Indigenous Perspectives and Historical Empathy – Maeve Kane

Figure 1. A sample round of the card game Potlatch laid out for play. Players work to fulfill the color-coded needs on the “house” card in front of each player, using the hand they have been dealt. Photo by author.

After portraying Benjamin Franklin in the Reacting to the Past game Forest Diplomacy, one of my students, who is enrolled at the Seneca Nation, said that she finally understood why settlers did what they did. She wrote in her post-game reflection that it was not until she had to inhabit the role of Franklin and advocate for Indigenous dispossession that she really understood why settlers had pushed (and continue to push) so hard to claim Indigenous lands. As a consequence, she said she felt better prepared to advocate for her own nation’s land claims.1 As a settler scholar of Indigenous history, I frequently teach Potlatch, an Indigenous-authored card game, and Forest Diplomacy because they help students understand why historical empathy matters and what its limits are.

The card game Potlatch has been a consistent favorite in my upper-level early America and Indigenous history courses, and in my introductory U.S. survey course, because it helps students understand what it means for cultures to have different frameworks for concepts like ownership, gifting, and social obligation. Potlatch was designed as a tool to teach Indigenous values and language by a team of Coast Salish academics in consultation with Lushootseed language elders, and it excels at that, as well as being an enjoyable play experience for students. It is not strictly speaking a historical game; its mechanics are based on the historical and living tradition of potlatching practiced by Indigenous groups on the Pacific Northwest coast in which families and individuals celebrate the naming of children, marriages, and other important occasions by giving gifts. The number and quality of gifts they give away solidifies their social status. The goal of the game is to coordinate exchanges of cards to meet each player’s need through gift-giving. If one member of the group does not work with others, no one wins. It is simply not possible to win the game as a single individual without working with others. Potlatch shares some similarities with Go Fish, making it an easy introductory game for students and instructors who are new to using games in the classroom. During the game, players receive a hand of cards. Each turn, they request help in meeting an individual’s game resource needs for food, materials, technology, or knowledge (similar to suits in a deck of cards). Unlike Go Fish, however, players win by fulfilling others‘ needs rather than accumulating cards themselves. 

Potlatch has worked best for me as a tool to introduce students to the idea that both Indigenous and European historical actors’ goals, motivations, and biases were shaped by their cultures, in the same way that game rules shape possible play decisions and game outcomes. Students often arrive in the classroom with the expectation that familiar games like Go Fish and Monopoly will reward resource accumulation and hoarding. Potlatch works well in the classroom because its rules are straightforward and bear some resemblance to familiar childhood games, but then, it radically alters the terms of play and relationship between players by changing the reward structure of the game from resource hoarding to resource giving.

The Reacting to the Past game Forest Diplomacy similarly invites students to inhabit a particular mindset by incentivizing certain ways of thinking with its game rules and goals. I teach Forest Diplomacy in my upper-level early America, Indigenous history, and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) history courses, where often up to half of the students are themselves enrolled Haudenosaunee citizens. The student roles in Forest Diplomacy are equally divided between Indigenous and non-Indigenous roles, and the student text directly cautions students against “playing Indian” or engaging in stereotyped ways of speaking or acting in their portrayals of Indigenous characters. All of my students have taken this quite seriously, and many of them have taken this caution as an invitation to think further about the historical narrative Forest Diplomacy asks them to inhabit.

One of the major concerns of Native American and Indigenous studies scholars is to consider the wishes of living descendant communities and the purposes of history.2 One game mechanic in Forest Diplomacy has been a particularly good starting point to help students see why these academic principles matter in concrete terms. As part of their roles’ assignments, two students in a Forest Diplomacy game are tasked with performing part of the Condolence Ceremony to open the diplomatic negotiations of the game. The Condolence Ceremony is a spiritually and politically significant ceremony that continues to be practiced by Indigenous communities today. The Forest Diplomacy student handbook discusses the student performance as the first “liminal moment” in which students enter the empathetic mindset of the game experience. In my courses, we discuss the modern and historic significance of the Condolence Ceremony as part of our prep sessions for the game. We then watch a video of Onondaga Clan Mother of the Turtle Clan Freida Jacques discussing the Thanksgiving Address, also known as the “words that come before all else,” in the place of a student performance of the Condolence Ceremony. I’ve chosen to rework the game in this way for my courses to emphasize that historical and modern Indigenous communities are connected, and that historical understanding requires empathy and respect for the concerns of descendant communities.

I’ve found games to be a useful starting point for students to think about the limits of historical and cultural empathy. Playing a card game or inhabiting a role can not fully replicate the lived experience of being either Franklin or an Indigenous person, and as an instructor I caution students to be wary of thinking it can. However, I’ve found that caution mostly unnecessary, as my students have largely come away with a greater understanding of what they do not know about historical actors’ motivations from archival documentation alone.

Maeve Kane (she/her) is an Associate Professor in the Department of History, where she teaches courses on early American history, Indigenous history, and digital methods. Her first book, Shirts Powdered Red: Haudenosaunee Gender, Trade, and Change, is forthcoming from Cornell University Press.

Twitter: @MaeveKane

Links to Other Teaching with Games Roundtable Posts:

The Royal Geographical Pastime: A Game from 1770 – Holly Brewer

Gaming the Framing: To Teach the Convention, the Constitution, and the Founding – John Patrick Coby

Reacting to the Past for Early Americanists – Elizabeth George

Building Student Engagement with Reacting to the Past – Christopher E. Hendricks

Controlled Chaos: Roleplaying Revolution in Southeast Texas – Brendan Gillis

Harnessing Competitiveness for Good in RTTP Games – Brett Palfreyman

Challenging Myths through Gameplay: Reacting to the Past and Popular Ideology in the Classroom – Joshua J. Jeffers

See the Q&A feature for a summary of the roundtable’s key ideas.

  1. I paraphrase from the student’s reflection with her permission.
  2. Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, Caroline Wigginton, and Kelly Wisecup, “Materials and Methods in Native American and Indigenous Studies: Completing the Turn,” Early American Literature 53, no. 2 (2018): 407–44,