The Space NDN’s Star Map
The creation story is a spaceship
The first time I saw a space NDN was in The 6th World, a short film by Diné director Nanobah Becker that extends the Diné creation story into outer space, where humanity’s future is made possible through ancestral corn crops on Mars. The movie was released in 2012, the same year Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction was published, the first-ever anthology of its kind. This was the official inauguration of indigenous futurism. The movement is in part about speaking back to the SF genre, which has long used indigenous subjects as the foils to stories of white space explorers hungry to conquer new worlds. Given these continuously re-hashed narratives of “the final frontier,” it is no coincidence that western science fiction developed during a time of imperial and capitalist expansion.
Science/speculative fiction author Nalo Hopkinson, known for her use of creole languages and Caribbean oral stories in her works, writes that people of color engaging with SF “take the meme of colonizing the natives and, from the experience of the colonizee, critique it, pervert it, fuck with it, with irony, with anger, with humor and also, with love and respect for the genre of science fiction that makes it possible to think about new ways of doing things.” Perhaps because science fiction is so prone to reproducing colonial desires it has become seductive to the “colonizee” who finds pleasure and power in reversing the telescope’s gaze of who is exploring who. This reversal is no mere trick, though. It is a profound deconstruction of how we imagine time, progress, and who is worthy of the future.
Following in the rocket trails of black authors such as Hopkinson, the space NDN is also in a long tradition of NDN interstellar exploration, using technologies such as creation stories and ceremony as her means of travel. For some, she is a startling and unsettling figure. As Philip Deloria argues in Indians in Unexpected Places, settlers are upset and confused when the seemingly contrasting symbolic systems of indigeneity and high-tech modernity are put in dialogue, as demonstrated in the shocked reactions to a 1904 photograph of Geronimo in a Cadillac. This estrangement arises from “a long tradition that has tended to separate Indian people from the contemporary world and from recognition of the possibility of Indian autonomy in the world.” In the colonial imaginary, indigenous life is not only separate from the present time but also out of place in the future, a time defined by the progress of distinctively western technology. If colonial society cannot accept Geronimo in a Cadillac, it can hardly conceive of him in a space ship.
The Indian in space seeks to feel at home, to undo her perceived strangeness by asking: why can’t indigenous peoples also project ourselves among the stars? Might our collective visions of the cosmos forge better relationships here on earth and in the present than colonial visions of a final frontier?
Many of the ideas deemed strange or new-fangled in Western sci-fi come naturally to the space NDN. The all-pervasive “force” or similarly the super brain connecting all beings. The animism and agency of cyborgs, AI systems, and other non-human people. Alternate dimensions and understandings of non-linear time. These are things the space NDN knows intuitively. This is not the future but historical knowledge. The future is reclaiming these technologies not for domination but for new organizations aimed at better worlds. I am reminded of Octavia Butler’s words, “There is nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.” Instead of imaging a future in bleak cities made from steel and glass teeming with alienated white masses shuffling under an inescapable electronic glow, indigenous futurists think of earthen space crafts helmed by black and brown women with advanced knowledge of land, plants, and language.
Indigenous futurism seeks to challenge notions of what constitutes advanced technology and consequently advanced civilizations. As settler colonial governments continue to demand more and more from the Earth, indigenous peoples seek the sovereign space and freedom to heal from these apocalyptic processes. Extractive and exploitative endeavors are just one mark of the settler death drive, which indigenous futurism seeks to overcome by imagining different ways of relating to notions of progress and civilization. Advanced technologies are not finely tuned mechanisms of endless destruction. Advanced technologies should foster and improve human relationships with the non-human world. In many indigenous science fiction tales of the futures, technology is presented as in dialogue with the long traditions of the past, rather than representing the past’s overcoming.
In the recent iteration of the constantly re-packaged tale of white men planting flags in space, Interstellar’s all-American space boy Matthew McConaughey stares into the distance and announces, “We are explorers, pioneers, not caretakers.” As if one cannot be both an explorer and a caretaker…For the space NDN the two roles are intertwined. The advanced technology of the space NDN does not separate technical from natural knowledge. Technology is not divorced from or forced upon land but develops in relation to lands and the many beings land supports.
The space NDN’s disavowal of western progress makes clear the difference between indigenous futurism and early 20th century forms of futurism, which were compatible with the interests of fascist and oppressive governments. Unlike those futurists, who were in an antagonistic relation with their literary and cultural predecessors, indigenous futurism is centered on bringing traditions to distant, future locations rather than abandoning them as relics. Indigenous futurism does not care for speed so much as sustainability, not so much for progress as balance, and not power but relation.
God is the Red Planet
For many the image of the Indian in space is jarring not just because of the settler perception of indigeneity as antithetical to high tech modernity, but because Indian identity is tied so directly to specific earthly territories. What happens to indigeneity when the indigenous subject is no longer in the location that has defined them? This is not just a question of outer space. Already the majority of Native people in the U.S. and Canada live in cities away from their traditional territories. Of course at one point these places would also have been viewed as indigenous territories. While many nations have worked very hard to dispel the notion of nomadic Indian tribes, there is a history of movement among many of our peoples. Colonial forms such as reserves, reservations, nation-states and borders have made these traditions of movement nearly impossible. And the need to defend our rights to live on our lands without harassment has created the political necessity of claiming our land-based political and cultural identities.
But land-based does not have to mean landlocked. This insistence on indigenous people having to always be located on or closely connected to one particular area also erases those who are unable to return to their traditional territories, such as Mohawk women who are kicked out of their tribe for marrying non-Mohawk men or Afro-Indigenous people stolen from their lands. There is also the simple fact that NDNS may want to move around. There’s an old cliché that every Indian story is about going home. But what about the Indians who can’t go home, or simply want to go away? I sometimes describe myself as a diasporic Diné in order to bring the often disparate ideas of indigeneity and movement into closer proximity. Those we consider diasporic are often violently robbed of their indigeneity and those we consider indigenous are often on the move. The space NDN looks into the void and knows still who they are.
Nanobah Becker shot the Mars scenes in The 6th World in Monument Valley, one of the sacred territories of the Diné. The red rock canyons and cliffs make a convincing Martian backdrop. They also offer a symbol of dynamic sacredness. These distant lands are connected. Just because the Diné have not lived on Mars since time immemorial, it does not mean our plants and teachings cannot take root there. I am reminded of the time before a ceremony on a college campus when we washed our hands in a drinking fountain. I am reminded of Betonie, the medicine man in Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony, who makes medicine bundles from trash heaps. I am reminded of pow-wow regalia ornamented with semiconductors. I am reminded of the descendants of slaves telling and re-telling their stories on new, bloody ground. Finding ourselves in new contexts, we are always adapting, always surviving. This is the seed of many indigenous technologies: the ability to continue and sustain ourselves against all odds.
The challenge of the space NDN is how to apply knowledge of the worlds toward non-destructive ends. Any form of travel or exploration comes with the dangers of exploitation and upheaval. Nobody knows this better than the inhabitants of those places constantly divvied up between colonial nation-states. The figure of the space NDN is not an attempt to simply put an indigenous face on the outer space colonizer. Indigenous futurist narratives try to enact contact differently. Not all encounters with the other must end in conquest, genocide or violence. The space NDN seeks new models of interaction. We do not travel to the distant reaches of space in order to plant our flags or act under the assumption that every planet in our sights is a terra nullius waiting for the first human footprint to mark its surface. Robert Sullivan’s poem “Star Waka” captures the complexities of indigenous space travel. Waka is the Maori term for a canoe and Sullivan’s epic poem relates the journey of this star waka to outer planets to find new homes for the Maori people. The crew of the ship wonder how their prayers will work in the cold vastness of the stars and how they can approach these distant worlds in a good way. The Indian in space does not abandon their home, their people, or their teachings. Dynamic traditions, themselves a type of advanced technology, help the space NDN to understand how to foster the kind of relationships that make futures possible.
All Our Interstellar Relations
For indigenous futurism, technology is inextricable from the social. Human societies are part of a network of wider relationships with objects, animals, geological formations and so on. To grasp our relationship with the non-human world here on Earth, we must also extend our understanding of how Earth relates to the entirety of the cosmos. We live on just one among millions of planets, each an intricate and delicate system within a larger, increasing complex structure. For the indigenous futurist endeavor, striving to understand the ever-multiplying connections linking us to the beginning of the universe and its constant expansion also entails unraveling the intricate relations that make up our Earthly existence.
Zainab Amadahy, who identifies as a person of mixed black, Cherokee and European ancestry, grounds her writing practice in illuminating and understanding networks of relationships: “I aspire to write in a way that views possible alternatives through the lens of a relationship framework, where I can demonstrate our connectivity to and interdependence with each other and the rest of our Relations.” Her 1992 novel The Moons of Palmares examines the relationships, both harmful and collaborative, between indigenous peoples and descendants of slaves in an outer space setting that merges histories of the Black Atlantic with the colonial frontier. In a provocative bit of plotting, she casts an indigenous character, Major Eaglefeather, as an oppressive foreign force in the lives of an outer space labor population that has shaped its society in remembrance of black slave resistance in North/South America and the Caribbean.
The story follows Major Eaglefeather’s decision to reject his ties to the corporate state and support a rebel group of laborers. The name Palmares is taken from a real-world settlement founded by escaped slaves in 17th-century Brazil, which is also known to have incorporated indigenous peoples and some poor, disenfranchised whites. In a chronicle written in the late 17th century, these quilombos are described as networks of settlements that lived off the land and were supplemented by raids on the slave plantations where the inhabitants were formerly held. It is said that in Palmares the king was called Gangasuma, a hybrid term meaning “great lord” composed of the Angolan or Bandu word ganga and the Tupi word assu. The word succinctly captures the mixture of cultures that banded together in Palmares to live together on the margins of a colonialist, slave-holding society. While Palmares was eventually destroyed in a military campaign, it lives on as a legend of slave rebellion and utopian possibility that Amadahy finds well suited for her outer space story about collaborative resistance to state power and harmful resource extraction processes.
Outer space, perhaps because of its appeal to our sense of endless possibility, has become the imaginative site for re-envisioning how black, indigenous and other oppressed people can relate to each other outside of and despite the colonial gaze. Amadahy’s work is crucial for a critical understanding of the space NDN. The space NDN cannot allow him or herself to fall into the patterns of domination and kyriarchy that have for too long prevailed here on Earth as well as speculative narratives of outer space. Afrofuturists have looked to space as the site for black separatism and liberation. If the space NDN is truly committed to being responsible to all our relations, it is imperative for our futurist vision to be in solidarity with and service to our fellow Afrofuturist space travelers. Our collective refusal of colonial progress (namely, our destruction) means we must chart other ways to the future that lead us and other oppressed peoples to the worlds we deserve.
The Moons of Palmares works toward this end by revealing the strong connections between indigenous and black histories, narratives and ways of living. Indigenous futurism is indebted to Afrofuturism: Both forms of futurism explore spaces and times outside the control of colonial powers and white supremacy. These alternative conceptions of time reject the notion that all tradition is regressive by narrating futures intimately connected to the past. SF and specifically the site of outer space give writers and thinkers the imaginative room to envision political and cultural relationships and the future decolonizing movements they might nourish. This focus on relationship, especially as posited by Amadahy, also accounts for those forms of indigeneity that persist among peoples either stolen from their lands or whose lands have been stolen from them.
As the writer Sydette Harry recently posted on Twitter, “Black people are displaced indigenous people.” However, because of the processes of forced relocation and slavery and continuing anti-black racism, black people are often denied claims to indigeneity. There is also a pernicious erasure of black NDNs in America and Canada. In exploring outer space, black authors are also able to assert their own relationship to land both on Earth and in the cosmos. The Black Land Project (BLP), while not an explicitly futurist organization, fosters the kind of relationships to land on Earth that futurist authors and thinkers envision in outer space. In a recent podcast, Blacktracking through Afrofuturism, BLP founder and director Mistinguette Smith discusses how walking over the routes of the Underground Railroad brought forth alternate dimensions and understandings of time outside the settler paradigm of ownership. These are aspects of relating to land that the Afrofuturist and the space NDN (identities which can exist in the same person) bring with them on their travels.
This focus on relationship rather than a strict idea of location speaks to the way in which the space NDN can remain secure in their indigenous identity even while rocketing through dark skies far from their origins. This is not to demean the work of land protectors and defenders who risk serious repercussions for resisting corporate and state encroachment on indigenous territories. The space NDN supports those who are able and choose to remain on the land, while also hoping to broaden understandings of indigeneity outside simple location. Locations of course are never simple. It is the settler who wishes to flatten the relation between place and people by claiming land through ownership. Projecting themselves forward into faraway lands and times, the space NDN reveals the myriad ways of relating to land beyond property.