Harry Potter and the Curse of Cultural Appropriation


I have to admit that I wasn’t that enthused by the news of The Cursed Child or the Fantastic Beasts movie-or the news that there’s going to be two more installments in the latter franchise. I know, I know, call me a killjoy, but I had my closure nine years ago, after the author pretty much insisted that the series was done. And while I utterly adored the world of Harry and his cohorts, I was happy to move on with the knowledge that things had been tidily settled.

(As an aside, it would be nice to see what else JK Rowling could do outside of her Harry Potter world – with such an imagination and creative genius, the possibilities are superb and intriguing. I know there’s the Robert Galbraith series and the ill-fated Casual Vacancy, but what else could the mind that developed Harry Potter come up with in the fantasy sphere?)

But that’s not the point of this piece. Whether you’re on the side of the cynics (more money in an established, successful franchise) or an enthusiastic fan (yay, the saga continues!), she’s moved in a rather problematic direction of late. You know the phrase, quit while you’re ahead? I think its fairly appropriate here.

It all begins with the expansion of the Harry Potter world on the site Pottermore, a hub for all the extra odds and ends – writing, features, news, and the like.  Specifically, a selection of writing detailing the expansion of the wizarding world in North America, which contains some rather problematic appropriation of Native American symbols and spiritual concepts –  skinwalkers and thunderbirds, for example.

There are three main issues with this:

  1. I’m rather tired of fantasy works repeating the same old Western canon of patriarchy and colonisation and heteronormative white people. The whole point of fantasy is to do something quite different from what exists in reality! Having one great school on the continent founded by two foreigners is just lazy, IMO.
  2. The golden rule when writing about a culture outside your own is to do research, research and more research – to avoid the tired cliches, stereotypes and misinformation that is frequently peddled. Here, Native Americans are lumped together as one homogenous group, with no tribal distinctions and no context; simply depicted as vague mystical beings who are there for convenience but add nothing to the overall story.
  3. You don’t get to take something of symbolic importance from someone else’s culture and pass it off as something in your fictional, fantasy world, especially when it comes from a group that is already marginalised and misrepresented.

I think the following quote from Loralee Sepsey (Natives in America) sums up point #3 the best:

“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…”

Indeed, there are a number of people who can and have written about this issue far more clearly and to the point than I can, and I highly recommend that you read the pieces I’ve linked to in this article.

“Native spirituality and religions are not fantasy on the same level as wizards. These beliefs are alive, practiced, and protected.” Adrienne K (Native Appropriations)

“Fictions work if the reality of the peoples whose lives are being fictionalized is well known by readers who have a firm grasp on the subject matter from the start. With Native peoples, that firm grasp of who we are is not there.” Debbie Reece (American Indians in Children’s Literature)

By utilizing Native American symbols in the manner that she has, Rowling has done her readers a disservice, with shoddy research and lazy writing. She simply perpetuates the existing stereotypes that Native American beliefs, and indeed people, are “fantasy” and continues their misrepresentation in mainstream media. I expected better.

Hannah is a twenty-something born and bred Capetonian who adores reading and reviewing books, and encouraging critical discussion on all things pop culture. Currently a politics graduate student, she spent two years working in digital marketing before deciding she missed the student life. Loves QI, travel, dark chocolate, fantasy & YA books, pilates and sarcasm.