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The Top 7… Native American stereotypes

People get pissy when stuff they consider holy is depicted profanely in videogames. Take Manchester Cathedral’s depiction in Resistance or lyrics cribbed from the Quran in LittleBigPlanet. Gamers react with their usual jaded cynicism, belittling others for daring to hold something sacred in this fast-forward age of materialistic gluttony. (Ironically enough, gamers worship their own sacred cows – just look at any GamePolitics post in which a research study dares to suggest that violent games are bad for kids.)

People also get pissy if they’re a member of an ethnic group upon whom genocide has been committed, and the atrocity is portrayed in the media with anything but the utmost sensitivity. If you’re not condemning the massacre, you’re complicit. Or worse, you’re reveling in it.


Above: Abs of Steel, Apache edition 

I bring this up because it has direct bearing on the depiction of Native Americans in videogames. Games are notoriously bad at delivering rich characters and resonant emotional stories. Game creators lean heavily on generic stereotypes as a sort of narrative shorthand, so they can get on with designing levels and structuring core gameplay. Because games rely so heavily on stereotypes to invoke character, they are particularly illustrative of prevailing cultural attitudes.

If most game characters are bland archetypes, why then does it seem especially mean-spirited to depict Native Americans as feather-wearing, tomahawk-wielding cardboard standees? Check the first two paragraphs: having your culture all but annihilated adds an extra sting to the irreverent depiction of your sacred symbols. Game designers are quick to co-opt tribal trappings without any consideration for the culture behind the image. The result is often as offensive to Native Americans as Piss Christ is to Christians.

 

A little empathy can go a long way. Thanksgiving is a rare time when we’re actually encouraged to be a bit introspective and to consider the feelings of others. This year, while giving thanks for cheap oil and our invincible military, let's pause to consider our callous attitude toward this continent’s First Peoples and give thanks for the fact that they’ve figured out a way to cash in on the gullible among us.

 

Sgt. Frank Delgado - Clive Barker’s Jericho

Token Native Americans appear in other media (see Chakotay or Dawn Star,) so it’s no surprise that they’d show up in games too. In Jericho, Clive Barker promiscuously pillages fragments of mythology from around the globe to cobble together his obtuse premise: God created a monster called the Firstborn, who wants to destroy the rest of God’s creations. Cue the litany of pseudo-mystical ranting, with everything from Sumeria to the Templars to Aleister Crowley and the Nazis tossed in for effect. Enter Jericho Squad, a carefully multicultural special forces unit from the Department of Occult Warfare, including, you guessed it, a token Native American!


Above: Sgt. Delgado’s “profile” -  this guy’s an Indian? OK, whatever
 
Sgt. Frank Delgado is just your typical mini-gun toting shaman who is possessed by a fire spirit. In a move ripped from the Buddhist legend of Bodhi Dharma, Frank is said to have cut off an arm to impress the fire spirit. Frank is a descendent of the Chickasaw tribe, one of the “Five Civilized Tribes” who early on assimilated and adopted many of the precepts of white society, including Christianity. As such, they were one of the few tribes to actually receive money for their lands before being kicked to the curb (the curb being Oklahoma.) But who has time for a history lesson when this is lurching toward you? Kill it! Kiiiiiiiiiiilllllll!!!!!!

 

Now where were we? Right, in addition to being the token Native American Frank is also involved romantically with Jericho Squad’s ninja-bloodmage-scout, Sgt. Church. Like the plot, the characters are bizarre conglomerations of references that are as bizarre and baffling as they are culturally inaccurate. Pile all that on top of repetitive gameplay and idiotic AI, and you have a game destined to be little more than a historical footnote in some snarky game site’s Top Whatever list.

 

 

Turok  - Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, Turok 2: Seeds of Evil, Turok: Evolution, Turok: Rage Wars, Turok 3: Shadow of Oblivion, Turok: Battle of the Bionosaurs, Turok

Turok: Dinosaur Hunter was one of the first prominent Native American protagonists in mainstream gaming. He’s been through many evolutions over the years, starting as a comic book character and eventually finding his way into a series of popular games starting with 1997’s Turok: Dinosaur Hunter. In the transition from comics to games, much of Turok’s heritage became irrelevant backstory whose salient points were communicated via the game’s box art.

 

This change in direction is likely due as much to the differing nature of storytelling in games versus comics and not necessarily representative of any inherent bias against Native Americans. Still, his name was changed to Joshua Fireseed and his roots were mainly explored through his coiffure and sweet bow-and-arrow skills. Who else but an Indian would have the hunting prowess to stalk a dinosaur?

Turok 2: Seeds of Evil introduced the Energy Totem and talismans that imparted certain powers. While these smack of generic “native mysticism,” the games also introduced such decidedly non-indigenous weapons as the Cerebral Bore and the Nuke, which Turok/Joshua used to dispatch time-traveling robosaurs and aliens for a group of gods called the Lazarus Concordance. Joshua? Lazarus? Cerebral Bore? It all sounds a bit Judeo-Christian if you ask me.  And besides, a real Indian would never kill a dinobot without using all its parts.


Above: Turok gently caresses one of his many dino-friends 

In spite of the non-portrayal of his ancestry, Turok/Joshua remains one of the most prominent Native Americans in videogames because the early N64 games were groundbreaking for their time. Consider how Rage Wars presaged our Achievement obsession with its Medal-collecting multiplayer modes. Or how the influence of Seeds of Evil’s dismemberment system and whimsical multiplayer Frag Tag (in which one player spawns as a monkey) are still apparent in today’s games.

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27 comments

  • Elementium - November 22, 2011 7:48 a.m.

    I'll take some typical stereotypes just too see some native americans in the mainstream games.. To me the issue in general is that.. no one really cares about them.. I'd put it out there that they suffered more than anyone and yet all the sensitivity goes towards nearly every other race of people.. Case-In-Point You don't see a football team called "The Black skins" "The White skins" or anything like that.. but no one says "eh maybe calling our team red skins is offensive?" "nah".
  • goodtimegary - December 1, 2008 5:16 p.m.

    did you know you could earn free xbox 360/wii/ps3 ponts ang tgames by filling out surveys...go here http://www.rewards1.com/index.php?referrer_id=448414
  • TheWebSwinger - November 27, 2008 8:23 p.m.

    No Native American from Custer's Revenge?? No Tak and the Power of Juju kid?? Still,a great article. The Rhino Charge part made me lawl.
  • infestedandy - November 25, 2008 11:48 p.m.

    Truly! Vulcan Raven and Blackthorne didn't make the list? NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.
  • wharcraff - November 25, 2008 11:22 p.m.

    that should be Blackthorne. heh sorry
  • wharcraff - November 25, 2008 11:18 p.m.

    Well nice top 7. I hope you'll find enough for the usual honorable mentions for T-dar. I'm not sure if his is Indian but check out if Darkthorne makes the list?
  • darkknight25 - November 25, 2008 11 p.m.

    being a christian, i think the piss christ thing is a little messed up but it is pretty hilarious at the same time so yeah
  • thereaper52 - November 25, 2008 10:39 p.m.

    What the hell man. what about vulcan raven!!
  • MacGyver1138 - November 25, 2008 9:17 p.m.

    This is a pretty good article, and it makes a point. However, I personally think that Native Americans probably have the least offensive stereotypes in games of all stereotyped characters. I'm not saying that the stereotypes are correct, but at least the stereotypes depicted are somewhat positive. Native Americans are shown as warriors, connected to nature, mystical, etc. It is very narrow-minded, but it could be worse--they could always be depicted as evil (Germans, Russians, anyone from the Middle East), "Gangsta" (Black people), or sex objects (women). Prey is a good example of good narration in a game. It had a protagonist who was human, and that I identified with. I actually found myself wanting to save Jen and kill the aliens for a reason.
  • GamesRadarTylerWilde - November 25, 2008 8:16 a.m.

    Why would you doubt that? Also, for those who aren't aware, this is Piss Christ: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piss_Christ I wrote a very long essay about it in an art theory class. You probably don't want to read it. Even I don't.
  • misfit119 - November 25, 2008 5:42 a.m.

    Woot for Fear Factory references. And I have a hard time feeling bad specifically for the Native Americans. Yes they suffered horribly but then again so did the African Americans. Look how far they've gotten in the time they've been actually considered people or rather have barely. They're still either comic relief or the tough talking token black guy in games. Walking sterotypes anyone?. Movies and video games for that matter. At least Prey does show that there's some progress being made in this regard. I can't honestly think of a non-thug or non-stereotype black character or even black main character.
  • screath - November 25, 2008 12:47 a.m.

    There are a few characters that should have made the list. Let's not forget Mumbo Jumbo from Banjo-Kazooie, Humba Wumba from Banjo-Tooie, and Custer from Custer's Revenge.
  • kingpin202 - November 24, 2008 11:01 p.m.

    Native American's use to appear in so many games and I just don't see it anymore! =( The American Government should give more game characters the native american race, it's only fair, we did take all the native american game characters away. lol.
  • wildboy57 - November 24, 2008 10:32 p.m.

    being native American i love seeing them in games its just a shame all are hardcore stereotypes you get no regular people who happen to be native American finally first for one of these
  • ReaperOfDarkness - November 27, 2008 12:31 a.m.

    Why is sex object a native american stereotype? Last time i checked women of all ethnicities, orientations, height or anything else you can imagine can easily be used as sex objects. You dont need to be a "native" american to be a sex object. As a matter of fact how many white people do you see on games that arent stereotypes?
  • Defguru7777 - November 26, 2008 3:14 a.m.

    I have not played any of these games.
  • wharcraff - November 25, 2008 11:23 p.m.

    that should be Blackthorne.heh sorry
  • JudgeDeath - November 25, 2008 3:20 p.m.

    Hah! I remember Gun! That was a gret game. And I also remember Dakrwatch, which was... a... game...
  • KHfan - November 25, 2008 10:46 a.m.

    lol @ the turok picture
  • Moschetto - November 25, 2008 7:04 a.m.

    "The result is often as offensive to Native Americans as Piss Christ is to Christians." Yeah, I'm sure.

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