When Rivers Were Trails
When Rivers Were Trails is a 2D adventure game by This IS Kalapuyan Land artist Elizabeth LaPensée in the gameplay style of the popular Oregon Trail computer game. Adults and children alike will engage with history from an Indigenous perspective and consider the role that point of view plays in how history is taught and talked about. Free to download and play!
An Anishinaabeg in the 1890’s is displaced from their traditional territory in Minnesota and heads west to California due to the impact of allotment acts on Indigenous communities, facing Indian Agents, meeting people from different nations, and hunting, fishing, and canoeing along the way as they balance their wellbeing.
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“THE WORK THAT GAVE ME THE MOST PAUSE, however, was Elizabeth LaPensée’s game When Rivers Were Trails.
When Rivers Were Trails is a variation on the educational game Oregon Trail, which introduced American elementary school students to the routes, existence, and hardships of the thousands of settlers who headed west in covered wagons toward Oregon. LaPensée’s game uses the same premise – the player is traveling somewhere and needs to make decisions about routes to take, ways to procure food and supplies, and how to avoid danger – but instead of the players impersonating a pioneer, they take the point of view of an Indigenous person being forced from their land by arriving white settlers.
…I can honestly say it never once occurred to me until I played When Rivers Were Trails the extent to which the game Oregon Trail privileged the singular perspective of white settlers and normalized it as the only narrative worth studying or learning about.” -Laurel Reed Pavic, in Who’s Land Is It Anyway? Oregon Artwatch, January 8, 2020.
Suggestions for playing When Rivers Were Trails as home learning:
- It’s highly recommended for kids and grown-ups to play together so you can sound out new words and talk about the game as you play. Grown ups will learn new things too!
- Recognize that When Rivers Were Trails does not represent a Kalapuyan perspective of history. You might compare and contrast Kalapuyan and Anishinaabe experiences in the 1800s, and discuss the diversity of Native tribes and tribal member’s experiences in the past and today.
- Use the game as a research prompt. As you play, more and more stories will be revealed. Look up who the Anishinaabe peoples are and anything you are curious about in the stories. Practice identifying primary and secondary sources, and reliable vs. unreliable sources (remember to check who the webpage author is and be careful to reject webpages that reinforce stereotypes) Websites of tribal nations are primary sources.
- Each time you play, write down a sentence or paragraph summarizing what happened, something new you learned, and a question you have.
- Discuss why Elizabeth LaPensée decided to make this game? Why is it important that the game is from an Anishinaabeg perspective?
- Listen to words in Ojibwe (an Anishinaabe language) in the Ojibwe dictionary. Can you find words in the dictionary that are used in the game?
- As you play, create a timeline. What events are happening in the game? Research other events that are happening at the same time in history to add to your timeline.
- Get out a map and follow along with your character’s journey. Using a ruler and the map scale, can you track how many miles your character travels from place to place?
- Learn about current issues and young Indigenous activists too. For example, research and report on Autumn Peltier, the 15 year old chief water commissioner for the Anishinabek First Nation.
- Read picture books by Anishinaabe authors. For example, Powwow Summer: A Family Celebrates the Circle of Life by by Marcie Rendon (White Earth Anishinaabe), Hungry Johnny by Cheryl Minnema (Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe), The Water Walker by Joanne Robertson (Ojibwe), I Am Not A Number by Jenny Kay Depuis (Ojibway Anishinaabe).