Rowling under fire over Native American magic

Diverse issues: (clockwise from top left) Native Americans, Selena Gomez, yoga and sombreros.

Harry Potter author JK Rowling has been denounced for ‘cultural appropriation’ in a new series of stories. So what exactly is this misdeed? Is it new? And is JK Rowling in the wrong?

Dr Adrienne Keene says Harry Potter was ‘a formative series’ which ‘holds a deep place in my heart’. But last week, the professor of Native American studies sent an angry tweet to its author, JK Rowling.

‘It’s not ‘your’ world. It’s our (real) Native world. And skin walker stories have context, roots, and reality.’ She was responding to History of Magic in North America, short stories, in which Rowling had referred to the magical traditions of both European immigrants to America and Native Americans.

Rowling wrote that the legend of ‘skin walkers’ – ‘Native American Animagi’ who could assume animal form — ‘has its basis in fact’; and ‘No-Maj medicine men’ called them ’evil witches and wizards who sacrificed family members’. But these were ‘derogatory rumours’. As she told a fan: ‘In my wizarding world, there were no skin walkers. The legend was created to demonise wizards.’

Keene accused Rowling of ‘colonialism’ and ‘appropriation’: representing a tradition from another culture for her own ends. ‘The belief of these things (beings?) has a deep and powerful place in Navajo understandings of the world,’ Keene wrote. ‘It is not just a scary story.’

Similar calls for sensitivity have grown louder in recent years. In 2003, Greg Tate’s book Everything but the Burden said white Americans were claiming aspects of black culture as their own.

But the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ did not register on Google searches until 2009. Even now, interest is almost exclusively confined to a handful of western countries.

Other celebrities who have been criticised include Coldplay and Beyoncé, who represented India in a video; model Kylie Jenner, who sported cornrows last year; and singer Selena Gomez, who wore a bindi.

Concern over ‘appropriation’ has led some universities to change policies. Last week, a Cambridge college cancelled a party based on the book Around the World in 80 Days. In US and Canadian colleges, there have been disputes over Japanese clothing, Chinese food, belly dancing, yoga and sombreros.

Casting a spell

Keene’s supporters say traditions which form an important part of a group’s identity should not be thoughtlessly mimicked. Offenders are often abusing something they do not understand or contributing to negative stereotypes. And their actions worsen feelings of marginalisation among ethnic minority groups.

That sentiment infantilises those people, respond critics, and divides them from others. Cultural overlap is inevitable and mutually beneficial. Adopting others’ traditions is often a compliment, as in the cases of democracy, mathematics and the calendar. People must be free to broaden their horizons, not paralysed by the fear of causing offence.

You Decide

  1. Would you mind if someone adopted a tradition which you valued? Would it matter if they interpreted it differently from you?
  2. Is ‘cultural appropriation’ a problem?


  1. Draw a cartoon strip, using six images, telling the story of the row between JK Rowling and Dr Keene.
  2. Write a short story about a culture different to your own. Afterwards, write a paragraph on each of the following questions: How much research did you need to do? How accurately do you think your story reflects the culture discussed, and why?

Some People Say...

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is it really a big deal if JK Rowling has to change her stories a bit?
Rowling’s critics say any group of people could be affected by ‘appropriation’ — your culture could be misunderstood, or you could be stereotyped in a negative way. But her supporters are concerned that the criticism shuts down free speech and expression. Your ability to find things out and say what you think could be curtailed.
Why didn’t previous generations care about this issue?
There is more cultural interaction now than there has been before — people travel around the world more and communicate and trade more easily. In the west, minority groups have also largely won their previous battles — for example, for legal equality. And in multicultural societies, there is often more separation between communities.

Word Watch

Based at Brown University in Rhode Island, in the northeastern USA.
Short stories
Designed to whet audiences’ appetites for fantasy film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which is due to be released in the USA in November.
A Native American tribe in the southwestern USA.
According to Google Trends.
For the song Hymn for the Weekend.
A braided hair pattern, traditionally associated with Africa.
A red dot on the forehead, commonly worn by Hindus.
Students at Pembroke College decided to rearrange the party under a different theme. They were concerned that offence might be caused by some of the costumes.
Officials at the University of Ottawa cancelled a yoga class last year after complaints of ‘appropriation’. Yoga originally comes from India.
The college authorities at Bowdoin, a US liberal arts college in Maine, rebuked students recently for wearing sombreros at a Mexican theme party. Students’ union officials at the UK’s University of East Anglia also banned sombreros from a freshers’ fair last year.

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