Introduction: Composing Trans-Indigenous Futures


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 4

Trans-Indigenous Futurisms


Introduction: Composing Trans-Indigenous Futures

Jeremy M. Carnes

I still remember, early in my Ph.D. program, when a colleague mentioned the collection Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction, edited by Grace L. Dillon (Anishinaabe). This collection was my own first real foray into the world of Indigenous sf. It was the first time I considered “the excitement and depth of Indigenous futurisms—the responsibility of each moment, each fold, each time, imagined or not, because each imagined moment contains within it already our presence, not our absence. The visibility of Indigenous space-time creates an event horizon we can all slip into, a responsibility we all share” (Dillon 239). In so many ways, Indigenous sf has built around that same activist call so popular in the Idle No More and #NoDAPL movements, “We are still here.” Indigenous sf is inherently anti-colonial in the assumption that Indigenous peoples are and will continue to be a part of the future, as opposed to colonial notions of their disappearance.

Thus, as indicated by its anti-colonial nature, Indigenous sf is inherently different from sf in the Euro-American tradition. As Dillon notes, “Writers of Indigenous futurisms sometimes intentionally experiment with, sometimes intentionally dislodge, sometimes merely accompany, but invariably change the perimeters of sf” (3). Indeed, notions central to Euro-American sf are distinct experiences within Indigenous worldviews, from relations between human and other-than-human beings, to temporalities and spatialities, to technologies and that ever-problematic specter of “progress.” Indigenous sf pushes at the boundaries of the possible in the past, present, and the future; it alternatively considers connection through time, space, and technology; it reconsiders the structures of oppression stemming from settler colonialism and capitalism. But perhaps more than anything it considers the question posed by Joshua Whitehead: “What better way to imagine survivability than to think about how we may flourish into being joyously animated rather than merely alive?” (11).

From Cherie Dimaline’s (Métis) The Marrow Thieves, a story about connection and the power of one’s language in a future that looks so much like the past, to Claire G. Coleman’s (Wirlomin Noongar) Terra Nullius, a tale that extends the label of victim in order to rethink settler colonialism and its attendant labels, to Daniel H. Wilson’s (Cherokee) Robopocalypse, a story that reconsiders the affordances of technological advancement as well as its many dangers, Indigenous sf is continually pushing and prodding our expectations and considerations of the generic underpinnings of sf itself. In many ways then, Indigenous sf embodies Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson’s conceptualization of “refusal,” which she defines as “a political alternative to ‘recognition,’ the much sought-after and presumed ‘good’ of multicultural politics” (11). Rather than stories that remain palatable to settler readers, Indigenous authors enshrine political Sovereignty for Indigenous communities, an inherent right that outlasts the seemingly indestructible towers of the settler colonial fortress. Even in the face of further oppression, as in Dimaline’s novel, Indigenous authors understand “that as long as there are dreamers left, there will never be want of a dream;” they consider “just what we would do for each other, just what we would do for the ebb and pull of the dream, the bigger dream that [holds] us all” (231).

This special symposium, titled “Trans-Indigenous Futurity,” draws on the seminal work of Grace Dillon as well as Indigenous literary scholar Chadwick Allen (Chickasaw) to consider sf and futurities across. For Allen, trans-Indigenous scholarship is about “purposeful Indigenous juxtapositions” which help “develop a version of Indigenous literary studies that locates itself firmly in the specificity of the Indigenous local while remaining always cognizant of the complexity of the relevant Indigenous global” (xix). One of the joys of editing a special section like this one is the ways that authors take an idea and expand beyond what I could ever have imagined. The trans of trans-Indigenous comes to mean beyond the spatial and the temporal, the familial or ancestral, the (para)normal, the ontological, the epistemological. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Allen notes the possibility of this prefix, trans, when he writes, “trans-Indigenous may be able to bear the complex, contingent asymmetry and the potential risks of unequal encounters borne by the preposition across. It may be  able to indicate the specific agency and situated momentum carried by the preposition through. It may be able to harbor the potential of change as both transitive and intransitive verb, and as both noun and adjective” (xiv-xv). While I came into this issue expecting to consider the relationality between the global and the local, the authors of these essays have pushed my own thoughts, and the scholarship of Indigenous sf and futurity, further.

I consider the contributions of this symposium in three interrelated sections. Works in this first section focus on the way Indigenous futurities are always defined by the present and relationships to the past. These contributions reflect on the legacy of boarding schools in the United States and Canada, paying particular attention to the ways past events can help us re-evaluate the work possible through sf. In Melissa Michal’s short story “Ghost Hunt” and reflective essay “On Writing Ghost Hunt and Preparing My Own Spirit,” we come face-to-face with this palpable and sordid history of residential schools or boarding schools, which focused on the violent assimilation and “re-education” of Indigenous children. Michal’s story, written before the devastating news of unmarked mass graves found at Kamloops Residential School, St. Eugene’s Mission School, and Marieval Indian Residential School, examines what it might be like to encounter the spirits of children like these. Through a futuristic story about friendship and connection, even across the boundary of life, Michal reminds us, “The system isn’t made for our healthy passage through education. It was and is still made for our demise.” E. Ornelas’s contribution, in similar fashion to Michal’s, considers the history of boarding schools through the specific story of Louis Ornelas, the author’s grandfather and survivor of the Sherman Institute located in Riverside, California. In working through this history, one not shared by their grandfather, Ornelas considers an experience of disassociation as associating with her grandfather’s story through what Dillon, among others, calls Native slipstream. According to Dillon, Native slipstream “views time as pasts, presents, and futures that flow together like currents in a navigable stream. It thus replicates nonlinear thinking about space-time” (3). For Ornelas, then, chrononormativity is an understanding of temporality that does not, indeed cannot, contain or explain Indigenous communities and ancestries. Native slipstream, then, becomes a form of methodology for Ornelas, rather than just a subgenre of Indigenous sf.

The second section of this symposium, containing a single essay by Nicole Ku’uleinapuananiolikowapuhimelemeleolani Furtado, considers the ways the past affects our relationship to the present through the continuities of violence in settler colonialism.  Furtado’s contribution analyzes Christopher Hakunahana’s film Waikiki as an example of what scholar Lawrence Gross calls Post-Apocalyptic Stress Syndrome. Furtado follows Dillon in noting that the apocalypse is not a coming event in the future, but an event past and present for Native communities. The apocalypse has already happened, is already happening (Dillon 8). The structure of settler colonialism is itself the structure of the apocalypse for Indigenous peoples the world over. Furtado contends that Waikiki highlights the colonial reality of Hawaiʻi obscured by the tourist imaginary of “paradise.” The end of worlds through the settler colonial machine embeds cycles of trauma, alcoholism, homelessness, and violence within Native Hawaiian communities. As such, the future of the apocalypse, the futurity of sf, is also contained within the present of Indigenous sf.

The third and final section of essays for this symposium is comprised of essays that explore stories of the future, which can help us to understand the pasts and presents. These contributions examine place, language, epistemology, and the Anthropocene in order to highlight the stories of present and future joy, hope, love, connection, community, and kinship. Malou Brouwer and Camille Roberge offer a particularly trans-Indigenous methodological approach in their consideration of Wapke, an sf collection of stories by Indigenous authors writing in French. They rightly argue that a collection like Wapke is itself trans-Indigenous in the juxtapositions of various Indigenous communities, yet Brouwer and Roberge are particularly interested in the interplay these juxtapositions have on the local relationships between Indigenous languages and French as well as Indigenous considerations of the temporal contra settler ones. By privileging these juxtapositions of the collection, Brouwer and Roberge show the ways that these stories “build tomorrows rooted in Indigenous resurgence by creating alternative temporalities and reflecting on linguistic diversity.”

For Kelsey Lee, studying speculative fiction from Indigenous communities is incomplete without including work by and about the arctic, which she argues is a landscape often incorrectly viewed and valued by settler sf authors. Lee examines two texts—Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice (Wasauksing Nation) and “Wheetago War II: Summoners” by Richard Van Camp (Tłıchǫ Nation)—noting the ways the landscape in these stories functions different from novels like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstsein. Rather than the arctic landscape operating as villain or antagonist in these texts, the horror is and always will be the settler colonial mentality at work in settlers and their desire, sometimes implicit and sometimes not, for the erasure or death of Indigenous bodies, communities, and lifeways. Whether post-apocalyptic or not, the beast, the monster is the one that has been here for 500 years.

In his essay, Jesse Cohn considers the very definitional fabric of sf and Indigenous sf by returning to an influential definition by Darko Suvin that focuses on the “interaction of estrangement and cognition” in a setting “alternative to the author’s empirical environment.” Cohn notes the subjectivity of Suvin’s definitional moves, a subjectivity that becomes even more pronounced when considering the markedly different relationship Indigenous communities have to the genre conventions and markers of sf. Examining what he calls “rhetorics of incredulity” and “rhetorics of believing,” Cohn argues that Indigenous sf is itself a multifaceted genre that has within itself various approaches to considering story and futurity, among other things. Perhaps, then, the trans-Indigenous is also, as Allen notes, about considering genre across these differences.

Finally, Abdenour Bouich offers a trans-Indigenous reading of two novels: Joseph Bruchac’s (Abenaki) Killer of Enemies and The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by  Ambelin Kwaymullina (Palyku). Bouich first analyzes each text to highlight the ways these authors conceptualize a future defined by disconnection between humans, other-than-humans, and the land. Bouich then considers the ways that these authors, within the bleak societies of their respective post-apocalyptic futures, construct visions of possibility for Indigenous communities and ways of knowing, which have, especially since the onset of colonialism, privileged ways of seeing beyond the “end of the world.” In one way then, we can consider these novels within our current epoch of the Anthropocene as indications of the importance of attending to Indigenous knowledges and forms of relationality between humans, other-than-humans, and the land.

These essays, when taken together, highlight the complexities of temporality, relationality, the arc of settler colonialism, and the tradition of resistance in Indigenous sf. Ancestors of Indigenous communities are always present, even in their pastness, teaching, affecting, speaking and resisting; under the veins of capitalist “beautification” there are sinister layers of mire and muck defined by violence, poverty, and settler oppression in areas like the “paradise” of Hawaiʻi; and the future is something worth considering, not just for the potentialities of decolonial moves, but for the returns to Indigenous knowledges and lifeways crucial to a future beyond the end. The texts examined here, and the essays themselves, show that Indigenous authors composing Indigenous futures is about composing the then, the now, and the yet-to-come in one bundle, offering it up as a gift to ancestors, to relations, and to descendants. For, as Thomas King (Cherokee), writes, “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are” (2).

WORKS CITED

Allen, Chadwick. Trans-Indigenous: Methodologies for Global Native Literary Studies. University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Dillon, Grace L., editor. Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. The University of Arizona Press, 2012.

Dimeline, Cherie. The Marrow Thieves. Cormorant Books, 2017.

King, Thomas. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Simpson, Audra. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Duke University Press, 2014.

Whitehead, Joshua, editor. Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction. Arsenal Pulp, 2020.

Jeremy M. Carnes (he/his) is a settler scholar and Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Central Florida. His research is focused in Indigenous studies and comics studies. He is an associate editor for SFRA Review and reviews editor for Studies in American Indian Literatures. He is co-editing a collection titled The Futures of Cartoons Past: The Cultural Politics of X-Men: The Animated Series and is currently at work on his first book on comics by Indigenous creators and the affordances of comics as a visual medium for considering land-based practices by Indigenous communities.


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SFRA Review is the flagship publication of the Science Fiction Research Association since 1971.

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