Some of you may be aware of yesterday’s launch of “History of Magic in North America”, an expansion of the “Harry Potter” franchise by the children’s author and British unionist campaigner, J.K. Rowling. This compendium of short stories imagines a history of wizardry in the United States, tying it to the fictional “Potterverse” she has crafted since 1997 in a series of books, movies and in recent times an interactive online website. It also serves as a teaser to a new, upcoming trilogy of films, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”, set in 1920s’ New York City, some seventy years before the main sequence of “Harry Potter” books.
The first story, titled “Fourteenth Century – Seventeenth Century”, is presented in a faux academic form, narrating the history of wizards and witches on the North American continent before it was colonised by European non-magical humans. Despite its relative brevity it makes several references to known religious or customary beliefs among the Native American peoples, including “skin walkers”, shape-changers from the mythological traditions of the Naabeehó Bináhásdzo or Navajo Nation (somewhat similar to our own examples from Irish and Celtic literature). It is this in particular which has caused some upset among indigenous American authors and activists. Adrienne Keene has elaborated on their concerns, particularly the seeming “Eurocentric” view of the Americas before European colonisation, reflected in Rowling’s terminology (note colonisation not exploration as the British author implies):
“I had a long phone call with one of my friends/mentors today, who is Navajo, asking her about the concepts Rowling is drawing upon here, and discussing how to best talk about this in a culturally appropriate way that can help you (the reader, and maybe Rowling) understand the depths to the harm this causes, while not crossing boundaries and taboos of culture. What did I decide? That you don’t need to know. It’s not for you to know. I am performing a refusal.
What you do need to know is that the belief of these things (beings?) has a deep and powerful place in Navajo understandings of the world. It is connected to many other concepts and many other ceremonial understandings and lifeways. It is not just a scary story, or something to tell kids to get them to behave, it’s much deeper than that. My own community also has shape-shifters, but I’m not delving into that either.
What happens when Rowling pulls this in, is we as Native people are now opened up to a barrage of questions about these beliefs and traditions (take a look at my twitter mentions if you don’t believe me) – but these are not things that need or should be discussed by outsiders. At all. I’m sorry if that seems “unfair,” but that’s how our cultures survive.
The other piece here is that Rowling is completely re-writing these traditions. Traditions that come from a particular context, place, understanding, and truth. These things are not “misunderstood wizards”. Not by any stretch of the imagination.
My twitter mentions have been exploding non-stop all day, with the typical accusations of my oversensitivity and asking if I understand that Harry Potter is fictional, and more directed hate telling me my doctorate is being misused and I’m an idiot. In addition are the crew who “would love to know the real history” of these concepts (again, not for you to know), or are so grateful that JK Rowling is introducing them to these ideas for the first time. This is not the way to learn about or be introduced to contemporary and living Native cultures. Not at all.
Also worthy of note is that Rowling is known for responding directly to fan questions on twitter, and overall being accessible to her fan base. Despite thousands of tweets directed at her about these concerns, she has not addressed it at all. The silence is noted, and it’s deafening.
So this is the first day of the writings, I truly shudder thinking about the glossy way that first contact and subsequent genocide is going to be addressed.”
I find myself in some sympathy with Keene’s views, seeing them through the prism of another colonised and displaced culture – namely that of Ireland’s. Certainly the circumstances are different, with indigenous “pagan” Irish beliefs being subsumed into a broader body of Irish Christian literature during the early Medieval period, creating the hybrid body of mythology and folklore that we know today. This, arguably, made the Gaelic peoples more vulnerable to the Norman-British and Anglo-British invasions, occupations, annexations and eventually cultural exterminations that began in the 12th century and continued up to the 19th. Today we have our own sovereign nation-state in the greater part of the island of Ireland and for the greater part of the people of the island of Ireland. Yet native Irish identity continues to be in a precarious position. This is still a place where a young man can be arrested for answering in the Irish language to a question put to him in the English language, something common at the start of the 20th century in “unfree” Ireland but which one would have assumed impossible at the start of the 21st century in “free” Ireland. It is still a country where Irish-speaking defendants have no right to be tried in front of Irish-speaking juries but such a right is afforded to their English-speaking peers.
Even the suggestion that “outsiders” have no automatic right to know the beliefs of the Native American peoples is something I understand, even if I do not perhaps entirely agree with it. However I get it. I know where Adrienne Keene is coming from because I can contextualise the logic through innumerable Irish and Celtic examples. Likewise the century-old plundering of our literary tradition to provide substance to the fictional works of others, in whatever form, is something that has caused me and many others real annoyance. Especially when it is done with an utter disregard for the integrity of the original source materials. How many of us have seen horribly distorted versions or facsimiles of Gaelic mythology, a dog’s dinner of fantasy, science-fiction and horror works where bastardised members of the Tuatha Dé Danann rub shoulders with brownies and hobgoblins from Victorian fairy-lore? Of course, one might argue that no such respect is due a non-living tradition but what of those living traditions adhered to by many of the indigenous nations on the North American continent?
(Unless of course one believes in some form of the Creidheamh Sí, and even that is more often abused than not by Neo-Druidic and Wiccan types with their à la carte Celticness.)
For me the below tweet by the American author, Matt Wallace, sums up many of my feelings on the matter. Rummaging through the imaginative attic of J.R.R. Tolkien or Ursula Le Guin and sprinkling it with Disneyesque characters and beings may be one thing, but appropriating the living beliefs of living peoples is quite another. As I said elsewhere and in our own Celtic context, Gaelic is not Elvish!
Not unrelated to the spirit of the above, from the Blether Region, a short post on the opposition by bigoted representatives of the British unionist minority in the north-east of Ireland to, of all things, manhole covers inscribed with Irish and English language descriptions:
“…a councillor in Ballymena has made a similar complaint about — wait for it — bilingual manhole covers, and insisted that they be replaced (presumably they are bilingual because their supplier is based in the South and bid for the work). The Blether Region thinks this is silly, since a) they are manhole covers and, in the absence of merde de chien, commonly walked over and ignored, b) it would be difficult to remove the offending word without melting down and replacing the cover, and c) only a loopy colonial racist could possibly be offended at the presence of an additional language in an area to which it is native.
While a supposed concern for cost has been an integral part of the anti-Gaelic narrative purveyed by some politicians, the present case should surely dispel any doubt in that regard: whatever this nonsense is about, it is not about saving money.”
You can see why, when it comes to Ireland and the Americas, colonised knows colonised.