“Indigenous Futurisms: The Transformative Potential of Science Fiction’s ‘What If’ Appeal”
Science Fiction is an intellectual genre (comprised of multiple subgenres) that asks the question, “what if?”; this is the core of its appeal (Rosenberg, 1982, p.173). Science Fiction, or “SF”, “posits worlds and technologies which could exist. Science rather than magic, drives these speculative tales, and the science must be accurate and true…” (Saricks, 2009, p.245). Also known as Speculative and Visionary Fiction, despite its history of male dominated creators and audiences, and it’s “saturation” with “race thinking” of its particular time, the genre is “fertile” terrain for creators who question the status quo (Carrington,2016, p.2, Ertung, 2011, p.77, Saricks, 2009, p.246). From Feminist Science Fiction writers in the 1970s, to Cyberpunk in the 1980s and early ‘90s (Pat Cadigan, Synners) to Afrofuturism, this “flexible genre” … “provides a most suitable medium for writers to speculate on social, political, linguistic and cultural issues and to invent new worlds, new universes from where they can examine the present-day concerns and experiment with new alternatives” (Ertung, 2011, p.77).
The latest iteration of this revolutionary and radical genre facet is the recent explosion in Native American Science Fiction, also known under the broader term Indigenous Futurisms. Works produced by First Nations Peoples, and globally by Indigenous authors and artists, center narratives around Indigenous characters, creating a space for Indigenous voices to speak without the mediation or filter of colonialism. (The genre is related not only to Feminist Science Fiction and Afrofuturism, but to Postcolonial SF as well.) Narratives frequently take typical SF story elements, such as first contact, utopias/dystopias, alternate history and time travel, and slipstream (originated by Native American storytellers) to express contemporary concerns, unique perspectives on the past, and to envision the future, while at the same time incorporating Indigenous ways of knowing, Indigenous science and traditional Indigenous tales and cultural elements.
This literary and artistic movement has significant positive ramifications for Native creators and audiences as well as audiences at large, via the transformative power of leisure reading, which can have crucial benefits beyond the obvious- alleviating boredom and entertainment value (Begum, 2011). The emerging subgenre of Indigenous Futurisms is exciting and radical in the tradition of feminist science fiction and Afrofuturism, and Postcolonial SF, due to its inherent potential for empowerment. Begum asserts that leisure reading,”…can also be a critical tool for self-preservation in…turbulent environments… (and that it) …shapesand affects how they (readers) view and respond to future events. The transformative nature of leisure reading is such that it can be considered by many a means of maintaining humanity and a sense of self in sometimes uncertain and dangerous settings.”
Brief Survey of IF
“Imaging ourselves into the future despite all efforts to eradicate our pasts means that we have it to carry with us.” – Andrea Carlson (2018)
Recent anthologies provide an excellent introduction to this rising subgenre. Walking the Clouds: AnAnthology of Indigenous Science Fiction (2012), includes short stories and novel excerpts by well- known authors (such as Sherman Alexie and Gerald Vizenor) and emerging writers; stories are variously categorized as, “The Native Slipstream, Contact, Indigenous Science and Sustainability, Native Apocalypse and Biksaabiiyang, ‘Return to Ourselves” (Cerda, 2013). The stories incorporate, “time travel, alternate realities, multiverses, and even alternative histories” (Cerda, 2013). Publishers’ Weekly (2012) calls it, “superb”, writing, “Every piece is a perspective twister and a though inducer built on solid story telling from ancient and new traditions.” More recently, Love BeyondBody, Space, and Time: An Indigenous LGBT Sci-Fi Anthology (2016), edited by Hope Nicholson, features, “two essays, seven stories, and one-story poem” (Warrior, 2016). The essays, (by Grace L. Dillon and Niigaan Sinclair) explain the obstacles and “constraints that Indigenous LGBTQ2 writers seek to dislodge” (Warrior, 2016). Drew Hayden Taylor’s collection of nine stories, “Take Us to Your Chief”, seeks to subvert victim narratives, historical settings that frame Native people as vanishing or past tense, and stories “dealing with…post contact stress disorder”. Smith asserts the work succeeds at, “skillfully interweaving classic science fiction narratives, such as time travel and artificial intelligence, with First Nations issues-historical trauma, the preservation of culture and the ‘good and bad Native’” trope (2016).
Important Indigenous Futurisms Authors & Creators to Watch
Rebecca Roanhorse’s much anticipated forth coming novel, Trail of Lightening (The Sixth World), tackles themes often found in IF (climate change and apocalypse), centering the narrative around Maggi Hoskie, a monster hunter protecting her Navajo reservation after the rest of the world sinks due to climate change. DarcieLittle Badger’s work appears in Love Beyond…as well as, No Shit, There IWas (2018), an anthology of short speculative fiction, Strange Horizons (a weekly online magazine of speculative fiction),other publications and her blog, darcielittlebadger.wordpress.com. Montreal based Multi-media Mohawk artist Skawennati’s work TimeTravlerTM(timetravellertm.com) offers an excellent introduction to Indigenous Futurisms themes and concepts through video shorts created with video game crafting technology.
The term “Indigenous Futurisms” was coined by Portland State University professor of Indigenous Nations Studies Dr. Grace L. Dillon. She is the editor of the groundbreaking Science Fiction Anthology Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction(2012). Though Native authors, “have been experimenting with genre for some time, only now has a critical mass of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror by Native writers accumulated” (Ransom, 2013). Wikipedia offers a succinct definition of the term “Indigenous Futurisms” that encompasses a wide variety of artistic works:
“Indigenous futurisms are a movement consisting of art, literature, comics, games, and other forms of media which express Indigenous perspectives of the future, past, and present in the context of science fiction and related sub-genres. Such perspectives may reflect Indigenous ways of knowing, traditional stories, historical or contemporary politics or other cultural realties (Wikipedia, n.d.).”
Indigenous Futurisms’ Radical Potential
Indigenous Futurism/Native Science Fiction has the potential to fill in the narrative gaps, or absences that erase Indigenous/First Nations People from the story, and to correct misrepresentations and contest negative stereotypes, and to raise Indigenous visibility in popular culture. Amy Ransom (2013) asserts Indigenous Futurisms, “challenges notions of the genre itself” and that it, “often pushes the generic envelope into all kinds of new and unexpected shapes (p.168). The broader SF genre also offers a space for authors and creators (whether Indigenous people, women, LGBTQ, POC, the disabled) to, “write ourselves into the future” (Imarisha and Brown, 2015). 2017 Nebula award nominee for her short story, “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience,” Rebecca Roanhorse clarifies terminology and intention in a 2017 Strange Horizons roundtable discussion on Native American Science Fiction, stating that Indigenous Futurisms,
“…encourages Indigenous authors and creators to speak back to the colonialism tropes so prevalent in science fiction by reimaging space exploration from an (sic) non-colonial perspective and reclaiming our place in an imagined future in space, on earth, and everywhere in between.”
In this way, Indigenous Futurisms possesses extraordinary power to raise the visibility of Indigenous People, to offer an outlet of expression, a space to explore issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, colonialism, settlerism, and to re-envision the past, present and the future, from their own unique perspective. Visibility is a vital issue, as Native Americans/First People are underrepresented in popular culture as creators, characters, and subjects with agency and frequently misrepresented by deployment of negative stereotypes.
Stereotypes usually include alcoholism, primitivism, savagery, animal-like grunting, pidgin English speaking stoic “noble savages”, or “magical Indians” who have a mystical connection to nature and can speak to animals. Even attempts at “sympathetic” characterization often results in “a continued silencing of the Native American voice”, according to Maureen Kincaid Speller, in her blog post, “They are Not Ghosts: On the Representation of Indigenous Peoples in North America in Science Fiction & Fantasy.” Referring to Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country (2012), which upends every other myth about the West, never the less, the character of Crying Rock, retains, “the image of the stoical, taciturn Native American.” Despite ostensibly being an attempt at a sympathetic portrayal, the author continues to situate Native Americans as “ghosts”, a vanishing people, ultimately of the past. These conceptions effectively misrepresent, erase and silence Native Americans, with extremely negative impacts on all readers, but particular for Native and First Nations audiences. IF author Darcie Little Badger, reflecting on her reading history notes,
“My favorite books were missing a crucial element: people like me. The Native American characters I encountered were often stereotypical, like reflections in a fun house mirror. I felt frustrated. Invisible. Eventually, I stopped reading science fiction. It’s hard to enjoy a future where you no longer exist.”
One of the most important correctives this movement can offer is to situate Native People in the present, to write against the dominant culture’s tendency to relegate them to the past, or to freeze them in time, or to erase the reality of their actual current existence. This gap creates an opportunity to examine the past from IF’s cultural perspective, to explore current relevant issues, and to imagine a different future. Though Science Fiction and popular fandom offer this avenue, practioners and fans must actively fight for inclusion. Johnnie Jae asserts, “We create our own spaces and make our own noise” (Strange Horizons, 2017). This can mean creating the Indigenous Comic Con, establishing publishing houses, writing literature, producing podcasts, creating art and writing and producing films. The podcast, “Metis in Space” “reviews and critiques movies and television featuring Indigenous tropes and themes” (Domingo, 2015). One of the hosts, Molly Swain remarks on its reception, “People don’t expect Indigenous people to be interested in the future…. That’s partially because nobody expects Indigenous people to have a future, which is what colonialism is” (Domingo, 2015). Roanhorse, speaking at the Strange Horizons (2017) roundtable observes,
“At the recent 2016 New York Comic Con there were a record number of panels with diverse speakers and subjects, but out of the hundreds of speakers, not a single Native or First Nations panelist. Yet, in November, Indigenous Comic Con was held with two full days of programming about Indigenous SFF with all-Native and First Nations panelists, so it’s not like we aren’t here, creating. What’s going on?”
Begum (2011) observes, citing Jewish ghettos in WWII and accounts of prisoners of war, that escapism in leisure reading has historically been used as a coping mechanism, a survival strategy, and a, “critical tool for self-preservation”. She writes “…escapism in leisure reading is a very complex and composite concept. Although it is not always associated with pleasure and relaxation, it is always a transformative and thus instrumental and functional experience in the reader’s life.” Tenille K. Campbell (@IndeigenousXca), author of Indian Love Poems (2017), strongly supports this assertion. She tweeted on February 21, 2018,
Science Fiction’s appeal is grounded in questions of, “What if…? If only…? If this… goes on?” (Saricks, 2009, Rosenberg, 1982). William Lempert observes SF is historically a, “politically potent genre.” Despite its history of perpetuating existing systems of oppression and reflecting contemporary society’s concerns and viewpoints, SF also provides an opening for an ever-widening pool of writers and creators to break boundaries and to explore ever expanding terrain of the “what if” questions at the core of its appeal. Walidah Imarsiha (2015) co-editor of the anthology Octavia’s Brood asserts Science Fiction, “…allows us to imagine possibilities outside of what exists today.”
James (2016) argues,
“Indigenous futurism is a deliberate, intentional, and purpose-driven position that addresses not onlyinclusion but intersectionality for its protagonists and themes…These fictions question received ideas ofagency, gender, and ethnicity, uses of violence and technology, and even the meaning of survival andtriumph, while extending more nuanced concepts of tradition, community, scientific exploration,environmental and social consciousness, power, and responsibility.”
The emerging SF subgenre Indigenous Futurisms provides opportunities to rewrite both the past and the future and to reclaim the present. IF fills in the narrative gaps that erase and silence Indigenous/First Nations People and contests negative stereotypes. Because leisure reading has such transformative effects for creators and audiences, this genre can have significant real-world impact. Begum (2011) observes, “The transformative effects of escapism, both subtle and direct, can manifest in numerous ways. They can emerge as a restructure of self or societal views or as a combination of both.” Quoting Smagorinsky, Begum (2011) notes, “’Text can help shape readers’ concepts of justice and social obligations and it can certainly change how we view ourselves playing roles linked to those ideas.” In the words of Love Beyond… reviewer Carrol Edelman Warrior, “It reminded me that Indigenous futures-not to mention love-exist as long as we can imagine them.”
 Visionary Fiction is a term coined by Walidah Imarisha (2015). “Visionary fiction offers social justice movements a process to explore creating those new worlds…” The term encompasses, “the fantastical cross-genre creations that help us bring about those new worlds.”
 “In a CBC interview, Cree/Metis Indigenous writer and filmmaker Danis Goulet said, ‘action and agency starts with the ability to imagine,’ taking back a genre dominated by white males.” -Canada: Black, Indigenous Artists Decolonize Science Fiction
 “Cyberpunk literature, a sub-genre of science fiction, is a phenomenon of the 1980’s and it address the dissolution of the subject through the figure of the cyborg, a human machine coupling alongside the electronically constituted and disembodied reality of cyberspace” (Ertung, 2011 p.77).
 Afrofuturisms- black science fiction and speculative fiction by people of color that seeks to decolonize the imagination.
 See J. Langer, Post colonialism and Science Fiction (2011). She observes, “…there is…inherent instability in both categories, that of the ‘postcolonial’ and that of ‘science fiction’. But it,” is not a weakness but rather a strength: it has shown itself capable of including a wide variety of texts and voices, including those characterized by hybridity in genre, in its purview. It has not been shaken but rather has grown richer” (p.2).