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Video game channels Anishinaabe mythology to revive animals, destroy oil pipelines

The name “America” was drawn from the first name of the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who died in 1512. But the first inhabitants of what we now call “North America” call it "Turtle Island."

A new video game called Thunderbird Strike lets players protect Turtle Island, particularly from the oil industry.

The game’s creator, Elizabeth LaPensée, is an assistant professor of Media & Information and Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures at Michigan State University. We spoke with her in late 2016 about her app Honour Water, which teaches users Anishinaabe songs about water. Anishinaabe is the name used by native tribes including the Odawa, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Alquonquin peoples.

In this new video game, LaPensée again draws upon her Native American heritage. She joined Stateside to discuss the game.

Listen above for the full conversation, or read highlights below.

On the game itself

In Thunderbird Strike, players control a Thunderbird that can conjure lightning to bring animals back to life or to destroy oil machinery, like pipelines and construction equipment. The Thunderbird flies from the Alberta Tar Sands to the Great Lakes, a journey a little under 2,000 miles long.

On the purpose

Concerned by the oil industry’s presence in Michigan, especially the Enbridge partnership with the state to continue using the Line 5 pipeline that runs through the Straits of Mackinac, LaPensée created the game in part to raise awareness of the risks of this pipeline.

“Physically we cannot continue to remove oil from the earth because it is causing shifts in the land which are destructive,” she said.

On the backlash

Because LaPensée received a grant from Minnesota through the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council, the game has garnered criticism from those who say it is an “eco-terrorist version of Angry Birds,” according to one Minnesota state senator. A recent op-ed in the Lansing State Journal called the game a “blow to low-income families.”

LaPensée sees an ulterior motive in these criticisms.

“Their ultimate goal is to eradicate my voice, is to have the game removed from stores, removed from any kind of distribution services,” she said.

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