'Isn't this cool?': Nakoda actor moved by 'respectful' creation of Indigenous video game character
SASKATOON -- Ubisoft recently released a character into its video game Rainbow Six Siege with both Nakoda and Saskatchewan roots - codenamed Thunderbird.
Thunderbird’s release in May was part of the “North Star” season of Siege. She is the first Canadian character added to the game in more than five years.
Saskatchewan and Nakoda actor Sera-Lys McArthur, who portrayed Thunderbird, said the audition was for a Canadian Indigenous woman and the details were sculpted around her own life.
“Ubisoft had said they were going to base the character, the cultural heritage on the actress that they chose. All they knew was they wanted a First Nations or Indigenous Canadian female in a certain age range,” McArthur said.
“I was telling my other actress friends ‘oh isn’t this cool? This is how they should handle more auditions for Native people, especially in modern characters.”
According to the character’s biography, 36-year-old Specialist Mina “Thunderbird” Sky was born in the Nakoda Territories of Saskatchewan.
McArthur said she was excited to be part of a project where she can play an Indigenous woman in a video game and was thrilled that it was in a game with a large audience.
“I wasn’t expecting it to be such a global, worldwide reaching game and it makes me really happy to be a part of the narrative that is kind of helping our identity reach the main stage.”
Working on Thunderbird was a big learning experience for McArthur, picking up some more of the Nakoda language and learning more about the face tattoos displayed on Thunderbird.
“Language is really important to Nakoda people because we are an endangered dialect, there aren’t a lot of modern, fluent speakers left. Anytime I’m able to learn, or people are interested in hearing it, it means it will keep the language alive longer,” McArthur said.
McArthur said this was her first time working on a video game, but she has been bitten by the gaming bug and is looking to be part of more projects like this in the future.
Positive feedback has been coming McArthur’s way on social media, with some fans picking up on a phrase she put in the game.
“My favourite is when another Indigenous player or fan will be like ‘Oh yep, she said ‘skoden’ she’s actually Native.’ That made me happy because that was one of my suggestions,” McArthur said.
“For those of you who don’t know, ‘skoden’ is a bit of a pan-Indigenous modern way of saying ‘lets go then.’ It can be used in a number of contexts. I was able to slip it in for the anime reveal for Thuderbird. It really tickles me to see other people appreciate that inclusion.”
When the project was finished and Thunderbird was announced, McArthur said it hit her hard how important this all has been.
“I get very moved when I think about the process and the steps that were taken to make sure that Thunderbird was depicted in a respectful way and in a culturally correct way,” McArthur said.
EMBRACING NAKODA IDEALS
“We wanted to create a character that would be very strong, resilient, that would be representing our Nakoda nation. Everything about her, her tattoos, everything was in discussion to represent Nakoda,” said Terrina Bellegarde, one of three consultants on the character.
Bellegarde said everything was well thought, from the face tattoos to the name on the back of her jacket, “Wagiya,” Nakoda for Thunderbird.
“Our Nakoda language is in such crisis right now, any tools that can be helped by allies out there to help bring our language back is really key to reclaiming that,” Bellegarde said.
One of the things that was important to Bellegarde was creating a fitting backstory for the character, making sure it lined up with real training offered in the province.
“We wanted to really keep it local, we talked about how we didn’t want it to be Canadian Forces completely. We talked about what type of training is out there currently for our First Nations people, and there is, there’s the Bold Eagle program.”
The character’s biography states that “while benefitting from the guidance of community elders and indigenous instructors, this program sparked an interest in preserving and protecting what she loved most, the Nakoda way of life.”
Thunderbird is a healing-based character, a decision talked about by the team for a while before deciding it fit in well with Nakoda ideals.
“After a series of talks about how were so connected to land, even Nakoda people being friendly people, carrying all these different concepts of how we help each other. Women will stand and be the healer in the home, and bring the children together and protect,” Bellegarde said.
Bellegarde said she and the other consultants were excitedly waiting to see the finished product. When Thunderbird was released Bellegarde said she was thrilled.
“It was a mystery for a long time then when we did get a call from Ubisoft we were really impressed with the outcome, it fell together perfect,” Bellegarde said.
McArthur’s portrayal is another part of the process that Bellegarde thought was crucial to create a proper Nakoda character.
“Because of the way it is pronounced, because of how you speak it, it just brings more reality to it,” Bellegarde said.
“I think she is such a role model as well to be able to come in as that role to be a Nakoda speaker for this character.”