When Rivers Were Trails

When Rivers Were Trails. 2019. Designed by Indian Land Tenure Foundation and Michigan State University’s Games for Entertainment and Learning Lab. Windows, macOS, iOS, Android.

by Elizabeth LaPensée and Nichlas Emmons

Video games are robust forms of expression, merging design, code, art, and sound that can offer immersive interaction in classrooms. Unfortunately, many games misrepresent or appropriate from Indigenous people (e.g., First Nations, Inuit, Métis, Native American, Maori, and Aboriginal) by falling back on stereotypes or including cultural content without involving Indigenous communities and creatives in the development process (LaPensée 2017). They can also run the risk of reinforcing colonial views through design, such as Real Time Strategy games that reward players for "discovering" or "claiming" land on a map (Dillon 2008). In contrast, games designed with Indigenous people as collaborators in key roles can reflect Indigenous ways of knowing and respectfully represent Indigenous cultures (LaPensée 2016; LaPensée 2018).

Through a series of interactions between the Indian Land Tenure Foundation and middle and high school teachers in both public and tribally led schools, there arose the idea of creating an educational video game aimed at telling Indigenous perspectives of history based on the Lessons of Our Land curriculum. The interdisciplinary curriculum is fully adaptable to local culture and history and to address gaps in academic performance through lessons aligned with public school standards aimed at informing students about Indigenous history, culture, land recovery, and land management. Currently used in 381 schools across the United States, the Lessons of Our Land curriculum provides teachers and students with a more complete history of the United States while honoring tribal nations existing before its establishment.

In parallel with the sovereign self-funding model of the Lessons of Our Land curriculum, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians provided support for the Indian Land Tenure Foundation to form a game development partnership with Michigan State University’s Games for Entertainment and Learning Lab. The game brings together over twenty Indigenous writers, Tongva artist Weshoyot Alvitre, Anishinaabe and Métis game designer Elizabeth LaPensée, and Apsáalooke musician Supaman with creative direction by Nichlas Emmons. The design reflects an Indigenous take on the classic educational game Oregon Trail merged with the narrative game Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, resulting in a 2D adventure game.

The Game

In When Rivers Were Trails, players take on the role of an Anishinaabe person who is displaced in Minnesota and heads to California due to the impact of allotment acts on Indigenous communities in the 1890s.1 Players are challenged to balance their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual wellbeing with foods and medicines while making choices about contributing to resistances as well as trading with, fishing with, hunting with, gifting, and honoring the people they meet as they travel through Minnesota, the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and California. The journey can change from game to game as players come across Indigenous people, animals, and plants and experience run-ins with Indian agents.


The United States government began the policy of allotting Native land as early as 1798. Several treaties with Indian tribes included provisions for land to be divided among their individual members; however, Congress declared in 1871 that no further treaties would be made and all future dealings with Native peoples and tribal nations would be conducted through legislation.

There were many reasons why allotment proponents supported this policy. First, they considered the traditional way of life and collective use of land to be uncivilized. They also saw the individual ownership of private property as an essential part of civilization that would give Native peoples a reason to stay in one place, cultivate land, disregard the cohesiveness of the tribe, and adopt the habits, practices, and interests of the settler colonial population. Furthermore, many thought that Native people had too much land and were eager to see these lands opened up for settlement as well as for railroads, mining, forestry, and other industries.

The allotment advocates eventually succeeded in convincing the federal government to adopt the policy nationally. In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, which authorized the president to survey Indian tribal land and divide the area into allotments for individuals and families. This act (also known as the Dawes Act, named for Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts, the act’s lead proponent) was applied to reservations whenever, in the president’s opinion, it was advantageous for particular tribal nations. Members of the tribe or reservation either were given permission to select pieces of land—usually around 40 to 160 acres in size—for themselves and their children, or a local agency superintendent assigned the tracts. If the amount of reservation land exceeded the amount needed for allotment, the federal government could negotiate to purchase the land from the tribes and sell it to non-Native settlers. As a result, sixty million acres were either ceded outright or sold to the government for non-Native homesteaders and corporations as “surplus lands.”

Although the General Allotment Act was the first major piece of legislation designed to create reservations across the United States, many tribal lands were allotted under special legislation unique to their tribe or reservation. These acts tend to be similar to the General Allotment Act but often contain special provisions.

Lesson Plan

Achievement Goal

Students will understand the purpose and implications of the General Allotment Act passed in 1887, how it influenced the livelihood of several Indigenous peoples across the northern United States, and the important historical significance of Indigenous perspectives.

Lesson Description

Students will play and discuss the educational video game When Rivers Were Trails, which takes, on average, three hours to complete. The game may be saved throughout gameplay and revisited in multiple classroom sessions. Before playing the video game, review the historical information found above in the “Background” section with the class and the lesson resources below.


Evaluate how students are able to understand concepts of allotment and Indigenous perspectives on history through classroom discussion.

Lesson Resources

1 For more information about these acts, see Indian Land Tenure Foundation: Land Tenure History.

Works Cited

Dillon, Beth Aileen. 2008. “Signifying the West: Colonialist Design in Age of Empires III: The WarChiefs.” Eludamos: Journal of Computer Game Culture 2, no. 1: 129–44.

LaPensée, Elizabeth. 2016. “Games as Enduring Presence.” PUBLIC 27 no. 54 (December): 178-86.

LaPensée, Elizabeth. 2017. “Video Games Encourage Indigenous Cultural Expression.” The Conversation, March 21.

LaPensée, Elizabeth. 2018. “Self-Determination in Indigenous Games.” In The Routledge Companion to Media Studies and Digital Humanities, edited by Jentery Sayers, 128-37. Abingdon: Routledge.

Elizabeth LaPensée, PhD, is an award-winning designer, writer, artist, and researcher who creates and studies Indigenous-led media such as games and comics. She is Anishinaabe from Baawaating with relations at Bay Mills Indian Community, Métis named for Elizabeth Morris, and settler-Irish. She is an assistant professor in the Departments of Media & Information as well as Writing, Rhetoric & American Cultures at Michigan State University. She is a 2018 Guggenheim Fellow.

Nichlas Emmons, PhD, is a program officer with the Indian Land Tenure Foundation. He manages several of the education programs including the Lessons of Our Land curriculum, the online K-12 Teacher Professional Development Program, the Tribal Land Staff Certification Program, the Treaty Signers Project, and the Native Land Law education program. He is an unenrolled descendent from the Miami and Shawnee homelands.