“Even when there are better representations, developers often miss the opportunity to have creative and interesting new gameplay inspired by Indigenous ways of knowing,” LaPensée said. “I do my best to respond to these issues in my games by considering design and involving the perspectives of elders, community members, and youth in iterative development.”
Best known for her work as a game developer, LaPensée has created a variety of games including “Invaders” and “The Gift of Food,” a board game about Northwest Native traditional foods. She also works as an Assistant Professor in Media and Information as well as Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University. LaPensée, who is Anishinaabe, Métis, and Irish, is driven by working collaboratively with transmedia, comics, game design, art and animation.
Her latest project, “Honour Water,” is also a product of interdisciplinary collaboration. The project, which is an Anishinaabe singing game app, raises awareness about the scarcity of clean water and the world’s water crisis.
ivoh recently interviewed LaPensée via email about “Honour Water,” which will be released in September:
Gloria Muñoz: Could you describe what led you to the idea of creating a mobile singing game connected to a social cause?
Elizabeth LaPensée: Water is vital for life and yet undergoing vast harm from toxins that impacts us all. Anishinaabe water songs are said to heal waters. By sharing water songs in Anishinaabemowin through gameplay, I hope for “Honour Water” to contribute to the healing of the Great Lakes and all waters.
Water songs find their way to me through friends and family, even as an Anishinaabekwe who was born and raised on the West Coast. I do my best to pass these songs on in a good way. Since there are so few Anishinaabeg in the Pacific Northwest (well, compared to around the Great Lakes anyway), we held gatherings at the Native American Youth and Family Center so that we could share our language, songs, good thoughts, and of course food. “Honour Water” is in part inspired by these gatherings because I was looking for ways to share teachings when not everyone [could] meet at the same time and place. Many of us also became part of the Intertribal Canoe Family in Portland, Oregon, and I hoped to bring Anishinaabeg canoe teachings and offer up songs for our relatives and the waters.
When I knew I would be moving back to the Great Lakes closer to where my family is from, I was asked by elders to record water songs that are allowed to be shared digitally so that they could continue to learn and pass these on when I was away. It was an honor to be asked to help, so I video recorded songs for Mary Renville [a member of the Intertribal Canoe Family and White Earth] on her phone. But there was a major flaw in this process that we didn’t see coming; when her phone broke, the songs went missing and I was too far away to be re-recorded by the community. I then asked myself: How can water songs be shared in a better way that can express singing alongside the teachings and the meanings?
Fortunately, I had been collaborating with the game company Pinnguaq, as well as Margaret Noodin and the Miskwaasining Nagamojig on an Anishinaabemowin singing game for passing on the language. While living beside Gichigami in Minnesota, I was grateful to meet Sharon Day, who coordinates the Nibi Walks and serves as Executive Director of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force, as well as Lyz Jaakola from Fond du Lac who dreamt the path of the Oshkii Giizhik Singers. And there, in the heart of the place where such vital fresh water is under threat, water carriers, singers, and language speakers came together to work on the singing game “Honour Water” with the hope of sharing songs for healing the waters that can be shared with all people, because the wellbeing of water is vital for all life.
Muñoz: Do you have a particular audience in mind for the game? Have you received any inquiries or responses from individuals during the development of the project?
LaPensée: People from all over are welcome to sing these songs with good intentions for the water. Players sing along with the Oshkii Giizhik Singers and follow scrolling text in Anishinaabemowin and English. The hope is to pass on these songs through fun gameplay that encourages comfort with singing and learning Anishinaabemowin, the language of Anishinaabeg.
Muñoz: The visuals are stunning. Could you tell us a little bit about the creative journey you’ve taken as the artist?
LaPensée: Miigwech! Art that I’ve contributed to the game includes symbols or imprints of Anishinaabe teachings as well as more recent findings that reflect the molecular changes to water when [it’s] sung healing songs, thanks to research by Dr. Masaru Emoto. I begin by hand drawing, then digitizing the line art, and layering in textures I have modified from photos of water, land, copper, beads, and other life that I have interacted directly with.
The digital media artwork, “The Women, They Hold the Ground,” is inspired by the Oshkii Giizhik Singers and depicts a community of women in the hopes of recognizing the beauty and importance of women to the wellbeing of the Earth. Six of the women stand on Earth while another watches over them from the moon. They sing for healing in unison. As we stand side by side and compete only with our own selves, we uplift all in parallel.
Muñoz: In what ways can the game help preserve Anishinaabemowin, one of the oldest Native American languages in North America that is in danger of extinction?
LaPensée: While the songs are poetic and not intended to be used directly as phrases due to their varying tenses, “Honour Water” offers a way to become comfortable with the vocables of Anishinaabemowin and learn about nibi (water). The game includes three songs — Miigwech Nibi, Gii Bimoseyaan, and Gizaagi’igonan Gimaamaanan Aki. They represent low, medium, and high level singing challenges which are determined by the complexity of Anishinaabemowin in the lyrics. The lyrics are sung in Anishinaabemowin, written in Anishinaabemowin in Roman Orthography, and also written in English translations. Successfully completing a song unlocks important water teachings that are relevant to everyone.
“Honour Water,” which is made possible by The Pollination Project, will be released in early September for iPads. It can be accessed through www.honourwater.com or directly at the Apple Store by searching for “Honour Water.”
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.