Culture x

An in-depth look at cultural appropriation in the American houses from an overly involved Harry Potter fan.

The Blatant Racism of JK Rowling’s Ilvermorny Houses

Accio Racism!

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.

Not long ago, JK Rowling, Pottermore and essentially every Harry Potter fansite that exists, released upon our humble muggle world the American Wizarding Institute, Ilvermorny.

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.

The Blatant Racism of JK Rowling’s Ilvermorny Houses
The Four Houses of Ilvermorny

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.

The Blatant Racism of JK Rowling’s Ilvermorny Houses
Photo via The Odyssey

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.

  1. I feel dumber after reading this drivel. Are you even Native American? Or do you just have an incredibly strong SJW complex? Im actually half Black Foot, and I don’t have any issues with this.

    As far as “cultural misappropriation” they literally just named the houses after mythological creatures in that country. It’s not like white girls are having raves in head dresses. It’s the exact same as a wizard house named after a Minotaur or Cyclops, would those be cultural misappropriation? Just shut the fuck up and enjoy the story and stop getting offended for other people, it’s a pathetic personality trait.

    How about instead of projecting your own feelings or chips on your shoulder onto everyone else. Because I for one, and many others I’ve talked to of various native heritages are really excited to see our mythology up on the big screen.

  2. did you even actually read the origin story. it was mentioned that members of two indian tribes joined the school
    I know this is all make belive but if it were real the fact that they take students from all over north America would
    mean that there are kids from every ethical background there including native American. really would you P.C ers
    give a rest already. you`re ruining the real world don’t ruin the wizarding one to.

  3. She really dug herself into a hole with this one eh..

    One correction she can easily make – if she wishes to rectify this – is just changing the names of the houses, and any other Native American names she inappropriately used.

    It would have been really meaningful if the founder of the school was Native American herself, but that would be a huge change in the story. I’m not gonna lie – I found the whole Salazar Slytherin descendant arc pretty interesting. We can find comfort in the fact that Isolt and James did not actually harm Native Americans. Maybe I or someone can write fanfiction about a school started in North Dakota by a Native American.

    1. First off, how many schools were started, you know actual public institutions, by native Americans? wasn’t all the teaching done within their own tribes and everything? One whole building only for learning seems to have been a new thing for them, not to mention the fact that in Ilvermorny they accepted everyone into their school who had even a shred of magic. And if you read the story carefully, Rowling really did stick to the original sort of personalities of the creatures had (I.E the Puckwudgie hated humans, the one in the story even suggesting to leave the two boys for dead in the forest) while also mixing in the contents and magic of her world.

  4. Okay, so I don’t know a lot about Native American history, legends, or mythology, but it doesn’t seem like she was trying to be offensive when she came up with the names for the houses as she had also written that the characters were naming them after magical creatures they knew. Besides, the Horned Serpent gave Isolt visions of how to make wands, and essentially saved her and her family, not really reduced to a shiny water snake, but yeah she can speak to snakes she is a decent of Slytherin. In most mythos I do remember people with magical abilities were celebrated in Native American culture anyway, so needing to hide wasn’t big anyway, except maybe from the invading white people. And the pukwudgie was described as unkind to people, and as Isolt saved one from death it very reluctantly became friends with her and totally ditched her for a long time after she made human friends. As far as needing more schools in America, jk says there are 11 or 12 major wizard schools and has only identified 7, so there might be another school anyway, besides wizards are a minority of the population they don’t need as many schools, and they offer correspondence courses. The story isn’t very fleshed out anyway, she wrote 7 books about Hogwarts and GB for a reason. Your analysis doesn’t need to be almost as long as her short story.

  5. I think the author of this article is having a knee-jerk reaction without thinking very deeply about what JK wrote regarding the founding of Ilvermorny. There are clear reasons for the inclusion of Native American magical creatures to act as “totems” for each house and the first students are a combination of Native American and European settler children. Hogwarts houses were represented by non-magical animals. Ilvermorny houses are represented by magical beasts. The fact that those magical beasts are present in American folklore is absolutely appropriate and not at all appropriation.

  6. Okay, so……SJWs demand integration and that stories are not “diverse” enough, but when actual diversity is brought into play, then the butthurt begins.

    Let’s see. I am Cherokee, Chickamauga and Muscogee Creek. American Indians are already highly underrepresented in terms of minorities in television shows and movies, give or take a Western. Along comes JK Rowling and makes wizarding houses after our cultures.

    I get excited. I am happy to have our cultures and my brethren tribes used in stories. American folklore and stories are being represented by magical beasts and stories from OUR culture—we are being integrated and included. This is not just for us indigenous peoples, but for all Americans and their creatures of lore.

    So what gives you the right to attack Ms. Rowling for making people investigate and explore our culture more?

    This is not “racism”. I grew up in the mid-southern United States. RACISM is a Klan rally, throwing the N-word around. RACISM is a group of Crips beating up a “Chink-Chink” store manager (this happened in my old neighborhood). RACISM is cruelty, mockery, violence, and hateful bias.

    What Ilvermorny has done is NOT “appropriation”. Quit throwing your tantrums behind a screen and go get upset over actual causes of actual ugliness and DO something, not complaining and throwing the F-word around because you perceived a knee-jerk slight.

  7. Hm…so one culture shouldn’t “appropriate” the myths of another culture, huh? Weird…didn’t see you write an article about it when a bunch of Hollywood jews made Thor and Hercules.

  8. Perhaps you should read what JKR wrote about magic in the Americas pre-Mayflower. Far from the Europeans being portrayed as superior, they were just different, with wands as a specific technology, while the American magical community were adept at non-wand magic.

  9. so the author probably wont read this, but you do understand that there’s no substance or evidence in your words, right? have you ever seen anything like a Native American creating a whole public school building for any and all tribes? Because i’m fairly certain that most children were just taught by their own family on how to do things and their legends and such back then. And i’m sure it would be the same for magic in Rowling’s world, where families taught their children how to mix potions and cast spells. So an irish woman created the american school for magic, introduced the european use of magic and even mixed her ideas with the Native’s. It says in the story that the native wizards and witches were “all interested in learning the techniques of wandwork in exchange for sharing their own magical learning”. And to address the four houses, they don’t seem racist at all. Rowling mixed her world with the native american mythos to create those creatures, and she did a good job, at least to me, of keeping in with their personalities (the puckwudgie for example pretty much hated humans, despised being in debt to the woman, and suggested to leave the two boys for dead in the woods. the horned snake obviously can understand parsletongue and is cryptic because its a freaking snake, it also invaluably helped the main character with it’s knowledge and it’s horn). In conclusion to my long as heck essay-comment, it’s not racist at all, but then at the end of the day I’m not Native American, and the author of this Article is probably not one either

  10. i feel like you are taking this too seriously. Just because Isolt is white and Rowling changed the creatures up a bit does NOT make this racist. I mean, she had to change it up, otherwise she would just be adding on to native american folklore, and like you said, she’s not Rick Riordan. she did the same thing to the European creatures and I don’t see you getting angry about that. You need to understand that this isn’t racist just because the girl is white and the creatures are different.

  11. So does this mean that people who aren’t white are culturally appropriating western civilization with all the fancy democracy and science?

    Fucking stupid.

Leave a Reply