(Re)coding Survivance and the Regenerative Narrative

S. Rose O’Leary (Washazhe, Tsalagi, Quapaw, Mi’kmaq, Irish, English, French, etc.) studies and works in the intersections of Game Studies, Science and Technology Studies (STS), Indigenous pedagogies, Media Theory, climate change and environment, activism, story, Informatics, and Education. Her commitments are always in service of the future generations. Follow the author on Twitter

The theme of this special issue is “(Re)coding Survivance” and is, as I understand it, supposed to be about how we might envision Indigenous futurisms via video game worlds. One of my Indigenous nations, the Washazhe or “Osage,” call ourselves “Children of the Middle Waters” and have special relationships with rivers. Thus, I turn to the source of much of our story to think about how to envision futures in a decolonial, “(re)coded,” or regenerative way.

The river is always the same but never the same. It adapts through time and shows us how time and water cycle continuously. In a constant state of regeneration, the river adapts to changes by developing a new bend, rising and falling, responding; in this process, it also may adopt a new course, become related to another part of the land. This relationship is reciprocal, mutual, and has a ripple effect on the entire ecosystem. Some land that was previously dry may become submerged, another part surfaced, plant and animal people shift their homes and where they derive nutrition accordingly. New stories develop about how life works for all these people in new ways: a new story of how to cross the river, a new story of where the reeds grow, a new story of where the frogs’ tadpoles school. And yet, these new stories are the regeneration of stories that always were: they are stories of how life happens and how survival is achieved, just in the new/old and changing/changed environment. They are constantly regenerating, adapting, adopting, telling a regenerative narrative or “regenarrative”(Archibald, 2008; Bang, et al, 2014; O’Leary, 2016 & 2017).

The river resists singular definitions or being forced into a taxonomic way of viewing the world.      That is, it resists a vision of the world as a collection of static things that fit in neat, categorical boxes. This imposed view of the world is a system of control, it is a world built of either/or oppositions: black vs. white, good vs. bad, purity vs. toxicity, stability vs. fluidity, and self vs. other (Douglas, 2002). Indigenous thought on Turtle Island (North America) tends to center story and story tends to center systems thinking: the idea that individuals (including all of creation, not just humans) are all connected and interdependent members of communities who are connected intergenerationally and to place (Bang et al, 2013). In these epistemologies simultaneous fixedness and fluidity is possible and balance, rather than a false notion of “purity,” is the corrective to toxicity (Douglas, 2002). I call this narrative the regenerative narrative or regenarrative—it is constantly regenerating itself and (re)describing, (re)telling stories of how the world’s cycles and systems work (see the acknowledgement at the end of this essay). It stands in opposition to a capitalist colonialist narrative of consumption and greed that functionally relies on taxonomies and categorizations that impose hierarchies (Bang et al, 2013). The concept of (re)coding (coined by Michelle Brown as a way of altering video game worlds to decolonize them and remake them to fit Indigenous ontologies), is similar to the regenerative narrative. They both function to (re)inscribe or regrow that which we wish to see replace systems of colonizing narratives, structures, and ways of viewing the world. If colonialism is a concrete pavement, regenerative narratives are the medicine plants that grow up through the cracks to eventually grow over and subsume the pavement. (Re)coding is one way of nourishing those medicine plants and survivance is one of the types of medicine plants (Bang et al, 2014).

Survivance, a term coined by Gerald Vizenor, is an active way of asserting survival. Many have speculated that it is a combination of “survival” and “endurance” or “survival” and resistance” or “resilience.” The survival portion is uncontested and more easily defined—it is simply continuing to exist. The “ance” part is a little trickier. So let’s deal with survival first: For over 500 years the project of colonizing Turtle Island by European invaders has sought to erase the Indigenous Peoples of this continent and our relatives to the south, either through actual extermination or, failing that, through other more insidious measures. These measures include     recognition politics, forced and coerced assimilation tactics, legal erasures, elision from and misrepresentation in educational curricula, and misleading or absent portrayals in media and other cultural objects (Deloria, 1994; Dunbar-Ortiz, 2014). The stories that are told about us by the settlers have sought to aid these efforts by positioning us as relics of the past, “primitives,” a conquered, despairing, “vanishing,” and soon to be forgotten people (Kilpatrick, 1999; Vizenor, 1999). Trouble is, we won’t vanish. We have remained stubbornly in existence despite half a millennium of settler-colonial stories about our impending doom.

Gerald Vizenor defines survivance as:

An active sense of presence, the continuance of native stories, not a mere reaction, or a survivable name. Native survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, tragedy, and victimry. Survivance means the right of succession or reversion of an estate, and in that sense, the estate of native survivancy. (1999, p.vii)

It is that thing that has enabled us to persist in our refusal to die. I think the reason it works so well is because it is not just a refusal to die, but also an insistence on living. This insistence is often made up of happiness, expressed through joy, humor, laughter, and play. This is one of the reasons why video games and play are fertile places for acts of survivance. This is not to say that we do not take survival (and resistance, resilience, endurance) seriously, on the contrary, it is to say that we do not see our ability to laugh as contradictory, opposed, or needing to be in a different categorical box. Like the river, we may be stalwart in our resistance and fluid in our reactions at the same time (Brown, 2017; Vizenor, 1994, 1999, 2008).

There are different ways to tell stories—ways that emphasize despair and colonial narratives; and ways that regenerate survivance, that emphasize how we continue to live. Survivance stories often contain hope and humor as forms of resistance; they often show fluidity because they choose to emphasize survival in ways that upset or desettle colonial narratives (Bang et al, 2014; Vizenor, 1999). To pull from my own life, stories of my upbringing can be told in different ways. One telling, utilizing the colonial lens of despair, might say that I grew up poor, living in a mobile home on a farm in rural Oklahoma. It would probably highlight the fact that I ate a lot of commodity food (US surplus food rations given to low income tribal members). It might also tell a story of me being “mixed blood” and my parents struggling to “hang on to” or “find” their ancestral traditions—no doubt with an implication that these traditions were in imminent danger of slipping away or being “lost” (Kilpatrick, 1999). A regenerative narrative might say that I grew up home-schooled on an organic farm surrounded by plant and animal relatives who were my closest companions. It might say that I learned from the earth, plant, animal, and water peoples as they nourished my growth and I learned to be responsible to and for them in respectful reciprocal relationships (Bang, 2014; O’Leary, 2017). It might say that my parents made a conscious decision to live with less material things, in order to live in a rural area where we might have more time and space to (re)enact and share ceremony with our communities.

I am four different Indigenous nations and have an undetermined number of white lines of ancestry as well. Three of my Indigenous nations are diasporic in that we were forced to move from our homelands into Oklahoma during the Removal Era. The colonial narrative might try to imply that this lack of a land base or “dilution” of my heritage makes me somehow less Indigenous. A regenerative narrative might say that Indigenous people have always been connected and that close proximity in Oklahoma only made it easier to maintain these connections and form solidarity in our resistance to colonialism (Duarte, 2017 & 2019; Estes, 2019). It might tell stories about how various different tribally specific ceremonial communities support each other by cooking at each other’s events because we share a common ethic of valuing continued life for the future generations. It might talk about how definitions of Indigeneity by Indigenous people often have more to do with community belonging and participation than they do with the colonizer’s false science of “blood quantum” (Tallbear, 2013).

My regenerative narrative also might be told with humor—there was always a wicked smile on my father’s face when someone dared to describe themselves as “part Indian.” His follow up question was always “Oh yeah, which part?” and he would start pointing to his elbow, his ear, his ankle with an over-exaggerated expression of confusion on his face. He taught me that there is no such thing as a “part” human and while I have read much on the feelings of liminality expressed by some people with both Indigenous and other ancestry, I’ve never been able to fully identify with them (Anzaldúa, 1987; Rohrer, 2010). I am a whole person with membership in several different communities. I grew up calling people of many different nations my aunties and uncles. This has not made me feel as if my traditions are “diluted” or on the brink of disappearance. Instead, it has solidified my sense of identity, and because of that sense, I can value the languages, ceremonies, and traditions unique to my individual nations. At the same time I can see and value overarching ethical stances that my relatives of many Indigenous nations share with me. The river is always a river, I am always me; but we can both move, adjust, and adapt without losing that which makes us who we are. And when we are described in colonial ways, we can tell a regenerative narrative that desettles or (re)codes those false categorizations (Bang et al, 2013; Brown, 2017).

“Dancer” by Sara Milkes Espinosa

“Dancer” by Sara Milkes Espinosa

Caption: “This picture depicts Mni Wahkpa, a fictional character of a fancy shawl dancer who is at once herself, the river and time. We both drew reference from the dancing and regalia of Rose’s community and family. Specific referents for the sketch were the dancers and regalia makers Delores Pompana Gabbard (Dakota), Ethel Hall Nelson (Dakota), Joann Chalmers (Dakota), Elaine Hall-Pratt (Dakota) and Julia A. Thompson (Osage, Cherokee, Quapaw). Mni’s power was also inspired by a mola quilt made by a Kuna artist that depicts a flying woman with a headdress and a feathered cape.”

So what does this have to do with (re)coding and games? I think that I reiterate these stories and ways of telling story to give examples of how we might imagine games and some guidelines for (re)coding them. If (re)coding is telling a regenerative narrative through a game, then perhaps we should remember to resist strict dichotomous descriptions; perhaps we can instead describe characters that can be fixed and fluid at the same time, perhaps we turn to trickster narratives (as Vizenor encourages) and have characters that teach by doing the wrong thing or by unsettling our expectations (Brown, 2017; Vizenor, 1999). The regenerative narrative overgrows and eventually seeks to replace a colonial narrative, so perhaps we can have games that focus on mutual survival (surviving climate change) rather than mutual destruction (the nuclear winter that would result from the “win” scenario of many “civilization” simulation games; Dyer-Witheford & De Peuter, 2009; Vrtačič, 2014). Making games in and of itself can be seen as a form of survivance; to focus on fun enacts our insistence on living. Many game studies scholars have also pointed out that the realm of video gaming is a venue that allows story to be (re)coded to be interactive in a way that more closely resembles the in-person interaction that our Indigenous stories are meant to have (Brown, 2017; LaPensée, 2014). Captivating and memorable cultural products like games can help mold the ways in which we are able to envision possible futures—the way in which we expect or believe the world can be (Elliott-Groves & Fryberg, 2018; Horkheimer & Adorno, 1944). Humor and fun are not just ways to get through dark times or modes of resistance (although they are that as well); they are also ways to remember that for which it is worth fighting and do so in a captivating way. This remembering is a form of envisioning as well, for it shapes how we can imagine and actualize futures. It makes up the moments that we remember and carry with us into the future as guideposts along familiar shores. Thus, as (re)coders we should never shy away from investing our stories with humor and playfulness. Those elements will be what makes them memorable, attractive, and ensures that they enact an important aspect of survivance.

One such guidepost and an example of the type of storying that I think can occur in (re)coding and regenarratives is a story from Standing Rock (O’Leary, 2016). The way that it was told to me was that it occurred during one of the freezing nights when law enforcement turned water cannons on water protectors peacefully demonstrating to try to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. In the wee hours of the morning, the pavement of highway 1806 had frozen to a solid sheet of ice. Many were suffering from hypothermia and frostbite. Water protectors on the front line had makeshift shields to protect their skin and clothes from being abraded by the high pressure water blasts. At some point during a lull in activity from both sides, someone, I do not know who started it, laid their shield down and started using it to slide around on the ice. Others soon followed suit or slid around on their shoes, playing there in the middle of the night in front of an armed-to-the-teeth line of militarized police forces. The movement to protect the Mni Sose (Missouri River) from the pipeline’s inevitable pollution had for months used the rallying cry “Mni Wiconi, Water is Life!” and at this point, one of our brilliant Indigenous minds shouted, “Water is Ice!” which was picked up and repeated in a chorus of laughter, inspiring chuckles and smiles even from the law enforcement side of the line (Estes, 2019; Estes & Dhillon, 2019; Johnson, 2017). This laughing in the face of tragedy is, to me, the essence of survivance. How much strength does it take to stand your ground in freezing weather while being blasted with water after months of living outdoors in harsh conditions? How much more strength does it take to also crack a joke amidst it? That is how we refuse to stop living.

I find this moment to be incredibly significant. Humor and play are important and work in cooperation with, not in opposition to, the hard, serious work of resistance. Like the river, we do not have to subscribe to an either/or toggle between fixedness or fluidity—we can be serious, ready to die for a cause, and still make each other laugh and savor our lives. Play and humor signal our valuing of a sustained and sustainable, happy, healthy life for our future generations. Humor and play are ways to get through the tough times by always finding something to smile about. Humor and play are ways to counter a narrative that says we are sad and defeated; they signal our refusal to die by our insistence on living. Humor and play make life worth fighting for and they are one of the most powerful ways in which we (re)code survivance.


The regenerative narrative, or “regenarrative” as my colleague Priya Pugh coined it in an ISTEAM research team meeting while we worked together at the University of Washington, is a narrative that actively works in opposition to colonizing narratives—it seeks to reinforce ways of looking at the world as a whole interdependent system of reciprocal relationships and restate these narratives over and over as a form of teaching, learning and storymaking. I owe much of my ability to articulate this concept to my advisor Megan Bang and colleagues with whom I worked and studied at UW in the ISTEAM program.


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