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Cultural Appropriation in Fantastic Beasts/Ilvermorny

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Article: We're Still Here - Natives in America

 

I've read a few articles which criticize the appropriation by JKR of names, legends, and cultural aspects from marginalized groups.

 

I always feel it's a difficult thing to be inspired by a culture and want to use it in your work. On one hand it would feel a bit weird to not have Native American influence on magic in the Americas but it seems like there was a huge gap between the pre-colonial magic in North America and the magical government in Fantastic Beasts. Should she have hired a cultural expert on ways to use Native American history in her work. There's also the argument that this wasn't hers to capitalize on, not with there being actual Native American stories she's eclipsing and people who aren't financially benefitting from having their culture put on display.

 

 

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i agree that it would be weird to not mention native american magic when discussing north america, but JK definitely went about it in a really inappropriate way. she definitely should have consulted extensively with native american people while conceptualizing. the way that she has gone about it sort of ended up smushing a whole bunch of different cultures together. the way that the native american sections on pottermore (and the house names) are set up create the impression that there is one Native American Culture, which is just incorrect and contributes to the erasure of different native belief systems. for example, she talks about native american wizards believing in skinwalkers when that is a specifically navajo belief (and there's whole other issues wherein that is a creature that isn't even supposed to be discussed in-tribe, let alone by outsiders - so maybe i shouldn't even be making this point - but i digress).

 

imo it's a shame because not only does stuff like this contribute to the continued erasure and oppression of indigenous peoples, but it also just made the whole north american section of pottermore really flat and unbelievable for me. there are SO many different tribes with different belief systems and if she had done some proper research and consultation and gone about the whole thing in a respectful way, she could have really brought the world to life. instead it reads like she just did a quick google search, picked and chose things off of wikipedia, and painted a lifeless, inaccurate, and frankly racist portrait of Native American Culture.

 

(it's also really bothersome that she wrote that native american wizards got on fine with european wizards (and didn't address issues such as slavery and jim crow when writing about ilvermorny) and outright said that that sort of racism doesn't exist in the wizarding world - so tone deaf and it doesn't at all make sense with what we see in the books? not only do wizards have their own system of racism, we also see racist remarks made towards characters like angelina johnson.)

 

i hope this makes sense lol i'm typing super fast at work. tl;dr jk went about this whole thing terribly and the homogenization of native cultures that is on display in pottermore is messed up, contributes to native oppression, and is racist.

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Probably an unpopular opinion here, fair warning:

 

I whole heartedly disagree with all the cultural appropriation talk. I feel like that is the in vogue thing to do right now, and honestly it makes me quite angry when I see stories about it. I think it's amazing that JK Rowling included Native American mythology in her writing. She didn't have to do that, she very well could have said that the european wizards brought magic over with them, and then there would be a completely different stink about racism.

 

I think it's a lot of drama about nothing at all, and just another reason for people to be outraged, since that seems to be what people like to do these days.

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I've not read the article or delved deep into Ilvermorny but I see the points being mad here and in the end I agree with Ashley.  In a lot of ways JKR was in a situation of damned if you do, damned if you don't.  There would have been an out cry if she kept it strictly English and yet there would have been an out cry like there is now for including it.  Even if she did hire an expert to help her out, someone somewhere would have been upset about something regarding what she did.  It's a catch 22.

 

Please don't take this post as me not caring about proper representation of a waning culture.  What America did to the indigenous tribes is something that angers me nearly every time I see it and I feel we as a country have lost so much by having treated the Native Americans as we did.

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I had no idea this was an issue.

 

While I can understand that representation for Native Americans is few and far between (not talking about Harry Potter here, but literally everywhere...  how many Native Americans are white people with dark makeup in movies?  Too many.) I think it's important to remember that JK Rowling is not American.  That in itself is huge in my opinion.

 

Also - in regards to racism and the like - could she really take her own fiction work and include everything?  Wizard race is not relevant to her stories.  Wizard blood is relevant so she wrote about that, but not race.  If Rowling touched base on EVERYTHING that is major in the States or elsewhere her writings would have to be 10x longer than already are.

 

I understand people may be upset, but this is fiction...

 

And maybe it's because I simply cannot understand something like this.  I'm not Native American so I can't possibly understand...

 

I'm excited to read about everyone else's thoughts on this matter, it's something that just goes over my head because it doesn't affect me in a way that it might affect someone else.

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I have read the article linked above, as well as another article shortly after the history piece was released on Pottermore from a more "mainstream" internet source (I forget which one) and to be honest, I'm very torn about it all. There are parts I feel are legitimately inappropriate from a cultural perspective and there are aspects of the (I think it's now safe to call it this) controversy, that I think are ultimately overblown.

 

As far as the subjects go, I think the real issue is not "appropriation" but outright inaccuracy and/or lack of rigorous research. You have the explaining away of complex pieces of Native American cultural experience too simply (the racism/colonization issue) and the magical explanations for existing mythology/lore without either: (1) making them more completely original or (2) fully acknowledging their history/demonstrating enough understanding of that history to show that it was, at the very least, rigorously researched before writing (the skinwalkers as Animagi and Thunderbird commentary in particular). In JKR's particular case, I think it can rightfully be called out as sloppy and lacking in nuance in my opinion. The only factual critique of the article I find truly meritless is the portion complaining that the founder of Ilvermorny was, in the backstory of Ilvermorny given more play than Native American culture or the aspects of its culture that are being drawn on to create the houses. Obviously in a story about its founding, the person who is responsible for founding it is going to be the main character and their arc is going to be central. Let's not demean the credibility of the legitimate arguments with stuff like this.

 

However, the problem I have with the "appropriation", "lacks diversity", "privilege", and "whitewashing" attacks are that they seem to place everyone in a lose-lose situation. On the one hand, if people do not include members of groups different from themselves (ethnic, gender, racial, and sexual orientation or otherwise) or even "enough" of them (what is "enough"? demographic percentage matches with characters regardless of importance? minority main characters? minority major-minor characters?)  they are "lacking diversity" (or in the case of white authors "whitewashing") and they should be excoriated for both their so-called ignorance or privilege. Then on the other hand, if people who are not members of a certain group attempt to use cultural elements, history, lore, etc. as either inspiration or simply out-and-out foundations of their stories or writing, they are "appropriators" who are "using" whichever group is at issue as a "tool" for their own enrichment or financial gain.

 

Both are very problematic.

 

Why? I think it creates, accurately or otherwise, the impression that it is unacceptable for non-members of a particular group to write about or base their writing on a particular group's culture if the writing is not to the liking of the group at issue. This indeed, seems to be the whole basis of the cultural appropriation attack. The author of the article takes great pains to point out that JKR is a white, Scottish woman. If she were a Native American would everything the author pointed out - the lack of nuance, the poor research, suddenly be okay? It shouldn't be, but that's partly the impression I got from the article. Are we to presume that equally inaccurate writing, if done by a member of the group at issue would just be bad or inaccurate writing, while the same done by anyone else is automatically more grievous, even malicious? It also creates the implication that non-members should "stay out." But then if they do stay out, they're "whitewashing" or "lacking diversity". It all feels like a vicious cycle. We'll never gain the understanding of each other that we all need to progress together as humankind if every failure of understanding, every ignorant or poorly-researched statement or story, is treated as an attack and a reason to label, rather than an opportunity to educate.

 

I would also point out that research is not a cure all. Speaking only from my own experience, though I am trying to increase the diversity in my own writing, I'll be the first to admit that it is not very diverse now. I have written one trans character and many female characters, but I cannot simply "research" what it is to be female or trans, and even if I supplemented what I did do with interviews with many women or trans individuals I think it's arguable that I can never truly understand what it is to be female or trans because I haven't lived it. Ditto for being black or homosexual or any other group I'm not a part of.

 

I'm going to stop myself there before I get too far off topic extending this to other areas of life, but I think we should take these realities in account before we rush to judge authors - particularly authors of fiction and not just fiction, but fiction in the fantasy, sci-fi, or other non-realistic, non-historical fiction genres.

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I'm glad you brought this up, Rose. I'm not hugely interested in reading about Ilvermorny, so I wasn't at all aware of the issue until I saw this thread.

 

I'm sure JKR had only the best of intentions when she included tribal cultures (or a semblance of a hybrid of them) in her American wizarding world. I respect that she may have been aiming to pay respects to those cultures and show diversity in the magical world. Admirable goals.

 

BUT, even if I'm not prepared to attack JKR, I'm still not okay with this. Tribal cultures in the US (and elsewhere in North America) are hugely diverse and like ALL groups of people, tribal communities have extremely complex cultures and histories. To take those many DIFFERENT cultures, fail to recognize their sovereignty as separate groups, and blend that idea of a tribal monoculture into your personal magical society... that's big. To me, it's a lot like grammar; you have to learn the rules of grammar before you're able to write well while breaking those rules. And JKR's use of these cultures has the clear ring of someone who doesn't really know the culture's 'rules' (so to speak). It profoundly lacks authenticity.

 

I can't claim to have a CLUE what I would think or feel about this if I were Native American. But I have actually thought about this issue a lot, because I have an idea for an OF novel that borrows Mexican myth/history in a significant way. I badly want to write this story, and one (though not the only) reason is that people of color *desperately* deserve more representation in every art form, including fiction. But I'm white. I'm white, and privileged, and I argue with myself about the exact dilemma JKR faced with Ilvermorny all the dang time.

 

I'm really happy this came up in our conversation here because I've found it enlightening. And what I have taken from it is, first, that it is impossible to please everyone. Second, that the world badly needs to see and hear and recognize more creators of color who can represent their own experiences authentically. And third, most centrally, that if people are going to represent and/or draw inspiration from a culture they are not a part of, they need to consult heavily with members of that community, and they need to ALWAYS seek out complexity. If it doesn't make sense in the story to devote enough time on the culture to give a sense of its complexity and nuance, an outsider creator should find a different way to incorporate diversity. Culture without complexity isn't culture anyway, as far as I'm concerned.

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So I get what people are saying about this being a catch-22 and this being fiction, but a couple of points:

 

-While this is fiction, the issue is that she borrowed heavily from real life and people's real cultures in a way that was inappropriate while writing her fiction.

-Doing stuff like that in fiction has damaging effects irl.

-In my experience, the absolute key to writing diverse fiction is research and not only that but actually talking to people from the group I'm trying to represent. While I understand what Kevin's saying about that not being perfect or a "cure", I think NOT doing that at least to some extent is hazardous.

-Obviously JKR couldn't include EVERYTHING while writing about Native American wizards, and obviously it's good that she included them at all, but she should have AT LEAST been accurate and respectful with the stuff that she did include. a) Saying "the Native Americans believed in skinwalkers" or anything similar is sort of like me saying "in Europe they wear kilts". It's silly. It's inaccurate. It shows that I don't really know what I'm talking about. b) Out of all the beliefs that she could have chosen to incorporate into her mythology, she chose the one that literally is not supposed to be discussed, not even in-tribe. And then she took it and said "well it's actually this other thing from my fictional universe!". Inappropriate, disrespectful.

 

There is a long history in fiction of cherry-picking and misrepresenting Indigenous beliefs for the ~tribal mystique~ factor. That's appropriation. It's not the sheer fact of the author not being Native American that makes it so; it's the lack of care and effort put into researching and writing respectfully. It's the misrepresentation. JKR could have incorporated some different Native American belief systems into her work without being accused of appropriation, but that would have involved her caring enough to find out which beliefs were appropriate to use, which tribes to name as the originators of those beliefs, etc. The basis of the concept of cultural appropriation is not simply "You're not from my culture so writing about my culture is bad"; it's "You're not from my culture so picking and choosing aspects of my culture to use for your own purposes, misrepresenting or not even naming my actual culture while doing so, is bad". That's why, imo, discussing cultural appropriation is actual mportant for fostering a greating understanding of each other and each other's cultures, because if you're going about things the second way (i.e. the actual Cultural Appropriation way) it tells me you don't really care about the culture you're taking from at all.

 

(Hope this makes sense)

 

 

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Kayla, I definitely understand what you're saying and agree one hundred percent (100%) that what JKR did in this particular instance was inappropriate. It was absolutely poorly research, sloppy, and I can clearly see how it is offensive. The author pointed that out very clearly in the first half of the article and made factual points that were undeniably valid and discussed their impact.

 

I also agree that discussing these concepts and occurrences is crucial - like I said, we need as a global society to understand each other more fully and consider each other's cultures and histories and identities more deeply. However, based on the latter portion of the article and some of the larger debate about this controversy, I wonder whether the intent was to provoke discussion or simply to attack and provoke a response from "the internet". First, the author needlessly devotes a lot of energy to JKR's "outsider" status rather than sticking to the original points that the problem is poor research and (perhaps) willful lack of understanding. Second, contrary to the earlier sections the latter half of the article appears to hold "outsider" authors to a near impossible standard. Either: (1) use Native American cultural elements as inspiration but alter them completely so that they don't speak to the actual underlying elements or (2) when using Native American cultural elements directly, expound on their entire history across any and all applicable tribes, even in the confines of a piece that is a short story. On top of this (3) ensure that whether the cultural elements themselves are actually the focus of a piece, make sure they're balanced in quality and quantity with the things that are. Had she left it at the first points, I agree with her wholeheartedly, but the election was made to go further.

 

Though your points (and the first half of the author's) are calm, reasoned, and delivered with the intent to discuss, too often the terms "appropriation", "whitewashing" and "privilege" (the first two of which are unhelpfully aggressive terms right off the bat) are used to simultaneously strike with the sword and block with the shield - in others words, to criticize an author, speaker, etc. and then immediately invalidate their response (when one is merited - though here I concede it is not) by virtue of their "outsider" status. In my mind, this kind of behavior perverts their purpose, which is to raise awareness and allow us to find a closer understanding of one another and cultures and experiences we cannot possibly understand otherwise.

 

Perhaps I'm now not making sense, but the bottom line is I actually agree with the first points the author made and with you about JKR's conduct being inappropriate and discussion being necessary. It was never my intention to say that discussion of the foregoing concepts shouldn't happen - I believe the opposite - I just think in practice, it doesn't necessarily work so well when critiques are made with at least the partial intent to inflame against "outsiders" and/or shut down discussion entirely. Unfortunately a lot of problems in our world today are worsened by members of all groups giving in to this insular sort of alternatively hyperaggressive/hyperdefensive groupthink, including members of majority groups that try to unite people in fear based on difference or based on outright racism or xenophobia. My hope is that this will change with future generations and we can come closer to a united humankind, but on the lately I am reminded of a quote once listed (for reasons unknown) in my high school planner - "To be fair is not enough anymore. We must be ferociously fair." (John Hay Whitney)

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hello friends,

 

thank you for posting this topic Rose- it seems especially important to discuss appropriation given all of the wonderful work hpft authors do with diversity.

 

and thank you to the posters above, it's always gratifying to see a discussion on the internet that's respectful and raises well-thought out points.

 

my thoughts always get stuck on intention in conversations like these. and my thoughts get stuck on intention anyway. it seems like many people's understanding of these issues hinges on whether or not the author's good intentions should weigh in to how people judge their actions or omissions. i feel like above i can see three variations on intention: 1 jkr's intentions were good, and good intentions are enough, 2 jkr's intentions were good, and good intentions are not enough, and 3 jkr's intentions are irrelevant, because good intentions still cause oppression and pain.

 

i go around and around on whether or not intention matters in these situations. i think it's painful to someone with good intentions when they realize they've contributed to oppressive systems, and it's certainly painful to be at the receiving end of an oppressive system/person. and i also very much believe that someone's good intentions can still cause a lot of harm and hurt. i guess i just try to hold in my little brain that intention matters and doesn't matter, excuses and doesn't excuse, all at the same time.

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Making a quick reply to share a discussion of this from Metafilter [M].

 

It's also been my experience that whitewashing, appropriation, and privilege are often seen as uncomfortable and aggressive terms by those outside of a minority population. I think the terms are meant to be jolting so they communicate the disparity they're used to describe.

 

(I had another point but have forgotten)

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I definitely agree the aspects of the Native American cultures and beliefs she included were badly researched and used inappropriately, especially the things she mentioned relating to legends and so on, and that it's incredibly problematic. When you're taking things which are incredibly important and personal to a group(s) of people, in the particular way that culture and cultural beliefs are, and twisting it to fit in your own universe, you have to be so, so careful about how you do it. Even more so if it's not your culture and something you don't know that much about. You have to do proper research, you have to reach out to people who know more than you and pick their brains for information so that you can give the best representation you can - whatever that means, re. leaving stuff out, having to adapt/edit what you want to write in order to fit around the culture(s). Not doing that is lazy and disrespectful and it smacks of ignorance of the issues, even if it's not meant to be malicious and  wasn't deliberately attempting to smear/damage/harm a culture/cultures or offend people. She should have emailed a professor/expert in Native American peoples and their cultures; she should have contacted people who could have put her in touch with the peoples directly, who might have been happy to help her understand what to include and what not to include and how to include it. She above almost anyone else has the resources - financial and otherwise - the name and the reputation which would mean she could do that (and, tbh, she might have asked for help and not got it, or got wrong advice. We don't really know entirely, as far as I know?), and not utilising that is, imo, incredibly shameful and wrong.

 

For me, personally, it was so hard and so terrifying to write another culture, particularly one which is that much more different and harder to find information on (I did find it more difficult to find information for Native American cultures and peoples than almost anything else I've researched for fic - I don't know which sites to trust, where to look, where to avoid, what might be interpretations of things or second-hand information or written based on other sources (primary or secondary), and I didn't know what terms or ways to search what I wanted to find out - I didn't want to use terms which might be offensive or derogatory and I couldn't presume I knew all of them), and I think attempting that is good and has to be seen as good, if only to encourage people to write things which are out of their comfort zone and to explore new and varied options for characters and cultural discussions in media, and thus encourage more diversity in books/movies/plays/etc. no matter what kind of author wrote it. Of course, the act of simply writing about something always has to be tempered with how it's included - and something which is included badly needs to be criticised and the author needs to be told that it's wrong and offered help to fix it. Otherwise, those who made the mistakes don't learn and those whose cultures/identities/personal issues were represented get offended (rightfully so), misrepresented or worse. Wrong knowledge is harmful and can have terrible consequences and anyone writing about something which they don't know about needs to remember that, I think.

 

Also, I do agree with people above me who said that authors can't include everything. JKR created a fabulous world with so many details, but she can't put everything in it. A discussion of colonialism and racism in the snippets about magic in North America or the Ilvermorny story would have been incredibly long, likely incomplete (given the lengthy and detailed histories of expansion and attempted, if not completed, genocide/etc. in the Americas by Europeans), and extraneous to the actual point and message of the stories, in the same way that a long segue into discussion on sexism and homophobia in Harry Potter, while it would have been wonderful and inspirational, would have been. Authors can't do or include everything, and lambasting people for not including 'enough' or things you think they should have included when is probably not going to encourage others to include things because how can they possibly do it 'right'?

 

That being said, what you do have control over as an author is the quality and the truth of the things you do choose to put in. JKR absolutely failed to check that what she was putting in her stories about Ilvermorny was right and that she could include it at all, and handled a lot of the references to Native cultures and peoples insensitively. Her silence to questions and comments on it is incredibly unimpressive and wrong (- good intentions might count for something to some people, but if you make a mistake you should apologise, own up for it and ask for help to correct it appropriately. It's basic human kindness/interaction and at least shows that you made the mistake(s) from a position of ignorance rather than malice, some sensitivity to the personal nature of the issues you're dealing with, and a willingness to listen and learn). Those things are necessary to do, and is really simply a requirement when you deal with anything which you don't know about. Failing to do something so basic is almost unforgivable, and shouldn't be forgiven by virtue of the fact that inclusion of diversity should be celebrated and encouraged. Including diversity in any way can be incredibly difficult and nerve-wracking and terrifying, and I do believe people who do so should be helped and applauded, but being respectful and sensitive about things is basic and simple and needs to be the absolute base level expected of anything purporting to represent any cultures/peoples/etc.

 

(NB: ohmygod I did not realise how long this was! *hides* I'm so, so sorry guys!  :-\ Also, I think it makes sense????)

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Jumping in here to second what Kayla and Laura have already said much more eloquently than I am. The way JKR went about this is wrong. She is wrong to have included such poorly researched material about such incredibly sensitive topics. Intentions don't matter. Doing the bare minimum is not good enough. I'm not going to be satisfied with the fact that she included Native American mythology, because she absolutely did have to. Representation matters. Sensitive representation matters. I'm well aware that it sounds like nothing will ever be good enough for me, and honestly, that's true. I'm going to keep throwing fits about lack of representation and insensitive representation. Progress won't continue to happen if we don't continue to push it forward.

 

Aside from that, she just should have known better. She took a sacred, spiritual concept from one specific tribe of American Indian and a) applied it to her own fiction, negating the actual belief behind it and b) gave that one concept to every single tribe on the continent. That's like her discovering Christianity and telling us that lol, Jesus was a wizard guys, and all of his miracles were just some fancy wandwork! It's a Big Deal, and it's absolutely not okay. It's offensive, plain and simple.

 

This new content is cultural appropriation. We know it is because members of the culture have straight up told us that it is cultural appropriation. As Louis CK once said, "If someone tells you that you hurt them, you don't get to decide that you didn't."

 

EDIT: The term American Indian is generally preferred to Native American, hence my use of it

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(Aaaand I just noticed that I mostly talked about Pottermore content re: North American wizards without really touching on Fantastic Beasts or Ilvermorny... oops :P Sorry for going a little OT hahaha)

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I don't have a whole lot to say, mainly because most of my thoughts have already been said by others in a much more eloquent way than I would have. But my thoughts about this issue boil down pretty simply. Natives have criticized the Pottermore content as cultural appropriation, and as they are the authorities on their own cultures - cultures that have historically been marginalized and forced to assimilate into the culture of white settlers - their opinions are the most valid on this subject. So yes, the Ilvermorny info is cultural appropriation. All of the Ilvermorny Houses are named after things in Native cultures/mythology, but are used essentially just as symbols to represent what the white founder of the school wanted it to be. That's cultural appropriation at its core.

 

A thing that also bothered me about the Ilvermorny story was that it just seemed too nice at the end - the groups of wizards of different races were mentioned at Ilvermorny without any conflict. I mean, I would like it very much if that were true of the world, but racism existed back then and continues to exist, and not acknowledging something that has hurt groups of people for centuries is  erasing the very real struggles of a people.

 

Yes, it can be scary to write a culture that you have no familiarity with. But she could have, and absolutely should have, consulted an authority on Native American cultures and peoples before including elements of Native culture in her story. We all know JKR did loads of research writing the original seven books, as they're so detailed and all the names have significance, etc. Why couldn't she put that level of research into this too? I think what this all boils down to is that her use of Native American themes in her story, while probably done with good intentions, was just insensitively done and poorly researched.

 

/rant

 

...ok I take that back about not having a lot to say :P

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Well, yes. JKR allows cultural appropriation.

 

I'll tell you what, ever since Goblet of Fire, my country has been represented in HP as a place populated by backwards quasi-Russians as well as beautiful nymph-like creatures who can turn into fire-hurling harpies on command (veelas, if you're wondering). Are we like that? Not really. Is our mythology like that? Well, we do have female nymph-like creatures with a similar name, but the harpy part resides a bit to the south, in Greece. (Good thing she didn't throw any Turkish folklore into the mix, now that would have been a scandal).

 

So, cultural appropriation! Inaccurate representation! Rage! Well, that led us nowhere. On the other side of the barricade, there are those that are glad we get represented at all. It's JKR's world. She can pick any aspect of a country's culture, and blend them as she pleases. Or she could go and say that no, she's not going to incorporate any local influences into her version of the country, and make the place as British as she wants it to be. Are those things offensive? Okay, on one hand, no one is omniscient, but on the other, it's the age of the Internet and information is several clicks away. Did she do justice to a culture with a half-hearted, blurry representation? Hell no! Is she obliged to change the way she wrote something because it's offensive? No. Don't like it, don't read it. Or, well, become a fanfic author.

 

After the rage (over things like Veelas, totally wrong accents and how Viktor Krum's name sounds like Indiana Jon) cooled down, I said to myself: Okay. This isn't going to change. It's her work, her world, even if it has about as many holes as a block of Swiss cheese when it comes to comparing cultures with the real world. So let's fill those holes. Headcanon time! I have the possibility to write all about why things should be different than JKR's description and why they turned out like she wrote it. I can chalk it up to in-universe inaccuracies, Muggle legends, weird stories, characters picking wrong accents in exile, anything. Native American culture is given a blanket description? Take a pen and diversify it. Have a character challenge the scholastic statements about it. Tell a story about how one people's folklore got forgotten and why.

 

So look at it as an opportunity. Be creative. Reconcile the inaccuracies with your own knowledge. Write to JKR if you feel like it. But all in all chill, it's just a book.

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I got a bit carried away, so I'm going to preface this by saying that all links are 12+, and links to Wikipedia are for the sake of clarity and brevity.

 

I think another issue that's important to discuss in this matter is how the indigenous peoples of North America have suffered at the hands of European colonists. They have undergone literal centuries of genocide at the hands of the (white) Europeans who came to their home, stole their land, brought disease, straight up murdered them, intentionally destroyed their cultures, stole their children and sent them to boarding schools for the express purpose of "killing the Indian" and "saving the man." And then herded them up and made them walk to reservations thousands of miles away from their ancestral homelands, which, in any case, are basically the shittiest pieces of land the government had.

 

Native American religions were outlawed in America until 1978. The last residential school closed in 1996. That is not a typo. Until 1996, boarding schools founded on the idea of "killing the Indian, saving the man," (which I am repeating again here because SERIOUSLY,) were still up and running. I can't stress enough how terrible these schools were. The children were taken there forcibly, were not allowed to speak their own language, wear their clothes, keep their long hair, or even use their own names. They could not talk about their family or their culture or their mythology. The children were beaten, starved, deprived of their family, sent to work as indentured servants to rich white people in the summer (where they were sometimes worked literally to death), sexually abused and sometimes (often) killed.

 

And that is certainly part of the reason I'm upset about all of this. These people who were not allowed to participate in their culture for generations are now having bits of their culture taken and morphed into something else by someone who has absolutely no understanding of their meaning or significance. I have to say, JKR using animals from Native American mythology in the way she has seems to parallel the behaviors of the early colonists. What she's doing is the literal definition of appropriation and a prime example of colonization.

 

I don't expect JKR to change the history of Ilvermorny to suite these complaints. I'm complaining so that the issues are heard and addressed by other authors in the future.

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I'm gonna have to agree with Nhaz here, I think their post hits the nail on the head for me.

 

I understand that there are many issues surrounding the native american population, I know about the trail of tears and the horrible history of their people, we have to study it in school, and it's good that we do. But to be honest, I don't think she needed to get in to all of these things. We're talking about a children's story here, we're talking about JK Rowling looking at North America and saying "I want to write a story about magic in America, and I want to incorporate the culture of the Native Americans, because they were there first." Should she have incorporated more cultures? Probably. Could she have done more? Probably.

 

But to me, that's not the point. It's not her point to sit here and pick apart all the parts of Native American history, or American history for that matter, and make sure it all gets put in. She chose aspects of that culture and incorporated it into her stories.

 

She wrote about French people and Bulgarians and all of that in her first books, and like Nhaz states, there was cultural appropriation there, but at the end of the day, it is fiction. The point of her stories is not to start a conversation on racism in America, and racism toward a specific group. The point of her stories is to create a background for magic in America, and she did that.

 

If people are inspired to look further into Native American culture and mythology because of this, if they want to do further research into the history of the many peoples that inhabited America before Europeans came here (and the atrocities that occurred after they arrived), then that's fantastic. I'm glad a dialogue was started and people are expanding their horizons.

 

But let's not lose sight of the main point. This is a children's story that incorporates Native America themes and magic, and I think that's wonderful.

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I don't think "it's just fiction," is a valid argument here. Fiction doesn't exist inside of a vacuum. She didn't need to dissect the entire history of the genocide against Native Americans, my issue is that she didn't address it at all. She wrote quite clearly in the story that the magical settlers and the Native Americans got along just fine with absolutely no issues ever. She completely ignored the entire history of Native Americans, and that just doesn't fly with me.

 

When you add that to the fact that she used symbols from the mythology in ways that Native Americans themselves have clearly stated are inappropriate and offensive, and you've got a giant, icky mess.

 

I get that it's not real, and I get that it's supposed to be a children's book, but the negative parts of our history shouldn't be glossed over and made to seem as if it doesn't exist.

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I don't feel qualified to discuss what is and isn't inappropriate appropriation in this specific case (but I am inclined to listen to the people most concerned and believe that Rowling's treatment of these cultures is inappropriate) and maybe I'm derailing here, but I think this issue needs to be discussed in the wider context of Rowling's writing.

 

I think we all can agree that Rowling could have done more and better here (whether we think what she did was enough or not), but I find it surprising that so many people are so surprised that she didn't. A few months back I read an article where the author said that they wished that Rowling had treated American cultures with the same respect she treated other European cultures and I was like... well, she did. In that she didn't.

 

The thing is that JK Rowling's writing about the wizarding world is never extensivelly researched. The whole point of most of the magical creatures, for example, is to take something that most people know about - gnomes, fairies, trolls, dragons, centaurs, unicorns - and use the common knowledge version of these creatures as a shorthand to either follow exactly or subvert. Her centaurs have little to do with the original Greek mythical creature but much to do with the contemporary British version. Likewise her trolls have absolutely nothing to do with the original Scandinavian trolls from our folk lore but everything to do with the contemporary British version, and so on. The Loch Ness Monster is 'in fact' just a kelpie, gnomes are 'in fact' pests, fairies are 'in fact' not intelligent and so on. And when this gets applied to creatures from other, marginalised, cultures, it can get a bit problematic. (And, tbh, I am low key pretty upset about the troll thing and that isn't even remotely the same kind of issue of appropriation.)

 

Rowling's MO is to work on the surface and sometimes maybe hint at a greater depth that she never actually plumbs - the Department of Mysteries is the prime example here, I think. So when she finds some real world thing she looks at the surface of that thing and tweaks it into a wizarding version. There's a long ski race through Sweden every year, so there's a long broomstick race through Sweden every year. And again, when applied to marrginalised cultures, this gets more icky, but it is at its core the same MO.

 

(Likewise Rowling often uses stereotypes of different kinds people as shorthands for character building - the Dursleys, basically all foreigners, the Malfoys, Mundungus Fletcher... This is also, of course, more problematic in some cases than others. Have you noticed, for example, how she gives fonetic accents only to characters we're not meant to take fully seriously or that are meant at least partly as comedic relief?)

 

Rowling did, however, manage to side step the issue of religion almost completely - if a bit conspiciously. Magical folk celebrate Christmas and Easter and so on, but there's no mentions of Jesus. There's a church, but no mentions of anyone ever visiting one. There's a Fat Friar, but he never speaks about his religion. Katie pointed put how inappropriate it would have been to  say that Jesus was 'in fact' just a wizard, and I think Rowling (Christian as she is) was deeply aware of that, and therefore left out religion completely.

 

So here are two MOs of Rowling's: the first is to work on the surface and tweak things for her own purposes, the second to (conspiciously) sidestep the issue completely. And she might have better calibrated which one to use for which issues when writing about magic in America, but I don't think you can expect her to suddenly do a lot of research and handle issues in depth, because that's just not what she does. One has to make peace with that (in one way or another) if one wants to keep loving her work.

 

That doesn't mean that discussions like this shouldn't take place, or that it shouldn't be pointed out when she messes up, however. Like they say at Feminist Frequency: it's important to be critical of the media you love.

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Oh, this is such an interesting discussion! I see it's been a little inactive for the past year or so, thus I thought I'd post here to make it re-surface.

I myself can't really contribute to the debate as I'm not American. I personally really liked that Rowling wrote about America, but as I've never been to the US, I could easily believe it all.

(I'm from Hungary, and there is almost nothing about Hungary in the HP series, so I can't say how I'd feel if there were mistakes about my culture either...)

Anyway, I think it will be great to come back to this discussion now that we have seen the Fantastic Beasts movie/screenplay/extended edition :)

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It's almost like a ghost town here but... just a penny for my pent up thoughts.

I'm not sure what else to contribute to this discussion as I feel we're all in a somewhat understanding that it's important to do research to give justice to what we're trying to represent. Putting aside appropriation, whitewashing, and other "controversial" matters, isn't it really that the research really was lacking or not seen as important? 

In this era we're living in, it's very important to be as considerate/thorough about everything we say or do because 1. the information we give can be accessed by everyone (the knowledged and the ignorant alike) 2. we are more open about our feelings the moment we are offended which can easily escalate the situation 3. political correctness and whatnot is something many people try to practice and force others to practice... I mean, I could go on but you all get my point as you've mentioned it yourselves.

If I think of it this way, I seriously do feel offended that it seems she didn't place importance on being accurate which then makes me question, why hadn't she? Hadn't she been pretty strict about that when she first created the magical world of HP? She'd been spot on before (as far as I know from my limited knowledge of Europe which is very little). So why not with other cultures? Now, I just want to know why. lol

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