When Milton Tootoosis was younger he used to love watching old black and white westerns.
But Tootoosis recalls something odd happening while watching the movies that John Wayne made famous. The young boy found himself rooting not for his own people but for the cowboys and the cavalry slaughtering them.
"I was thinking 'those Indians are nothing but savages ruthlessly killing white women and children, they must be bad,’” Tootoosis told VICE. “That had an imprint on my psyche for many years and it wasn't until my early twenties that I took my first Indigenous Studies class in University and I thought 'oh my goodness, this is totally opposite from what popular culture has conditioned and programmed my young mind to believe.'"
“It's not a pleasant feeling.”
Now, decades later, Tootoosis, the Poundmaker Cree Nation Headman, has found himself at the heart of a debate over Sid Meier's Civilization, the long-running PC franchise.
Now, in case you didn’t know, Civilization is a turn based strategy game in which you play as a nation’s leader—Abraham Lincoln for the United States, Gandhi for India, etc.— and attempt to take over, for lack of a better term, the world (although you can technically do so without resorting to violence—you can win via your nation’s science, religion, or culture—it’s very difficult to do so without fighting your rival nations at some point). In an upcoming expansion pack for the game, Civilization VI: Rise and Fall, the Cree Nation finds themselves as a playable squad. They will be led by Poundmaker Cree Nation namesake, Pîhtokahanapiwiyin or, as he is known in the English-speaking world, Chief Poundmaker.
The thing is, Tootoosis says, Chief Poundmaker was the antithesis of the colonial and imperialist aspects of the Civilization series and the Poundmaker Cree Nation is unhappy about his portrayal.
When the Poundmaker Cree Nation in Saskatchewan first heard about his appearance early last week, Tootoosis said his nation was excited about the prospect of the game teaching scores of young people about their way of life and their former leader. However, that all changed when they learned that the goal of Civilization is essentially colonialism.
"Without knowing what the narrative of the game was we thought 'oh man, that's kinda cool that our cultural icon is even referenced in this game' especially because it is an international company,” said Tootoosis. “Upon further investigation and understanding of this war game about the inclusion of messages and ideals related to imperialism and colonialism, this doesn't sit well with many of us because that's not what Poundmaker represents."
Furthermore, the publisher behind Civilization, 2K Games, did not seek permission of the first nation or consult the elders in regards to the use their namesake as a character.
2K Games did not respond to VICE’s request for comment. We will update this story if they do.
Tootoosis said he would have liked to see “any company doing this” to “approach the correct officials and to make a visit.”
“Maybe we would be honoured to be part of it but there has to be dialogue and discussion and a full understanding of what it is we're agreeing to,” Tootoosis said. “In the past, and we're not alone in this, there has been some exploitation of our culture and in this case our cultural icon who we hold very highly."
“There was no consent. That’s a key word here, consent.”
Tootoosis said the consensus among the elders in their community is that they are unhappy with the portrayal of Poundmaker and will be asking the youth their thoughts in the near future. While the game portrays Poundmaker in a positive light—the narrator of the trailer saying he “judicially (tows) the line between aggression and diplomacy” and is remembered for “his work to secure peace between the Cree and the Canadian government”—Tootoosis is still worried about “a potential danger of brainwashing a person to believe a certain culture is this way or that way.”
Chief Poundmaker was a peacemaker who worked tirelessly to, in a time of upheaval, maintain calm between the Cree and Blackfoot population and Canada in the 19th century. He is perhaps best known for his arrest and three year imprisonment for treason.
This occured when Poundmaker’s people feared for starvation after their traditional food, the buffalo, was hunted to near extinction. Fearing this, Poundmaker set out with some tribesmen to get rations from the government. When the government wouldn’t meet with the Chief several of his people looted the town—something that the tribe’s oral history says Poundmaker was opposed to. This resulted in the government attacking Poundmaker’s camp and being repelled by the Cree.
Poundmaker apparently stopped his nation from attacking the government forces while they retreated and is credited with saving many lives. A few weeks later he turned himself in and was sentenced—he died shortly after being released. The Poundmaker Cree Nation are currently petitioning the government to exonerate the Chief.
Civilization games are no strangers to taking liberties with the real tales of historical figures, something probably best illustrated by the fact that Gandhi is portrayed as a nuclear bomb loving maniac that will decimate your city at the slightest drop of a hat. This particular game function started as a glitch but has been kept due to the fan’s love of the character's juxtaposition to the real-life pacifist.
Civilization VI: Rise and Fall is due out early next month.
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