More than a year after the dramatic protests near the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation began, activism against oil pipelines is as politically contentious as ever. Last week, several dozen members of Congress sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, asking whether protesters and activists who disrupt or damage oil pipelines could face charges of domestic terrorism. Now, Minnesota lawmakers and oil lobbyists have slapped a terrorism label on an unexpected new target: a game about a bird. Specifically, a thunderbird.
The video game Thunderbird Strike, created by Native designer and Michigan State University professor Elizabeth LaPensée, transforms players into a thunderbird flying across Canada and through the Great Lakes. In dozens of indigenous traditions throughout North America, thunderbirds are considered sacred beings that can bring renewal or destruction; in the game, you restore fallen caribou and buffalo to life, and strike construction and oil equipment with divine lightning. “My goal was to examine the modern through the lens of our stories,” LaPensée told The Verge in an interview.
Her game recently came under fire from Republican Minnesota State Senator and current gubernatorial candidate David Osmek, who described it as “an eco-terrorist version of Angry Birds.” Toby Mack, the president of the energy and oil lobbying group Energy Builder, went further, calling it a “taxpayer-funded political campaign… designed to encourage eco-terrorism or other bad behavior.” LaPensée received a $3,290 state arts grant through Minnesota’s Legacy fund, which was created to “protect, enhance, and restore lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater” and “preserve arts and cultural heritage.”
Minnesota State Representative Bob Gunther was also perturbed by the game, which won the award for Best Digital Work at the ImagineNATIVE Festival, calling her grant “an abuse” of the program. He plans to introduce legislation to increase oversight of how grants are distributed in the future.
“Common sense would tell you our arts dollars should be spent on programs that serve some purpose to the State of Minnesota, not on an out-of-state video game that blows up oil pipelines,” Gunter told the Minnesota Star-Tribune, referring to LaPensée’s current residency in Michigan.
LaPensée, who received death threats after the eco-terrorism claims, says the lawmakers are completely off-base. “It’s unfortunate to me that a man who hasn’t even played the game is spending so many resources targeting my work and making assumptions,” she said. “I was awarded an Artist Fellowship and substantially completed the work before moving from Minnesota to Michigan for a life-changing work opportunity. I am grateful to be where I am and still maintain connections to communities in Minnesota.” Her other work includes a language learning game for Anishinaabemowin, an indigenous language spoken by tribes in Minnesota.
LaPensée says Thunderbird Strike, which is available now for Windows and launches on iOS and Android in December, addresses an issue crucial to hundreds of Minnesota communities. The company behind Enbridge GXL Pipe System, a network of oil pipelines that runs from Canada to the Atlantic Ocean, has proposed a new $2 billion line through the Minnesota region. The move sparked outcry from Native tribes, environmental activists, and citizen groups, who are concerned about the Pipe System’s long history of leaks throughout Canada and America, and its proposed path through Native lands and ecologically significant areas. Line 5 of the system, which runs through parts of Michigan and is a focus of Thunderbird Strike, has already leaked more than 30 times.
That, LaPensée says, is the crux of why Thunderbird Strike is important, and why it deserved the grant’s funding. “There are many different stories and traditions surrounding the thunderbird, but my community taught that it was the savior of the land, and that it would come to defeat a great snake that swallows the land and sea. If you just look at the Enbridge network, its jaws stretch around the Great Lakes, as if gobbling up sacred waters.”
In the game, you see the pipeline form in the shape of a snake across a series of ochre paintings, starting in the Tar Sands of Alberta, stretching across Canada and the Midwest, and wrapping around the lakes to the east. “This is meant to mirror the great land-devouring snake, and it’s hard [to see] the shape of the pipeline and its effects on our communities and walk away thinking it’s just about jobs or economics,” said LaPensée. “This is about the extinction of native species and communities. Caribou are facing renewed threats… and buffalo are disappearing. During a recent trip to the Tar Sands, I didn’t see any buffalo [or wildlife].”
LaPensée says Thunderbird Strike, which also features art by indigenous creators, is part of a long history of Native artists who have used their work to explore the effects of colonization on their way of life. “This isn’t just my my story. This is generational and about honoring those who came before.” And despite the attempts to portray the game and its criticism of the pipeline as “terrorism,” LaPensée says it represents something even more crucial in face of the dangers posed by the pipeline: “This is an outpouring of our cultural values.”