The video game The Oregon Trail occupies a cornerstone in American popular culture. Released in 1971, the game came bundled with Apple II computers and, between the 1970s and 1990s, fostered computer education. In the original version of the game, players led a wagon train from Independence, Missouri, to the Willamette Valley, Oregon, attempting to overcome numerous obstacles. However, the game glorified settler colonialism and erased Indigenous peoples. In 2020, Gameloft decided to rebuild the game, and the company hired three Native studies scholars to “bring a new level of respectful representation to the game.” Here, we reflect on our role as consultants in the game’s redevelopment, asking what it means to integrate Indigenous perspectives and presence into popular, contested narratives of the American West in educational and entertainment contexts.
Retracing The Oregon Trail
WILLIAM J. BAUER JR. (Wailacki and Concow of the Round Valley Indian Tribes) is a professor of history and program director for American Indian and Indigenous studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His research is focused on oral history, labor, and California Indian history. He is coauthor, with Damon Akins, of We Are the Land: A Native History of California (2021), and author of California through Native Eyes: Reclaiming History (2016) and We Were All Like Migrant Workers Here: Work, Community, and Memory on California’s Round Valley Reservation, 1850–1941 (2009).
MARGARET HUETTL, a descendant of Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibweg, Assyrian refugees, and European settlers, is an assistant professor of history and director of Indigenous studies at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. She is a scholar of Native American history and North American Wests, and her research examines the continuities of Ojibwe sovereignty in the context of settler colonialism in both the United States and Canada, centering Ojibwe ways of knowing. Her research has been published in several places, including the journal Ethnohistory and the edited volume Understanding and Teaching Native American History (2022).
KATRINA M. PHILLIPS (Red Cliff Ojibwe) is an associate professor of Native history and the history of the American West at Macalester College. She’s the author of Staging Indigeneity: Salvage Tourism and the Performance of Native American History (2021), and her current research centers activism, environmentalism, and tourism on and around Red Cliff. She’s also written several children’s books, including Indigenous Peoples’ Day (2021) and The Disastrous Wrangel Island Expedition (2022), and she serves as a historical and cultural consultant for children’s books and educational materials.
William J. Bauer, Margaret Huettl, Katrina M. Phillips; Retracing The Oregon Trail. California History 1 August 2022; 99 (3): 53–63. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ch.2022.99.3.53
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