Words That Kill: Metal Gear & the Genocide of the Native Americans
The following is an analysis of the latest and final Metal Gear Solid V trailer, cut by Hideo Kojima himself. As with the previous E3 trailers, this one beautifully sets up the themes of the game set to awesome music. This analysis will focus primarily on the theme of language as a tool of subjugation and how that relates to the Native American experience.
The characters in the trailer make many bold statements about how language is core to human identity and also the most powerful tool there is for control over society. I’d first like to focus on the passage spoken by Code Talker.
"Since ancient times, every civilization’s ruler has had the same idea: When people unite under one will, they become stronger than the sum of their parts. And what do rulers use to bring people together? Language."
Code Talker is described as “a wise man denied his homeland.” It’s very important to note that he is Native American. His name is a reference to real life “code talkers,” who used Native American languages to transmit secret coded messages during World War 2.
Code talker is played by Jay Tavare, an actor who has previously won “Best Actor” at the American Indian Film Festival. He is also a notable blogger and supporter of Native American non-profit groups.
So why is it so important that Code Talker is the one delivering this message to Big Boss? Because every statement about language in this trailer has directly played out in the real life history of the various Native American peoples.
After decimating their population and taking their lands, the governments of America and Canada forced Native people into reservations and consciously tried to eradicate their language and culture. Children were taken away from their homes and placed in mandatory boarding schools meant to assimilate them into Christian, European-American culture. These children were torn from their families, moved sometimes hundreds of miles away from home, forbidden to speak their native language, to wear their native clothes or carry on their native customs and beliefs. They were forced to cut their hair, convert to Christianity and take on new Anglicized names and identities.
This experience is paralleled in the life of Skull Face, the enigmatic antagonist of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes who also plays a big part in this trailer.
" When he was a young boy he lost his native language. The bedrock for any developing child. His country, his family, his face, his identity, everything was stolen from him."
Skull Face can be heard saying:
"I was born in a small village. I was still a child when we were raided by soldiers. Foreign soldiers. Torn from my elders I was made to speak their language. With each new post my masters changed. Along with the words they made me speak. With each change, I changed too. My thoughts, personality, how I saw right and wrong. Words can kill."
This is not an overstatement. Words have the power to kill people and entire cultures.
The American Indian boarding schools were founded in the 1880s, when the Native American population had fallen to 250,000 people, a 98% reduction of their population since the arrival of Columbus. The flagship school was Carlisle Indian Industrial School, founded by Captain Richard Henry Pratt under the authority of the US government in 1879.
Pratt famously stated that his intention was to “Kill the Indian: Save the man”
Pratt believed that it was his duty to “civilize” Native Americans for their own good. Pratt was a former captain in the US military and organized his male students as if they were a military regiment. He used corporal punishment on any students who exhibited any “Indian” behavior.
It may come as a shock to hear that Pratt was considered a progressive advocate of Native American rights in his time. He truly believed he was doing good and claimed to feel real affection for his students. Native Americans would not even be granted US Citizenship until 1924 (44 years after the opening of the first Indian School), and the US had a long history of outright killing Indigenous people on sight, so by the sick logic of the times, forced Americanization must have seemed like the merciful path.
Pratt’s sentiment is echoed in the trailer, where Ocelot is describing Skull Face’s goal:
"Words are what keep civilization, our world, alive. Free the world not by taking men’s lives, but by taking their tongues."
Pratt earnestly believed that Native Americans (and also African Americans) were inherently equal to whites, they were just held back by their inferior upbringing. By killing every trace of their original culture, destroying their customs and replacing their language with English, Pratt believed he was freeing Natives to live in a brighter future, one nation, under god with liberty and justice for all (who conformed to the standards he set).
Pratt’s school provided the basis for hundreds of other American Indian Boarding Schools. They would have a devastating, far reaching impact on the Indigenous people of North America.
Between 1880 and 1925, half of all Native American children were coerced into attended these schools. Of those that enrolled, half would die from disease, malnutrition, harsh punishment or suicide as a response to the horiffic physical, mental and sexual abuse that they endured by government mandate. Those that survived to graduation largely found that they no longer fit into life on the reservations or in mainstream America. They no longer had a home anywhere.
This trauma is still felt today. Here is a video of a Native woman named Annie Smith reciting a poem she wrote inspired by her great uncle who died as a child in an American Indian boarding school. He choked to death on a bar of soap that was crammed into his mouth as punishment for daring to speak his native language.
After the death of her brother, Annie Smith’s grandmother did not allow her children to speak their native Yakama and Umatilla languages out of fear for their safety. Their tongues were taken from them.
American Indian Boarding Schools were established in the 1880s, around the time of Code Talker’s birth (he is over 100 years old). And they aren’t just relics of a bygone era, they continued to operate into the 1980s, when Metal Gear Solid V takes place.
Ironically, the Native languages that the government tried so hard to kill would become very valuable during World War 2. By that time, people who could speak Native American languages were so rare that they were used to convey secret coded messages for the US military. These languages that were banned were suddenly found new value in their utility for war. Language as a weapon. Words that kill (and also saved a lot of US lives of course). It almost goes without saying that Code Talker must have been a code talker.
I don’t know how much of this history will directly manifest MGSV: The Phantom Pain when it finally comes out, but I’m willing to bet Kojima and his team are aware of it. One of the reasons I love Metal Gear so much, aside from the great gameplay and BRILLIANT art is that Metal Gear has such thoughtful themes. The series is never afraid to take a deeper look at history; to examine it from more perspectives than just that of the victors. These games tackle real issues that aren’t commonly spoken of. The fancy sermons they deliver aren’t just pretty words, they are themes that have precedent in history.
Playing these games has inspired me to learn more about the world we live in and how it came to be this way. I look forward to this final chapter in the Metal Gear Saga. I hope you all look forward to more of our writing on it in the future!
Addendum (June 24, 2015)
I posted this article to the Metal Gear Solid Fan Club on Facebook and received some really great feedback. One comment really stood out to me. I’m going to repost it here, with permission, because it’s just too good to scatter to the heartless sea of social media. I’m just an outside observer when it comes to Native American matters, but here’s some real insight from Jake Valliere, who gives us an insider’s perspective:
"There’s a lot to this. I’m Native American myself and I can share a few things I’ve learned that would help etch out the background for this.
First off, Native Boarding Schools still exist to this day. They have been refined from the past 100+ years to formulate a coercive plan to educate Native Americans across the country. At first, they were almost concentration camps for us. Half of our population census was deemed relevant towards the plan of “forced education”. Ideals such as religion, language, culture, and ways of life were all forced into the minds of Native Americans. They were told that what they knew was wrong, and if they were to disobey an order, such as speaking our own language, they would be punished accordingly. There was little resources given to children in boarding schools. Bare minimum food was given, along with very little healthcare. It wasn’t uncommon to hear of malnutrition, widespread diseases, and the like. It wasn’t like anyone was there to help either. Most people knew about the harsh extremities and chose to look the other way in terms of harsh punishment, and in some cases, torture.
Today, these effects are still felt. Many Native American people have no idea on how to speak their different languages because of the constant punishments given if spoken. Believe it or not, Native American’s probably had over 1,000 different languages across the country! However, this has drastically reduced and a number of languages became “extinct” as there were nobody else to pass on the culture. It’s almost a reference to the phantom pain in a way. Our tribes feel this distance from our culture and it feels almost like a pain you can’t get rid of until you actually take the time to interpret yourself and who you actually are.
In the video you see Snake and the Code Talker sit down for a ceremony. Usually when gathering for a peace pipe ceremony, it is either for honoring someone, for the passing of a loved one, or even if a person is troubled and cannot find the answer they are looking for. I think this may prove to be a pivotal point in the game, as what happens when sitting down and talking with an elder during a ceremony, your most truest emotions come from within and pour out from inside you. Maybe it’s possible that the Code Talker helps Snake realize who he truly is? Maybe he shows Snake that the path laid out for him isn’t going to be anything short of difficult, and to truly overcome it, he must have to become the spirit he tucked away for his country when he was first recruited? Self realization is the key to these ceremonies, and I wouldn’t doubt that along the line Snake has a sort of epiphany from him that coerces the game in a more hellish persona, enacted on him from years of pain he endured. Much like the pain felt from Native Americans, much like a phantom pain."
Bonus Mythological Analysis
While researching Native American mythology we found some interesting similarities between Big Boss and the venomous horned “big snake” of Navajo legend. Made this infographic to outline them.
This was mostly for fun. We’re not insisting this must be the primary inspiration for Big Boss in The Phantom Pain, just that the symbolism overlaps nicely. It’s fun to spot these similarities, and it really speaks to the powerful mythos of Metal Gear that you can relate it to so many timeless things. And who knows? Kojima and crew are pretty crazy knowledgable. Maybe Code Talker will end up giving Big Boss a lesson in Navajo lore! (After all, if Big Boss can be The Red Ogre Who Cried, maybe he can be the Navajo big snake too!)
Addendum (September 11, 2021)
When this essay was originally published in 2014, Indian Boarding Schools and their traumatic and often deadly effects on generations of the Indigenous peoples of North America were not widely known. But they finally made the news on May 28, 2021 when representatives of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc Nation reported uncovering the remains of 215 children that had been buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia from 1890 until 1978. The school was run by the Catholic Church, but was part of a network of government backed schools that were mandatory for Native Canadians to attend from 1894 to 1947. This entire network of schools was funded by the Canadian Government's Department of Indian Affairs, but they were all administered exclusively by Christian churches.
The discovery was not a shock to the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc Nation, who had actually hired a radar specialist to confirm what they'd already long known.
Following their grizzly report, many other former Indian Boarding Schools have been scanned for unmarked graves. By July 2021, the remains of over 1,000 Indigenous children had been uncovered at these schools.
As news spread of these horrific recoveries, the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau apologized for this horrific part of Canadian history and also called on The Pope to do the same. Trudeau had a lot to offer in words, but not much in action. He did not launch a national investigation to delve into more schools as many have requested, neither has he moved towards any actual policy changes that would benefit the First Nations peoples of Canada.
You can read more about the ongoing call for more investigations into Canada's 100+ Indian Residential Schools here:
As of June 2021, the government of the United States has also begun to launch investigations into its own far reaching history of Federal Indian Boarding Schools, which you can read more about here:
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