this time about Ilvermorny, the great American school of magic…and proved that not only she hadn’t been replying to the comments, she hadn’t been listening either.
As it seems to me – and of course I am hardly the best person to judge – it’s even more racist that the previous writing.
The appropriation of Native American cultures remains, with white people naming the houses of Ilvermorny after creatures from various tribes’ folklore and religion and using wand cores from these creatures as well. These beings are very willing to offer themselves up for this use, and in one case, it goes so far that none of the Native children actually get wands from these cores, because it’s only for the special white people. Also, these creatures were apparently often not even properly researched by Rowling. I’m hardly the best person to speak about this, so I’ll just once again recommend you to read what people from Native American communities have to say on this, and summarise it by saying that it seems she Rowling did it all wrong once again, showing her lack of understanding and respect.
But there is more.
This time, there is a narrative, you see, and so Rowling uses this wonderful opportunity to make that colonialist as well. The tale behind the founding of Ilvermorny is of Isolt, a young Irish pureblooded witch descended from Slytherin who escapes her abusive, blood-purity obsessed and murderous aunt and sails to America on the Mayflower. Once there, she saves a Pukwudgie from a dangerous spectre, and gains a friend in him who introduces her to other local magical creatures. Later, she saves two magical English children from death by the same spectre she had encountered once before, and she raises the boys with the help of their Muggle family friend, also an Englishman from Plymouth. She marries him in time, and they build a house they call Ilvermorny after the place where Isolt was born. One of the local creatures she met, the Horned Serpent (yes, one of those glaring cases of appropriation), voluntarily gives Isolt part of his horn to make a wand for her adopted son, which she of course manages quite easily, because she is a special snowflake. It’s a wand of exceptional power, even. Emboldened by this success, Isolt starts a school for her boys, which is first attended by Native Americans from Wampanoag and Narragansett tribes, who are interested in wand magic and teach the English wizards their way of doing magic in turn. Later, the fame spreads further and magical children of the local settlers start attending too. The tale then continues with some bits that are purely private to Isolt and her showdown with the villainous aunt, but ends with a description of how Ilvermorny developed. The school has a completely British character, to the point of the building actually becoming a castle in time, which makes very little sense. It also became a boarding school, and just in general turned into a copy of Hogwarts. The school then comes to be the best and biggest American school of magic.
So…yes, there are issues. In fact, the whole story is one huge issue, a tale of colonialism and of white people bringing progress to the backward countries and peoples elsewhere in the world.
And look, I can understand Rowling thinking that the idea of a school of the type Hogwarts was should be brought over from Europe. It requires large populations and a system that is at least a little centralized to make the idea practicable, and there doesn’t have to be any harm in saying the original American tradition didn’t have schools of this kind and instead transferred knowledge on a more personal basis…as long as you don’t imply that the European tradition is superior.
Which is clearly what happens here, what with the Native Americans only getting a mention in passing, while the entire make up of the school is distinctly European. And the thing is, even if Rowling felt that the story had to be about an Irish immigrant and that it had to tie in with the Hogwarts founding tradition (because it seems to be important for the upcoming film, so she might be in too deep already to change that), it still could have been done in a much less offensive manner. Why couldn’t Isolt meet a Native American witch she would become friendly with, and why couldn’t they grow so interested in what they could learn from each other about the other’s traditions that they would start a school which fully encompassed both? All the rest of the tale could have stayed the same. It would still have been far from perfect – the focus would have stayed firmly on the white side of the story – but it would have been better than this complete erasure of any Native American input. The Native Americans in the story are consistently framed as students, even though there is lip service given to the idea that they taught their magical arts as well. There is absolutely no focus on them, and out of the four important founders of an American schools, three are WASPs and one is an Irishwoman who came on the Mayflower. Charming.
The story is very deeply rooted in the idea of superiority of the European tradition. Just consider the fact that the person to found the best North American school, the one all the Native Americans wanted to send their children to in time, was not some expert in magic. It was not a distinguished Hogwarts professor to go West in search of new knowledge. It was not a noted Transfiguration expert. No, it was a young Irish girl who never had proper education, who learned all she knew about magic from her evil aunt and who was not even allowed to have a wand through the years when she was taught, so her knowledge must have been sketchy at best. Yet she was still good enough to found the best school in North America, because clearly, even the least knowledgeable white person is still better than the best person of colour. Or at least that’s what the tale implies.
And then, of course, there is the Pukwudgie.
His role in the story is suspiciously like that of a helpful native – he is the one who helps Isolt survive and teaches her about the world she came to – only being othered into a different creature allows Rowling to be even more offensive. I didn’t go into the details of his involvement in the story before, so let me do so now: Pukwudgies are actual creatures from Wampanoag folklore and in this universe supposedly distantly related to goblins, another pretty racist product of Rowling’s pen, and do not like humans. Yet when Isolt saves his life, this one promptly swears himself to her servitude until he can repay the life debt (yes, really). In spite of that, we hear about his ‘ingratitude’ because he found the situation humiliating (I wonder why?) and grumbled. What a bastard. But fortunately, Isolt found him ‘amusing’ and in time they became friends, something that is almost unique between wizards and Pukwudgies, because of course it is. Like Bill Weasley says, there can be no true friendship between goblins and wizards. She then names him, because Pukwudgies don’t tell humans their names and I suppose having him choose his own pseudonym would be too much. After fulfilling his role as guide for some time, this ‘William’ is then seen being indifferent to death of human children. There’s never any rationale for this either. It’s not ‘humans hunt Pukwudgies’, ‘there have been long wars’ or anything. No, he just dislikes humans on principle, because God forbid there was ever anything the
white people humans did to deserve the dislike. He has to be strong-armed into saving one of the children Isolt finds, and she then sends him away, disgusted by his approach. But he appears again just in time when Isolt’s life is at risk, saving her. We also learn that Isolt’s husband has always been amused by stories about him. The respect just drips from it, does it not? ‘William’ feels honoured they named one of the Ilvermorny houses after him and so decides to bring his family in and work at the school as security and maintenance, since the dislike of humans was clearly just a temporary fluke that passed as soon as he spoke to this guy who thought he was so goofy.
Now, do I really have to go into all the ways this is offensive?
I mean, it would be offensive even if it was just bout a sentinent creature, but the coding that raises strong parallels to Native American figures in white stories is just…ugh. I guess if this was what Native representation was going to look like, it’s a good thing there are no named Native characters, but really. Was Rowling actually trying to hit offensive stereotypes?
There are more problems with this new writing, too, ones much less important that the disrespect to Native American culture, but still, problems: the larger disrespect to the American tradition, for one. Again, the same issue that was discussed the first time around.
The matter of too large a number of students was raised by many, but that doesn’t break the suspension of disbelief. Given how rare the gift of magic is (we don’t have exact numbers, but it’s roughly 0.03% of population in the UK), it is not impossible that all of US wizards would fit into one school. And besides, Rowling doesn’t even say so: she says there are many more schools in the world than those she mentions on Pottermore, but that those mentioned there are the ones that are best and the quality of education there is guaranteed by the International Confederation of Wizards.
What is offensive is the assumption that it would be precisely this school, this very English WASP school, that would be the only truly good one. None of the others from different traditions would measure up, because everyone else is worse. No Spanish tradition, no French tradition, no Southern tradition at all, and certainly no Native tradition. Oh no, we can’t have that.
Another thing is how the school is basically a copy of Hogwarts. It’s explained by Isolt and her adopted sons always having wanted to study there and not being able to, so it’s a kind of wish fulfilment for them, but a) there was no need to write it that way, and it’s very harmful to imply that America was some kind of blank state for settlers to fulfil their failed dreams from Europe; b) from a Watsonian perspective, even if Isolt made it that way, the school should have developed as more people from different backgrounds joined. I’m sure the teachers who had Beauxbatons or Durmstrang education would have wanted to have heir own input, not to mention the scores of students and teachers from other parts of America.
Even beyond these problems, and perhaps even less importantly but still worth a mention to me, are the issues with the story that would exist even if it didn’t take place in the US. Namely, it’s yet another story with a parselmouth descended from Slytherin and obsessed with blood purity as the villain. The heroine is a descendant of Slytherin too, so that makes it a little better, but still. There are bad people from different families and with different affiliations – even with different opinions. Rowling knew that when she wrote Umbridge. Has she forgotten since? Bigotry against magical creatures is as real a part of the magical world as against Muggles. This villain could have been a Gryffindor trying to wipe out goblins because she believed they were evil or whatever. But no, we get the exact same type of villain once again, because there is only one kind of evil, clearly. You can recognise it by the snakes.
It has unpleasant hints of the idea that evil is inborn that could be felt with Tom Riddle already. The villainous aunt inherited the parselmouth talent; Isolt didn’t, even though she is explicitly said to be able to understand the Horned Serpent, one of the appropriated creatures – because Rowling would rather imply a white girl having a special connection with a mystical creature of Native Americans than have her character have a ‘bad trait’ (remember, Harry only had it from the bit of Voldemort’s soul, it wasn’t his as such). Isolt’s one descendant who inherited the ability didn’t get married or have children because she didn’t want to “pass Slytherin’s ancestry on”, as if there was anything inherently bad in talking to snakes. Isolt was brainwashed by her aunt into hate, but grew up to be a perfectly decent human being nonetheless, because these things are so easy to overcome when you are fundamentally good at heart. And so on.
There are some other details, too, like Ilvermorny being said to be the most open minded school, seeing that one of its founders was a Muggle, and the Squib daughter of Isolt still finding it unbearable to live there. Even while her father, the Muggle, was still alive. Or there is the public Sorting ceremony, providing great embarrassment to all who take too long to be picked by any of the houses. But these are just nitpicks, and would easily be forgiven if the larger story was without problems.
As it is, however, I struggle to find anything to be excited about. I tend to believe that the name drop of several Native American nations was an attempt at response to criticism of the Magic in North America writing, but not only is it too little too late, it looks very much like tokenism. I guess I’m happy we have a female protagonist at least, but as she has to be saved in that final confrontation by three males…I don’t know.
I have seen so many fans reimagining the wizarding schools in the US since the information about Ilvermorny came out, and that is probably the best thing this has led to. But many of those ideas were so great, it made me bitterly regret the way in which the official bits are so fundamentally lacking. And of course, the treatment of Native Americans in spite of clearly phrased criticism is pretty much unforgivable in and of itself. I repeat, go read the things I linked, and many more. This needs to be talked about.