Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry: It’s Magically Appropriative!

I probably should have written this one a long time ago.  JK Rowling first published a short story, called Magic in North America, on Pottermore in March of 2016.  The story is in four parts and ranges from the 14th Century to the 1920s (the time of the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them).  This short story was followed up in June with a description of the four houses: Thunderbird, Horned Serpent, Pukwudgie, and Wampus.  Each of these four houses is named after a particular mythological creature from various First Nation myths.  Though, Ilvermorny was not founded by anyone from the First Nation.  So we’re going to delve into a number of problems inherent in the creation of Ilvermorny, both as a real place, and as a creation by JK Rowling, an author of no little skill.

When did the history of magic in North America begin?

Well the stories that Rowling wrote about magic in North America begin with the 14th century, the 1300s.  However, genetic research conducted in 2008 suggests that human beings crossed over into North America using the Bering Land Bridge about 16,500 years ago.  Where there are human beings there will be magic.  I think it safe to assume that the history of magic in North America began with the history of humans in North America.  The earliest records available of First Nation societies is from around 10,000 BCE.

What is ‘The First Nation’?

Well there really isn’t one.  First Nation refers to the indigenous people who were already living on this continent at the time of First Contact with Europeans.  Though there is no one single overriding culture that the tribes share.  So while Rowling refers to ‘the Native American community’, there wasn’t and isn’t one.  Generally they are referred to as Native Americans, Indigenous Americans, or sometimes Indians.  Indians is generally considered an offensive term, and it’s not one that you should use in your day-to-day life.  There are 566 federally recognized tribes in the borders of the United States.  Each with its own culture, many with their own language (there are 175 distinct languages still remaining).  According to Rowling, while it took Muggles until the end of the 15th century to “discover America”, wizards had known about it for a long time.  Magical travel, like brooms and Apparation allowed an international wizarding community to exist long before there was an International Muggle one.  Rowling mentions that among the First Nation people some witches and wizards were accepted by their communities as helpful, while others were shunned and thought to be possessed by malevolent spirits.  She makes special mention of skinwalkers.  This is our first real problem.

Why is it a problem that Rowling mentions Skinwalkers?

I’m going to assume that people reading this are going to want to know about skinwalkers.  Too bad.  The Navajo don’t talk about it.  The Navajo belief in skinwalkers holds a deep and powerful place in their culture and it overlaps a huge part of everything they do.  It’s not a scary story that you can spoon feed to kids.  It’s not something you tell around a campfire to frighten your friends.  It’s just not talked about with outsiders.  If you know anyone who is Navajo.  Don’t ask.  Don’t ask.  Just, do not ask.

Rowling casts skinwalkers as simply Animagi who were demonized by their communities and legends sprung up around them.  When asked to clarify Rowling stated that there were no skinwalkers in her world.  They were just a story Muggles came up with to demonize Animagi.  Well damn Rowling.  That’s messed up.  This is a real, living, marginalized culture that has felt the boot of Western imperialism for centuries.  You can’t just waltz in, rewrite the stories of ACTUAL PEOPLE, and then use them for your own purposes.  You’re taking a culture and misrepresenting it.  You’re stealing the First Nation people’s right to their own narratives and making it all about White Europeans.  Don’t do that.  For the love of Dobby, don’t do that.

For more information on this topic, and how Rowling has appropriated and misrepresented First Nation culture in part 1 of her four part short story, please read this response by Dr. Adrienne Keene.

When and how was Ilvermorny founded?

Oh man, Rowling wrote a pretty good deal about that.  I could give you the run down, but honestly, you should probably just read what she wrote.

Basically Ilvermorny was founded by an Irishwoman in her home, teaching two young boys she had saved from a Hidebehind.  A Hidebehind is an interesting piece of American folklore.  It’s a nocturnal creature that stalks its prey and eats their intestines.  It was often cited as the reason that early American loggers failed to return to camp.  With those two boys and a muggle named James she met in the woods, the school was started.  It was Isolt, James, and the two boys, Chadwick and Webster, who named the four houses of Ilvermorny.  Thunderbird, Horned Serpent, Pukwudgie, and Wampus.  Each with their own stories and characteristics deemed most important, in the tradition of Hogwarts.

What are those creatures?

They’re all myths and stories from First Nation cultures.  According to Rowling each of the four Ilvermorny houses represents a different part of the ideal wizard.  Thunderbird being the soul, Horned Serpent being the mind, Pukwudgie being the heart, and Wampus being the body.

Thunderbirds are part of the stories of many tribes, including the Sioux, Arapaho, Wichita, Ojibwe, Salish and various other tribes in the Midwest, Plains Region, and Northwest Coast.  Stories concerning Thunderbirds vary from tribe to tribe, though there are some points of agreement.  Thunderbirds are huge, according to many Northwest Coast tribes it is large enough to carry of a killer whale the same way an eagle would a fish it had caught.  The beating of their wings is said to be the cause of thunder.  Some tribes see them as sacred forces of nature, while others see them as powerful, but ordinary members of the animal kingdom.  One story in particular has a Thunderbird stealing a young boy with the intent of eating him.

Horned Serpents are mythological freshwater serpents that can be found in myths all over the east coast of the United States and in Canada.  Tribes associated with the Horned Serpent include the Blackfoot, Abenaki, Micmac, Cheyenne, Fox, Iroquois, Cherokee, and various others.  They are described as huge, scaly, dragon like serpents with horns and long teeth.  They are said to have supernatural powers such as invisibility, shape-shifting, and hypnotic powers.   If a human defeats them, or helps them they are said to grant them mystic powers as well.  It is from the horn of a Horned Serpent that Isolt and James make a wand for one of the boys.  Horned Serpents were venerated as gods or spirit beings by some tribes.  During her travels around North America Isolt apparently meets a Horned Serpent, which likes her for some reason no one can fathom, and even speaks to her.  This is another problematic part of Rowling’s American Magic, Isolt is our very own Mary Sue.  She’s a special White European girl who swoops in and is somehow instantly liked by sacred First Nation myths.

Pukwudgies are part of Wampanoag tribal stories.  They are small, only 2-3 feet tall.  They resemble humans, with enlarged ears, fingers, and noses.  They are said to have smooth grey skin.  They have the following abilities and characteristics: They can appear and disappear at will.  They attack people and lure them to their death.  They are able to use magic.  They have poison arrows.  They can create fire at will.  According to myth Pukwudgies originally tried to help humans, but it always backfired, so the Pukwudgies turned to harassing and tormenting the humans instead.  Burning villages, kidnapping children, and luring people into the woods to kill them.  Despite this penchant for violence and mayhem, and apparent hate for all humans.  Rowling has Isolt rescue and befriend a Pukwudgie.  She saves him from a Hidebehind.  The very same one that she saves the two boys from years later.  She names her new Pukwudgie William, a good classic European name so out of sorts with the context of the Wampanoag tribe that I just laughed out loud.  William later saves Isolt and her new school from her estranged, racist aunt.  He is also described as curmudgeonly.  What should have happened is that the Pukwudgie should have killed Isolt and the story would end there.  Wouldn’t that be great?  We wouldn’t have to rewrite First Nation myths to fit the narrative of the British.  Well, too late, that’s half of American History, but still.  The only heart the Pukwudgie is going to represent is yours after he rips it out of your corpse and eats it.  Rowling says Pukwudgie house favors healers.  THEY SHOOT POISON ARROWS AND LIKE TO KILL PEOPLE.

The Wampus is a creature that has many stories surrounding it.  One of those stories, from the Cherokee Tribe, is of a young woman who followed the hunters of her tribe out on their hunt to see what they were doing.  She watched, huddled in a mountain lion skin, as the told sacred stories around the fire.  When she was discovered, the medicine man on the tribe cursed her into a horrible half-woman, half-cat creature that wanders the forest, howling and wishing desperately for its body back.  In Rowling’s story concerning Ilvermorny she mentions Isolt watching a number of wampus kittens play.  There’s only one Wampus.  One horrible hybrid of woman and mountain lion spawned by magic.  Wampus hair is apparently a core for American wands.  There’s only one Wampus.  You can’t take a young woman, cursed for her transgressions, and make the fluffy kittens.  You don’t get to rewrite a tragic myth of the Cherokee and make it cuddly.  Rowling describes it as a panther like creature that is very fast and nearly impossible to kill.

So what’s the problem with Ilvermorny?

Well for one thing, the Great American School of Magic was founded by a European.  Not one of the First Nation people.  Then members of various tribes came to find Isolt because they just had to learn about her fancy wand magic.  Cause European wanded magic is so much better than poor wandless First Nation magic.  EXCEPT, Rowling has previously explained that wandless magic is terribly difficult, and that only a few European wizards (like DUMBLEDORE) could do it.  She also says that the First Nation people EXCEL at wandless magic.  So why would they want to learn from Isolt and her wand magic, when they have their own perfectly valid magical tradition that has been around for thousands of years?  I dunno. Why, in the Real World, did we round-up First Nation children and send them off to boarding schools?  To strip them of their culture and assimilate them into Western Values.

It’s the age-old narrative of Western Imperial Colonialism.  Western, Anglo-Saxon ideals are the best and everyone else should learn to be just like us.  There’s nothing wrong with two cultures coming together and learning from each other, but the narrative that exists in the history of First Nation people and Europeans is one of genocide, forced cultural assimilation, forced sterilization, and cultural appropriation.  Was it necessary to make the American School of Magic, the premier institute for American Magic, founded by a European?  Why couldn’t it have been founded by the Iroquois Confederacy?  Or the Crow Nation?  Or the Osage Nation?  Or the Sac and Fox Nation?  Why an Irish woman?

In creating Ilvermorny JK Rowling has subverted First Nation mythology and rewritten it for her own purposes.  She has perpetuated the idea of Western Exceptionalism.  She has whitewashed the history of magic in America.  Placing Europeans at the forefront of the creation of an American Magical Society.  She’s rewritten American History exactly as it happened in our world.  Except with magic.  There is not a single good point of American and First Nation shared history.  When given the opportunity to shine a spotlight on an American magical culture, why on earth would you ever choose a European as your star?

I’m disappointed.  As a historian and as a lover of the original Harry Potter series.  I’m disappointed and frankly a little angry that Rowling apparently did no actual research on the history of First Nation people in America.  Representation is important.  How cultures, and ideas, and people are represented in fiction affects how people see them in the Real World.  These aren’t cultures that Rowling made up.  These are real cultures that have been marginalized since the first white foot stepped of the boat.  It hurts to see a childhood hero marginalize them again.


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