Wednesday, June 04, 2014

About the much celebrated Oregon Trail...

A couple of weeks ago, Oregon's ban on same sex marriage was struck down. I was happy about that. In my timeline on Twitter, I saw this image:

I replied to the person who sent it out, noting that the Oregon Trail signaled loss for Native people. She thanked me. She 'got it' immediately.

Today I got a tweet from T. J. Tallie, a queer black scholar at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA. The tweet is to an essay titled Failing to Ford the River: "Oregon Trail", Same-Sex Marriage Rhetoric, and the Intersections of Anti-Blackness and Settler Colonialism. Here's an excerpt:

The game offers challenges to American children, presenting them with the potential of a variety of means of death (dysentery, exhaustion, drowning, or others), while erasing the Indigenous peoples who were starved, removed, or otherwise subject to settler violence in the very same project. Indeed, the game offers a collective investment for American students into histories of colonialism and domination, notably through the participation in a game that structures simultaneous removal and forgetting of the very presence of Indigenous peoples, while celebrating the survival and endurance of white pioneers.

There's more. Lots more. I want you (readers of AICL) to read it and think about Tallie's words the next time you read or review (or write) a book about the Oregon Trail. Just now, I searched children's books at Amazon using "Oregon Trail" and got a list of 334 books.

This excerpt from Tallie's essay is about African Americans:

The history of the Oregon Trail is not simply a story of anti-Indigenous settlement, however. The history of the Oregon Territory, and subsequent state of Oregon, is one of profound white settler investment in anti-blackness as well. Beginning in 1844, Oregon Territory passed its first exclusion law, banning African-American immigration into the region, and in 1857, had the dubious distinction of becoming the only free state in the United States to have officially codified anti-black immigration into its constitution (decided by popular vote, no less), which was ratified the following year... 
What is on your shelf? What does it say about Native people? African Americans?

Take some time to read Tallie's essay. Share it with others. And let's all think about what we saw, write, share, and endorse about the Oregon Trail.


Audrey Dalton said...

The 5th Edition of Oregon Trail (released 2002) does have characters of different ethnicities that you can "talk" to. At least seven are American Indians of various tribes. Several of them emphasize how contact with White people has harmed their tribe. Although the game itself is still about colonialism, at least Native people are represented.

Deborah Menkart said...

Bill Bigelow of Rethinking Schools wrote a critique of the Oregon Trail software a number of years ago. Included in that, he raises the question of whose perspective the game is played. So, even if "you" can "talk" with people of various ethnicities, who does that make "you" and where will your sympathies and understanding lie?

Anonymous said...

Interesting, I see the use of the Oregon Trail graphic as an ironic statement about the backwardness of the game and the finally overturned outdated idea of DOMA. Kind of like "we've come a long way baby!" I don't remember the details of the game, but isn't there the concept of one's character getting married to a "wife" or a "husband" and it always being the opposite gender? At least in the game of "Life" one could do two blue people or two pink people as marrieds.

Anonymous said...

Believe it or not, they still use Oregon Trail in classrooms, in a non-computer format.

My son's 6th grade class "played" it this spring...on paper. And the only mention of indigenous peoples was when the teacher informed students (who were all white settlers, of course) that they had been "attacked" and either killed or had supplies stolen.

Yikes. I expressed my concerns and got a blank look.