1 of 2: Seize the Moment Seed Grants—Reimagine how we think, share, and relate to waterways around us
Seize the Moment Seed Grant:
(To learn more about Seize the Moment click here.)
Community Visions of the Salt River: Collaborative Meaning-Making through Game Play
Over the past year, a group of three talented students came together to reimagine how we think, share, and relate to waterways around us. Funded in 2022 by a seed grant provided by the Seize the Moment Initiative devised by the Leonardo-ASU Initiative, Humanities Lab and Global Futures Lab, the scholars have created a board game about the ‘Onk Akimel. This free and easily accessible print-and-play board game called “Living Lands,” teaches folks about some of the rich, hidden histories of the ‘Onk Akimel (Salt River).
In the boardgame, players assume the roles of different animals along the ‘Onk Akimel–colorful characters like the coyote, the grackle, and the tarantula hawk wasp. They have one simple goal: Survive together.
But there’s a twist.
The Salt River is not a static resource, but an animated character that can alter the playing board through “event” cards. In addition to ecological events, such as floods and monsoons, these cards also depict social events, like stream restoration and urbanization. They encourage players to reflect upon different relationships between humans and nature, both exploitative and reciprocal. By interacting with the Salt River’s inhabitants and reading their original names, players learn the importance of Indigenous science, and tell their own stories of the river.
Though it is in constant revision through a community-driven feedback design, you can download the most recent version here and/or follow their progress over the duration of the project.
Below is a revised version of a written interview between Zoe Gentry, Arshonne Cazares, and Savage Cree Hess.
Who are we?
Zoe: I’m Zoe Gentry, and I’m a mixed Japanese American artist who is currently moonlighting as an environmental science student. I tell stories about the Sonoran Desert and everything in it.
Arshonne: And my name is Arshonne Cázares. Arshonne is a romanization of the O’odham name, ‘Alṣon, meaning Little Beginnings. I have great interest in community building, decolonization, inclusivity, and education. With my mother being of Irish and German descent, and my father being half Tohono O’odham and half Mexican Huichol, I grew up in a multicultural environment and have seen firsthand how beautiful and powerful it can be when different people come together. Our colleague, Savage Cree Hess is an undergraduate student turned graduate student in fall 2022. Savage is the developer of the original game content focused on ecological aspects of the river.
What inspired the title of your game?
“Living Lands” was originally a working title for the game meant to embody the idea that the Salt River isn’t just a static matrix of resources that you can take as you please—it’s a living system, a neighbor, a home, and a friend.
Where is the project going in the future that you are excited about?
Arshonne: We see so much potential to incorporate different perspectives and types of knowledge to the project. In the future, we hope to incorporate Indigenous elements to the game. It would be amazing for players to reflect on their relationship with the Salt River and their community, to think about the many different people that also share their home. We aim to encourage players to envision a future of the Salt River that is hopeful.
Zoe: We’ve met the most incredible people through this project—just absurdly talented, big-hearted, and community-minded folks who care for the ‘Onk Akimel in ways that humble me. Words can’t express my gratitude for them.
Right now, we’re working on expanding our circle beyond students and faculty, and to the community. It’s kind of nerve-wracking, but also exciting, because we get to meet even more people who are doing this incredibly important work.
Savage: The best parts are when we get to sit down and play the game with teens, especially Indigenous teens, and get to show how wild and diverse our own backyards are.
What has been one challenge that you have had to overcome?
Zoe: When you mix your art with something that you care about, you take on certain responsibilities to it. I really try to sit with the fact that, no matter how much I love something, I can still do wrong by it. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” and all that. Sometimes you’re going to tell stories that are unintentionally hurtful because you’re clueless, or biased, or because you’re just not the right person to tell the story. You can do a lot to prevent mistakes like this from happening!— but it remains a possibility, and I have always struggled to accept that.
Arshonne: I think it can be challenging when you have so many ideas and so many hopes but then have to begin the process of implementing them. I love thinking of ways to expand the game or talking about where we would like to see the project in the future, but then I have to reel it back and think, “Okay, how do we get there?” Having flexibility and endless possibilities is a blessing and a curse!
Savage: Science communication is hard. We’re trying to distill the history, ecology, and culture insights of Indigenous peoples into a game designed for teens to play. Along the way, we learned how easy it is to lose focus of these goals and spiral into ideas that just don't serve this greater purpose.
Zoe, as an eco-artist, what is your creative process or where do you find inspiration?
The short answer is “the desert!” which I’m shouting from the top of Piestewa Peak. The long answer is that I am starting to reject the notion that inspiration is something you need to search for and extract, like oil from a well. I think this attitude drives things like orientalism, appropriation, and art theft—the desire to search “somewhere else” for something exotic that will make your work more spicy, or whatever. This does not appeal to me, and when I notice myself doing it, I don’t like it.
My strongest work is made when I am interacting with the world as a human being first and an artist second, rather than the other way around.
Arshonne, what drew you to joining this team in spring 2023?
I loved the idea of learning about the Salt River in a more holistic and creative way. Rather than focusing on empirical data and facts, the team envisioned an educational approach that shows the interconnectedness of the Salt River, the community, local plants, animals, environmental factors, its history, and its future. As a Tohono O’odham person, I was especially drawn to the idea of working with Indigenous communities as we are so often excluded and not given the opportunity to represent ourselves.
Savage, what inspires you in this work?
The secret to our success and the creative genius that you can find in this game is from the diverse community behind it. Our best ideas and feedback come from having a wide range of eyes to tell us what they do and do not like about the game. I hope that we can help give representation towards Indigenous youth.
What has been helpful or important for the advancement of the project?
Arshonne: This project has been able to advance because of the diversity and community surrounding it. I have been so fortunate to have met people from the Earth Systems Science for the Anthropocene Graduate Scholars Network, Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-term Ecological Research, and so many other brilliant minds in different branches of Arizona State University. This project is a group effort that has evolved from many different perspectives and insights. Listening and learning from so many people with such different strengths has really pushed forward the development of this project and made it into something special.
Zoe: Shout out to the folks who made Living Lands possible. Arshonne Cazares and Savage Hess—thank you for your boundless enthusiasm, grit, and creative direction. To Michele Clark, Nancy Grimm, Jennifer Keahey, and Beckett Sterner we owe a huge debt of gratitude for coordinating the project and keeping it alive. Thank you to Phoenix Indian Center youth council, who have play tested Living Lands since its early prototype days, and to Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-term Ecological Research for their constant support and companionship. Thank you to the Humanities Lab and to Leonardo Initiative, whose support has made this phase of the project possible. Your enthusiasm for our game truly means the world to us.
We want to thank everyone who we’ve met through this project—named and unnamed, human and nonhuman. Thank you to the many plants, animals, fungi, mountains, streams, and deserts who are our neighbors, and to the ‘Onk Akimel, who is our home.
All art shown was created by Zoe Gentry.