NAVAJOS ON MARS
Native Sci-fi Film Futures
September 21, 2015 - 10 minute read - by William Lempert
“You cannot have a future you do not first imagine.”
- Gregory Benford
Science fiction has always been a politically potent genre. By playing out imagined scenarios of alien contact and various frightening or hopeful futures, the genre holds a special place in the collective imagination. While we cannot have a future we do not first imagine, we also consciously or unconsciously create the future based on what we assume to be possible, desirable, and even inevitable.
The recent rise of Native-produced sci-fi films is more than an academic fascination. These diverse set of films have the power to not only help us to reimagine our assumptions about the futures of Indigenous peoples, but also to serve as a cultural mirror enabling us to reassess the Western sci-fi futures we have internalized. These processes are discussed by Native scholars such as Grace Dillon (Anishinaabe) as “Indigenous futurisms.”
This article is a brief attempt to draw on Indigenous futurisms as a way of introducing the diversity of Native sci-fi films in conversation with mainstream sci-fi. For a more detailed discussion click here.
Dances with Smurfs
Before comparing these film genres, we need to understand how Indigenous people have been represented within the history of science fiction. It will come as no surprise that the usual cast of Indigenous film stereotypes abound, while whiteness is normalized and equated with rationality. There are various wizened noble savages (Yoda), barbaric “others” (Klingons), and manipulated sub-humans (Ewoks). With rare exceptions, future leaders are presented as Western males (Luke Skywalker), hyper-rational white Euro-aliens (Spock), or white saviors. While such characters sometimes appeal to indigenized alien elders in order to “play Indian,” these side characters serve only as exotic mentors. Meanwhile, the white savior (Jake Sully) stories present their protagonists as better than the locals at being Indigenous.
Even South Park took the time to poke fun of Avatar as simply Dances with Wolves, but with Smurfs standing in for the Native Americans. I present examples from Star Wars, Star Trek, and Avatar as they represent some of the most iconic (and profitable) Hollywood sci-fi films of all time, though nearly all sci-fi contains elements of these tropes. Star Wars is particularly interesting here since it contains all of the mentioned issues, yet inspires many Native films, and was the first major studio film to be translated into an Indigenous language, in this case Navajo (NPR radio story).
These tropes are occasionally more nuanced in indie sci-fi, though such examples are rare. Native people serve as stereotyped props or plot devices that play into escapist fantasies — specifically about Native Americans — since Hollywood is at the heart of the sci-fi film industry. However, the stakes are higher in sci-fi than other genres because it can influence not only how we see the past and present, but also how we come to view Indigenous futures. (For hours of interesting and entertaining discussions of Indigenous representations in popular sci-fi film and tv, check out the Métis in Space podcast)
There are many ways to organize science fiction films, though virtually all the films center around alien encounters or hopeful/frightening futures. Put more succinctly, they are about either…
UTOPIAS, DYSTOPIAS, or ALIENS.
By contrasting Native sci-fi with the canon in each of these three categories, we can gain perspective on the meaning and importance of both Native and Western sci-fi.
I. Utopian Futures
Conformity or Culture?
Since the industrial revolution, there has been an ambivalence about exponential technological progress. Optimists have imagined utopian futures in which humanity overcomes its destructive tendencies. Star Trek provides utopian examples of an imagined future in which our civilization has avoided self-destruction, achieved social egalitarianism and technological wizardry, and even done away with money. While Star Trek contains plenty of ethnic stereotypes, the USS Enterprise is in essence an anthropological expedition, whose “prime directive” of cultural non-intervention mirrors early 20th century ethnographers. One of its most iconic quotes, regarding the hive mind Borg, contains a rare direct reference to cultural survival:
“You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”
More commonly, utopian films depict futures in which liberty and individualism have been sacrificed for stability and harmony (Gattaca, Brave New World, The Giver). But what else is sacrificed in such futures? The loss of culture and blending of ethnicities is assumed to be largely positive.
Indigenous sci-fi films such as Nanobah Becker’s (Navajo) The 6th World reimagine these assumptions. In this world, the Navajo lead a mission to Mars along with US/corporate partners. After GMO corn fails, sacred corn pollen saves the colony, which becomes the future Martian Navajo Nation, represented by red-filtered shots of Monument Valley (made famous by John Ford’s classic Westerns). Instead of silencing Native futures, the film imagines the Navajo simultaneously as technologically advanced, financially prosperous, and culturally strong. Other films such as the Indigenous Columbian Gonawindua imagine a future embracing both technology and tradition.
II. Dystopian Futures
Self-Destruction or Assimilation?
I always knew the Lone Ranger
Wore a mask because he didn’t
Want anyone to know
That he was friends
With an Indian
That always made me
Wish I was white
Crystal blue eyed Aryan
With cold, carved, marble
It would be beautiful.
I would trade jokes with
While I sat on my horse
“What does a squaw
Say after sex?”
I would ask.
The Ranger would shrug
And I would answer:
“Get off me Dad
You’re crushing my cigarettes.”
And we would laugh and laugh…
Laugh until silver bullets
Shot out of every orifice
And burned the land
Jeff Barnaby’s (Mi’kMaq) dystopic short, File under Miscellaneous, developed from this poem. It is one of many he wrote to come to terms with his painful experiences growing up on the Mi’kMaq reserve and the alienation he felt after moving to Montreal. A mix of science fiction and personal biography, it engages intergenerational trauma and the loss of culture and language.
Set in a dystopian future in which Native people submit themselves to have their tongue cut out before being gruesomely re-skinned as white, it echos Grace Dillon’s remark that “the Native Apocalypse, if contemplated seriously, has already taken place.” From his first viewing of Blade Runner as a child, Barnaby notes that “it dawned on me: who would a ‘post-drum and feather’ Indian most relate to? The romanticized Tonto ideology or the alienated loner?” His homage is apparent in the opening scene:
Alternately, mainstream dystopian films resonate with Western fears of self-destruction. These anxieties have increased since the post-WWII nuclear age, when the rapid extinction of our species become a distinct possibility in the Western imagination. This fear provoked the early 1951 classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, a warning that our technology would be our undoing, barring drastic and fundamental changes in our society.
Such films are often about sentient artificial intelligence (2001: A Space Odyssey, Terminator, The Matrix), large-scale weapons (Dr. Strangelove, 12 Monkeys), biological manipulation (Jurassic Park, Planet of the Apes), or the fallout of climate change (Mad Max, Water World, 2012).
Future Warrior plays on Star Wars, placing Native Americans as main characters pitted against the evil empire. Like The 6th World, this future imagines a symbiotic technological and cultural sophistication for Indigenous peoples. Wakening, The Migration, and The People are other recent Native shorts—as well as the upcoming Aboriginal TV primetime series Cleverman—that position strong protagonists fighting against cultural assimilation and for Indigenous futures. The 2016 feature, The Northlander, reimagines the deep future of 2924 for Canadian Aboriginal peoples in which Western civilization is a distant memory.
III. Alien Encounters
Colonial or Spiritual?
Film fans have seen so many alien attack films that to point out their existence feels odd. Which is exactly the point. Nearly without exception, sci-fi films about extraterrestrials involve them attacking us, or less commonly, us attacking them (District 9). Even the exceptions of alien buddy films (E.T., Starman, Paul) are based around evading authorities who would interrogate the alien or worse.
How often do we stop to consider why this is? Is it inevitable that such an encounter would begin with an unprovoked war? In fact, some scientists theorize that any species capable of interstellar travel would most likely have plentiful resources and low levels of conflict.
So why do nearly all alien films involve violence?
In Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise’s character summarizes this attitude toward aliens, stating that “it doesn’t matter why they are here. They’re here and that’s all that matters.” It is no accident that such films often involve a species with a communal social structure (Independence Day, Starship Troopers, Ender’s Game), a theme that has resonated since the Cold War and also applies to Native peoples. By contrasting such films with Native sci-fi, we can see how they represent the projection of violent colonization throughout Western history.
Lisa Jackson’s (Anishinaabe) The Visit and Helen Haig-Brown’s (Tsilhqot’in) ?E?anx/The Cave depict nonviolent encounters of the third kind. Jackson’s film in particular imagines extraterrestrials as being most interested in a Canadian First Nation’s reserve as opposed to New York or London. While the white authority is baffled, the Cree man is able to communicate to the flying saucer through the rhythm of a hand drum. Such films denaturalize the idea that Western cities represents the zenith of humanity.
Some Native sci-fi directly tackles the absurd abundance of alien sci-fi violence through parody. As an ongoing skit on the acclaimed Aboriginal sketch comedy show Black Comedy on the ABC, Starblaks plays on Star Trek. They boldly evade the xenophobians and debate Indigenous space rights, while laughing at the token white character named Vanilla. Alien Night, written by Zanab Amadahy (Cherokee), also pokes fun at the idea of alien abduction. Even the iconic game Space Invaders has been reimagined as Invaders, in which you play as a Native American shooting arrows at the 8-bit space ships.
IV. Alien Collaborations
The rise of the Native sci-fi film genre is beginning to influence other filmmakers. Like Dreamland, Ivan Sen’s (Koori) abstract feature, these films touch on alien abduction, an important genre to Native peoples given the histories of forced government boarding schools.
Kindred, a recent Australian independent short employs an all- Aboriginal cast to tell the story of a violent alien abduction. Funded through two Indigogo campaigns, the director describes it as “the world’s shortest feature,” given the 190 special effects shots, as well as the 350 people involved.
Legends from the Sky — the first feature-length sci-fi film with a significant Native American cast — tells the story of a young Navajo man who seeks to unravel the mysterious cover-up of his grandfather’s abduction. Also crowd-funded, this film demonstrates uncommon local engagement, with a majority of local Navajo actors and 15 minutes of dialogue in language.
V. Indigenous Futurisms
These categories represent one way of organizing Native sci-fi films, which can evolve as new films are released. Some projects span utopian, dystopian, and alien elements, such as the Anamata Future News, a Maori TV series of 10 speculative news shorts spanning from 2018 to 2499, including ecological disasters, the traditional carving of holographic pau, haka to welcome alien visitors, and intergalactic voyaging. There are also other emerging sub-genres such as Indigenous steampunk (The Path Without End, Indigo) and Native youth engaging future technologies (Hoverboard, Rocket Boy).
Indigenous futurisms are about more than simply being included in sci-fi films. By assuming that Native peoples are not just relics of the past, but have as many complex cultural and political futures as Western societies, Native sci-fi has the potential to help reimagine the assumptions that inform the social and policy treatment of contemporary Indigenous peoples.
Communities are empowered and constrained by the constellation of their members’ expectations, fears, and hopes for the future. Sci-fi film holds a special promise as a Native medium due to its potential for transforming such imaginative spaces. With increasing social and material pressures, such visions have never been more urgent for Indigenous peoples.
William Lempert is an anthropology PhD student and filmmaker from the University of Colorado. He regularly collaborates with Aboriginal media organizations in Northwestern Australia on film projects.
Click here to view my academic article this post was based on: “Decolonizing Encounters of the Third Kind: Alternative Futuring in Native Science Fiction Film.”
Grace Dillon’s Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction is an excellent introduction to Indigenous futurisms and sci-fi.
Indigenous Futurisms Mixtape is a fascinating related audio project.