This Land is My Land and the homogenisation of Native America

There aren’t many things I get excited about apart from an exceptionally well made cup of tea and a chance to go on a holiday. So when it comes to gaming, it takes a special kind of game for me check on Steam if it’s on preorder. And let’s be honest if you follow me, these games mainly focus on archaeology or anything Bioware (#since2003). But, I was blown away with what I saw from This Land is My Land trailer.

The game is s an open-world set in late 19th century frontier, you play from the point of view of a Native American during a time when “America” was being overrun by white settlers. The game is being created by Ukrainian outfit Game-Labs, best known for the PC strategy Ultimate General series, set in the American Civil War.

The truth is I’ve always wanted to play an indigenous character who fought the colonizinng force of Western Europe. It was story rarely seen in Hollywood without a white male savior thrown in the mix (think Dances with Wolves, The Last of Mohicans, The Revenant etc). The video game industry is no better, there have been few games with native protagonists with the Indie game Never Alone,the only one springing to mind. While AAA games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider incorporate indigenous tribes, it still focuses on the privileged white hero saving the day. No hate, I love Lara Croft. And the issue becomes ever more glaring when you realise only 0.09% of video game characters are Native American. Whoa.

Speaking to Polygon, the game’s development lead Denis Khachatran, says the protagonist represents an amalgam of western tribes. “You represent them all,” he said. “The Chickasaw, Cherokee, Lakota, Cheyenne, Apaches, Navajo, Shawnee, Shoshone, Mohawk, Utes and all other tribes large and small. And this is where the problem lies, popular culture and movies perpetuate an homogenized Native America and ignore the incredible diversity of Native groups across North America.

The homogenizing cultures perpetuates issues of identity and stereotypes of Native people. Without consulting Native tribes and the general lack of contemporary representation of Native Americans in the media it’s no surprise Native Americans find it difficult to see themselves fitting in to contemporary American culture.

The homogenization of Native Americans effectively reduces them from proud people to salable curiosities. As Steven Heller states, “By the end of the 19th century, images of Native Americans had become so commonplace in American advertising that it was taken for granted, and criticism was minimal if at all.”

While in some ways its commendable for a European game studio to incorporate the Native Americans’ historical fight against European colonization, the issue still remains that popular media is the only exposure some people have to certain members of other groups. And when game developers decide to homogenize multiple cultural groups inaccurate or stereotypical representations are bound to be conveyed.

Video games like This Land is My Land have the opportunity to present Native Americans cultures to those not familiar with a group who often themselves feel invisible in the mass media. Consulting with Native American tribes also shows that we are moving away from borderline colonial discourse that has plagued mainstream media since the dawn of its creation. The issue isn’t only about under-representation, but the quality of representations on offer, not allowing people to see the unique, diverse, and contemporary people they actually are.

Lara Croft: the problematic archaeologist

She proved to the world that women can make exceptional protagonists. She embodies woman empowerment, wit and adversity, but Lara Croft also represents the colonial values of old school archaeology.  Like many archaeogamers, I’m a huge fan of Lara Croft, even Classic Lara, who stole artefacts and disseminated archaeological sites just because she felt like it. In the first Tomb Raider, she says it herself: “I’m sorry, I only play for sport.” But as the reboot series tried to transform Lara to less of a female avatar built for the male gaze to a relatable hero, she fell more victim to Western imperial privilege. Oh the irony.

This wasn’t an issue with her character in 2013’s Tomb Raider. When the game was released we were introduced to a very different, much younger and inexperienced Lara. She eventually becomes reminisce of the fierce warrior we all know and love. Her trials throughout the game proved that she could take care of herself no matter what was thrown at her while still taking a moment to awe at the ruins and artefacts she encountered. I loved 2013’s Lara Croft, she reflected the metaphorical journey of becoming an archaeologist that it was hard not to root for her.  In the game, Lara voyages to find the lost kingdom of Yamatai on an expedition (not to look for her lost father, thank you kindly Alicia Vikander) funded by her best friend Sam. The trip turns into a fight for survival as she finds herself stranded on a desert island with cultists and a supernatural force who refuses to let her leave. The story focused on her trying to break into the archaeological world with a huge discovery, and that’s the key difference to its successors.

Rise of the Tomb Raider shows us quickly that Lara has changed, she’s become more interested in hunting an organisation known as Trinity, (who she believes is behind the death of her father) than in archaeology. Before in 2013’s Tomb Raider, Lara was mesmerised (as much as she was afraid) of the island she was stranded on. But the narrative device of seeking revenge leaves her more in John Wick territory than Howard Carter’s trench. In Siberia, Lara joins the Remnant (descendants of the prophet Jacob) in order to defeat Trinity. Lara is less interested in discovery and the excitement of the archaeology she finds, and more the need to prove that her father was right (about Trinity and the supernatural). Rise of the Tomb Raider gives Lara less agency in her decisions, which only makes her less competent as an archaeologist and explorer.

But her incompetence doesn’t equate to British imperialism, she might make bad decisions, but she’s not a looter or a thief. That however changes in 2018’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider, everything I had loved about Lara was shattered with her intro in Cozumel, Mexico. As Lara Croft “takes” a knife protected within a pyramid, she becomes part of the gang of white folk traipsing around the world, stealing treasures from other cultures.

Even the antagonist, the leader of Trinity and esteemed archaeology professor, Dr. Dominguéz underestimates Lara’s entitlement  saying “It never occurred to me that you would just take it.” Not only does she freely steal a clearly valuable piece of cultural heritage she also triggers a massive tsunami that kills almost all the inhabitants of Cozumel. The relatable Lara that Crystal Dynamics wanted us to so truly love in 2013’s Tomb Raider had disappeared. The consequences of her actions and her remorse are left out of the rest of the game. The empathetic Lara, who went to immeasurable lengths to save her friends in 2013, unintentionally drowns a whole town and she hardly manages a shrug. But it only gets better, Lara then “discovers” the ancient and still living city of Paititi, where she does simple tasks for the indigenous people, who seem incapable of doing any sort of action before Lara came swooping in. This is obviously a citadel purposely built  for Lara to steal plenty of Indigenous souvenirs along her way.

There aren’t many more ways for it to get worse in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, right? Wrong! The introduction of good old human sacrifice elevates the game to Apocalypto level of racism and inaccuracy. It’s true sacrifice was practiced by many different cultures of pre-columbian South America, but that’s true of almost every culture in the last millennia. Humans were killed because of contemporary ideological beliefs, be it religion, politics and/or conquest. The use of sacrifice in Shadow of the Tomb Raider reflects the savage Indian trope. In order to implement sacrifice into the main storyline, the developers needed to recontextualise parts of the practice separate from white colonialist ideas of good and evil. Later in the game, Lara replaces Unuratu (the leader of Paititi) as the hero of her own people.  Lara doesn’t just steal artefacts in this game, she steals people’s destiny. Unuratu can’t save her people, she needs Lara for that.

After Lara does indeed save the day, she returns to her manor in the British countryside with a butler bringing her a fresh pot of tea. In typical colonial fashion, she returns to her comfortable life and her crimes are left unpunished.

Why we need Indiana Jones

The media is often our strongest ally and often our greatest enemy. Drones of students decide to follow the footsteps of their heroes (Richard O’Connor, Lara Croft, Indiana Jones), allowing them to break the norm and enter a world quite unlike their own.  The media has painted archaeology as a profession of discovery, uncovering visually attractive finds, sites and civilisations. But often the journey to find our truths leaves many unanswered questions and because of this archaeology is often linked to mysticism and mystery. These mysteries are often supernatural in nature and it’s often up to the archaeologist to figure them out, think Relic Hunter, Bone Kickers, and of course Tomb Raider. It’s a victim of the Bond-effect creating a powerful brand for the the archaeology profession but posing no resemblance of reality. 

I suspect not many people watched Indiana Jones believing that archaeologists went around destroying archaeological sites and shooting sword wielding henchmen, but you’ll be mistaken if depictions like Indiana have little impact on the profession. Despite producing a sharply divided reaction among archaeologists, media representations of us are some of the most powerful. 

These stereotypes allow for more than just an appealing career, they form the public opinion on the profession. You can often find TV programming which focuses on the words like Ancient Lost Secrets Reveal the Hidden Mysteries of the Dead. There is a reason for this, if archaeological programming used words which reflected the profession it would be along the lines of Excavations Identify Farming Tools Reflecting Migration Patterns which of course sounds far less sexy.

However, these depictions of archaeology inspire real interest across the world. We want people to be motivated by the past, enough to support our work or even venture into the profession themselves. Even if these embellishments are far from the truth, they are the catalyst to get interest in the human past. And no matter what my colleagues might say, Lara Croft will always be my favourite archaeologist.

Archaeology of Video games

For many, video games offer a distraction from the harsh cry of reality. They grant us a chance to delve into a world unlike our own. I loved being able to shut off the demands of homework when I got back from school. One of my favorite games was Final Fantasy VII, the steampunk world that Square Soft invented was so far from my own mundane existence it was very easy to switch off and immerse myself into its story. But, my favorite games were the ones which took place in a medieval fantasy world, they had just the right blend of anotherness and familiarity to make me feel content. I loved running around derelict towns, and fantastical ruins that it awoke a part of me that I never thought about before – a love of history and archaeology.

I can name a few video games which use archaeology as it main premise, there is of course Tomb Raider, and her male equivalent Nathan Drake’s Uncharted.  These games mashed with the supernatural make archaeology a world not left to the dead. Although the realities of archaeology are hardly ever shown, it allows for the mystery to draw you in. For archaeology to truly be effective in video games, it’s not the truth or accurate depictions of history that need to be implemented. It’s the aesthetic quality of the archaeology, seeing ruins and the degradation of civilization is just as awe-inspiring as it is terrifying.

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An ancient elven temple in the Dragon Age: Inquisition’s DLC Trespasser  ©  Bioware

One of my favorite visuals in video games comes from the fantasy series Dragon Age, in the DLC Trespasser, your character travels to a number of abandoned and ruined temples to uncover a plot to take over southern Thedas during a period of political uncertainty. The temples and structures are ancient elven, although they could be picked right from the North York Moors or the Scottish Highlands. 

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Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire a “real” ancient elven temple.

The aesthetics for ancient elven ruins weren’t plucked from the artist’s imagination although there is definitely a degree of creative licensing. These ruins are based mostly off medieval monasteries, most of which were destroyed during Henry VIII’s reformation.  Ruins tend to inspire a distant world long gone, one that sparks our imagination. In 2013’s Tomb Raider Lara voyages to the land of Yamatai, a forgotten feudal kingdom off the south coast of Japan, the island is full of ruins, most which are remarkably still intact. Although running around the island killing cultists had some fun, I was taken back by the beauty of the Kofun-period ruins. Just like the elven ruins of Dragon Age, they aren’t picked from an artist’s imagination.

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The reboot of Tomb Raider in 2013, took place in Yamatai, an insland full of ruins  ©  Crystal Dynamics

When I lived in Japan, I visited a place called Nokogiriyama home to a sprawling Nihon-ji temple complex. There are a number of reliefs carved into the side of the mountain which definitely are reminisce of Yamatai’s Queen Himiko’s statues. Game environments like these allow us to explore the past from more than just a player’s perspective. Interaction is a key to gaming, a medium that has allowed us to explore ancient environs. When it’s done successfully, a la Tomb Raider and Dragon Age, it can inspire gamers to seek the real truths, or spark their own creative imaginations.

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Nokogiriyama definitely had some real life Yamatai vibes. It is home to one of the biggest buddhas in Asia.

There are the plenty of other examples of the use of archaeological ruins and artefacts, but these two are my favorites. There is something very much ingrained into our psyche about archaeology and the mystery of what our ancestors left behind. When we interact with these environments in game it allows us to think of its functionality, its beauty and its past. In Trespasser when we go further and further into the evanuris to discover the truth of the plot, we discover a past that in fact is very much like our present. A world full of conspiracy, intrigue, betrayal but yet one full of beauty and humanity.