As we write this for Indigenous Comix Month 2015, Elizabeth LaPensée (Anishinaabeg/Métis/Irish) is fast becoming a household name across a number of communities: from academics promoting indigenous methodologies, to tech gurus taking to all avenues of social media to promote diversity in pop culture. From comics to video games, feminism to decolonization, Elizabeth LaPensée is a leading voice suggesting that, if we don’t see the kind of cultural tools we need for ourselves and our communities, we damn-well should have the right –and the joy—of making them.
Ad Astra: Your biography is… impressive! I feel as though your education and credentials read like a natural progression of someone really following their dreams. How did you get involved in gaming and interactive arts and media?
Elizabeth LaPensée: I grew up playing games like King’s Quest, Street Fighter, Turok, and many more. I was looking for characters to identify with and I was always hoping for something more than characters who were just “the keeper of their people” or the “protector of their people.” Who are their people? There were no Anishinaabeg or Métis characters, that’s for sure. I recognized that the games I wanted to play myself, I’d have to make myself, so I started on a journey to be able to help that happen.
AA: I feel like Ad Astra Comix began under similar circumstances. I guess that means you went into school and the gaming industry with a political mindset? Or is that presumptuous?
EL: I don’t consider myself political, but as Anishinaabekwe and Métis, it seems there’s no way to not be political. I do my best to focus on my own work and to help others in their work, and whatever that means to other people is about their experiences. I definitely feel like I’m a hacker from the inside when it comes to academia. I went for a Ph.D. to provide the research side for getting support for indigenous games and game development education for indigenous communities. I’m more recently taking space for myself to work on purely my own games, but intend to jump hardcore into the academic world. The more indigenous voices are published, the more “validity” we have as far as the academic system goes, which leads to being able to reference other indigenous scholars and continue our work.
AA: As an indigenous woman, which environment felt more alienating – academia or gaming?
EL: Ha ha! Academia’s rough because I had to create safe spaces and it’s something I just had to survive through to continue contributing to a system that’s already not working for me. I don’t know, day to day, readings or projects might come up in a class that demean my communities, especially in technology. The worst is the thinking that indigenous people are all only about oral storytelling and had no written language. Uhh, not true. It’s just that our birch bark scrolls were taken and burned.
To get through it, I was involved in a weekly gathering of indigenous women in school that was held at my home. We could talk openly there and support one another.
With gaming, I’ve felt community because I got directly involved in making community. My first job was running the text role playing community Advocates for Collaborative Writing on America Online, where I created Story Line Role Playing (SL RP) to encourage people to, ya know, write out some sentences for our sparring matches. Ha ha! I was also a member of the Shadowclan Orcs in Ultima Online. We spoke our own Orc language and stood by very strict rules that required us to really work together or we’d just get killed. I stayed away from the problems that come up, for example, in chat during first person shooters (FPS) and found ways to again have fun, creative spaces. I always kept an eye on indigenous representations and there are definitely missteps, but I’m glad to see more recent efforts in industry to listen to indigenous people when it comes to representing them.
AA: From a mainstream perspective, with very few exceptions (I’m thinking of work like Never Alone) indigenous gaming is an unknown world. In 2015, from your perspective, what does that world look like? How would you compare it to when you first entered the gaming industry?
EL: There’s a lot happening and I feel we’re on the very edge of a rise in indigenous games. Never Alone from E-Line Media has made a strong path. Games like Spirits of Spring from Minority Media show how indigenous art can influence game design down to mechanics. Forthcoming games like Renee Nejo’s Blood Quantum promise to further expand the indie game scene. I’m working on a few games right now, some of which are mainly for passing on teachings, some of which are just games I am compelled to make. I’m excited to see games from more developers, like Manuel Marcano as he continues his path stepping away from AAA development into indie development.
I am constantly meeting new people who have either made a game, are in the process of making a game, or are in school to make games. It’s all underway!
AA: You have so much going on, as a voice for women and indigenous people in games. But you’re also a full-time Mom, yes? How has that effected your vision as a gamer / game developer / creator?
EL: I’m grateful for how my children have opened up my life. They really make priorities very clear. Ha! I’m a sole support single mom to my six year old son and three year old daughter, so I had to find ways to involve them in my work. We’re constantly doing things together. I have a kid-friendly game paper prototyping kit just for them that’s mobile so we can take it anywhere. My son, entirely on his own, makes comics and draws basic animation walk cycles. They see what I do and I’m able to do a lot of my work with them or around them. Some of my work is made for them, some is for me, some is for healing, and some is from freelance contracts. It’s true that I pull a lot of late-nighters when I work on more mature pieces, like the forthcoming comic “Deer Woman: A Vignette”! Soon they’ll be older though, and the more time I have to myself, the more I can put into this work, whether in games, comics, or otherwise.
AA: That’s really incredible. So, you mentioned Deer Woman. Could you tell us more about this and any other comics you’ve worked on?
EL: Definitely! “Deer Woman: A Vignette” is a 16-page comic that will be printed and distributed online as a free PDF. It is with deep thanks to Anishinaabe artist Jonathan Thunder and my dear friend and editor Allie Vasquez that this comic is underway. It’s the first project I’ve had able able to have all indigenous collaborators and to truly lead myself. It’s based on true stories, both personal and shared by communities, and includes genuine self-defense teachings and advice by Patty Stonefish from Arming Sisters, a traveling self-defense workshop for Native women that helps us reclaim ourselves.
AA: …That sounds so very awesome. We would love to help promote that when it comes out. Do you have an expected release date?
EL: We are launching in Portland, Oregon at Space Monkey Coffee as well as distributing the link to the PDF on June 12, 2015!
And thank you!!! It’s a moment for me for sure, and I hope it will help people.
I’m also contributing as a writer of two comics to Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection. ‘Copper Heart’ reflects on a man’s childhood experience with the memegwesiwag (also known as little people or water spirits) who are seen by his sister before she becomes ill and he looks for a way to help her.
‘The Observing’, with art by G.M.B. Chomichuk, tells of an unexpected encounter while hunting. (It’s a secret but it’s a traditional story that warps space/time). Ha ha ha!
AA: Beautiful. I’m glad to see that your work is getting out there – and glad to know that projects like Moonshot are getting the attention and funding they deserve.
I want to thank you so much for your time. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about your work and your perspective. I hope I can pass on that impression with the interview
EL: Wonderful! Thank you for thinking of me and noticing my work.
…How could we not??
For more on Elizabeth’s work, check out her website and follow her exciting posts on Twitter. Open yourself up to the incredible world of indigenous gaming!
And, for folks in the Northwest, consider attending the launch party for ‘Deer Woman: a Vignette‘!