By Gar Atkins
I suppose you can blame my cynicism on a lifetime of bad examples. But media doesn’t always do the best job at representing the Native American experience or culture. So when I, as a Native man (specifically Eastern Band Cherokee if you must know) heard that the next set was going to be Meso-American themed I was expecting the very worst. And it didn’t get any better when I heard dinosaurs were going to be involved. There are certain historical land mines when it comes this specific region. Whether it be sensationalist stories of blood sacrifices or an aesthetic that revolved mostly around human remains. Dungeons and Dragons, another Wizards of The Coast property, has always been historically terrible about that, complete with coding monsters as other ethnicities.
My expectations dipped further when I learned there were to be conquistadors, a topic with another set of baggage. Were they going to use the genocides of still-living people as a way to add drama to their setting? Were they going to frame these invaders as righteous and just?
Given that this was likely to be the only representation I got in any Wizards property I was worried to say the least. Native representation, let alone good native representation is few and far between in genre fiction and everything seemed to indicate that this was going to be no different. Just another thing to point at and roll my eyes.
But to my surprise, Ixalan did something I never expected. It gave me something I love.
As of the time of my writing this Ixalan’s representation on the whole is pretty solid. Now, it’s important to note that this isn’t specifically my nation being shown, but Ixalan does a really good job at avoiding the common pitfalls of native representation on the whole. The people of the Sun Empire in Magic are dressed in a way that is respectful and evocative of the specific cultures they were trying to emulate, if clearly works of fantasy. Instead of the dreaded noble savage we have skilled warriors that can hold their own. Instead of fetishized native princesses or mystic shamans we have Huatli, known by the titles dinosaur knight and warrior poet and depicted with the dignity that both of those ideas conjure.
It’s a welcome breath of fresh air. You can bet your butt that I want a full playset of her and to build the most dino-heavy themed deck possible. I can’t tell you the pure elation of seeing someone like you in something you love when you’re not used to it. Let alone seeing someone like you be capable and strong.
This is especially important given a history of being portrayed as villains. I’m of the belief that when you are writing a group or culture that has been historically maligned it’s a chance to be empowering. Look to works of Afro-futurism such as the works of Octavia Butler for more concrete examples of why this is so important. And contrary to popular belief, these are still living cultures being represented. Nahuatl is still spoke by 1.7 million according to a 2015 survey. On August 9th of this year, Belize launched the Maya lands registry to identify and protect Mayan lands.
Now that’s not to say everything is perfect, far from it. The spirit of colonialism is alive and well in the other themes and story elements of Ixalan. Ixalan art director Cynthia Sheppard described the elevator pitch for the plane as “Vampire conquistadors” in the 2017 Pax West world-building panel, and it shows. She talked about how dinosaurs and cities of gold came about because they wanted to build off the idea of a Lost World. But the issue with lost world narratives is that they’re built off a tradition of ignoring the sovereignty of indigenous peoples.
In lost world narratives, indigenous people’s claims just don’t count no matter how long they might have called said lost world home. To these Lost World stories, natives are at best another curiosity of this strange land to ogle and at worst a racist caricature for the white square-jawed hero to kill or outwit. It’s a pattern you can find everywhere from King Kong, to Raiders of the Lost Ark, to Road To El Dorado.
Now Ixalan’s natives have done a great job at avoiding these outwardly racist aspects, but the threads of these ideas are still present in its mechanics and flavor with all its talks of exploring, discovery, and claiming. I’m left feeling slightly uncomfortable more than anything else. I feel like these are the sort of thing hiring a native consultant worth their salt would have caught.
Lost Cities of Gold themselves have a particularly troublesome history. The exaggerated stories of golden cities were used as justification for the violent conquest, genocide, slavery, and the various crimes of humanity that surround it. And the echoes of these atrocities, and others like it, are still felt today.
I know that the closer I am to a reservation the more likely I am to be harassed by cops. In America, the sports team that calls the nation’s capital home is a slur. We have a man who genocided a whole third of my nation on the twenty. Assaults and grabs for native lands continue for our resources, backed with private military and dogs or lobbyists and monetary clout at sites like Standing Rock and Menominee River.
And while I appreciate the framing of these conquistadors as the villains they should be, I feel like there is a conversation to be had about this. Sometimes making actual monsters out of the perpetrators of a very human horror distances ourselves from the truth of the situation. It’s a lot easier to think of these people as unrepentant monsters than actual humans who were capable of terrible things. It’s easy to think that you would never be complicit in these sort of acts, but turn around and call the Water Protectors you see on TV thugs and criminals. I know that I’ve seen many conversations from Jewish friends and critics surrounding depictions of Nazis. We’re always a lot closer to repeating these terrible things than we would like to admit.
I should make it very clear I’m by no means calling for the head of anyone at Wizards. I’m largely still very pleased with what I’ve seen of Ixalan and I truly hope nothing happens to change that. I’m excited to see Huatli in action, hopefully as deserving of the narrative spotlight as she feels in my heart.
I just hope next time Magic attempts something like this (and I do want there to be a next time) they hire an appropriate consultant to provide them with context that they may not normally have. As well as ask the questions that need to be asked.