Ilvermorny Brings up Questions About Research, Cultural Appropriation

Like many fans who grew up loving Harry Potter, I was initially excited by the prospect of J.K. Rowling expanding that magical world to other places. In college I was excited about Pottermore in theory, but didn’t actually find the site that engaging after I was sorted, and I mostly waited for other fan sites to tell me if something exciting was posted. When the “History of Magic in North America” was posted in March, I didn’t pay attention until I saw some of the reactions from fans (including Native American fans) saying that there were serious issues with it. I was concerned, but I didn’t go and read them. Then the history of the founding of Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was posted in late June, and this time I went and read it. I was not happy.

Ilvermorny

To start: simple fact checking alone would have helped the Ilvermorny story. Rowling writes about a man leaving from Plymouth, Massachusetts in search of his friends and somehow ending up somewhere near Mount Greylock, despite the fact that the two places are over one hundred miles apart. Rowling also never mentions Isolt encountering any Native American people despite the fact that in the seventeenth century, there would have been as many as eight different tribes within what is now considered Massachusetts. So Iseult traveled 130 miles, and built a home on Mohican land without encountering anyone? When a writer is doing research, they always need to know more than what actually ends up being in the story, because it’s the little details that can make the difference between a story coming to life and falling flat. Rowling clearly did not do her research before writing these stories about North America.

Let’s be clear – I am a white European-American. The story of Ilvermorny being founded by an Irish immigrant is the kind of story that is very easy for me to imagine my ancestors being a part of. But Rowling isn’t really talking about the “History of Magic in North America.” She is telling the history of European magic in North America. She glosses over the genocidal actions of European colonizers, instead saying that because of “the many similarities between their communities,” apparently there were no issues between European and Native American wizards. She never explains what these many similarities are, beyond them both having magic. Assuming that were true and all different wizards did get along, it still doesn’t make sense that European wizards would stand by and watch Native communities being slaughtered if there were wizards among them. It should have been a part of Rowling’s history, and it wasn’t.

History_of_North_America_HoNA_Book_Cover_Day_1

The larger issue with the stories about North America is Rowling’s use of creatures and beliefs from Native American spirituality, and treating them as part of some fictional world she is creating. There are no Native American characters in these stories (there are references to some early students at Ilvermorny being from specific tribes, but none of these students are named or anywhere near being actual characters). Rowling’s story is about European colonizers coming to the “New World” and organizing magic into a proper school. It is a colonial narrative, and Rowling does not do anything to suggest that she is aware of the violence innate to such a narrative.

I really wanted to be excited about “History of Magic in North America” and Ilvermorny, especially because of the upcoming Fantastic Beasts movie. But I cannot be excited about a story that ignores violent histories and erases the indigenous voices who were the target of that violence. There are many others who have written about this issue, and I encourage you to read Native peoples’ responses. There is an excellent roundup here, and this one is from a fan like me who grew up loving Harry Potter. She writes:

I want to see the new movie desperately, but I’m so scared that if I do, this beautiful world will become as ruined and as colonized as this one. I’m scared I’ll have to leave halfway through, tears streaming down my face, unable to handle sitting idly by while my culture and the cultures of my indigenous brothers and sisters are disrespected and appropriated for profit. I’m scared that I wouldn’t be able to sit through this movie without getting up and screaming at the audience, “Don’t you see how wrong this is?”

I want more Harry Potter stories, and I want to learn more about magic in other parts of the world, but this was not a good way for Rowling to do so. I don’t want more Harry Potter at the expense of indigenous voices. I don’t want more Harry Potter if it ignores racism and colonialism and genocide. What Rowling has given us in her latest writing is nowhere near the power of the original Harry Potter series, and I would rather have nothing than something that is this deeply flawed.

Note: If you’re interested in learning more about Native American history, I highly recommend An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.

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