Even Superpowers Can't Separate Seattle From Its Dark Past

Flames coursing around my arms, I look at the Seattle police officer standing before me. He puts his gun on the sidewalk and raises both hands in the air, shaking his head. I can accept his surrender or not.

But I can't stop thinking about the murder of a Native American woodcarver by an on-duty SPD officer and a string of other SPD civil rights violations that escalated until an aghast Justice Department had to intervene.

Stepping forward, I unravel the chain wrapped around my wrist and beat the Seattle cop to death in the street.

Even Superpowers Can't Separate Seattle From Its Dark Past

Just another day playing Infamous: Second Son, a video game that takes place in Seattle, the city I live in.

The game's Seattle setting may be real, but the tribe the Native American protagonist belongs to is a developer fabrication. If the region's actual original inhabitants have been overlooked, it's a remorseful irony: the tribe who once occupied the land where Seattle now stands has long fought for recognition because the federal government keeps telling them that they officially do not exist. But while the game's developers appear to have cautiously attempted to mute certain hot-button elements associated with their choice of setting, you can't separate a real place from its history.

You know the sequence in Second Son where you go up the Space Needle and run around the circumference of the observation deck? There are a bunch of wires that encircle the deck preventing you, Delsin Rowe, from jumping off. Those wires are real and they were put there after two jumpers committed suicide in 1974. Now the suicide wires are a functional part of a popular video game.

The nearby Pacific Science Center where you fight Department of Unified Protection troops? That was designed by Seattle-born Minoru Yamasaki. After the 1941 date that would live in infamy, Yamasaki had to shelter his parents in a New York apartment because the authorities in Seattle had begun rounding up Japanese-Americans and incarcerating them in internment camps without trial or charge. Later he would design the World Trade Center.

You can't separate a place from its history.

Even Superpowers Can't Separate Seattle From Its Dark Past

Akomish, Duwamish

It doesn't take Columbo to figure out that the dystopian near-future of Second Son alludes to the institutional outgrowths of post 9/11 Islamophobia. The unsavory Department of Unified Protection, with its surveillance fetish, security checkpoints and ability to suspend civil rights, seems to be a catchall reference to the NSA/TSA/CIA/DHS and the general trespassing into our daily lives since the government of the people and for the people began perusing the people's emails and X-raying the people's groins. Everyone with superpowers is labeled a "Bio-Terrorist" and either killed or held in prison camps under Gitmo-like conditions.

The superpowered protagonist, Delsin Rowe, is a member of the fictional "Akomish" tribe. He was created, according to developer Sucker Punch's Brian Fleming, "As an offshoot of the decision to do Seattle." The Akomish tribe doesn't exist. The Duwamish tribe, however, is very real.

As Second Son addresses topics like government-sanctioned discrimination, Seattle, and its Native American connections, it's fruitful to keep in mind the living people who still bear the wounds of discrimination, inflicted on the very land which Sucker Punch has digitally recreated so masterfully.

Seattle is built within the 54,000 acres of land that was ceded by the Duwamish tribe. Chief Seattle was the Duwamish leader at the time and it was he who signed the treaty on their behalf. To an observer, it seems as though Sucker Punch had Seattle's Duwamish tribe somewhere in mind when they created the Akomish—beyond the similar sounding tribe names and the stated intent to create a Seattle-centric hero.

Second Son's prologue prominently features the Akomish Longhouse:

Even Superpowers Can't Separate Seattle From Its Dark Past

After finishing the game, I drove down to the Duwamish longhouse, which stands near to where the Duwamish River meets Elliott Bay (Elliott Bay is represented in Second Son as the large body of water you see off the Waterfront District).

Even Superpowers Can't Separate Seattle From Its Dark Past

While the fictional Akomish longhouse is much gaudier than the Duwamish one, I did note this sign:

Even Superpowers Can't Separate Seattle From Its Dark Past

And here is the sign outside Second Son's Akomish longhouse:

Even Superpowers Can't Separate Seattle From Its Dark Past

I emailed a screenshot of the Second Son sign to the Duwamish longhouse and was told that the original sign is one-of-a-kind, handmade by Jack Kvarnstrom, a direct line descendant of Chief Seattle. Mr. Kvarnstrom passed away last year.

When I spoke with Second Son director Nate Fox on the phone, he seemed unaware that Sucker Punch had referenced the Duwamish longhouse sign in their game. "I have never visited the Duwamish longhouse, so I couldn't tell you," he said. "We draw from a lot of different sources."

The Treaty and the Betrayal

How is Seattle's real-life tribe doing? Not well. The Duwamish tribe has been declared "extinct" by the federal government. This is despite the fact that there are still almost 600 Duwamish alive.

In 1855, Chief Seattle signed the Treaty of Point Elliott with Governor Stevens and ceded the Duwamish land in exchange for a reservation and other federal guarantees for his tribe, including healthcare and education. However, the US government reneged on their end of the treaty. Despite not giving the Duwamish their reservation, the settlers of the new city named after their chief banned the Duwamish from Seattle by community ordinance.

Even Superpowers Can't Separate Seattle From Its Dark Past

Over the next several decades, as Seattle expanded across the ceded land, white settlers meticulously burnt down over 90 Duwamish longhouses in present-day Queen Anne, Belltown, Pioneer Square and other places in which you spend time in Second Son.

With nowhere to go, some of the Duwamish merged with other tribes to survive. In 1866 a Duwamish reservation just south of Seattle had been proposed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But local settlers, including Seattle's co-founder Arthur Denny of the Denny Party, petitioned the BIA not to give that land to the Duwamish, and the BIA withdrew the proposal. The situation has never been corrected.

The present Duwamish longhouse, constructed only a few years ago on just 2/3 of an acre, is built on land bought through donations organized, in part, by a penitent descendent of the wealthy Dennys as well as some of the families of other white settlers. The Dennys are immortalized in Second Son—they're the namesake of its Denny Park district. In real-life Seattle, I live on Denny Way.

Real City, Fake Tribe

Second Son producer Brian Fleming has spoken about Sucker Punch's decision to use a real city for their game's backdrop, a change from the fictional approximations of the first two Infamous games. "If it was going to be the real Space Needle," Fleming said, "it had to be the real Seattle."

So why use a fictional tribe? Nate Fox told me on our call, "We wanted to invent our own tribe largely to be respectful of the tribes in the Seattle area. We didn't want to invent or misinterpret anything that we didn't fully understand. It was mainly to be respectful."

Cindy Williams, a member of the Duwamish and operations manager at the longhouse, said, "Well, 'Akomish' sounds pretty stupid. But maybe it is better to fictionalize it if you're just trying to make entertainment, so you don't have to get into all the political crap. My twenty-year-old son checked the game out, though. He thought it was pretty cool."

After most gamers have completed Infamous: Second Son and moved on to other things, Seattle's banished tribe will continue their fight for recognition.

Even Superpowers Can't Separate Seattle From Its Dark Past

"If the treaty we signed isn't valid, then I want Seattle back!" Duwamish Tribal Chairwoman Cecile Hansen said to me, pounding on a table theatrically before letting out a laugh. "The whole thing is so completely insane. Sometimes all you can do is laugh." Hansen is the great-great grandniece of Chief Seattle, the man who signed the original treaty all those years ago.

And in the game, brimming with power, I glide over Seattle's rooftops, a Native American everyman fed up with an unjust bureaucracy. I experience the joy of insurgency. I bring down in flames the structures of my oppressors. Screaming people run from me in Denny Park.

The citizens of Seattle will never forget me.


Jagger Gravning co-hosts the video game podcast Go For Rainbow, speaking with critics, developers and voice actors each week. His writing on games has appeared in The Atlantic and Kill Screen. Find him on Twitter: @GoForRainbow.

Image credits: Chief Seattle photo via Wikipedia, Cecile Hansen by Joe Mabel.