So, You’ve Officially Made Pharah A Native

An open letter to Overwatch’s Game Director Jeff Kaplan about the decision to officially retcon Pharah’s cultural identity.

Dear Jeff,

How are you? I bet you’re tired. Overseeing the development of something like Overwatch is probably exhausting. I’m tired too.

I’m tired because there isn’t a day that goes by where I’m not forced to face the devastating consequences of colonialism. I’m tired because I was never allowed to learn my language in school (but hey, I got Latin), because some of my indigenous friends don’t even have a language to learn anymore, because our cultures were taken from us and outlawed. I’m tired because I spent a decade being beaten up and spat on for being Native. Having to endure racist caricatures on sports team logos, and being called “savage” by people in Redskins t-shirts. I’m tired because I just played Infamous: Second Son which features a white actor playing a “Native American” delinquent from a tribe that is entirely made up. Because when the director of that game was asked about his familiarity with the nearby, well-known Duwamish longhouse, he said he’d never been.

But mostly right now I’m tired because I just saw a section from The Art of Overwatch that finally confirmed a fear of mine. Something that I’ve been fighting since you launched Overwatch and I started playing.

You decided to finally make Pharah an Indian.

“Pharah’s Thunderbird skin (below) was based on the art motifs of the indigenous peoples who inhabit the Pacific Northwest coast of North America. More than just a unique design, this skin also tied into the hero’s multicultural origins: her mother is Egyptian, and her father is from an indigenous culture in the Pacific Northwest coast.” — from The Art of Overwatch

I know you think you’re doing a decent job of diversity. That you think you’re being sensitive and respectful in your handling of the cultures you borrow from with Overwatch. I know this because I’ve read you say as much. But you don’t get to decide that.

I also know that you said, “Ok, so Pharah is clearly Egyptian, that’s her heritage.” And as much as you have no idea what it means to be Egyptian, you are also completely out of your depth when it comes to indigeneity.

Can we finally be honest about something? You never intended for Pharah to be Native. It was a late stage decision after you’d seen the costume, after you’d seen blowback from the costume, after you’d seen plenty of people saying “Oh wouldn’t it be cool if Pharah was part Native?” and after a time, you decided to roll with it. Be real with me, Jeff. Grafting an indigenous backstory on Pharah was convenient.

Jeff, I could get into it with you about the origin of blood quantum and the history of white colonizers setting in place systems to determine “Indianness” how what you’re doing here actually ties into a long and brutal history of assimilation that continues into the present with things like Ancestry.com selling genetic cocktail party conversation starter certificates.

But I’m not, because I’m tired. I give up. You win.

Pharah’s “part Native” now and as many opportunities as you had to stop it — you just didn’t.

But you really fucked this one up. You couldn’t even come up with a tribe for her or her dad? What’s her status? Who claims her? Is she enrolled? Does she speak her language? Does she have an extant language to speak? Does she know her cultures practices and beliefs? How many times has she seen Smoke Signals? Who’s her favorite Indian?

Being indigenous isn’t a matter of just being brown and having long black hair (a lot of Natives don’t look like you’d expect). You can’t drape yourself in regalia and call yourself an “Indian Princess.” It’s not about cheekbones or really even about blood. And while indigenous people who have been disconnected from their culture and people for a variety of reasons can reconnect (it’s often a long and arduous undertaking) — you can’t retcon indigeneity. Which is exactly what you’ve done.

Pharah was “clearly Egyptian.” You could have explored that. You could have gone beyond the orientalist “Ancient Egypt” tropes. There is so much potential vitality in the core of Pharah as she was. You didn’t have to meddle.

I never asked for Pharah’s Thunderbird and Raindancer skins to be removed. But I also didn’t want you to try and make them OK.

I wanted an apology: a sincere recognition that you had no idea what you were doing, shouldn’t have done it, and were going to move forward and let this be a teaching moment.

I would have loved a real Native hero for Overwatch. And I know the indigenous Overwatch players who are fine with or like what you’ve done because we’re so starved for representation would have too. I wanted a Native hero that wasn’t born of “How much diversity can we shove into a character to cover our asses?” but created in consultation with indigenous peoples who understood what it is to be indigenous, with their cultural connections, who you hired to help bring real, meaningful diversity and representation to your first Native Overwatch character. I was rooting for you since day one, because I’ve lived through over a decade of Blizzard’s horrible racist depictions of Natives in the form of monstrous cow people who say “How!” when you click on them enough. I had hoped someday we’d see a Native hero that I could wreck shit with in Overwatch.

Instead you double, and triple, and quadrupled down. You reinforced your horrible mistake, by pretending it was your hidden intention all along. And in doing so, you’ve bolstered the acceptability of this practice. You’ve set a colossal example that a multi-billion dollar company can get praise for ignoring indigenous people as it suits them, to do whatever they want in the creation of their game, no apology necessary.

You’ve helped make cultural appropriation, settler bullshit, (and honestly) racism even more acceptable as long as someone can point to “well, it’s canon now” or tell the story of a distant relative.

And you don’t have to deal with the daily repercussions of that. You’ll never know what it’s like to have someone ask you about your thoughts on Pharah and then get furious because you’re not thankful for the representation. You don’t have to deal with hearing people on voice chat or seeing racist art and remember having kids trying to scalp you on the playground, a room full of white guys war whooping as you walk in the room (or get on voice chat with a shitty Pharah main). You don’t bristle every time the word “rez” comes up because it means something entirely different for people like you. You‘ll never have to see yourself as yet another Native character designed by non-Native people who haven’t the vaguest conception of the diversity that exists among indigenous peoples, or who we even are. You’ll never understand that everything you were taught about yourself in school was a white person’s retcon.

So, Jeff. Yeah, I know you’re tired. But I’m tired too, and it didn’t have to be this way.

I hope next time you’ll listen a lot more, think a lot harder, and remember that you are not capable of being deciding what is and is not acceptable or sensitive for the marginalized groups you don’t belong to.

Those people exist. You can ask them for help, you can hire them. But I know they already exist within your company and they’d be more than willing to talk with you, but you have to create a space where they can voice their concerns.

You say diversity and inclusion is difficult. That it’s a process. And I agree. But you can absolutely make that process much easier by talking with people who actually know and taking their advice seriously. Until you can do that you’ll never get better at representation.

And even right now, I’m still hoping you’ll do better next time. I need you to.