Horizon Zero Dawn and Cultural appropriation: A very different view.
For the first time EVER, I’m sitting on the other side of a discussion about appropriating native culture. Why? Well, let me lay the framework.
First off, I’m not a guy who “knows a Native American” or has a “Native friend” I am a 100% Anishinabe (Ojibway) dude who lives on reserve and has fought racism, stereotypes, pan-Indianism, and cultural appropriation fiercely for as long as I can remember. I’ve been the victim of horrendous racial violence as a child, adolescent, and adult, and I’m also a gamer.
I am the first to point out anything that smacks of any of the above and after I saw the Dia Lacina essay on “Horizon: Zero Dawn” being culturally insensitive and appropriating Native culture, I felt for the first time in a situation like this that I had to say something in rebuttal.
Lacina takes issue with the use of the words Tribal, Primitive, Braves, and Savage being used in the game (fyi they’re used to describe predominantly white people in game and they’re White words we didn’t use to describe ourselves thus I claim no ownership of, nor want to, anymore than I want to be a redskin, Indian or Wahoo)
It seems (IMO) that most of her beef comes from an apparent belief that numerous aspects of generic tribal culture that appear in the game (making clothing from skins, hunting with spears and bows, living in a Matriarchal society, etc) are the sole domain of the Native American and just to be safe and cleverly keep her POV less subject to scrutiny, she applies it even more broadly to indigenous people world wide (I will just refer to us in particular as NA cuz I’m lazy and I also don’t refer to myself as a Native American) and basically that anything that is remotely “tribal” shouldn’t be used in gaming without our or someone else’s permission.
In fairness, I don’t know if she’s actually played the game but as someone who is currently in the midst of doing exactly that, I can tell you that I have a pretty good idea of what stuff triggered her being upset and why, and while I absolutely respect her right to get offended by whatever she likes, and she makes excellent points about some other games, I am going to point out that there are flaws with this logic.
First of all, the basics: HZD is set in a post-post-apocalyptic future where people are living in tribal groups in a very destroyed world. Machines exist but as hybrid animal/dinosaur type creatures and technology is pretty much non-existent in day to day human life.
The heroine of the story is a red haired, white girl named Aloy who lives as an outcast with her adopted father, Rost. Without giving a lot away, they are fiercely shunned by the local tribe for something Rost did and also the fact that Aloy is motherless.
Impressively and rightly, though somewhat dismissively remarked upon by Lacina, is the way women and especially women of color are portrayed so positively in-game as this particular tribe is a total Matriarchy run by elders of various ethnicity. African, Asian, White, and a variety of undefined people of color are common everywhere in the game. (The leader of one band of warriors is a very fierce, commanding, intelligently portrayed black woman with a powerful presence.) It reflects a fairly global society from a “skin color” perspective without any horrible accents or broken speech.
They worship an “All-Mother” goddess and their culture is (at least how I saw a lot of it) fairly heavy on European i.e. Celtic, Germanic, Scandinavian, etc type symbolism and the rest is filled in with mostly generic tribal-ish stuff that you could find in countless cultures around the world.
I really didn’t get a “Native American” vibe off the game. Of course, I don’t automatically presume to claim sole ownership of things like tribal life, hunting with bows and spears, and worshiping spirits of various elements solely for my own. Random fact: Because there are over 500 distinct First Nations in N. America, we, believe it or not, didn’t all ride horses, live in tipis, use bows and arrows, tobacco and sage, and worship Eagles and Wolves. Why? Well…use your brain. Tobacco and Sage don’t grow EVERYWHERE, horses came over with the Europeans (and if you saw where I live you couldn’t have and cant for the most part get a horse through the bush if you tried) Eagles and Wolves don’t live EVERYWHERE….get the point? Anyways….
If you examine Rost, he like most of the men has a braided beard and other seemingly Viking/Middle Ages inspired features, is white, speaks clear, unbroken English, and is a loving, protective and very positive role model for the girl. Aloy for her part, is also fairly Viking-esque (to the point of looking incredibly like Lagaertha from the show Vikings but with red hair) also Egrit from GoT, and is no damsel in distress who needs men to save her. NOWHERE in the game have I encountered any Tipis, wigwams, Sweatlodges, or Non-White people speaking in stereotypical “Me smoke-um peace pipe, He go dat-a way” fashion.
The opening cinematic is very touching (and long) as we see the orphaned Aloy as a baby in Rost’s care being carried around in a bundle on his back (which pretty much every culture did in one form or another at some point in time) and him ultimately taking her to the spot where a child of the tribe receives it’s name.
I really liked this idea as it isn’t often portrayed in a lot of mediums outside of stereotypical “Dances With Wolves” bullshit. Also, naming ceremonies are not the sole domain of NA people and what occurs bears zero resemblance to any NA ceremony I know of. (It was actually a little Lion King at one point lol) But it’s a powerful moment in the beginning with much more that occurs during it but I won’t spoil that either.
Aloy herself is a pretty complex character. She’s extremely independent, defiant, and questions pretty much everything about why things are the way they are and wants to do something about it. You actually begin playing her as a 6 year old which is pretty unique and even then she’s tough and fearless and determined to explore her world.
She is in no way hyper-sexualized (I’m looking your way Overwatch) Her clothing and everyone else’s, is utilitarian and appropriate for the environments she lives in, and so far, I have not encountered anything with her or any other character that made me go “WTF?”and trust me, my radar for that shit is HIGHLY SENSITIVE. This isn’t Avatar, people. It’s not John Smith. It’s not The Great Wall or Pocahontas. This isn’t white dude shows up and saves the helpless non-white people while helpless native woman falls in love with him stuff. It’s a fictitious future where we maniacs blew it up, damn us all to hell!
But here’s the more annoying thing for me as an actual Anishinabe. I don’t need people speaking for me or getting offended on my behalf. I am very capable of doing that myself. I am also in no way writing this claiming to be speaking for any other NA people or persons. It’s based on my observations from actually playing HZD and examining the various fictional “cultural” elements in the game.
If you see a
skin tied inside a hoop and automatically assume it’s a dreamcatcher” ripping
off “our culture” (FYI Dreamcatchers are a 20th century thing whose
popularity was a result of pan-Indianism that exploded in the 70s.) or if you
see feathers on a spear or as part of a costume (nowhere is anyone wearing a
single eagle feather in the back of a beaded headband or a Dakota looking headdress
either) and automatically presume it to be ripping off NA culture, you’re REEEEEEEEEEALY
reaching. If you think caring for the
environment, obeying matriarchs, worshipping elemental spirits, or making your
own clothes is solely the property of NA culture, see previous statement.
By all means get offended. Get offended by Chief Wahoo. Get offended by the Washington Redskins. Get offended that thousands of Native women have been murdered or gone missing and nothing’s been done about it. Get offended by Johnny Depp or Robert Beltran playing Native people instead of actual Native people getting those roles. Get offended by shit like Adam Sandler’s “Ridiculous 6” where a native woman is called a “hot piece of red prairie meat” or Depp’s “Lone Ranger” movie.
Get offended that my family was destroyed by the Residential Schools and that the 60s scoop took babies away from their families and people, that forced sterilizations took place and mass graves of dead Native children exist at former Residential School sites.
Don’t just jump on the I’m offended bandwagon because you saw some feathers or skins or spears or bows in a game and immediately grew indignant and wanted to claim them as OUR culture. They’re not. They’re almost globally universal in numerous cultures at various points in time. Get offended, as she rightly mentioned, when the game Overwatch sexualizes the shit out of almost every female character and takes West Coast tribal art and makes a costume out of it.
THAT is appropriation. White people holding powwows in Europe (powwows are also pretty much not traditional and are extremely pan-Indian, not to mention full of us appropriating each other’s Native cultures ie. Dakotas wearing Jingle Dresses, Ojibway wearing Dakota regalia, etc) is appropriation.
This game……I’m just not seeing it the same way. And I’m nobody. I have no ties to Guerilla or anybody other than myself and my community.