Settlers-vs.-Indians board game rankles tribes

"King Philip's War," made by ex-MLB pitcher Schilling's company, is said to perpetuate Native American stereotypes

Published April 15, 2010 12:48PM (EDT)

One player racks up points by defeating Native American tribal leaders, the other by snuffing out settlements of English colonists. Capture Boston or Plymouth Colony? Victory is yours.

That's the gist of "King Philip's War," a board game based on a bloody and violent clash of the same name between colonists and Indian tribes in 17th-century New England, and developed by a company partly owned by former major league pitcher Curt Schilling.

The game's designer says he hopes to educate children and others about a war that cost thousands of lives but receives scant attention in history books. But some Native Americans want the game blocked from release, saying it trivializes the conflict and insensitively perpetuates a stereotype of Indian tribes as bellicose savages.

Tribal members protested the game in Providence last month, and a Facebook group with more than 260 members urges a Maryland-based company, MultiManPublishing, to halt production.

"From what I've seen right now: totally inappropriate, highly offensive, nowhere near ready to be in production," said Annawon Weeden, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoags in Massachusetts, who is familiar with the game but has not played it. "It's just a way to have fun reliving a tragedy."

The pushback to the game reflects a broader, continuing effort by Native American tribes to challenge images in society, whether they're school logos bearing the likeness of scowling warriors or names of professional sports teams that they deem as offensive or connoting hostility.

But Schilling, who won World Series with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Boston Red Sox, said historical events should not be whitewashed for fear of offending someone. King Philip's War helped forge early American identity, even if it "clearly exposed the horrible side of humans in some cases," he said.

"If everyone intent on keeping historical events stopped at content that might seem offensive, we'd lose sight of the horrific mistakes this nation, the world and the human race are capable of, and that would be a horrific thing," Schilling said in an e-mail sent through his publicist.

The game was designed by John Poniske, a middle school social studies and English teacher in western Maryland who said he came up with the idea after reading a military magazine article about the war. He said he was surprised such a significant conflict, which laid bare brewing mistrust and suspicion between settlers and tribes, was not better known.

The war took place from 1675-76 and was named for Philip -- also called Metacom.

He was leader, or sachem, of the Wampanoag people -- a tribe that attended what is historically considered the first Thanksgiving -- and was given the title "King" by white colonists. The clash pitted Indian tribes allied with Philip against Colonial authorities as it started in present-day Swansea, Mass., and spread throughout New England. Villages were burned and abandoned, colonists were scalped and ambushed, and tribes were decimated, with thousands dying during battle or from sickness. King Philip was beheaded in 1676.

The two-player game simulates war, with hundreds of pieces representing either Colonial soldiers or Indian warriors. A special die produces different combat scenarios, such as an ambush, massacre or spying.

One player wins by capturing King Philip and Canonchet, the chief of the Narragansett tribe, the other by capturing Boston and Plymouth Colony. Historical figures are represented, including Josiah Winslow, the Plymouth Colony governor, and Benjamin Church, who led settlers into battle.

Poniske said he was taken aback by the reaction because he never viewed the game as insensitive. Still, bowing to the reaction, he has already agreed to changes, such as revising the written promotional material accompanying the game to delete a reference to the colonists as "our Puritan ancestors."

"In my creation of the game, I tried to be as balanced as possible and I never in any way meant to denigrate anyone," said Poniske, who has developed about two dozen other games. "It is a historic tool to help people better understand what the conflict was about."

MultiManPublishing, which specializes in games that simulate violent combat, plans to distribute the game as soon as it gets enough orders to justify it.

"We take this stuff seriously; we're very interested in the history behind the conflicts that we simulate," said company co-owner Perry Cocke. "Trivializing it is the last thing that we're doing."

O'ta'mah Harjetta, a member of the Cheyenne tribe, lives in Shawnee, Okla., and also opposes the game. She said the lack of tribal input was troubling.

"There is a potential for it to be a learning experience, but there needs to be more history taught," she said.

Julianne Jennings, an adjunct professor of anthropology at Rhode Island College and member of the Cheroenhaka Nottoway tribe, helped organize last month's protest to provoke a response from the company. She said she was initially concerned about the game, but has since discussed it with the creator and believes it can be a proper educational if it adequately incorporates the viewpoint of tribal members.

"We're not going to stop this game from coming," she said. "If we can't stop it, why not try to contribute to the content?"

By Eric Tucker

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