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JK Rowling’s appropriation of Navajo beliefs shows racial ignorance

ByJemma Hoolahan

Mar 24, 2016

Once more Rowling comes under scrutiny for her portrayal of minorities in her literature. The main seven novels of Harry Potter are undeniably heteronormative and white; thus it should be of no surprise that her “spin offs” on Pottermore and other new releases follow a similar trend.

In anticipation of the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Rowling has produced a four-part series on Pottermore focusing on the development of the wizarding world in America. There was initially hope and excitement about Rowling broadening her world to other cultures, but this was quickly crushed. The colonialist undertones and clear lack of research or respect has led her to being accused of cultural appropriation. The opening sentence of her first piece, set between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, quickly brushes off any elements of colonialism, instead calling Europeans mere “explorers”.

One of the main problems with her pieces can be summed up by her words ‘in the Native American community’. She quickly lumps together a whole range of different cultures and communities. In her novels – granted they are longer and thus allow for greater scope – she explores in depth different European identities; from French with her portrayal of Beauxbaton and Durmstrang in Scandinavia.

Rowling has come under particular scrutiny for her presentation of ‘skin walkers’. Again she fails to explore the nuances of the Native American community instead calling the specifically Navajo belief: ‘the legend of the Native American “skin walker”’. The issue arises from the fact that Rowling is dealing with beliefs that are still alive and present in today’s society. The Navajo community – and Native Americans in general – have been persecuted because of their religion up until the late 20th century.

Rowling’s new writing is ultimately devoid of research. Her tweet that “in my wizarding world, there were no skin-walkers… the legend was created by No-Majes to demonise wizards” highlights her ignorance and lack of care. The problem is that it is not her world. She cannot claim and re-write beliefs and religions that are currently being practiced. It is not the same as modifying the ancient Greek ideas of centaurs or phoenixes; these beliefs and traditions are no longer practiced. Skin walkers are an important belief of the Navajo community and should not be appropriated by Rowling through a lack of research.

The idea of the witch and wizard communities in other countries is extremely exciting, Rowling simply needs to spend greater time researching and use a bit more creativity so as not to end up appropriating current and existing cultures. Rowling’s wide reception means that these ideas are going to be spread quickly, giving people a skewed and simplistic view of the Native American communities and beliefs.

Ultimately whilst we cannot be surprised by the racist and colonist undertones present in Rowling’s work, we can be ashamed and disappointed with her lack of response.  She replied to a tweet that was positive about the short pieces, and yet has said nothing to the rising clamour of voices calling her out for her cultural appropriation. This silence is extremely telling.


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