On Dungeons & Dragons & Diaspora

By Brad Kasberg

The manetoowa’s voice rang out when it sensed more people on the steep, craggy hillside in which it resided. The landscape was recently laid to waste by a mining company, and the spirit sought vengeance for the damage and disrespect to the land. In retribution, the spirit summoned earthen creatures to attack the trespassers. Now outnumbered, one of the adventurers reached into their bag, searching desperately for something before the monsters closed in. His paw came up empty.

“Does anybody have ahseema? I want to offer the manetoowa some tobacco,” the cat-like humanoid whispered in a half-growl. The elf of the group gently tossed some over, not breaking eye contact with the monsters. “Aya manetoowa, we mean no harm. I offer this ahseema as a sign of respect and as tribute for safe passage,” the humanoid said. After a brief back and forth, the elemental monsters returned to their natural state, and the party was granted safe passage.

This was the second time we—a group of myaamiaki, or Miami people—had gathered in a virtual Dungeons and Dragons campaign built on our traditional stories, and I was worried that the ego- and combat-centric structure of the game would overshadow our traditions and push my cousins into reckless violence. The base structure of the game underscores combat, but I worked hard to ensure there were ample culturally relevant solutions.

The group was creative and successful. More importantly, their course of action shouldn’t have surprised me. It’s the exact same thing our ancestors did when traveling the hilly lands of what is now southern Indiana and Kentucky, when faced with difficult waterways and trails wherein manetoowaki reside. And those hilly lands are exactly where our story began, one year earlier.

 

There are many young myaamiaki in our communities who are brimming with energy to relearn and reconnect. Our elders call us aanchtaakiaki, or change makers, though it was their brilliance in the first place that gave us the energy. A year ago, a handful of us came together from across the Midwest. We gathered, my cousins and I, for a long weekend in October at a campground on a bluff of the kaanseenseesiipiwi (or Ohio River) in what is now Indiana. We decided to spend time together to practice speaking myaamiaataweenki, our language, in a part of our tribe’s homelands that we have never been, but loved deeply.

We often describe our stories and our knowledge as threads that bind us to our ancestors and future generations of myaamiaki. We start stories by metaphorically picking up the thread, then laying it down when we reach the conclusion. Saying “eehinki” at the end of a story implies that the thread has been followed up to a certain narrative endpoint, though the thread continues well beyond that particular moment, connected to all other stories and storytellers. My cousins and I sought to pick up the threads of our stories and the knowledge of our lands, and weave together the physical and imagined landscape of the southern reaches of our homelands on our own terms. It is rare for us to be able to do so, hindered by time, space, and the dominant narratives that surround us.

The four of us who traveled for the camping trip already knew and loved the place through our stories, because, for many of us, the homeland in our minds is experienced more frequently than the physical places. Most of us traveled from places within what we call myaamionki waapaahšiki siipionki, the homelands of our tribe, now called the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma. This placename translates to “the Miami lands of the Wabash River,” and is used to refer to much of Illinois, Indiana, and western Ohio. Despite being forcibly removed to Kansas in 1846, and eventually to Oklahoma, where our tribal government sits today, roughly a third of our tribe lives throughout waapaahšiki siipionki. The threads that weave our community together may get frayed or lost, but we are always happy to pick them up and hold onto them tightly when we can.

On the second day of the trip, we descended the bluff to visit the river. We were boisterous on the short but steep trail down, no more than a quarter mile in length. We hopped up and down the large rock outcrops in flip flops, happy to be together and eager to speak through our ever-improving myaamia vocabulary, because we rarely have the chance to speak face to face. We were catching up on all that has been going on in our community over the years. It’s tough keeping in contact with your tribe when it’s spread out across the country, so we cherish the moments that we have.

A hush fell when we approached the end of the trail, which opened up to a large sandbar and the full expanse of the river as it stretched across our field of view. The width of the river was imposing; it seemed like the edge of the world, or at least the edge of ours. The hills and meadows of what is now Kentucky, on the other side of the river, had a hint of fog and seemed otherworldly. I joined one of my cousins and swam in the river. It was chilly in October, but it felt disrespectful to come to this river’s edge and not step into it.

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While on the river’s edge, I recalled the stories I’d heard of our ancestors’ interactions with this place and the hills beyond. Many of these stories that involve the kaanseenseesiipiiwi are essential memories of our community, including the earliest connection to cecaahkwa, the sandhill crane, which has been a symbol of our community from time immemorial. It is a powerful river whose spirits could grant safe passage after engaging in battles with American settlers or tribes to the southeast, or provide access to hunting grounds. It was also the same stretch of river that, 174 years prior to our camping trip, almost to the day, carried my ancestors away on canal and steamboats during our forced removal from our homelands. Myaamiaki scooped up soil to take with them, a last-minute attempt to hold onto the lands they called home before the military sent them away to unknown lands to the west. Stories told and retold, lessons learned and relearned, reverberated within me when in the physical space of their origin.

All these glimpses of history and our community made this experience more visceral than I anticipated. I felt a sense of longing to live in a communal space rather than be scattered across the country. I wanted to be with other myaamiaki and experience day-to-day life in our homelands, rather than isolated and a stranger in our ancestors’ land. The brief chance to pick up the old threads and weave new threads together is bittersweet in this way. They feed us, but they make us hunger for even more.

We were lucky this place is not a formally recognized historical site by the state of Indiana; we were left to relish in our history on our own, unhindered by any signage, interpretation, or development to mar our understanding of history. Seeing our homelands on our own terms is a matter of protecting ourselves from these false narratives and hostile environments. So often we and other tribes like us are forced to confront lopsided depictions of our history throughout the Midwest, if it’s depicted at all; the Mississinewa Lake Dam’s reservoir has permanently flooded culturally significant sites not seen for generations.

 

Visiting important places in the Midwest is complicated, to say the least. There’s a detached, defensiveness I feel when my people’s history is erased or delegated to a footnote—when we are depicted as a savage enemy, or worse, obstacles. There’s heartbreak when places of cultural importance are locked behind private property, flooded by dams, or outright destroyed by development. I know I’ll never see some places that are central to our community, despite their prevalence in community histories, because they are now underwater. I can only dream of what they look like. At other sites we must make do, paying respect to our history in industrial corridors or untended lots. Several places have been protected by the community, and for that we all are grateful to their resilience, but for the most part the landscape has drastically changed from how our stories describe it.

Removal did not completely separate us from our homelands, but it did change how we interacted with it. We are limited by space and time in the ways that we can interact, though we are always finding ways to do so. In the years immediately following our removal, community members traveled back and forth between the new reservation in Kansas and our homelands, where a few families were able to remain. That trend follows to this day, with annual trips spanning the diaspora, continually maintaining the threads that keep us together. Naturally, due to all these difficulties, much of our communal experience became temporary and conceptual. Following the loss of knowledge bearers and native speakers of our language, storytelling reignited our ability to learn and share among each other, a way to reconnect with threads that may have been lost over time.

Consequently, the collective re-imagination of our history and our future as myaamiaki became a central part of our community’s linguistic and cultural revitalization. Storytelling plays a central role in this because so much knowledge is embedded in stories, and they are presented in a relatively familiar, digestible format. While there are nuances to myaamia storytelling, people can gather together, retell our stories, and take up physical space as Miami people regardless of their familiarity. Telling, hearing, and discussing these stories lets us collectively explore what it means to be myaamia together. This can happen any time, anywhere. While stories are tied to specific places, which breathe life into the stories, they can at least be experienced anywhere that myaamiaki are.

While in-person, oral storytelling is a popular communal event in the winter, when traditional stories are allowed to be told, most often our act of storytelling is achieved through other media. Our tribe creates books, maps, photo albums, and digital media on all subjects. Community blogs have been a longstanding piece of our digital presence, but because of COVID, videoconferencing has become integral to generating conversations across a wider spectrum of community members than ever before. We are not bound by traditional means of community building; no tribe has ever been bound by history. We are constantly adapting and changing, and we are constantly creating new ways to pick up and share our threads of knowledge.

That is why, after our camping trip along the kaanseenseesiipiwi, I was inspired to push our community’s storytelling and gathering into a new direction. There are too many of us across the country eager to learn our language, to share our arts and crafts, and to spend time together in an easy, unstructured way. We want to have fun and grow together.

I wanted a space where we could gather that could imitate the feeling of being together at a campsite, exploring a new place together as myaamiaki. I wanted to engage and inspire something that went outside of the time we could spend together digitally. I also wanted something that would let people speak plainly so that we could all work on improving our language together. After considering my options and my closest relatives who would likely participate, I suggested a Dungeons & Dragons campaign using traditional myaamia stories and culture as the foundations of the world.

 

As I settled in as dungeon master, the creator of the setting and narrative who guides the players through the world, I learned that the same issues we have in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio persist in the realms of Dungeons & Dragons. That is, the dominant narratives and structures in which we are exposed do not reflect myaamia beliefs or practices.

For many, Dungeons & Dragons is about combat and heroism, which are valid and fun prospects. But from a myaamia perspective, who can even be a hero, and what is considered a heroic deed? What does it mean to be a good myaamia person, and what makes a person pick up a weapon, or a spellbook, and commit an act of violence against somebody or something else? Damsels in distress, treating nonhumans as enemies by their very nature, the concept of might is right, and the allure of hoards of treasure—these are tropes that do not easily align with myaamia perspectives. The sense of ego that is normally pervasive in D&D is often present in myaamia stories only to serve as a target for mockery. The reframing of a world to emphasize relationships with non-humans and to redistribute political and social power in non-Western ways became a deeper undertaking than I expected.

As I further developed the world and its lore, I started to notice that what I was doing in the game reflected how we navigate the real world. I dreamed up a world filled with people similar to our tribe, pre-removal, where our community was intact and in control of our homelands. Colonial powers loomed, but the landscape was identifiably a myaamia one. This is an imagined, idealized past within which we escape the real difficulties of living in a diaspora. From this idealized past is an idealized future, a vision of what we want our communities to look like. Maybe not for us, but for future generations. Here, sentient beings and spirits are not enemies, but relatives we can interact with and learn from. The players are free to roam, to visit relatives, form bonds with and serve communities, mediate disputes, dance, sing, and try to be good myaamiaki.

Will the stories we build together over the computer screen ever make their way into stories told over the fire? Sovereignty is the authority to tell our own story—our own vision of who we are, where we come from, and what we will be. Our stories weave us, our land, and our futures together, and we tell these stories out of love. I hold no particular attachment to the State of Indiana, but to the land and waters of the Wabash and Ohio rivers and their tributaries. There is a heartbeat and a consciousness, resting in the land, that we awaken when we gather together and create a uniquely myaamia space. That is the power of our stories, and the art of myaamia storytelling.  They cannot help but reinforce our connection to the land and to each other.

“keetwi kati iišileniyiikwi?” I often ask my players after setting the scene in an unfamiliar place. “What do you intend to do?” In response, they may surprise me and fumble in their bags in search of digital copies of medicinal plants.  But no matter what they find, I know they’ll ultimately do the same thing that our ancestors did—hold on to the threads, and let the story take each player wherever they need to go. We’ll find each other. ■

 

 

This story is part of the Indigenous Rust Belt project, supported by Ohio Humanities.

Bradford Kasberg is a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma. He was born in Grand Rapids Michigan; grew up in Parma, Ohio; studied at Miami University and the University of Michigan; and is currently living in Chicago, Illinois. Working in the ecological field, he is committed to bringing traditional ecological knowledge and Indigenous sovereignty into the forefront of Great Lakes sustainability planning.

Cover photo of the Falls of the Ohio River by William Alden (creative commons).

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