Ixalan through Indigenous Eyes

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.

Image result for huatli

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.

18 thoughts on “Ixalan through Indigenous Eyes

  1. Love this article! As a Mexican, I’ve wanted for more Latinx/Indigenous representation in Magic The Gathering and it’s a breath of fresh air seeing a part of my identity represented!

  2. Wait, what?
    The conquistadors aren’t the villians, though. Or at least, it isn’t that black and white.

    The conquistadors had an artifact stolen from them that could help lift them to true immortality, rather than the vampiric half-life they currently are in. They have also driven the humans (who became the pirates) out of their ancestral lands.
    The Sun Empire is a militaristic, expansionistic monarchy that drives the other major faction of the region, the merfolk, to greater and further measures each day, trying to keep the city of gold hidden from the power hungry humans.

    So far, the only ‘good’ faction is the merfolk, but we know almost nothing about them, and the closest thing we have to a ‘bad’ faction is the pirates, who have the most viewpoint characters, and are thus the most sympathetic.

      1. So rather than address my points or your own apparent lack of research into the setting, you make a joke?

        No, the conquistadors are not all black and white, there are several colorless artifacts that are supposed to be their weapons/equipment.

    1. Hi, author of the article here. I wrote this article with the information I had at the time, which was most of the spoilers, a PAX panel, a stream, and a story. So what you ride might become a bit outdated as the weeks go on, as might my opinion. It’d be happy to write a re-evaluation after everything is all said and done, namely the tonal switch that happens between sets, provided there is still a demand and I have something to say.

      But I gotta admit, given the information we have now, I don’t really see where you’re getting some of your points.

      As far as I am aware no one knows what the treasure of Orazca actually is. It, like the city itself is a mystery but the Legion of Dusk hypothesizes, to the point of fanaticism, that it holds the key to true immortality and not just undeath in cards like “Inspiring Cleric” and based on what was said at the PAX WEST world building panel. I can certainly say with what historical images they are invoking and flavor text on certain cards like Queen’s Bay Soldier “The soldiers of the Legion of Dusk have come to the colonies at Queen’s Bay in search of glory and riches. They are veterans of centuries of warfare, and they thirst for conquest.” and Queen’s Commission “Let the blood of the impure flow through you. Only the blessing of the golden city will plunge the acrid taste from your mouth.” Are pretty solidly painting them as a villain. Vampire Conquistadors as a metaphor for Imperialism.

      This is backed up by a lot of the visual language of the Dusk Legion’s art. Compare something like Bishop’s Soldier to something like Pterodon Knight. I would also like to point out that the Dusk Legion conquered Torrezon and members of the Brazen Coalition would like revenge for that, See the flavortext of Swashbuckling.

      The Sun Empire being Imperialistic? I’m really not seeing it. Ixalan is their home. They’ve been fending off the vampires attacks for years. I’ll give you that they’re a warrior culture, but that’s hardly the same thing. They aren’t sending ships back over towards High and Dry or Queen’s Bay

      If you’re talking about Orazca, the Sun Empire built that city (maybe with the help of the River Heralds). They did however ask the River Heralds to guard it from everyone, including themselves. But that was so long ago in the past that Orazca became a myth.

  3. As someone who is a Latino with indigenous/African in my family history, I never really cared about being represented in media. I just want the inner workings to be handled well (in this case, the mechanics and cards)

    I don’t like it when everything is 100% politicized, and I doubt Wizards went with Ixalan with such an intent to make a carbon copy of the Spanish conquests of the Americas. It gives it a new and breathtaking flavor, but still does enough without inherently appropriating or misrepresenting the source material.

    I know for some representation matters, but it’ll always fall flat if the cards and gameplay is bad. And in this case, Ixalan show that Wizards knows how to make something fresh, diverse, and exciting for players.

    1. I mean I’m glad you’ve never felt this way, but for a lot of us it sends the message we’re welcome if nothing else. And that is important. As is looking at the stuff we love with a critical eye, because that is how it gets better. There are whole schools of film and art criticism around this. I don’t think anyone came in here with malicious intent, but there are things that stood out to me looking through it because of my background. Unfortunately as a bisexual indigenous man, my existence is inherently political some and will continue to be so as long as anytime someone see someone like me represent in media as pandering or my opinions on how I’m represented dismissed with a roll of an eye.

      I love seeing all this beautiful art and fun cards as much as the next guy. I really want to make R/G dino deck and a pirate deck based around treasures. And like I said, I do think they did a pretty darn good job on the whole and and looking forward to what is next. It’s okay to think about the art you consume and have a conversation about it.

  4. I’m just not sure about your claim to the negatives of a lost world setting. I understand that a lot of what went in to creating the initial trope of the lost world was based on the idea of “savages in a strange land”, but honestly that isn’t how most people see the trope these days. The same goes for the lost city in the wilderness; both of these ideas may have their root in being used to justify the destruction of indigenous people and their culture, but they’ve become something else. I still understand the frustration though. Perhaps the pairing of showing these tropes along with specifically using indigenous american cultures wasn’t the best way to do it, but I can see Wizards of the Coast’s point in trying to make the world seem resonant in a way that matters to a lot of people. I also believe a lot of this is overrided by what you mentioned, how the native people of Ixalan aren’t shown as mindless, outmatched savages. The River Heralds and the Sun Empire both show a competent, in-depth culture of people that have their own positives, negatives, wants, and fears. Like I said, I understand your frustration and it is justified. Tropes need to be changed gradually though, and the cool themes behind a lost world shouldn’t be lost (haha) simply because we are scared to show them. That’s how Samurais and Ninjas are shown as completely different things in modern fantasy than they originally were; culture changes things, including the connotations surrounding them.

    As far as portraying the vampires as the bad guys, I understand your fear of ignoring something actual humans can do, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. In fact, I believe that it’s good to show things like this in fantasy settings. It not only makes us more invested in the world because it has a severe problem, but it also allows us to connect with it because we know this is something that has happened in our very world. If anything, this will expose a lot of people to the injustices of the Europeans towards not only the Americas, but to there general idea of expanding and controlling huge swaths of land. It shows the people with such a goal as ruthless fanatics, which I believe doesn’t desensitize people to the problem, but rather shows just how completely and utterly wrong a mindset like that is.

    The one complaint I would say I have is the pairing of the portrayal of indigenous american cultures and conquistadors. I really want a world that is based on indigenous american cultures, and that’s it; like a Theros, but for Eastern seaboard North American native cultures. Even though Wizards has finally shown meso-american culture in one of their worlds, it is one that also has Spanish elements and a theme of conquering/exploring. I believe that this is where many of the problems you are having arise from, and also makes it seem like they can only explore those cultures if they have the rider of “somebody else is trying to take their land from them” along with it. Maybe this set would have been more justified and less touchy if they had done a solo native american culture set first.

    1. I feel like there should at least be a conversation about this if nothing else I suppose. Are we aware of it’s history? Are we both a player base and creators aware of why this could be potentially harmful and what you should or should not do? Are we willing to have this conversation? I wasn’t in the room for any of the I’m sure numerous that went into creating this set so ultimately I can’t say if it was the right choice, But I can talk about how I feel and the experiences I bring to the table.

      Since writing this article I’ve had numerous indigenous players as well of players of various Latinx and South America descent reach out to tell me their own feelings. Most are so hyped over the fact you have strong and capable natives. Some are glad the villains are clear monsters they can root against. Others are avoiding the set entirely because of them. So you’re not alone or wrong in your thoughts either way. I know I’ve seen many critics and art scholars talk about parallels with the representations of Nazis so I thought it was important to bring up.

      I think we can all agree that we would love Native America plane though. I have a fan plane at the ready, complete with design docs and outlines. Call me Wizards.

      1. True to all that. Again, like I said in my post, your feeling are validated. As much as I think this is a step in the right direction, it certainly has its holes and pitfalls. I just see it as something that needs to be done, however. It has problems, but that’s kind of the point; no one has done anything like this before, so new ground is being tread. The mistakes are, at a certain point, almost entirely expected, which is why I am willing to cut Wizards of the Coast a lot of slack. Then again, being a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white male who speaks English and lives in the States, I suppose how I feel about the whole thing is definitely not top priority in anyone’s mind (which is how it should be).

        Also, I totally get having fan made ideas that you are just begging Wizards to Contact you about. I’d love to hear about your Native American plane idea, if you want another set of eyes to critique and praise, from one wannabe designer to another.

        1. Oh sure. I’m fully aware that mistakes are going to happen, and as long as they keep pushing forward and look to improve I’m not going to hold it against them. But that’s why we talk about it I suppose.

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