Image Comic’s EAST OF WEST, written by Jonathan Hickman with art by Nick Dragotta, is jam-packed with diverse representation. While diversity isn’t as widespread as it needs to be in comics, EAST OF WEST isn’t the first comic to make such an inclusive effort. However, I have never seen such a nuanced and developed representation of Native Americans as I have in this comic. Still, it’s not without its problems.
This comic is a dystopian science fiction Western which follows the years of the apocalypse. In 2064, three of the Four Horsemen — Conquest, Famine, and War — resurrect and set out to bring an end to mankind. The fourth Horseman — Death — doesn’t die and resurrect when his comrades do. On a mission against the other Horsemen, Death sets out for revenge.
What’s most interesting about EAST OF WEST is that it creates an alternative history of the United States. During the Civil War, a comet strikes in Kansas. This ends the hostilities and causes the formation of the fictional Seven Nations of America — Armistice, The Union, The Confederacy, The Republic of Texas, The Kingdom, the PRA of Mao, and The Endless Nation. The latter three give the comic wonderful diversity. The Kingdom is comprised of Africans who were once slaves, while the PRA of Mao is a nation of Chinese exiles, and The Endless Nation consists of Native Americans united under one tribe.
What Could Have Been
EAST OF WEST gives an interesting take on what Native Americans might’ve been capable of without the impediment of conquerors. The Endless Nation has extreme technological advancements — mostly transportation and weaponry. In fact, their technological contributions are the basis of civilization’s forward progress.
For Native Americans, media often has the “savage” stereotype. This stereotype is most notable in early Westerns or cartoons like POCAHONTAS. However, Hickman’s representation of indigenous people depicts them with the intelligence Native Americans deserve to be shown with. The Endless Nation is also very powerful. We get to see them with great machines that keep other nations in line. Additionally, they have other nations dependent on them for those military resources. In the past — and often now — Indigenous People have suffered under the thumb of American government. It’s satisfying to see them with political agency.
EAST OF WEST retcons some of the atrocities the Europeans committed against the indigenous people in their quest to colonize. I suspect Hickman chose to alter history after the Civil War to maintain extreme tensions, not only between the Union and Confederacy but also between white and marginalized citizens. This also illustrates the power a nation has to pick itself back up, even after horrible brutalization. No one can say where indigenous groups would be today had they lived on without more genocide and exploitation after the Civil War. However, one can assume that they would have been able to contribute more significantly to social and technological progress, as they have historically — like how the American constitution is based on Iroquois ideas, or how North American indigenous tribes were the first to invent syringes by using hollow bird bones.
Power in Numbers
In EAST OF WEST, one character doesn’t represent a whole culture. There are multiple Native American characters — characters with different goals and personalities. Cheveyo is the chief of chiefs who rules over The Endless Nation. He also aids the three Horsemen in their quest to bring forth the apocalypse. He’s wise and stern, while his successor, Narsimha, is reckless and self-sacrificing.
Crow and Wolf are witches who aid Death in his endeavor against the other Horsemen. Crow can turn into a flock of crows and acts as a sensible influence to Wolf. Wolf is the son of Cheveyo. Wolf tries to do right by his people of The Endless Nation, as well as right by the world. He’s torn by his rocky relationship with his father. Wolf loves Cheveyo but knows his own path to aid the apocalypse is wrong. He’s brave, but not fearless. Eventually, he becomes the living Word of the Apocalypse, acting as prophecy.
It’s easy to think that, in order to represent a minority group accurately, their depiction must be righteous and perfect. However, it’s the characters’ flaws that make them interesting. They have conflicts which put their natures at war with their destinies. Characters like Wolf, who gives his word to Death that he will aid him but has to break that promise to help his people. Characters like Narsimha, who wants a peaceful resolution to war, but stews in inaction, feeling weak. There’s a nuance to these characters because none of them appear to be wholly good or wholly evil. There is a truth to the duality that one often sees in real life but rarely on the page.
Erasure in EAST OF WEST
The representation of these Indigenous characters isn’t perfect. There’s minimal authentic Indigenous culture preserved. The Endless Nation apparently speaks only the Lakota language. However, this is only mentioned in informational sections in EAST OF WEST VOL. 4. Even interesting characters like Crow and Wolf fall to stereotypes. For example, they’re named after animals solely for the ability to be able to transform into those animals.
The great number of Native nations combined under one is a little unsettling. In media, Indigenous cultures are often lumped together and mixed to provide a convenient narrative for viewers. However, there are more than 500 Native American tribes recognized today, and all of their cultures had different forms of lifestyles, beliefs, and art. Some functioned matrilineally, and some were patrilineal. Different nations believed in different spirits — like Canotila for the Sioux and Selu for the Cherokee. Some nations favored pottery, while others fashioned art through beadwork. These rich and beautiful cultures of real Indigenous People have been all but erased from the comic. In fact, in extra information in EAST OF WEST, there is even confirmation that the “old ways” no longer exist.
In the above image, the chief of the Ponca tribe concedes to Red Cloud of the Lakota. Historically, the Lakota people were the last to battle against the U.S. government for land. This is often why the Lakota represent all Indigenous People in media. Addressing this issue might have been interesting. Instead, in the fictional history it is said that shortly after the unification of tribes, Red Cloud had a vision of the coming apocalypse, and then promptly died. It appears hundreds of cultures died, too.
In the comic’s attempts to empower Native Americans, there’s a misguided and overblown sense of mysticism surrounding The Endless Nation. African and Chinese cultures also embrace mysticism, as do plenty of European-based cultures. However, the non-white cultures also suffer from mystical stereotypes. It would make far more sense if all seven nations embraced magic equally, as it appears to be a factual presence in the comic. Unfortunately, the magic is solely between the Horsemen and the Native Americans. The only reason I can see that Native Americans are the only ones with magic like the Horsemen is from the link Wolf has to the apocalypse as The Word.
If The Endless Nation’s technology was the reason they were the only ones who can harness magic, that might perhaps make more sense. However, as it is, no link between the technology and the magic yet exists. It may not be a blatant misstep, but it takes a step towards the dehumanizing of Indigenous People. It “others” them in a way the rest of the comic attempts not to do. Because of this, there’s a separation between The Endless Nation and other “normal” nations. By elevating the Indigenous People with magic, they have less relatability, which makes it harder to empathize with them. It also turns them into something to fear, which often incites violence against a culture.
Indigenous Influences on Art
To consider the art, it’s important to first consider the change to the course of history in the comic. After that, one must realize that the creation of Indigenous art continues today. With those things in mind, one must then consider that the comic takes place in the future. This requires the art to represent a cultural artistry that is fictional, traditional, and true to the growth all cultures have.
Most clearly influenced by indigenous culture are the mechanical warbonnets. Historically, warbonnets aren’t as ubiquitous among Indigenous People as media would have you believe. However, the Lakota utilize them, as do a few other tribal nations, such as the Cheyenne and the Plains Cree. Warbonnets were reserved for chiefs and warriors, being crafted after acts of bravery.
I might be reading too far into it, but I find the technology above — created by The Endless Nation and referred to as Balloon — is another interesting example. I find Balloon to be a bit of a nod to both oral tradition and physical art. Navajo pottery specifically can be very round in shape, such as that of Balloon. Prehistoric pottery had a geometrically simple design, and the lines of the mechanics of Balloon show similarities to designs found on Indigenous works. Balloon’s purpose is to teach Death’s son, Babylon. However, it’s not only knowledge like math and history. Balloon passes on a knowledge of this like philosophy and poetry. The purpose of the device, like the purpose of art and oral history, is to provide stories of a valued culture. This knowledge molds youths into those who further those ideals.
The Importance of Native Americans on the Page
I’m not Native American, so I have no real authority to claim how well EAST OF WEST reflects the Native American identity. I can say I found the Native American characters to be deeply interesting and multi-dimensional. That certainly isn’t something many depictions allow. One rarely sees Native American at all across media. When Native People are represented, it is often done offensively.
Throughout history, Native Americans have been slaughtered, exploited, and ignored. They need more visibility in media like EAST OF WEST. Visibility makes non-marginalized people see them as part of a living, breathing culture. This leads to respect, which helps foster a future in which more privileged people no longer steal from and belittle a culture we have already historically tried to decimate. Beyond that, Native Americans deserve to see themselves represented properly on the page. They deserve to see themselves represented in media, not just cartoonized villainizations of their culture.