MuggleNet Academia: Harry Potter and ‘The Indian in the Cupboard’ – Rowling’s Missteps and Misappropriation in ‘History of Magic in North America’

Professor Amy Sturgis and Allison Mills, two serious students and admirers of J. K. Rowling’s artistry and meaning in her Hogwarts Saga, are Native Americans and scholars of First Nations culture and treatment of indigenous peoples in literature. They join Keith Hawk and John Granger to discuss the controversy surrounding Rowling’s depiction of Native Americans and her use of symbols and characters from First Nations traditions in ‘History of Magic in North America.’

Is it all overblown political correctness from minorities looking to play the victim to supposed colonial oppressors? Or has J. K. Rowling, self-proclaimed champion of the marginalized and ‘other,’ over stepped herself in careless, damaging, and negligent story telling at the expense of peoples persistently persecuted or forgotten?

Join us for a wide-ranging and penetrating discussion of an issue that won’t go away because it tells us so much about the focus of Rowling’s work and, as important, the lack of care in other aspects of her writing. Listen and then join in the discussion in the comment boxes below!


  1. Brian Basore says

    I agree that the careless damage is done. Thank goodness she didn’t do it in the seven volumes.

    I am an Oklahoman with past relatives on all sides of history, and am in no position to take a position about any of it. (Assimilation works.) Instead, here is a family story. My mother’s paternal grandmother was a Cherokee raised from an early age by relatives in the Choctaw Nation. There was no local high school, so she went to a boarding school, New Hope Academy, which was a Choctaw Government school. Choctaw was the language of the school. When she was old and in a nursing home, the staff at the home called her son, a lawyer with the state Supreme Court, to come quickly, that his mother was speaking a “foreign tongue”. So he hurried to the home. She was speaking Choctaw! She was mentally back in school. “A foreign tongue”? That’s how much life in Oklahoma changed in her lifetime.

    I understand the situation. She was as White and American as anyone who had lived a long time in Chicago (which she had most of her life). The 1907 Oklahoma State Constitution legally defined Indians as White, a wise decision in the former Indian Territory.

  2. Using Wikipedia, I brushed-up on “The Indian in the Cupboard” and found it was part of a larger series that included magic, more than it’s share of time travels, and in the last installment a strained father/son relationship. This Title even won the NY Times best novel of the year award and makes one question what the press is hailing now. Weren’t we just here 2 lessons ago?

    This is an important topic by work (as JKR’s third error.) and; especially, by subject given that the question of colonialization was brought to light earlier this year to a UN committee about it’s own humanitarian aid that ties the acceptance and integration of it’s “developed/first-world” political policies as a contingency for accepting said aid by other culturally sovereign countries:

    Honestly, when we speak of this lesson’s subject, it is often with the insulation of distance, and mentally held as something having happened some time ago. In the above example concerning UN aid, we must also ask if the attitude of this topic is still being actively applied? If so, then remembering the foundational 2008 “We are past our past” slogan/claim, one must admit that the “new” is faring no better in this regard and that the altruism of humanitarian aid may be being held hostage by a political imperialism, giving greater onus to regard the HA lesson at hand.

    The three errors earlier noted are the missteps of Cursed Child, Pottermore effectively becoming an advertising kiosk, and the work that precipitated this lesson. These events have occurred at a rate unmatched to JKR’s usual rate of output between works, that I wonder if what we are witnessing is the result of what happens when the originating creative source transitions to the control of an elect few however imaginative those in charge may be. One may argue that JKR’s 7 book series had it’s cadre of publisher staff to shape the work but to do so is to miss the provenance of the Harry potter story’s arrival as an intact manuscript from the author before any mass publishing mechanism was in place. IMO the watershed event of this transition occurred when Pottermore suspended it’s internal social media feature without satisfactory explanation. At that point, I lost a measure of trust for the continuance of The HP, oops, Wizarding World(TM) reveals.

    Finally, 1) I can’t help but wonder that if JKR so missed the boat regarding a culture outside her own, what are we missing about the culturally UK Harry? and 2) Is it just me, or did the Star Wars 7 mind-reading act pop anyone else out of that movie and into the OOTP story arc?

  3. Brian Basore says

    Correction to my previous comment:
    It was “New Hope Female Seminary”, not New Hope Academy. It was operated by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, under contract from the Choctaw Nation. New Hope closed in 1885.

    I may be mistaken, but perhaps the last time native English speakers in England faced this sort of language situation was right after the Norman Conquest in 1066.

  4. For what it’s worth, I’ve just created a petition to try to get Rowling and Warner Brothers to fix this and other issues with magic in North America before it’s too late.

    I do worry that quite a bit of this material will be featured in the Fantastic Beasts movie, at which point it will become much more visible and much more difficult to undo. With web content being easily modified (we’ve already seen the Ilvermorny house images redesigned after a minor plagiarism scandal) and Fantastic Beasts still technically being a work in progress, perhaps it’s not too late to go back and change a few things.

  5. Stefan Jameson says

    Rowling has made it clear to the masses numerous times in the past that she is a secular-minded author who does not bend over to do special favors for religion, be it Wiccan magic practitioners or Fundamentalist Christians; why should she treat Navajo superstitions about medicine men any differently, especially since it is dangerous to trust in people who specialize in so-called alternative medicine?

  6. Ms Rowling has stated in interviews repeatedly since 1997 that she is a Christian whose faith is important to her and that the Christian content of her Harry Potter books is “obvious.” She has also stated, as discussed in the podcast, that her work is about those marginalized and made Other by power holders and gate keepers, hence the disappointment within fandom with respect to her careless use of Native American beliefs.

    Your dismissive comments with respect to Navajo traditions and “so-called alternative medicine” speak to your low regard for people who do not share your conventional “secular-minded” dogmatic beliefs. You have chosen to look at the world from the bottom of a well; enjoy the view!

  7. This episode was so interesting and I have learnt so much! Thank you

  8. Brian Basore says

    Not that this matters to fiction, but in 1965 Little, Brown and Company published a history, New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians, 1620-1675, by Alden T. Vaughn.

    If fiction is the reader’s focus, is history alternate reality? (Just wondering 🙂

  9. SlytheriNZ says

    I recently listened to this episode again. I learned a lot, and I understand so many of the points made by Professor Sturgis and Allison Mills, but there is one thought that is sticking in my head that I am hoping you can address. If Rowling was trying to create a historical wizarding America that echoed the historical USA, then is it reasonable to expect her to write characters that refrained from committing all those appropriations that happened in history?
    I know this one thing doesn’t excuse her lack of research and all those inaccuracies and simplifications… but does it make it more understandable? People in the past were not perfect, so should fictional characters that are set in the past be held to higher standards?

  10. Brian Basore says

    A late note on American (Hawaiian and Indian) history: a book, The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic, by John Demos (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).

    This book talks about when and why Indians and other Americans went from simple marginalization to being officially rejected ‘others’.

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