Real Native history in a video game: An Indigenous take on The Oregon Trail
While the popular Oregon Trail series computer game of the 1980s and ’90s had narratives from the point of view of settlers traveling from Independence, Missouri to Oregon, it neglected the stories of the very people who lived on those lands.
Enter a new game: When Rivers Were Trails, a Native-themed decision-based roleplaying video game created with the help of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation and Michigan State University’s Games for Entertainment and Learning Lab and financial support from the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.
The game came together due to the contributions of indigenous artist Weshoyot Alvitre, 20 indigenous writers, and thematic music by artists Supaman and Michael Charette.
In the game, an Anishinaabeg player in the 1890s is displaced from Fond du Lac in Minnesota due to the impact of land allotments. They make their way to the Northwest and eventually venture into California.
The player, who must first choose a clan with different strengths, must make different choices throughout the game as they come across various indigenous people, animals, plants, and run-ins with Indian agents. In the time period of the game, a difficult time of rapid transition for Native peoples, the writers do not shy from controversial gritty truths involving personal family narratives, tribal stories and the darker sides of history.
Indian Country Today spoke with award-winning game creator Elizabeth LaPensée Ph.D., Anishinaabe from Baawaating with relations at Bay Mills Indian Community, about the process of creating the educational indigenous-led video game, When Rivers Were Trails.
When did the idea for this game come about?
The Indian Land Tenure Foundation wanted to develop a game based on their Lessons of Our Land curriculum for K-12 students. I’d always teased about making an indigenous version of The Oregon Trail and it’s been a long-running joke. I have a t-shirt I sell that says, “You have died of colonization,” with the original Oregon Trail wagon. So when I pitched the idea of an Indigenous take on The Oregon Trail to Dr. Nichlas Emmons, he was all about it and said that’s exactly what they were going for.
From there we went further into conversations on what that would look like. I wanted to bring in Weshoyot Alvitre (Tongva) because I’d worked with her as co-editor on a comic book collection called Deer Woman. She was the right person for this, and she worked really really hard. The textures are my work, and characters and environment are hers, and the maps are me—she’s great to work with.
It’s been an incredible amount of work with over 20 writers and over 100 character interactions. A lot of the writers have relations to the communities they’re writing about, and a lot of their personal family stories are in the game, which is really powerful.
The opening story of the game, you’re run off of Fond du Lac at gunpoint because your land has been allotted and you didn’t know it. This is a true story based on Vern Northrup’s grandfather, so I asked him for permission to use that as inspiration for the opening of the game. He said absolutely. What’s so powerful about this game is that it walks the line between fiction and history and can set the record straight about stories that happened during the Allotment Act.
Can you explain how the name came about?
When Rivers Were Trails is this idea of when we traveled a lot by river to do trading. By the 1890s, those trails took on a more painful connotation—with the displacement of Native people, these walked trails became a path of suffering. The game is remembering a time when the rivers were our trails. It is possible to go back to those ways. It’s really important to me that the character never really sees themselves and all of the dialogue is non-gendered. The player-character can perceive themselves to be female, or male, or Two Spirit or gender fluid. That was something that was really important to me. Also, it eliminates the tendency to “play Indian” where the character’s are building an avatar and they decide what regalia hat they’re going to wear or anything like that.
What was it like weaving all of these narratives together from over 20 writers?
An interesting process was adapting game writing to indigenous storytelling writing. You can feel where resistance was active and you could participate with the resistance at Red Lake or the Lakota—where there were Ghost Dancers that have a history of their own, but that’s happening as you travel through.
At the beginning of the game, there are swaths of land still referred to as reservation land. In this time, what was called “The Great Sioux Nation” had just been opened up for settlement. So the maps are historically accurate and say, “Open for settlement.” As you travel further west, by the time you to California there’s hardly any reservation land. It has dwindled down and you can see the impact of it in the game levels and characters themselves.
Can you touch upon storylines players may witness?
I think the one thing that came out of the writing are the stories not told in books. It also helped inform other writers about what was going on. For example, through Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, I learned there was a place in Blackfeet Territory where Chinese railroad workers had been shot. They’d dug a ditch, they lined up Chinese railroad workers after they’d finished their work, and they just shot them and threw them in there.
I was talking to another writer in the game, Cat Wendt—who is part Chinese—whose family had worked in that area. Her family would talk about terrible dark things happening and essentially escaping west for safety reasons and laws being put into place where Chinese people couldn’t own businesses. She didn’t know the depth and darkness of it, but I told her that story, and it connected with her. This place is not marked or in any books, and we have no idea how many instances of trauma like this have happened. What the game does is draw attention to these erased histories.
So it doesn’t try to whitewash histories?
This is a sovereign game funded by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, making the gameplay considerably. The game goes so far as to end by warning the player that people are being scaled in southern California, which was true of the time because there were still bounties for Native scalps in the 1890s. The player is forced to choose which way they want to go in a final decision which leads to different endings and life paths. All of the Indigenous creatives involved wanted to make sure the gritty but real truth was included.
When Rivers Were Trails is now available on Windows PC and Mac - they are currently developing a mobile version of the game.
Adrian Jawort, the correspondent who wrote this story, is also a contributing writer to the When Rivers Were Trails game