Off the map: Indigenous issues

In the world of content creation and distribution, a lot of attention is naturally given to the task of delivering content to specific locales; it’s basically an implicit aspect of what we do as localization and culturalization professionals. And most typically, these locales are defined by international boundaries and the governments that control the means of distribution within their borders, so that companies not only meet the expectations of local consumers but also comply with local laws and regulations. Even when we target broad regions, we’re usually still delineating those regions by the country boundaries.

But in the midst of this ongoing global business strategy, there is a large contingent of people who wouldn’t necessarily associate their fundamental identity and culture with that of the countries in which they happen to reside. Naturally, every country has subcultures and various aspects of what is considered “mainstream,” which itself gradually changes over time. One particular group of people that is often well-defined and yet frequently overlooked or even marginalized by content design and adaptation are people who identify as being from an indigenous background.

The term indigenous is derived from a Latin origin that means born from within, or more colloquially, native. This latter term was readily used through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and is still found in some contexts such as Native American, but indigenous has prevailed as the more acceptable and widely-adopted term. As one might imagine, there are a lot of potential definitions that can be found to describe the nature of being indigenous, but more commonly the term represents the people who are the original, historical population of any given locale on the planet. Such people groups have identifiable customs and practices that maintain a strong, ancestral attachment to their specific regions, usually with their own unique language and a tradition of existing in a symbiotic relationship with the natural environment.

Because of their status as original inhabitants, their differentiation is often made explicit in the context of rampant colonialism that initiated during the Age of Exploration starting in the late fifteenth century. Thus some would define being indigenous as all the original occupants in any territories controlled and colonized by foreign powers, from the advent of the colonial rule until the process of decolonization was complete. Without question, the contrast between indigenous peoples and the colonial powers (primarily European in origin) that displaced them remains a major theme of discourse in many countries, with governments slowly taking action toward preservation and restitution of these unique cultures that aren’t necessarily bound to the mainstream national identity.

The outcome of this historical process is that indigenous populations are often in a minority position compared to existing societies that primarily have their basis in the colonial history. And as such, like many other minority groups, their cultures are often misunderstood and misrepresented when it comes to content creation. The rampant use of derogatory or stereotypical references based on indigenous cultures has been pervasive for decades.

In the United States alone, there have been ongoing issues around terminology relating to indigenous cultures that have unfortunately become integrated into mainstream culture. Terms such as Indian giver, scalping and fire water (a.k.a. alcohol) are often used without people being mindful of the original source. While the media often highlights issues in the United States, it’s certainly not alone in this problem. Canada often must deal with the portrayal of the Inuit people as stereotyped “Eskimos” and in Australia the aboriginal peoples are constantly fighting against their portrayal as dark-skinned, uneducated wanderers in the sparse outback. And the list goes on — from the Saami people of northern Sweden and Finland to the pygmies of central Africa to the Yanomami of Venezuela to the Ainu in northern Japan.

Popular media has been the forum for most of the portrayals of indigenous peoples, unfortunately most of them perceived on the negative side, such as the Tonto character from The Lone Ranger or any number of depictions of Native Americans in the cowboy films of the 1940s or 1950s. Even in video games where stereotypes have often been more actively leveraged, there have been a number of problematic issues around indigenous themes. Awhile back I worked on a game title that involved using a totem pole as the primary character in the game, with the primary goal of the totem pole character to stop the destruction of a forest by using fireballs to fight off beavers and other potential threats. For the uninitiated, a totem pole is a cultural artifact of many northwest North America indigenous groups, and it often carries with it a strong religious significance. In essence, to utilize a totem pole in the game in this way is akin to using a Star of David as the main character. Needless to say, the game idea was scuttled in preproduction because of its many flaws. The irony is that the game creators had intended the concept to appeal to players of indigenous origins.

More recently, the popular mobile game Pocket God released in 2009 also evoked antiquated stereotypes of specific ethnicities. In Pocket God, the player is effectively the “god” over a small fictitious island and has the ability to torment small indigenous people through activities such as feeding them to sharks, dropping them from great heights, getting a volcano to spew hot lava on them, having killer ants devour them and so on. The game’s developer clarified that the game was not intended to depict any specific nationality. However, with the various trappings on the island (including a moai head statue from Easter Island), the indigenous outfits and their darker skin color, it was enough for Pacific Islander advocates to complain and protest the game as a blatant use of the “primitive” ethnic stereotype.

In contrast, the 2013 title Assassin’s Creed 3 set in the late eighteenth century during the American Revolution strove to create a faithful representation of a Native American character. The game’s creator, Ubisoft, realized that they risked making faux pas and cultural errors in the development of Connor, the half-Mohawk, half-British protagonist (see Figure 1). So the studio hired a Mohawk consultant from the Mohawk community near Montreal to help the developers, and they also hired some of that same community to help translate the language as well as provide voice talent for the game. The response from the indigenous community was mostly very positive, as the company showed real care to strive for accuracy in their representation.

This trend in respecting indigenous cultures is thankfully becoming more prevalent in many media circles. We’ve seen similar incremental progress occur in other areas but challenges certainly still remain. In the realm of professional sports, the debate has raged for years in the United States about the use of antiquated symbols and names associated with indigenous people. The Cleveland Indians baseball team has repeatedly received backlash for its logo; a cartoonish caricature of a smiling, red-faced Indian, which they’ve dubbed “Chief Wahoo.” The team considered changing the mascot in 1993 but ultimately opted to keep the figure due to its historical popularity. Similarly, the American football team the Washington Redskins has been criticized for its ongoing use of this name as a derogatory term. Various actions such as lawsuits have been taken to encourage the team to change its name, but to no avail. In June 2014, the US Patent and Trademark Office canceled the team’s trademark license, deeming that the name is “disparaging to Native Americans.” While the team is appealing the decision, some mainstream news media stated that they’ll no longer use the name Redskins when referring to the team in their reports.

While progress is being made as the mainstream becomes more attuned to the many cultures that comprise a society, it seems that indigenous cultures have sometimes been victim to exclusion in the definition of diversity, at least in actual practice if not in intent. Virtually every location on earth has an indigenous peoples group, and we must strive to be inclusive of these cultures, even if such indigenous groups remain apart from a locale’s mainstream society, whether by circumstance or by choice. Thus in the creation of content, we have a responsibility to look beyond the typical consumer of our content and remember that there are additional voices that, long marginalized, are anxious for respectful inclusion in any media being produced.