By Loralee Sepsey
I remember the first time I picked up a Harry Potter book.
I was seven years old. I was in the back of our old beat up Nova that would break down a minimum of five times a year. We were driving through the rez on our way somewhere, I don’t remember where, but what I do remember was that it was somewhere far and I was bored and I spotted my mother’s fresh new copy of The Order of the Phoenix underneath the driver’s seat. I had seen the first two movies, even though I didn’t want to watch the first one because I was scared of dogs and Fluffy terrified me. But I liked them. So I picked it up and began to read.
I didn’t know who Sirius was. I didn’t know what had happened to Cedric. Hell, I barely knew what was anything was but the only thing I did know was that this book was beautiful and wonderful and I loved it.
Thus started a life-long obsession, and when I say life-long, I’m not exaggerating. The first movie came out when I was five. After my confused stumble through the Department of Mysteries, I went back to the beginning, and caught up with the books in time for the release of Half-Blood Prince and all the movies in between. I remember writing cheesy fanfiction and roleplaying on forums (I preferred Luna myself, and I totally shipped her with Neville). I remember my mom coming home with Deathly Hallows after waiting in line at a Ralph’s until one a.m. and reading the entire thing in seven hours. I remember going to the midnight premieres of the last two movies with my friends and crying because it was all over. I remember excitedly signing up for Pottermore as soon as it was launched. I remember getting my fourth tattoo on the inside of my upper left arm, a Deathly Hallows symbol with a quote from Dumbledore’s Prisoner of Azkaban movie speech above it: “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
Because that’s what Harry Potter was to me. It was happiness. These books gave me light when I was consumed by the darkness of depression, poverty, abuse, alienation. It didn’t matter if I was Native and they were British; it was just so fantastical, so wonderful, so beautiful. Hermione was who I aspired to be, and someone I was compared to often (mostly due to my bookish nature and frizzy mop of brown hair). As Native American youth, we face some of the highest rates of suicide, poverty, poor health, violence, and substance abuse within our communities due to centuries of historical trauma, forced assimilation, genocide, systemic racism, and colonization. For me, and I’m sure for others, Harry Potter was a way to escape these things, or to hold them off for just a little while longer.
And as someone who had grown up telling stories and hearing stories and loving stories, the Harry Potter series was a treasure trove, a never-emptying box of analyses and theories and detail and so many beautiful narratives. I credit Harry Potter with giving me my love for reading and writing, and I know I’m not alone. These books motivated a generation of young readers to be creative, to express themselves, to be excited and to be engaged about literature. It’s a bona fide pedagogical theory now.
You can probably imagine how excited I was when I heard about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Another Harry Potter movie? Set in my country? With Eddie Redmayne?! Hell yes. You could also imagine how excited I was when good old Jo announced she was releasing a history of magic in North America piece on Pottermore. Because who were the original North Americans? That’s right. Indians. My people. I couldn’t wait to read about people like me entering the world that I had loved for so many years.
And then I actually read it.
At first, I couldn’t believe it. It was just so offensive, so colonized, so… Whitewashed. Briefly, I thought I should just shut up and be happy that Native Americans were given representation at all, that I should take what I was given and I should just be happy that us poor little Indians were granted entrance into the beautiful, grandiose world that had given me so much hope as a child.
Could I be okay with her claiming that skinwalkers were just Animagi?
Could I be okay with her claiming that medicine men were just imposter wizards?
Could I be okay with her rewriting American history so that it sounds like Native American tribes welcomed European settlers with open arms, citing magical similarities to erase the very real genocide and conflict we endured?
People said I should. People said it was just fiction, to stop being so damn sensitive, and to get over it.
But it wasn’t just fiction. Skinwalkers are not fiction, medicine men are not fiction, normalized colonialism is not fiction.
Do we not deserve respectful representation? Are we allowed to exist without some white woman claiming our mythology and our history and our culture as her own invention? Because we never saw her do this to British history or Christianity in the Harry Potter series. Jesus never showed up as a professor at Hogwarts. The whale that swallowed Jonah wasn’t residing in the lake. Voldemort was uniquely Voldemort, not the literal incarnation of Lucifer. The world of Hogwarts was truly her invention, borrowing from the paranormal and popularly accepted ideas of “magic” and “witches” and “wizards,” and if I am forgetting some sort of British history reference or revision, then I apologize.
But that’s not really the same.
Rowling is Scottish. She lives in the UK. She’s a white woman. She can do what she wants with UK history and UK culture. That’s hers. She’s not Native American. She never grew up hearing the stories of Thunderbird or skinwalkers. She’s never participated in one of our ceremonies. She’s never heard a song sung by an elder in one of our dying languages that has somehow miraculously survived centuries of attempted murder and is desperately clinging on to life. She never lived on a reservation. She’s never known what it’s like to be assumed alcoholic, to have your educational successes passed off as affirmative action, to be sent to boarding school and beaten for speaking your native tongue, or wearing your traditional clothing, or using your Indian name. You can make all the comparisons you’d like, but the bottom line is that Rowling is not Native American, and she has no right to appropriate our cultures for her own profit. Hell, I’m Native American, and I would never turn my tribe’s stories into Western fiction for the entertainment of Western audiences. The reverence of Western ways is what brought my people to the brink of extinction. That’s disrespectful.
I didn’t think it could get any worse. But with the recent release of the Ilvermorny Houses and backstory, I realized that I shouldn’t have spoken so soon. Because this wasn’t just revisions of culture and history. This was blatant cultural theft.
None of the Native American “characters” in Rowling’s story of the founding of Ilvermorny had names, and were only mentioned in passing. Only 2 tribes out of literally hundreds are named: Narragansett and Wampanoag. But Isolt Sayre, the founder and an Irish woman, sure had a hell of a backstory. The story in itself normalizes colonialism, and makes it sound, again, like we welcomed the European invaders with open arms: a lie that continues to be perpetuated by white people who don’t want to acknowledge that America is stolen land and don’t want to think about what really happened here and what continues to happen here. The description of the Ilvermorny’s humble beginnings feels so much like assimilation; they taught the Native American children the more sophisticated wand magic, of course, in exchange to learn their own ways. Something in me doubts that their ways were taken very seriously. I desperately hope you prove me wrong, Jo.
This doesn’t even begin to cover the Houses themselves. Let’s keep in mind that lions, badgers, serpents, and eagles are very much creatures you can find on the Discovery channel. Here are the Native American origins and tribal affiliations on Pukwudgies, the Wampus Cat, the Thunderbird, and Horned Serpents. Ilvermorny has nothing uniquely American about it; it’s basically American Hogwarts with Native American cultures pasted on top of it for a lazy excuse of creativity. And die-hard Potterheads, a term I used to covet, eat it all up because we are starving for more, never mind the cultural appropriation. Who cares? We have more magic. Indians aren’t relevant anymore anyway. Do they even exist? Eh, they should get over it.
I can go all day talking about this. Right now, it just hurts, because not only has Rowling stolen our culture, claimed it as her own invention, and ignored our criticisms, she has inadvertently led the way for racists to crawl out of the woodwork. Look at any article that discusses this controversy and you’ll see people making the most hurtful and racist comments about Native Americans, calling us r*dskins and drunks and hillbillies. They are invalidating the pain we have felt and continue to feel. That we should go walk on “The Trail of Special Snowflakes,” that our “1/27th blood quantum took us far,” and one man went as far as to call a prominent female Native writer a squaw.
This isn’t about being perpetually offended by everything. I look at Internet memes all day and Native American-run pages, comedians, and comedies are some of my favorites–but that’s because we understand our own struggle, and we are able to heal through laughter. This isn’t about being too politically correct, or denying artistic freedom. We never complained about the lack of Native American representation in the Harry Potter series; it was set in the UK, for Christ sakes. We’re not stupid. And oh man, I was so excited that Rowling was going to include Native Americans in her stories. We never get representation. But the problem comes from how she chose to represent us: cherry-picking the myths and stories that she liked without understanding their contexts, twisting them so that they fit nicely into her own fiction, and strategically placing us in as background characters so that she couldn’t be accused of total exclusion. There’s no reason that Native American characters couldn’t be at the forefront or given essential parts in the creation of Ilvermorny. There’s no reason she had to use our creatures as the symbols and names for the Houses; the Hogwarts houses didn’t have mythical creatures as their symbols, although you could argue that the Slytherin serpent could be the Basilisk.
She could have just treated us as human beings, ones who have character and life and humanity. She could have created her own magical creatures, like the ones she did in the world of Hogwarts, or used the ones she had before and tweaked them for regional changes. Hell, she could have even kept skinwalkers and Thunderbird and Pukwudgies– just give them the respect and the reverence and the stories that they deserve. Don’t claim them to be Animagi or goblins or phoenix relatives. Name the tribes they come from. Don’t make them servants to the white settlers. They’re not yours to commodify, or to give permission to your fans to commodify. Because when I see people write “I’m a Thunderbird!!” in the comment section of a Buzzfeed article and try to compare them to the Hogwarts houses Rowling created, it just hurts. A lot. And people tell us that it doesn’t hurt because they didn’t get these huge boulders thrown at them.
I love Harry Potter. I used to own the box set of Fantastic Beasts and Quidditch Through the Ages. 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?”
When you find the ability to understand who we are, to empathize with us, and to understand that this isn’t “just fiction” to us, talk to me. But please, Jo, just please give your Native American fans the respect they deserve. We’re just as human as Harry and Hermione and Dumbledore; we deserve to be represented as such. We aren’t products to sell. We aren’t props and plot devices to use.
We’re still here.