An in-depth look at cultural appropriation in the American houses from an overly involved Harry Potter fan.
By Samantha Gross, Concordia University
I love Harry Potter.
I’m going to say that a second time—I love Harry Potter—because I don’t think you understand the depth of my love for this fictional universe. You think you know people who love Harry Potter, but I’m going to tell you right now that you don’t know anyone who loves Harry Potter more than I do. Fact.
I know it has some problematic aspects, like everything in life, but I usually try very hard to debate without lessening my respect for the series and the magic that it brings me. Because I love Harry Potter.
That being said, because I love the series so much, I can’t keep quiet on this issue.
I nearly shit a brick I was so excited about this. Not only was I getting a new movie set in America, starring a wizard from my own house (#HufflepuffPride), but a school for my country with its very own houses. So I hopped on the internet and flew through the questions, trying to sort myself into a school I hadn’t even bothered exploring yet.
And then I got to the results page. And I stopped. And I stared at the picture beneath the admittedly odd-sounding name Pukwudgie. And I thought to myself, very articulately and eloquently: What the fuck.
Then my roommate walked by, looked down at my computer screen, her body paused in shock at what she was seeing, almost ready to drop a bowl of preciously cooked pasta on the floor, and said, “That’s racist.”
I googled the creature. I googled the history—both Rowling’s fictional account of the school and the actual Wampanoag folklore. I googled everything I could think of in the few minutes that followed my Harry Potter-loving-heart breaking. And finally I had to concede. Because, yeah, the Ilvermorny houses are racist.
I know what you’re thinking. The other three houses can’t be this bad. And sure, the Pukwudgie is visually by far the worst of the four. But the Horned Serpent, Thunderbird and Wampus have their own history, all of which can be found in Native American mythology, which makes the misuse of all of them problematic.
I don’t think anybody told JK Rowling that you can’t take Native American lore and twist it for your own means. Any American can tell you how not chill that is. Anybody in North America can tell you how terrible and offensive of an idea that is, and I want so badly to believe that cultural differences made this mistake possible, because if I think too hard about how culturally appropriative it is to swipe ideas and paint a caricature of a Native American legend, I get angry.
And now I, the most ardent and vocal lover of Harry Potter that exists on this fucking planet, have to be one of the people explaining why this beloved series is racist.
So listen up, because I’m only gonna explain this once.
This whole situation would be slightly less problematic had the founder of Ilvermorny been Native American, or at least more aware of the situational racism and problems that could arise from naming the houses after Native American legends. But no. The founder is a white Irish witch named Isolt who immigrated to America to get away from her abusive aunt. And while that is a rather tragic story, motive and a happy ending are no excuse for dicking around with other cultures’ legends. It’s one thing to be Rick Riordan playing with fairly accurately represented Greek mythology in an attempt to teach kids; it’s another to be actively ignoring the racist ramifications of improperly utilizing legends to fill your own needs.
It gets worse, though, because the founding White Girl TM comes to the colonies and cannot find a single wizard from the area. Instead, she finds a creature sidekick and two small wizard boys who are also from England. With the help of a muggle man—who is also, coincidentally, from across the pond—she starts a make-shift wizarding school. And it’s only then that other wizards seem to fall out of the woodwork, because for some reason white people are the ones who have to come in and provide a school for the otherwise invisible and unrepresented magical natives. Anybody order a white savior complex? Excuse me, my tea is getting cold.
I’m not even prepared to tackle the ridiculous notion that is a single wizarding school for the entirety of North America. The United States alone would need like six schools per state—how small does Rowling think the country is? But I digress; I’m here to talk about racism, not school size (but seriously, size does matter).
And because the Pukwudgie is where I began this journey of bastardized and racist realization, it’s where I’ll start with all of you. In traditional Wampanoag culture, Pukwudgies are spirit-like creatures known for tormenting and murdering the people they lure into the forest. This new magical rendition of the folklore portrays them as grumbling goblin-esque creatures that serve as the Ilvermorny security guards.
The Horned Serpent is considered the symbol for wisdom and divination in both Native American folklore (specifically from the Southeastern Woodlands and the Great Lakes regions) and Ilvermorny legend, though because it is essentially a shiny water snake in the wizard universe, it also has links to parseltongue and cryptic rhymes. This is not as bad as the modifications made to the Pukwudgie, but it’s still an unflattering rewrite for a noble creature.
Originally, Thunderbirds are representations of strength and majesty in a variety of stories from Ojibwe and Menominee tribes in Algonquian mythology. However, in Rowling’s new story, the Thunderbird is hardly mentioned beyond being White Boy Wizard #2’s favorite creature. What a downgrade.
The Wampus is a Cherokee myth about a woman who was transformed into a half-cat, half-human monstrosity who now represents the prophetic spirit of death and the earth. And yet, similar to the Thunderbird, the legend is dismissed entirely beyond being the embodiment of the “wizard body” (and Wizard Boy # 1’s favorite creature). Stellar.
Overall, the use of these folklore creatures is lacking in accuracy, respect and proper understanding.
So, I mean, go ahead, take the Ilvermorny sorting test if you want. It exists, and having read this article you’ve potentially been awakened to the racial issues surrounding it. You can have a friendly debate with your friends about it and still be curious as to what house you’d be in. But be aware that this isn’t an issue that we should ignore. White privilege allows me and a good majority of the population to sort ourselves and remain unaffected by the appropriation.
But that’s exactly how this problem got started in the first place.