(Updated September 2019)
“You cannot have a future you do not first imagine.”
- Gregory Benford
Science fiction has long 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 has stakes far beyond academic interest. These diverse films have the power to not only help us to reimagine our assumptions about the future of Indigenous peoples, but also to serve as a cultural mirror enabling us to reassess the Western sci-fi futures we have internalized. Such creative works have been critically engaged by Native scholars such as Grace Dillon (Anishinaabe) through “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 delving into these film genres, it is important to understand how Indigenous people have been represented within the history of popular 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 Indigenous oracles (Yoda), barbaric “others” (Klingons), and manipulated tribal groups (Ewoks). With rare exceptions, leaders in the future are presented as Western males (Luke Skywalker), hyper-rational white Euro-aliens (Spock), or white saviors (Jake Sully). While such characters sometimes receive guidance from indigenized alien elders in order to “play Indian,” those side characters serve mostly as exotic mentors. Meanwhile, the white savior protagonists are presented as better than the locals at being Indigenous. Even South Park took the time to make fun of Avatar as simply Dances with Wolves in space through their episode titled “Dances with Smurfs.”
I highlight examples from Star Wars, Star Trek, and Avatar because 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 includes all of the aforementioned issues, yet has inspired many Native filmmakers, and was the first major sci-fi feature to be translated into an Indigenous language, in this case Navajo (NPR story).
These tropes are occasionally more nuanced in indie sci-fi, though such examples are rare. Native people too often 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 in other genres because of its influence not only on how we see the past and present, but also on how we come to view 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 the vast majority of them engage alien encounters or hopeful/frightening futures. Put more succinctly, they are generally 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 examples of utopian imagined futures in which a Western-typed society has avoided self-destruction, achieved social egalitarianism and technological wizardry, and even largely done away with money. Star Trek contains plenty of ethnic stereotypes, though it is thoughtful about contact at moments, including elements such as the “prime directive” of cultural non-intervention. One of its most iconic quotes, regarding the hive mind Borg, contains a rare direct reference to assimilation:
“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). The loss of culture and the blending of ethnicities is often presented as largely positive. But what else is sacrificed in such futures?
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 Nation simultaneously as technologically advanced, financially prosperous, and culturally strong. Other films such as the Indigenous Columbian Gonawindua imagine a future that seamlessly integrates 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 that 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 tongues 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/pandemics (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, centering Native American characters that are pitted against an evil empire. Like The 6th World, this future imagines a symbiotic technological and cultural sophistication for Indigenous people. Wakening, The Migration, The People, Reclamation, and The Burden of Being are other recent Native shorts—as well as the Aboriginal Australian TV series Cleverman—that position strong protagonists fighting against cultural assimilation and for Indigenous futures. The 2016 feature, The Northlander, imagines the distant future of 2924, in which Canadian Aboriginal people live in a world in which Western societies are just a distant memory.
III. Alien Encounters
Colonial or Connection?
Sci-fi fans have seen so many alien attack films that to point out their existence feels odd, which is exactly the point. Nearly all 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 governmental authorities who would interrogate the alien or worse if they could. Even in the innovative feature Arrival, governments remain on a hair trigger to war throughout the film.
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 experts 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 lack of interest regarding alien motivation, 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 Indigenous people. By contrasting such films with Native sci-fi, we can see how they project Western histories of violent colonial encounters onto their alien narratives.
Lisa Jackson’s (Anishinaabe) The Visit along with 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 figure is baffled, the Cree man is able to communicate with the flying saucer through the rhythm of a hand drum. Such films denaturalize the idea that Western cities represents the zenith of humanity. Skawennati’s (Mohawk) slipstream machinema short The Peacemaker Returns imagines a multi-species diplomacy mission in 3025 led by a Haudenosaunee visionary.
Some Native sci-fi directly tackles the absurd abundance of alien sci-fi violence through parody. As a skit series within the acclaimed Aboriginal sketch comedy show Black Comedy on the ABC, Starblaks is a satirical take on Star Trek. They boldly evade the xenophobians and debate Indigenous space rights, while poking fun 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 has influenced non-Native films as well. Like Dreamland, Ivan Sen’s (Koori) abstract feature, such films touch on alien abduction, an important genre for Native people given the colonial legacies of forced government boarding schooling.
Kindred, a Australian independent short, employs an all-Aboriginal cast to tell the story of a violent alien abduction. Legends from the Sky tells the story of a young Navajo man who seeks to unravel the mysterious cover-up of his grandfather’s abduction. Most of the actors are Navajo and it has 15 minutes of dialogue in language.
V. Indigenous Futurisms and VR
These categories represent one way of organizing Native sci-fi films, which will shift as more 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 animation (Thunderbird Strike, The Path Without End, Indigo, How to Steal a Canoe, Four Faces of the Moon, Biidaaban: The Dawn Comes) and films highlighting Native youth as they imaginatively engage futuristic technologies (Hoverboard, Rocket Boy).
More recently, there has been an influx of Indigenous virtual reality media (Biidaaban: First Light, Thalu: Dreamtime is Now, Future Dreaming, Collisions). These immersive media projects are opening up exciting embodied ways of reimagining Indigenous presence into the future.
Indigenous futurisms are about more than inclusion within sci-fi films. By centering the idea that Native people are not relegated to the past, but have as many complex cultural and political futures as Western people, Native sci-fi has the potential to help radically reimagine the assumptions that inform the social and policy treatment of Indigenous people today.
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 people.
William Lempert is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. 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.