Mapping Indigenous Sovereignty and Relationality in When Rivers Were Trails

Authors: Nichlas Emmons*, Indian Land Tenure Foundation, Elizabeth LaPensée, Michigan State University
Topics: Indigenous Peoples, Land Use and Land Cover Change
Keywords: Indigenous Studies, Video Game, Education, Sovereignty, Land Tenure
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/4/2019
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Calvert Room, Omni, East
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In what ways can a digital game reify Indigenous sovereignty, nationhood, and relationality? When Rivers Were Trails is a 2D adventure game from the Indian Land Tenure Foundation developed in collaboration with the Games for Entertainment and Learning Lab at Michigan State University as a compendium to the Lessons of Our Land curriculum. The game was created with Indigenous artists and musicians as well as over twenty Indigenous writers who each uniquely express their communities in 1890 during the impact of allotment acts which divided lands and displaced nations. This presentation by Creative Director Nichlas Emmons and Game Designer Elizabeth LaPensee describes design choices in When Rivers Were Trails such as the adaptation of historical 1890's maps into a user interface conveying an Indigenous worldview of lands which are now referred to as the United States. Twelve unique maps act as a record of movement, interactions, and relation making throughout the game. The player travels through Minnesota, the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and California, maintaining their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual wellbeing with foods and medicines while making choices about contributing to resistances as well as trading with, fishing with, hunting with, gifting, and honoring the people they meet. Transitions from map to map emphasize the loss of lands and convey both place and displacement. When Rivers Were Trails offers a case study for how to represent Indigenous sovereignty through self-determined intentional design.

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