Singing as Gameplay for Healing in Honour Water
The waters are in crisis, and Anishinaabekwe who understand part of the role to be water walkers are enacting songs and good intentions across the Great Lakes and other communities. With toxic emissions, depletion, and pipeline spills, the waters are in greater and greater need of healing. Water is vital for all life and it is from a place of hope that a community of Anishinaabekwewag collaborated with me, alongside the game development company Pinnguaq, in order to actualize Honour Water, a singing game in Anishinaabemowin now available as a free app.
As I was taught by my auntie and my mother, Anishinaabe water songs can heal the waters. Communities are at such a point of concern that Anishinaabekwe are bringing forth and sharing water songs that all people are welcome to sing. I have been grateful that even as an Anishinaabekwe who was born and raised on the west coast, water songs find their way to me through friends and family. I do my best to pass these songs on, but find that there need to be ways to share songs more widely and with teachings about the water and Anishinaabemowin, the language of Anishinaabeg.
The journey of Honour Water began years ago when a community of Anishinaabeg living in the Pacific Northwest began holding gatherings so that we could share our language, songs, good thoughts, and most importantly, food. Many of us also participated in the Intertribal Canoe Family in Portland, Oregon, where elders asked me to offer songs for our relatives and the waters. Often I shared songs and teachings with community members and translated the Anishinaabemowin. However, it was difficult to explain the language in song only. I then began to wonder about better ways to share songs that are new and intended to be sung widely.
When I knew I would be moving back to the Great Lakes, closer to where my family is from, I was asked by elders to record water songs that are allowed to be shared digitally so that they could continue to learn and pass these on when I was away. It was an honor to be asked to help, and so I video recorded songs for elder and Intertribal Canoe Family member Mary Renville on her phone. But there was a major flaw in this process that we didn’t see coming—when her phone broke, the songs were gone, and I was too far away to be re-recorded by the community. She was devastated by the loss because it echoed how we are losing our language and our songs and reinforced the urgency we all share to walk a path of healing.
Fortunately I had been collaborating with the game company Pinnguaq, as well as Margaret Noodin and the Miskwaasining Nagamojig, on Anishinaabemowin singing game components for Singuistics, a program specifically intended to teach the language. While living beside Gichigami in Minnesota, I was grateful to meet Sharon Day, who coordinates the Nibi Walks and serves as executive director of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force, as well as Lyz Jaakola from Fond du Lac, who dreamt the path of the Oshkii Giizhik Singers. And there, in the heart of the place where such vital fresh water is under threat, water carriers, singers, and language speakers came together to work on the singing game Honour Water with the hope of sharing songs for healing the waters that can be shared with all people.
Gameplay for the Waters
Just as Anishinaabekwe carry copper, which amplifies conductivity, the game art I made for Honour Water is generated from copper and embedded with teachings. “The Women, They Hold the Ground” depicts six women standing on Aki (Earth) while another watches over them from the moon. The art is inspired by the teaching that as we stand side by side and compete only with our own selves, we uplift all who stand with us. This teaching influenced the game’s design to emphasize singing, recording, and sharing songs instead of competing against the system or other players for correctness, similar to the design of Singuistics. When elders collaborated with the game developers at Pinnguaq on Singuistics, they too wanted a game that encouraged participation, but not in a way that included any form of judgment or comparisons. Thus, Singuistics and Honour Water are played by listening to songs, singing along unrecorded, or singing recorded. The game is purposefully not competitive nor does it turn songs into points to be won or lost. Instead, players can record themselves singing if they choose to and share their recordings to social media directly from the game.
The game includes three songs: “Miigwech Nibi,” “Gii Bimoseyaan,” and “Gizaagi’igonan Gimaamaanan Aki.” They represent low, medium, and high level singing challenges that are determined by the complexity of Anishinaabemowin in the lyrics. The lyrics are sung in Anishinaabemowin, written in Anishinaabemowin in Roman orthography, and also written in English translations. Each song shares important water teachings that are relevant to everyone. While the songs are poetic and not intended to be used directly as phrases due to their varying tenses, Honour Water offers a way to become comfortable with the vocables of Anishinaabemowin and learn about nibi.
“Miigwech Nibi” (“Thank You, Water”) is a song of gratitude in which we thank water for giving the gift of life. It is considered the low challenge song due to the repeatable phrases. The song was written by Day for Nibi Walks. The good intentions should even be shared with a glass of water to acknowledge that water is not an object to be consumed; water is a form of life. “Gii Bimoseyaan” (“I Walked”) speaks to walking for the waters, all of which is understood to be sacred. The song is a medium challenge because of the range of phrases. Day originally wrote this song for the Nibi Walks as well. It can be sung to water while walking along streams, rivers, ponds, marshes, lakes, oceans, and any other body of water. “Gizaagi’igonan Gimaamaanan Aki” (“We Are All Loved by Mother Earth”) expresses love for women in friendship and the love given by grandmothers. The song was written by women elders at Women Drummers of all Native Nations Gathering in 2011, an annual gathering held by the Oshkii Giizhik Singers in northern Minnesota. During an afternoon singing circle, elders said that they wanted to make a song.
Among the 50 women at the gathering, many were expert singers and language speakers. As a community, they discussed and came to decisions on the beat and phrases. Jaakola says, “Every time we sing it, I’m reminded of the beauty in the process that that group of women chose to negotiate through the differences of creative opinion. We came to consensus on the words by allowing both versions to coexist where possible. There is a deep and important teaching in that. We were blessed with more than a song that day.” The fluidity of this song is honored in the game’s focus on giving players unmonitored space to record themselves singing without being tracked for tone or correctness. In sharing these songs, it is my hope and the hope of the Oshkii Giizhik Singers, Jaakola, Day, and Noodin, that many people will sing to the waters and that we will in our lifetime see healing for this and the next generations.
—Elizabeth LaPensée, Ph.D. (Anishinaabe, Métis) is a game developer and researcher. She is an assistant professor of Media & Information and Writing, Rhetoric & American Cultures in the Games for Entertainment and Learning Lab as well as American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program at Michigan State University.
Digital games can express Indigenous teachings by merging design, code, art, and sound. Inspired by Anishinaabe grandmothers leading ceremonial walks known as Nibi Walks, Honour Water is a singing game that hopes to bring awareness to threats to the waters and offer pathways to healing through song. Learn more at www.honourwater.com.
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