Indigenous game designer draws fire for 'Thunderbird Strike' video game

By Danielle Frost

To say that Elizabeth LaPensée’s new video game has caused a stir is a bit of an understatement.

The 33-year-old former Grand Ronde-area resident and indigenous game developer is under fire from the oil industry as well as state legislators in Minnesota, who claim her latest creation, “Thunderbird Strike,” is encouraging eco-terrorism.

In the 2-D, side-scrolling game, players can control a thunderbird -- a symbol in several indigenous cultures -- that destroys a snake, which is symbolic for the oil industry’s pipelines.

Elizabeth LaPensée

However, LaPensée said that the thunderbirds also can use their lightning strikes to heal animals and people in the game, and each move has an equal number of points.

“I am passing on stories from my community with this game,” LaPensée said. “If anyone plays the game, they will see it advocates for healing of the land. I think (the backlash) comes from a lack of understanding the game. In some ways, people are looking for a target and I unintentionally provided one for them. The term ‘eco-terrorism’ is a bit scary to me. I am not an eco-terrorist at all.”

She launched “Thunderbird Strike” at the ImagineNATIVEfestival in Toronto, Canada, in mid-October. According to the organization’s website, it is the world's largest presenter of indigenous screen content. The game was awardedBest Digital Media, which LaPenséesaid is the highest honor in her field.

LaPensée said that feedback on the game was overall positive, with one Tribe referring to it as “humorous and historically accurate.”

“The idea was to playtest the game with people, and then make it as great as possible,” she said. “You listen to your players, then iterate the design based on feedback.”

“Thunderbird Strike” will be available as an app for both Android and iPhone in December.

The game was funded in part with a $3,710 Artist Fellowship grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council of Minnesota. One of the criticisms LaPensée is facing is that she lives in Michigan now, but obtained a grant from Minnesota.

“I moved here for an incredible work opportunity, and substantially completed the project before leaving the state,” she said. “I believe in myself and the integrity of this project, and am still working on projects in Minnesota.”

LaPensée is an assistant professor of Media and Information, as well as Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures at Michigan State University.

During her 10 years in the Grand Ronde area, LaPensée, who identifies as Anishinaabe, Métis and Irish, was active in the local community, taking cultural classes and participating in events along with her children.

“While I was in Grand Ronde, my son made a drum there with a Tribal Elder,” she said. “That will always be a part of my children and myself.”

Two years ago, after her Willamina home was destroyed by wildfire, she and her two children, then 4 and 7, moved to Minnesota for work opportunities.

“I lost everything but my laptop, car and some clothes,” she said. “We lived on the road for a few months, and I decided that was the time to take a chance because I didn’t really have to bring anything, and see if I could find work in Minnesota.”

 LaPensée said her identity as an indigenous woman has gotten lost in the media storm of the past few weeks.

“I created this game because I am an indigenous mother raising my children, and we are passing on these Thunderbird stories in the hope that the water will be well enough for our children and future generations to thrive.”

The game’s website states that in some Thunderbird stories, it has been said that for generations the thunderers brought forth rain and fires that renewed the lands and the waters for plants, animals and fish. However, the unsatisfiable greed of another people brought about such vast changes to the lands and waters that the people cried out for the return of the Thunderbird people and their searing lightning.

Under the “act” tab of the game’s website, there is a description about the effect of oil pipelines on waterways.

“The Great Lakes need protection to ensure the well-being of all of us,” it states. “Line 5, built by Enbridge in 1953, was designed to last only until 2003. Every day, the pipeline puts the Great Lakes at risk by transferring 540,000 barrels of Alberta tar sands and Bakken crude oil.”

It also encourages users to share the message of Thunderbird Woman, drawn by Anishinaabe artist Isaac Murdoch, and whose image is part of the inspiration behind the video game.

“(Her) heart shows us that love is at the center of healing and tending to the waters,” it states.

The other artist who inspired LaPensee’s creation is Métis artist and scholar Dylan Miner, who has created art in support of banning pipelines on indigenous lands.

“This game is really focused on restoration,” she said.

In addition to “Thunderbird Strike,” LaPensée has developed several video games, board games, comics, singing games, animations, artwork and stories.

For more than 10 years, she has offered workshops to partners including the United Indian Students in Higher Education Youth Day in Portland; Aboriginal Youth Science Exchange Camp in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario; Urban Native Youth Association in Vancouver, British Columbia; Native Girls Code for Gen7 in Seattle, Wash.; Electa Quinney Institute for American Indian Education in Milwaukee, Wis.; and Salish Kootenai College in Polson, Mont.

“I grew up designing and I was a gamer,” she said. “But I never saw myself depicted in anything. I knew if I wanted to play a game with accurate representation, I would have to design it myself.”

Although LaPensée has moved across the country, she still visits Grand Ronde and considers the area a big part of her life.

“Everyone who has helped contribute to who I am today, that means a lot to me,” she said. “I honor all of those who were fundamental for both myself and my children.”

To learn more about the game, visit www.thunderbirdstrike.com.