Re-envisioning America as Indian Country: An Interview with Steam Century

In my previous post about steampunk and British Colonial America, I mentioned the mystery game group Steam Century as an positive example of people re-envisioning steampunk North America and the role of Native peoples in their game. After catching my post on Racialicious, Kerry, the historian for the group, contacted me and we had a great exchange of e-mails where she explained the construction of Steam Century’s Native-empowered world in more detail and their game play (some information about their map and the Native American territories is explained in this post on the Steam Century LJ too). Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation; for the sake of reader clarity, I restructured it into an interview format.

For my part, although I’ve never had the opportunity in attending one of your mystery games, your game’s historical backstory sounded very interesting and different from what I’ve encountered so far in steampunk, which is why I had mentioned it in my essay. Actually, the use of your map image was done without my knowledge by the editors of Racialicious, and unfortunately, that harnessed in the strongest reader responses.  I’ve read your FAQ and the timeline, but I’m afraid that readers may have not done the same before they had written their responses. I’d be interested in hearing more behind the creation of your alternative history, however, and with your permission, I’d like to use our discussion in a follow-up post that I can put on my blog.

I should start out by saying these tough conversations are not new to me, I am a PhD candidate in early modern English history (1400-1700) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Steampunk for me is very much a hobby and when others like to talk about “accuracy” in steampunk I quickly point out that there is no such thing and such talk is too close to work for me! That said, if you would like to have a more in-depth conversation about the world we created I am more than happy to do that. You are also more than welcome to use our emails in your blog.

First, I should say we’re in the business of telling stories and in order to do that we need a complicated and messy world. Conflict drives all narrative and we needed to create a cold war-like situation as a backdrop to our stories.

You already mentioned that you’ve read our website, so you already know that there are three American Indian nation states. I can’t take all the credit for that, as in the first draft of the map there was only one that looked roughly like a drawing of the Lousiana Purchase. I ran the idea past a good friend of mine who is well versed in American Indian history, military history (he is a former Marine), and a fellow sci-fi fan. He pointed out we were missing a lot of narrative options. He recommended trying to recreate what was called the “Iron Triangle” in the Vietnam war: a place where 4 groups touch, so any single group has to deal with three others. So if you look at the map you will see Wisconsin touches New France, Tekamthi, and the Plains Nations.

My friend also helped me brainstorm imagining the three American Indian countries along a spectrum: Progressive, Moderate, Conservative. It makes a nice way to explore the way governments form and the “what ifs” of how cultures do or don’t assimilate other groups. As you gathered from reading our website a lot of what we are doing is a mental exercise on imagining how historical events shape our world.

To give you a little snap shot: Elatse is the “progressive” nation. The survivors/refugees from the failed American Revolution went there and joined up with the Five Civilized Nations and there set up the closest thing to the US government in our world. Ethnically it is very diverse with large populations of people of French and Spanish ancestry as well. We imagine a society a bit like modern Brazil. Elatse has the most cutting edge technology in North America. Slavery was abolished after a long British blockade in the 1850s. To be honest, if this were a novel, I would have kept slavery here for the conflict it would have caused. Since this is a living game designed to have chapters all over the place, we didn’t want to put any of our players in a reallyuncomfortable position.

Tekamthi is the most detailed nation, as we hold events in Minnesota, where we just were last weekend. Tekamthi is a moderate country which is dominated by Anishinabek culture. You can read a long version of their story here

The Confederation of Plains Nation is a conservative nation. The model we used here was the UAE or Saudi Arabia. In short, it is a society that is very protective of its traditional (mostly nomadic) culture and is now flush with cash from the sale of a vital natural resource (in our world it is the helium found in that part of the country). Immigrants are afforded very few political rights and most work the helium fields as guest workers.

In a nutshell we are not interested in a world with good guys and bad guys. We are interested in complicated situations in which individuals need to make tough decisions.

For some specific answers to your commentators [Note: This is in reference to comments made in response to the Racialicious posting]: The modern political boundaries are on the because we form chapters for our interactive events. For instance, the Steam Century Twin Cities group will be forming soon.

I’m especially fascinated by your political designation to the three Indian nations and their interactions with their neighbors. What resources did you use on deciding their formation (I noticed that Tekamthi is named for the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh, which is a nice touch)?

For the nation building I drew on some of my basic knowledge of American history. Most of which comes from a class I took as an undergrad called “Invasion of North America” which was about the arrival of Europeans from the point of view of the people who were already here. I also have some more up to date information about the early colonial period due to my academic field.

Mostly my model for complex relationships in which various Indian nations and Europeans were wheeling and dealing on more equal terms was the French and Indian/Seven Years War. The Europeans had to court allies among the Indians and the Indians had their own agendas and scores to settle, meaning they courted the Europeans right back.

I have the good fortune to have a number of friends who work in American history (like my friend Jim I mentioned in the last email). Alternative history tends to float up in conversation among historians once a couple of beers get involved. It is like a nerd jam session.

I’m glad you noticed the Tecumseh connection. I was really wracking my brain for a country name for Tekamthi and Bolivia popped into my head. I thought I would give it a tweak and use another form of his name. He did envision a united Indian country in the Ohio to Wisconsin areas. In my mind’s eye I imagined that after his death, his troops would have fought on, signed a treaty that gave them that country northwest of their original ideal and then named it for him. I have to admit, I struggle with the languages. My friend Jim is also our source for Ojibwe translations and some of the harder ones he has to pass on to friends and family. Since he is a law student I hate to bother him too much about it, but I like that it really makes it clear to our players that we are in the “other world” now.

Funnily enough I spend most of my time worrying about our players in Minnesota reacting badly to the fact that we tell them that A) They are no longer Americans (neither are we though) and B) they are in an American Indian country. I sort of cringe waiting for a terrible joke or something. But they have always surprised me and been just curious for more information about “their” country. I suspect that people who are at science fiction conventions are pretty comfortable with the idea of alternate worlds.

Also, I’m curious about what level of technology you have set up in Steam Century. I know your use helium as a fuel source; is this superior to other fossil fuels? Or is it only used for airship tech?

As for technology, my husband and a couple of other of our members take the lead on that part of our world. He served as a nuclear mechanic on a submarine in the Navy for seven years, so he actually had to run a steam generator. He likes to point out to people that we still rely on steam power, we just heat the water using new means. He imagined that airship we “live on” as one that was designed to operate independently. Kind of like a prototype. So the engines are electric and the batteries are charged when the ship is cruising and then half the propellers are turned around to turn into windmills. It turns out that any electric motor is a generator, but I need to take his word for it, I am terrible with mechanical things! The helium is just the gas inside the balloon portion of the zeppelin.

Normally the other airships would need to carry coal or fuel oil. My husband is just a environmentalist to the point that he wanted his fantasy ship to be green too.

We do have wireless communication, Morse code and radio. We also use the idea of “radio sonar” which is our version of radar. Our tech people are working on animating a small LED screen that would look like the really really primitive radar screens, where it was a line going across a rectangular screen.

As a drama geek with a dabbling in gaming, I really like the gaming/LARPing approach to steampunk. I’m assuming that a lot of your group members have the same experience. ^-^ Outside of your crew members, do you employ other NPCs according to the needs of your story arc? Or are all the situations played out using crew members only?

As far as the play goes, we’re a so hard to explain, I’ll try my best. We’re a LARP in the sense that we, the cast, stay in character. Players are invited to play in character with us at their comfort level. We also let them play whoever they want. For example, we have a fan who dresses as Dr. Who. When he plays our games he and his friends spin it as if it were an episode of the show. Some people have more concrete steampunk characters they developed as fans so they can “live” in our world with us. These tend to be the people who follow us around. We also have people who just play the game and solve the mystery and the puzzles and don’t worry about being in character.

One way to think about us is a mystery dinner theater without the dinner. Or like the people who are working at the Renaissance fair but who are holding clues and need to be questioned carefully. In addition to that we have rooms we set up as “clue rooms”. The best way to imagine those is to think of a haunted house you are allowed to paw through. We hide clues in the rooms and they are placed next to a business card the players are welcome to take. You might have seen this picture, but here is an item and a clue card from last year

We do have more than just the crew members as characters. The crews (the pirate crew and the Badger crew) are our “pet” characters but we switch in and out of new characters as the story requires. I’m usually always the captain, just because players usually like having someone who they see as in charge and someone who they can trust to help them. During the game they are often talking to people who are trying to mislead them as well as innocent witnesses.The downside is that I can’t play her as quirky as some of the other characters.

We have pictures up of our most recent event [at ConVergence 2009]. Here is a small collection of clothes from characters from Tekamthi. We didn’t want a caricature of “Indians,” we wanted to show how people will take international fashion and make it their own, the way someone might wear traditional jewelry with jeans today

Some of them are pirates, so not from Tekamthi.

And here are the color pictures from this weekend:

Jack has a great habit of getting pictures of me with my mouth open! For some reference this is me explaining the world to yet another person:


Thanks again, Kerry, for your time! If anyone is interested in learning more about Steam Century, check out their website, or their Live Journal community.



Filed under Interviews

2 responses to “Re-envisioning America as Indian Country: An Interview with Steam Century

  1. Been reading for a few days now. It was very good and solid information. BTW, I like your site design as well. I enjoyed reading it and hopefully you will write more soon. Do you have a newsletter?

  2. Been reading for a few days now. It was very helpful and solid information. BTW, I love your site design as well. I enjoyed reading it and hopefully you will write more soon. Do you have a newsletter?