The Pursuit of Rhetorical Sovereignty in Indigenous Futurisms


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 4

Trans-Indigenous Futurity


The Pursuit of Rhetorical Sovereignty in Indigenous Futurisms

Jesse Cohn

The greatest technical problem facing the writer of scientific fiction is that of securing belief.

—James O. Bailey, Pilgrims Through Space and Time, 203.

Imagining potential futures, or alternative worlds in any time, is not merely an exercise of imagining; I assert it as an act of what Scott Lyons calls rhetorical sovereignty… 

—Chelsea M. Vowel, Where No Michif Has Gone Before, 10.

I write this from Cession 180, the swath of so-called Northwestern Indiana from which the Neshnabék (Potawatomi) were expelled by force of arms not quite two centuries ago; I write as a settler with insufficient knowledge of Indigenous histories and cultures, an academic with much to learn. I hope not to have misrepresented the Cherokee, Ojibwe, Ohkay-Owingeh, Métis, Nishnaabeg, Dene, and Apache persons and peoples spoken of here. In view of a long history of struggles for sovereignty, I am propelled into thought by the phenomenon—both “new” and “not so new” (Dillon 2)—of Indigenous peoples reaching for the cultural “toolkit” (Doctorow) of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, fields in which they have been historically unwelcome. My sense is that while the very genre structures comprising the “toolkit” are also a “structure of settlement” (Warburton 34), the rhetoric of the fantastic affords them tools with which to pursue sovereignty.

Science fiction, writes Darko Suvin, is “a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment” (7-8). This influential definition, excluding fantasy and horror as inferior forms, has been contested on several grounds, not the least of which concerns its somewhat naïve empiricism. The question of who determines what “the author’s empirical environment” is, and therefore what is “strange” to it, becomes even more difficult in a settler colonial context, where colonial accounts of empirical truth are imposed over and against the accounts given by Indigenous people. All of this complicates our very understanding of what counts as science fiction at all. To give just one example, in Kai Minosh Pyle’s (Métis/Baawiting Nishnaabe) “How to Survive the Apocalypse for Native Girls” (2020), we are told the following explanatory story about how the apocalypse in question came to be:

We call that time the hungry years not just because people often went without enough food, but also because there was often another kind of hunger. The kind of hunger that causes people to do terrible things: wiindigo hunger.… Wiindigoog are more than just cannibals. They are possessed by a hunger that only increases every time they try to fill it. That hunger can be for anything—food, drugs, sex, love, but most of all, power. (85)

Why does violently antisocial behavior (“terrible things”) need an explanation beyond ordinary hunger? Why are Wiindigoog an explanation rather than a thing-to-be-explained? These questions are perhaps better formulated as “for whom”: for whom is a complete breakdown of social norms in times of material want the expected outcome? For whom are Wiindigoog—once-human monsters with hearts of ice—simply another item to be found among an inventory of “the furniture of the universe” (Bensusan and Ribeiro Cardoso 287 [1])? It is tempting to answer that a certain group, the “kinship-based” Northern Algonquians (a linguistic/cultural group which includes Pyle’s Nishnaabe family), is the collective subject for whom the Wiindigoog are a given, and that members of non-“kinship-based” societies, “modern” societies in which the social fabric is already rather tenuous, are the ones who are ready to accept the premise of social “apocalypse” without much further explanation. The late settler anthropologist David Graeber cautions against such an easy compartmentalization (51-53); it is quite possible one might encounter Nishnaabeg who regard Wiindigoog as mere legend or settlers who don’t find post-apocalyptic Mad Max scenarios credible. If it is not so easy to determine the whoms in question for either case, it is clearer that we are dealing with some fundamental questions about what counts as an “alternative” framework—in other words, a “heterocosm” (Stableford) or “secondary world” (Wolf)—and perhaps more importantly, what is the nature of the “primary world” in which the author and the readers are situated, of “reality” as such.

Like perhaps most definitions of interest, Suvin’s definition of SF is an attempt to set the terms for all future discussion of its subject—a largely successful attempt, in fact; even the micro-genre of critiques of Suvin bears ironic witness to the persuasiveness of its rhetoric. Scott Lyons speaks of a “rhetorical imperialism” which consists in “the ability of dominant powers to assert control of others by setting the terms of debate,” for “he who sets the terms sets the limits” (452). In contrast, Lyons defines “rhetorical sovereignty” as “the inherent right and ability of peoples to determine their own communicative needs and desires,” to exercise control over the parameters of the discourses in which they are involved (449). Where SF is concerned, Suvin has set the parameters of discussion in ways that immediately problematize a good deal of Indigenous futurist writing, in so far as Indigenous futurists often make reference not only to the future but to “old things that rumbled under the surface of the world,” as Adam Garnet Jones (Cree/Métis/Danish, 2020) puts it (41), often placing such pieces of ontological furniture as the Wiindigoog, ghosts, and spirits of all kinds on the same metaphysical ground as the more common furnishings of science fiction. The place that SF reserves for scientific knowledge as explanatory principle is shared by the wisdom of grandmothers, by oral traditions and visions. As Blaire Topash-Caldwell summarizes: “Indigenous science fiction privileges autochthonous, localized, and historically situated knowledge systems instead of Western science with its ties to the Enlightenment in Europe” (46). For Suvin, this would place these works in the category of the “subliterature of mystification,” presenting “estrangement” without the rational, scientifically-grounded, materialist character of “cognition” (8-9).

My intention here is not to defend the claim of Indigenous futurisms to be considered as part of the genre of science fiction (or fantasy or horror, for that matter); rather, I want to look at how these futurisms have pushed not only at genre boundaries but also at ontological and epistemological boundaries. In particular, to borrow Farah Mendlesohn’s question, I want to see how this kind of transgression of colonial borders is effected rhetorically—how Indigenous futurist writers persuade skeptical readers from both settler and Native communities to “accept as normal” accounts of things which, to readers with cognitivist biases, appear “fantastical.” In short, I want to investigate how Indigenous futurist writings strive to assert their rhetorical sovereignty.

Rhetorics of Incredulity

The keenest pleasures of satire may be the moments at which one disbelieves — keenly, explicitly, and acutely.

–Joanna Russ, To Write Like a Woman, 18.

One of the most common rhetorical strategies employed by Indigenous futurists appears to sidestep questions of truth and reality altogether by what I will call rhetorics of incredulity, strategies such as satire and irony that serve to produce disbelief. As Kristina Baudemann notes, “the comic… is an often-overlooked structuring principle in North American Indigenous literatures” (84). Trickster figures such as the Cherokees’ Jistu, a rabbit who is always disguising himself as other animals to make mischief, personify this humorous streak. Drew Hayden Taylor’s (Cherokee) “Take Us to Your Chief” (2016) adopts the guise of settler SF while also undercutting its tropes in staging the encounter of benevolent aliens, the Kaaw Wiyaa, with a group of Ojibwe men on the rez, Teddy, Tarzan, and Cheemo—just three buddies intent on quietly sitting on couches, fishing and drinking beer. Their attitude toward the sudden arrival of extraterrestrials is not characterized by the “sense of wonder” canonized by settler SF, nor do their Ojibwe identities supply them with profound thoughts or words to match the solemnity of the occasion: one wonders whether the aliens’ unearthly appearance “must freak the girls out,” while another is reminded that he “[hasn’t] had calamari in a long time,” and a third ponders “[whether] that thing with calamari arms had farted” (140). The Chief to whose office the Kaaw Wiyaa are ultimately led is just a minor tribal bureaucrat, beneficiary of a “luxurious band office salar[y],” for whom the aliens constitute an unwanted hassle: he briefly wonders “if this was how the Beothuk and Mi’kmaq chiefs felt five hundred years ago,” but soon concludes that “[h]e’d better do something to get this thing out of the building before it triggered any lawsuits” (142-43). Hastily appointed as cultural ambassadors from Earth and ushered aboard the Kaaw Wiyaa starship, the three friends find that its interior has been revamped so as to make them “feel at home,” complete with beer and couches for fishing (144-46)—a happy ending, by their lights. “We should have done this years ago,” Cheemo reflects (146).

The comic rhetoric of Taylor’s story is designed to achieve humor by reproducing a clichéd plot while subtracting from it all the lofty emotions (like “wonder”) with which it is normally associated. The protagonists’ responses to the irruption of a Suvinian novum in their midst all fail to match the occasion in an unexpected way, not unlike the reaction of Gogol’s barber Ivan Yakovlevich to realizing that a customer’s nose has inexplicably appeared in the bread his wife has baked for him—namely, to worry that this will get him in official trouble of some kind—or Kafka’s deadpan announcement that his protagonist is now a bug. It’s easy enough to see that Taylor is poking fun at the whole drama of the First Contact conceit, but at the same time, he is sabotaging romanticized versions of the indian as a noble people, stoic in the face of their own tragic “vanishing,” etc. In both of these senses, the primary rhetorical strategy of “Take Us to Your Chief” targets the smug white liberal humanism of David Brin’s “Dogma of Otherness,” the supposed tolerance for the new and different that purportedly establishes the superiority of Western civilization. [2] Taylor denies settler readers the kind of Otherness that serves to confirm the colonial Same.

The expected (colonial) scenario invoked by “Take Us to Your Chief”—the vanishing Indian is saved by the superior technology of an alien race—is exploded, here, by the story’s heroes: that is, not any of the human protagonists, but the bottles of beer that insouciantly occupy the story’s foreground. In Daniel Heath Justice’s words, within the tragic framework of a “deficit model” for which “‘real’ Indigenous peoples are always Other, always diminished, always the reduced shadow of our former greatness,” beer would serve as a symbol of “deficit and loss”—the firewater that destroyed the once proud people, and so on (Moreton-Robinson xiii). Settler readers are not made to witness the expected scenes of inebriated disgrace (another sign of deficit); rather, beer is merely that which pleasantly passes time. The aimless, empty time of the three Ojibwe friends, marked by the leisurely consumption of one bottle after another, is a non-productive, non-progressive temporality that is only briefly troubled by First Contact: “Tarzan realized his beer was empty, and this was definitely a time for extra beer” (139). Beer gently annihilates seriousness: the silence of the three, which so intrigues the Kaaw Wiyaa (“If I may speak freely, what truly impressed us [was] your… ability to communicate without interacting verbally. Almost a form of telepathy” [144]), is not the silence of the Taciturn Indian, a sign of great wisdom and sorrow, but a refusal to produce signs, to reproduce the narrative of deficit, to participate in the history of colonial progress. Thus it is that the friends’ first instinct, in the face of historic events unfolding at their fishing spot, is “to relocate to a less historic location” (139). The story’s happy ending does not see the Natives (representing, no doubt, the past of the human race) elevated into a transcendent future, à la Cocoon or Close Encounters; it presents instead a return of the Same in the form of survivance (Vizenor 15). Native Americans, Cheemo reminds us, “have done this”—survived—for a long time. The non-historical temporality of Indigenous SF satire is the temporality of stubborn immovability.

A similarly anti-chronological animus animates Craig Strete’s (Cherokee) signature work, “A Horse of a Different Technicolor” (1975). Unlike Taylor, who at least ironically honors the narrative structure of the Freytag Pyramid, Strete’s New Wave-style experimentalism eschews linear temporality altogether; the narrative, such as it is, jumps around with such frequency and violence that it presents a collage more than a montage. Rather than engage in the usual settler SF exercise of worldbuilding, Strete cuts up and radically rearranges images of worlds, at least one of which is an (unsystematically) imagined 2074 which is never over (“2074 happened twice,” we are repeatedly told), others seemingly belonging to the 1974 in which the story is written, perhaps others representing an 1870s which is never over (and perhaps never began) (77, 82). Instead of providing us with any single unified narrative voice, Strete gives us a “playback” of multiple voices, none of which seems authoritative or trustworthy (77). In Gerald Vizenor’s terms, it’s unclear whether any of these voices are Natives (real presences); most seem to represent indians, empty simulacra, parodies of Hollywood and TV images (Vizenor 15; Baudemann 94). “[W]e made and remade every dream ever played and put them on the screen,” one voice tells us, while another (?) performs the endless martyrdom of fake death (“I fell off horses so well… I always fell off horses so beautifully”) before yet another colonial voice (?) who admonishes an indeterminate complainant to “[r]emember, you have your place with your race, and are taped accordingly” (81, 79, 78). “Take comfort that no one ever dies,” a voice instructs us (?): “Although the original telecast has ceased, we promise you shall live on in reruns and syndication” (80). As each voice replaces the last in a “precession of simulacra,” the procession of colonial time crashes to a halt (Baudrillard 1).

Strete’s rhetoric aims not at Bailey’s “suspension of disbelief” (203) but at the proliferation of disbelief; by repeatedly “playing back” images of Iron Eyes Cody [3] and John Wayne films, he attempts to inoculate the reader against the spectacular, phantasmatic figure of the indian. Indeed, he seems to warn us against belief in his own identity: Strete’s games with authorship (e.g., writing introductions to his collections signed by the names of Jorge Luis Borges and Salvador Dalí) do nothing to assuage the doubts that have been raised concerning Strete’s claims to Cherokee identity (Baudemann 77). Could the strategies that Baudemann and I identify with Native American tricksterism be, in fact, the strategies of a white man “playing Indian”? As Philip Joseph Deloria reminds us, “[p]laying Indian did not fail to call fixed meanings—and sometimes meaning itself—into question” (184).

While it would be easy to place Strete in the canon of American postmodernists such as Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover, his interest in motivating readers to resist floating signifiers of Native American identity and history is perhaps even more reminiscent of Rebecca Roanhorse’s (Ohkay-Owingeh/Black) “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™”. [4] Unlike Strete, however, whose machineries of disbelief are designed to prevent anything like identification with a character, Roanhorse draws on one of the oldest and best-known rhetorical devices of fiction by placing the settler reader within an unfamiliar subject position: “You maintain a menu of a half dozen Experiences on your digital blackboard, but Vision Quest is the one the Tourists choose the most. That certainly makes your workday easy…” The second person voice interpellates “us” into Jesse Turnblatt, a.k.a. Jesse Trueblood, a Native VR actor whose job is to provide intimate but cinematic “Experiences” of Indianness to the clientele of Sedona Sweats. The daily grind of reenacting the most worn-out clichés for “Tourists” to “Experience” at one remove is bad enough, but the day one customer demands “something more authentic”—a friendship with the “real” Jesse, with his “aging three-bedroom ranch and a student loan —a fatal mimetic process begins: it is as if, as the indian wannabe extracts more and more of Jesse’s Native essence, the more he comes to resemble Jesse, to the point of replacing him, taking away his job, his house, his wife, and his very identity. That is to say, the white settler intruder has done all this to “us,” the readers, in so far as the second person has worked its rhetorical magic on us. On the one hand, then, the story solicits our belief in this process of cultural vampirism; on the other hand, the culmination of that process issues in this performative irony: in effect, we have had an Authentic Indian Experience™. The story has successfully simulated the experience of dispossession, erasure, Removal, and as a result, we/Jesse feel “[t]hat same stretching sensation you get when you Relocate out of an Experience,” as if we/Jesse had been electronic phantoms all along.

Rhetorics of believing

As Basil Johnston (Anishinaabe) might remind us, w’daeb-a-wae, “a telling of the truth,” casts our voices and words only as far as vocabulary and perception allow.

—Grace L. Dillon, “Imagining Indigenous Futurisms” 2

The credence in and currency of spurious representations of Indigeneity, whether romanticized, degraded, or both, is one continuing problem; the discredit attributed to Indigenous self-representations is another. Many commentators have noted this problem in connection with the very genre definitions attributed to Indigenous Futurist works: insofar as “science fiction,” “fantasy,” and “horror” denote departures from ordinary realism, do we “run the risk of trivializing Native voices and communities, of reducing lived experiences to mere superstition” by labeling them as such (Spiers 53)? Grace L. Dillon objects to this reductive reading: “our ideas of body, mind, and spirit are true stories, not forms of fantasy” (qtd. in Vowel 6). Accordingly, the pursuit of rhetorical sovereignty may also entail a rhetoric of believing: that is, running the engines of satirical incredulity in reverse, aiming to produce a more traditional suspension of disbelief, to evoke another kind of “wonder.”

Richard Van Camp’s (Dogrib Tłı̨chǫ Dene) “Aliens” plays a sophisticated game of believing, beginning with his first paragraph: 

I wanna tell you a beautiful story. And I’ve been waiting for somebody very special to tell it to. I guess it’s no secret now: the aliens or “Sky People” are here. We can see a ship way up high: its outline. No lights. It’s like a big, dark stone in the sky and most people just watch TV or Facebook now, waiting for something to happen. Some people call them “Obelisks.” Apparently, there’s one huge ship miles high over every continent and the oceans are boiling, gently, but no fish are dying. Just simmering, and scientists are saying that the oceans and rivers are being cleansed. It’s like the “Star People”—that’s what our Elders call them—are helping us. (20)

The “ship” in question is a mute presence, “dark” and motionless; it is effectively a technological “black box,” not unlike the Monolith in Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. This places Van Camp’s novum beyond the understanding of reader and protagonist alike, where it is safe from questioning. The silent, inscrutable alien craft, familiar to us from innumerable films from The Day the Earth Stood Still to Arrival, is a piece of “off-the-shelf” imaginary, a borrowing from what Damien Broderick has named the “sf megatext” (xi): as readers come to it already “knowing” what this is (“it’s no secret,” indeed), it requires no special argument. Recasting Indigenous concepts of “Sky People” in terms of the science accepted by settler society (“aliens”) allows a settler reader to accommodate one with the other.

Van Camp allows us to believe, for a moment, that the “beautiful story” will be about these aliens, before shifting focus to his “quiet,” “gentle” friend, Jimmy from the hardware store in Fort Smith. “I guess you could say me and Jimmy are related in the medicine way,” the narrator tells us, explaining that

they say my grandfather pulled a hummingbird of fire out of a little boy’s mouth, from under his tongue. And he showed that little boy this little bird that had been living in his mouth. And he explained this was the reason that little boy couldn’t speak like other people, and this is why his voice kept locking. And hundreds of people saw this little hummingbird that my grandfather pulled out of this little boy’s mouth, and my ehtse let that little bird go… And my grandfather walked all the way back to that little boy, and he said, “Now speak.” That little boy started to speak… And that little boy never stuttered again. (21)

This magical event will not be the primary novum of the overall story, either, but it is framed as what Daniel Heath Justice prefers to call a “wonder”: “Wondrous things are other and otherwise; they’re outside the bounds of the everyday and mundane, perhaps unpredictable, but not necessarily alien…” It is a wonder presented in the matter-of-fact tone that W.R. Irwin calls “quiet assertion” (69), reducing its novelty by adding it to the ordinary inventory of ontological furniture. We have been put on notice: this world is a magical kind of world, a world where this is simply the kind of thing that happens from time to time.

But Van Camp’s assertion of rhetorical sovereignty is not yet exhausted. The bulk of the story is about a somewhat over-familiar process of heterosexual courtship, in which Jimmy shyly works up the nerve to ask out Shandra. The slot of difficult-to-believe is no longer occupied by aliens in the sky or mysterious hummingbirds living in young boys’ throats, but by the fact that Jimmy is interested in Shandra and not her more popular sister, Roberta (22-23). A certain accumulation of banal detail—steak and lobster, banter about the old days in elementary and how the town’s changed, etc.—grounds what we might otherwise read as the fantastic, estranging elements in the bedrock of the expected, the everyday, and the already-known. The alien craft is just another local “sight” that a couple on a date might drive out to see (25). (They decide not to: “Well, I gotta see your house. I wanna see how you decorate” [26].) No, the story’s true novum (another black box) is the revelation Shandra conveys to her friends the morning after: “Jimmy’s different… he’s beautiful” (27-28). In other words, “he’s what the Crees say: Aayahkwew: neither man nor woman but both”; “two-spirited… or transgender, or both, or perhaps something we’ve never heard of before — even under these new skies” (28, 30). Jimmy is the novum, the wonder at the heart of the story. Van Camp’s efforts have all been aimed at persuading us to imagine a Native gender/sexual identity that is beyond what “we”—settler and Native alike—know.

Yet Van Camp’s story preserves a “deficit” of Indigenous knowledge in the figure of the “something we’ve never heard of before”—an internal non-knowledge that operates as a sign of possibility. Something similar is at work in the fiction of Darcie Little Badger. In “Nkásht Íí,” Little Badger invokes the authority of ancestors:

Great-grandmother taught me everything she knew about death before it took her.

Never sleep under a juniper tree. They grow between this world and the place below.

Bury the dead properly, lest their ghosts return.

A ghost is a terrible thing.

Someday, we will all be terrible things.

Great-grandmother, you were right.

All of these warnings are borne out by the narrative that follows, as Josie and Annie investigate the death of a man’s daughter near Willowbee, Texas. This death has a mundane explanation: father, mother, and daughter were all in a car crash, and only the father survived. However, this account is belied by a supernatural experience: the father testifies that the infant survived the crash, but was borne away by an “owl-woman” with the mother’s face. “There are legends…” Annie murmurs, “The kind my great-grandmother knew.”

Here, the invocation of the numinous (the force of which is carried by the ellipsis that follows Annie’s “there are legends…”) is abetted by a folkloric megatext: Native or settler, we have probably heard a story like this one. “Ghosts? Huh, maybe he met La Llorona,” Josie muses. “¿Dónde están mis hijos?… It’s possible, right?” And once again, the gravity of the known grounds the otherworldly: mundane details such as empty coffee cups, cell phones, bus rides, and Best Westerns undergird the mysterium tremendum. The gesture of the grieving father who reaches out to grip Annie’s shoulder prompts Josie to reach for her Mace—unnecessarily, in the event, yet the same pragmatic instinct also protects her from accepting the offer of a ride from a man [5] who then drives his pickup truck off a bridge and “into the water… [without] caus[ing] a single ripple.” This is a universe in which, for instance, “karma” seems to operate (Josie and Annie are “paid” for their investigation by lucky lottery tickets), but also one in which the driver who pulls over to offer a ride to two young Native women may be not an ordinary predator but something worse (ominously, his sunglasses don’t reflect their faces…). “After dark, with its baby-killing ghosts and doomed pickup truck drivers, Willowbee seemed unbearably creepy,” Josie reflects. The reader, too, is unsettled, as “autochthonous, localized, and historically situated knowledge systems” displace modern, Western ones. In such a so-called America, it’s best to expect the unexpected, to distrust the signage, and to listen instead to one’s Apache great-grandmother.

Kai Minosh Pyle draws the dystopian scenario of “How to Survive the Apocalypse for Native Girls” from the sf megatext, saving them much of the effort of justifying and explaining broad changes to society:

Shanay’s grandma is one of the best doctors, because she was trained both Anishinaabe-way and in one of the old universities before the borders broke down. She likes to joke that it’s a good thing the apocalypse happened, because that way she didn’t have to pay off her student loans, which were apparently a thing that, like money, used to be a big problem for people. (82)

Retrospection (money “used to be a big problem”) makes the collapse of colonial governments and capitalism and the resumption of full tribal autonomy into a fait accompli, no longer a distant ideal but a self-evident response to practical problems. Kinship, inawemaagan, offers a ready-made local communism, so that, as Mark Fisher writes, the dystopian scenario affords a small space for utopian reimagining (2).

This defense of utopian imagination is opened to critical inspection, however, as the protagonist, Nigig, struggles to distinguish between emancipatory and oppressive inheritances, to know when what the Council says reflects internalized colonialism—in this case, anti-blackness and the colonization of genders and sexualities—more than any authentic tradition. Here, questions of sovereignty are complicated by legacies of self-hatred: despite the authority of Kinship, as a two-spirit girl, Nigig and her kind are despised by some of their kin. In a tense scene, she confronts a hostile Council member, a woman from the Eagle Clan, about her rejection of Nigig’s two-spirit friend Migizi (a name which, ironically, means “bald eagle” [Livesay and Nichols]):

“You can’t exile someone just because you don’t like them,” I said hotly. “Kinship–”

“Kinship is exactly the reason why that freak had to be gotten rid of,” she spat… “They’re dead, child. No one survives long outside the protective network of the Nation.” (89-90)

Nigig’s narrative, conveyed in sixteen “instructions” for how to survive the apocalypse, culminates in a recognition of others taking part in the internal struggle (“Maybe this, too, is Kinship”) and a final instruction: “I know now that the only way to survive the apocalypse is to make your own world” (94). All of Pyle’s rhetorical craft has been in support of this utopian call to self-recreation, to the assertion of another kind of (Indigiqueer) sovereignty.

Sovereignties

The concept of sovereignty, of course, is open to multiple, competing interpretations among Native activists and artists. It is interesting to note, in this inevitably too-brief survey, that Indigenous Futurist writings participating in rhetorics of incredulity, as I have termed them, seem the least disposed to raise questions about the nature of the Indigenous sovereignty that is being sought, and that those manifesting rhetorics of believing seem to do so more often. Is this simply an artifact of selection, since the most reflexive and complicating stories were drawn from anthologies of Indigiqueer writing? How do these rhetorics respond to different historically and/or culturally specific needs? These are questions for further scholarship. What seems more certain is that the enterprises of “mak[ing] your own world” imaginatively and politically are mutually implicated.

NOTES

[1] Translation mine (“o mobiliário do universo”).

[2] “Perhaps,” Brin muses, “we ought to be proud of America as the prime promoter of a dogma of difference and choice” (91).

[3] Cody is best remembered as the “crying Indian” from the Keep America Beautiful commercial that first ran on TV in 1971.

[4] Roanhorse’s claims to Native American identity, too, have been subjected to scrutiny (Agoyo, Klingensmith-Parnell) ironically, in light of the story’s fierce critique of cultural appropriation.

[5] The spectre of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) hovers over this page (Carnes, personal communication).

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Pyle, Kai Minosh. “How to Survive the Apocalypse for Native Girls.” Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction, edited by Joshua Whitehead, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020. 77-94

Roanhorse, Rebecca. “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM.” Apex Magazine, 8 Aug. 2017, https://www.apex-magazine.com/welcome-to-your-authentic-indian-experience/.

Russ, Joanna. To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction. Indiana University Press, 1995.

Spiers, Miriam C. Brown. “Reimagining Resistance: Achieving Sovereignty in Indigenous Science Fiction.” Transmotion, vol. 2, no. 1 & 2, 1 & 2, Nov. 2016, pp. 52–52. journals.kent.ac.uk, doi:10.22024/UniKent/03/tm.224.

Strete, Craig. “A Horse of a Different Technicolor.” Galaxy, vol. 36, no. 1, Jan. 1975, pp. 76–82.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. Yale University Press, 1979.

Taylor, Drew Hayden. Take Us to Your Chief: And Other Stories: Classic Science-Fiction with a Contemporary First Nations Outlook. D & M Publishers, 2016.

Topash-Caldwell, Blaire. “Sovereign Futures in Neshnabé Speculative Fiction.” Borderlands Journal, vol. 19, no. 2, Mar. 2021. http://www.exeley.com, doi:10.21307/borderlands-2020-009.

Van Camp, Richard. “Aliens.” Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time, edited by Hope Nicholson, Bedside Press, 2016, pp. 20–30.

Vizenor, Gerald Robert. Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence. U of Nebraska Press, 2000.

Vowel, Chelsea May. Where No Michif Has Gone Before: The Form and Function of Métis Futurisms. University of Alberta, 2020.Warburton, Theresa. Other Worlds Here: Honoring Native Women’s Writing in Contemporary Anarchist Movements. Northwestern University Press, 2021.

Jesse Cohn, who teaches English at Purdue University Northwest, is the author of Underground Passages: Anarchist Resistance Culture, 1848-2011 (AK Press, 2014) and the translator of Daniel Colson’s A Little Philosophical Lexicon of Anarchism From Proudhon to Deleuze (Minor Compositions, 2019). He is currently at work on a new book, tentatively titled Hot Equations: Science, Fantasy, and the Radical Imagination on a Troubled Planet.


Decolonizing the Post-Apocalyptic Landscape: Narratives of Fear, Hope, and Resilience in the Indigenous Arctic


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 4

Trans-Indigenous Futurity


Decolonizing the Post-Apocalyptic Landscape: Narratives of Fear, Hope, and Resilience in the Indigenous Arctic

Kelsey Lee

At first glance, the circumpolar Arctic possesses many characteristics that seem apt to be tropified in apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and/or horror speculative cinema and literary fictions. Among these characteristics are a typically sparse human population, challenging or even deadly climatic and environmental conditions, potentially dangerous wildlife, and limited access to other parts of the world in terms of geography and, in some cases, technology (Hansson). Widely perceived as inhospitable by those who are unaccustomed to circumpolar Arctic territories (as well as the polar regions), remotely located tundra and icescapes have served as recurring backdrops for survival and Gothic horror since the 19th century, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798)to H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1936). In these texts (notably, by non-Indigenous authors), the frozen Arctic is generally typified in a couple of different ways. The circumpolar or polar regions often serve as hazardous settings within which predominantly male, foreign explorers demonstrate their heroism and capacity for survival against insurmountable odds (Lewis-Jones). On the other hand, particularly in survival horror and in related sub-genres, the Arctic is often represented as a place that can bring out the worst inclinations of mankind as otherwise honorable characters succumb to madness, violence, or cannibalism amidst the chilling terror and isolation of the frozen North (Craciun). In fact, during the Victorian era, these tropes were so prevalent that a popular proto-genre of literature emerged known as the “Polar Gothic,” in which the Arctic and polar regions were popularized in fictions like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as spaces of fear. Here the 19th century human desire for mastery over his environment often went catastrophically awry (Bowers). 

These characterizations of the Arctic and Antarctic as liminal spaces within which human survival tales and colonialist dramas play out, of course, have been applied primarily to stories featuring non-Indigenous explorers, scientists, and adventurers (Lam). As Hansson maintains, these tropes rely heavily on “conventional ideas of the Arctic as an empty space,” and concomitantly as a “natural rather than a social world” (69). However, in fiction penned by those peoples indigenous to the circumpolar Arctic territories, these tundra regions are characterized quite differently. Rather than being represented as inhospitable, stark, or barren, in Indigenous Arctic fiction the region is characterized as a social and cultural landscape lavishly occupied by spirits, legends, life, and culture. Further, rather than being presented as victims of the conditions of a fundamentally hostile territory, Indigenous characters written by Indigenous authors are often strategic, resourceful, and innovative, with deeply rooted familial and spiritual connections to their land that allow them to survive and thrive in potentially difficult environments or even amidst horrific circumstances. 

In this article, I will be focusing on the circumpolar Arctic and near-Arctic as settings for post-apocalyptic horror fiction written by Native and First Nations authors. I will emphasize that, while the themes of dread and terror that distinguish these kinds of speculative fictions are still ubiquitous throughout their texts, Indigenous authors often approach representations of their land and their people in a way that emphasizes resilience drawn from the continuance of cultural tradition, adaptability, and active “survivance” (as coined by Gerald Vizenor). Thus, Indigenous  styles of post-apocalyptic and/or survival horror literatures set in the Arctic or near-Arcticstand in stark contrast to the corpus of similar texts by non-Indigenous authors. As I will elucidate through analyses of the novel Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice (Wasauksing Nation) and a short story from Taaqtumi: An Anthology of Arctic Horror Stories, “Wheetago War II: Summoners” by Richard Van Camp (Tłıchǫ Nation), horror elements in Indigenous fictions arise amidst a complex network of culturally specific themes and motifs. These elements will often blend frightening characters from mythology and folklore with contemporary issues that continue to impact First Nations and Native populations including colonialism, displacement, and environmental degradation and exploitation, among others. In other words, the fear does not necessarily arise from the isolation and austerity of the Arctic environment; it arises principally from settler colonial issues impacting the Arctic, its cultures, and its peoples.

I will also note here that I am concentrating thematically on the notion of apocalypse-as-horror in this article. This is because apocalypse serves as a particularly apt metaphor in an Indigenous context. In the words of Grace Dillon, editor of Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction, “it is almost commonplace to think that the Native Apocalypse…has already taken place” (Dillon 8). More specifically, I will be focusing on the ways in which Indigenous authors use apocalypse as an allegory for the colonization and brutalization of Indigenous peoples by settlers and/or outsiders. As Weaver puts it, “the apocalyptic paradigm of revelation and disaster can work effectively to interrogate the history of colonization and relations between white and [Indigenous peoples] and propose spaces of hope for the future” (100). Indeed, I will explore the ways in which the Indigenous literary use of apocalypse-as-horror utilizes the common literary horror themes of apprehension and fear while concomitantly investigating the ways in which apocalypse allows for possibilities for survival, renewal, and the continuance of Indigenous resilience. 

Moon of the Crusted Snow

Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice is a post-apocalyptic horror novel set on a fictional Anishinaabe reservation in the Canadian North. The people of this particular reservation have been displaced from their native homeland in the South because of assimilatory and colonial policies in Canada; nevertheless, they have managed to survive and thrive in the remote North. Indeed, Rice makes it clear that the “proud rez lifer[s]” enjoy a “comfort and familiarity [in their] community,” and that they are able to navigate deftly through the variable obstacles inherent to life in a relatively isolated far Northern community (20). Many of those challenges are environmental and cyclical. For example, in the beginning of the novel, our protagonist Evan Whitesky is preparing for what he describes as the “great annual test,” the near-Arctic winter (Rice 13):

In the coming weeks, the temperature would drop…and the snow and ice would be with them for six months. Like people in many other Northern reserves, they would be isolated by the long, unforgiving season, confined to a small radius around the village only as far as the snowmobile’s half tank of gas (Rice 11). 

Indeed, Rice does not shy away from conveying how difficult the winter can be for this community. On the other hand, the “great annual test” is presented as something Evan and his community are well-equipped to weather (Rice 13). In fact, Evan maintains that during the frozen winter he feels “more relaxed in some ways, falling into the natural rhythm of the days and the tasks that [need] to be done” (72). Among these tasks is, perhaps most significantly, hunting to provide sustenance for his partner and two children throughout the long winter months. The novel opens with Evan slaying a moose, after which he offers a prayer of reverence and gratitude for the life he has taken in accordance with the Anishinaabe ethos:

‘Gchi-manidoo,’ he said aloud, ‘Great spirit, today I say miigwech for the life you have given us….’ Evan expressed thanks for the good life he was trying to lead… He finished his prayer with a resounding, solitary miigwech before putting the tobacco on the ground in front of the moose. This was his offering of gratitude to the Creator and Mother Earth for allowing him to take this life. As he took from the Earth, he gave back. It was the Anishinaabe way, as he understood it (Rice 5).

Here the reader is offered some insight into what Aamold describes as the “unseen” landscape of the Arctic, that which is rich with Indigenous values, aesthetics, and spiritual cosmologies (85). Evan’s hunting tactics and principles offer a glimpse into the complex cultural and spiritual relationships that bond the Anishinaabe people, the land they occupy, and the non-human lives that inhabit the Northern territories. Immediately, we have established that Evan has a profound relationship with the cultural landscape of the Indigenous near-Arctic, but he also exhibits a keen understanding of, mastery over, and intimate familiarity with his far Northern home.  

Rice makes clear many of the challenges unique to living in a small, relatively isolated, near-Arctic community in Northern Canada. For example, it is established that the reservation has relatively limited and sporadic access to technologies and resources that are more abundant down South. One of the first indicators that something is going wrong down in the more populated southern territories of Canada happens early in the novel when cell service is unexpectedly terminated on the reservation. However, as Evan reminds the reader, “cell service outages were common. The cell tower had gone up only a few years before, when the community was finally connected to the hydro grid” (Rice 14). For this community, cell service is more of a recent luxury than a necessity. Many reservation residents confirm lightheartedly that the “moccasin telegraph” will do the job of transmitting essential news (22). We are immediately presented with a pervasive sense of isolation, but also keen self-sufficiency among the “rez lifers” (20).

Nevertheless, concern rises in this Anishinaabe community as television, phone service, and Internet all go down at once. After all, these modalities of communication constitute their only connection to the more densely populated and resource-abundant South. Further, they receive diesel from the southern regions, so these connections are somewhat critical. As questions and apprehensions arise among the reservation residents, their Chief, Terry, calls a meeting to discuss a strategic plan for community safety. Before the meeting commences, Evan assists an Elder, Aileen, in conducting a prayer and a smudge. This action “[represents] a cleansing of the spirit, and the ceremony [is] believed to clear the air of negativity” (Rice 53). While once forbidden by the church and outlawed by the government, Rice explains, cleansing ceremonies such as these were kept alive by “people like Aileen, her parents, and a few others [who] had kept the old ways a secret…even when they were stolen from their families to endure forced and often violent assimilation at church-run residential schools far away from their homes” (53). Described as “soothing” and “calming” for the attendees, the smudging ceremony represents one of many instances in which Evan and others seek comfort and strength in their culture and tradition, even against a backcloth of apprehension and adversity (Rice 52).

The reader begins to understand how truly dire the situation is when two young college students from the reservation, Kevin and Nick, escape from their university lodging in the South and return to the reservation via snowmobile to attend to their families and update their community. During the subsequent reservation meeting, Nick explains to his community that, like Evan, neither he nor Kevin were too alarmed when a blackout hit their school. However, they explain that panic escalated further at their university as it became clear that power, food, water, heating, phone and Internet service, and all other modern amenities were failing to return. When the first student starved and died alone in his dormitory, violent riots ensued, indicating to Kevin and Nick that they needed to escape and return to the reservation. Finally, the reader understands after a long, measured build-up that the situation—in Canada at least—is apocalyptic. 

With that being said, over the next four chapters or so, Evan and the other members of this Anishinaabe community endure their seemingly apocalyptic circumstances in relative peace. Rice indicates to his reader that the lack of panic on the reservation emerges from a very particular cultural context. He emphasizes that adherence to Indigenous values and ways of living coupled with a longstanding history of active survival and adaptability have allowed the Anishinaabe people to endure and thrive in the midst of apparently insurmountable adversity:

Despite the hardship and tragedy that made up a significant part of this First Nation’s legacy, the Anishinaabe spirit of the community generally prevailed. There was no panic on the night of this first blizzard, although there had been confusion in the days leading up to it. Survival had always been an integral part of their culture. It was their history. The skills they needed to persevere in this northern terrain, far from their original homeland farther south, were proud knowledge held close throughout the decades of imposed adversity (Rice 48).

It is not until an outsider arrives from the South that the true horror materializes in Moon of the Crusted Snow. A colossal traveler called Justin Scott comes to the reservation, having followed Kevin and Nick’s tracks via snowmobile. He is an imposing figure, a massive white man dressed in all black, with a “wide, bald dome,” “bulbous nose,” and “square jaw” (Rice 101). The man immediately makes an argument for his semi-permanent presence on the reservation: “‘I can help provide for your community. I’m a survivalist. I know how to live on this land without the comforts and luxuries people in the South have become too dependent on. I know all about emergency management’” (107). Ironically—and patronizingly—he continues: “I can help your people adapt to this situation” (107). Evan is immediately put off by Scott’s excessive bravado and condescension, but Chief Terry tentatively accepts Scott as a member of the community as long as he contributes to the well-being of the collective.

Scott starts causing problems on the reservation almost immediately, with deadly consequences. For example, one evening Evan finds him inappropriately cavorting with many of the younger community members at a house party, during which alcohol—a pervasive taboo in this Indigenous community—is flowing in abundance. The next morning, two young women who were at the party are found frozen to death. The situation only escalates further when three more non-Indigenous strangers arrive via snowmobile, having followed Scott’s trail. Scott promptly shoots one of them after he rushes Chief Terry in a wild, starved panic. “‘There’ll be more coming, Terry,’” Scott tells the Chief, “‘We gotta make a stand’” (Rice 141). Evan observes that Scott is covetous of power and has already made allies to that effect. At the same time, paranoia and, tragically, suicide rates are on the rise on the reservation.

The quiet, creeping horror in Moon of the Crusted Snow ascends to a climax as it is ultimately revealed that Scott has begun to cannibalize the dead. Aside from the general, conceptual dreadfulness of human cannibalism, Scott’s flesh-eating serves as a source of terror that derives from a very specific cultural context in Moon of the Crusted Snow. Rice presents Scott as, in his own words, an “allegory for colonialism” through the cultural metaphor of the Windigo, a frightening cannibalistic creature in many Indigenous stories (Rice). In the Anishinaabe mythos, the Windigo is often described as a human who has morphed into a flesh-eating monster, having succumbed to the vices of spiritual weakness and greed (Smallman). Rice states:

…the Windigo isn’t explicitly discussed in the story itself—only hinted at in a few subtle ways. It’s a figure in Anishinaabe and Cree stories that exploits communities at their weakest during the wintertime… As kids in our community, we learned that Windigo stories were told to warn people from cannibalizing one another and succumbing to evil and weakness in winter (Rice).

Here I return to an idea presented at the beginning of this article. Specifically, in non-Indigenous survival horror and/or post-apocalyptic literature set in the Arctic, readers often observe cannibalism used as a literary device representative of the “devastating effects of the icescape on the minds and bodies of foreign explorers” (Lam 196). This trope is especially relevant in the mythos of Canada’s Arctic North, the location of perhaps the most notorious example of (alleged, but highly likely) cannibalism in the nation’s history: the doomed expedition of Sir John Franklin, who set sail from Greenhithe, England with his crew on 19 May 1845 (HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror) on an ill-fated expedition to Baffin Bay (McCorristine). According to Dr. John Rae’s (October 1854) historical claims, much to the horror of the Inuit people, Franklin’s stranded crew members began to cannibalize each other in a tumult of madness and desperate starvation (Keenleyside et al). While this was a real event, the mystery and horror of the Franklin expedition has become almost a mythological part of Canada’s history and has served inspiration for many Canadian novels (such as Rudy Wiebe’s A Discovery of Strangers) and short stories (Margaret Atwood’s “The Age of Lead”).

Conversely, in Indigenous literatures such as Moon of the Crusted Snow, cannibalism instead serves as a “a metaphor for the imperial consumption of lands and bodies, implying that colonial conquest leaves its lasting marks on the bodies of those who live in the Arctic, as well as those who came to claim it” (Lam 196). In Rice’s novel, Justin Scott represents colonialism-as-cannibalism. He is illustrative of the material consumption of Indigenous lands, resources, and bodies, but also the defilement and desecration of Indigenous values. Indeed, Scott’s disregard for life and disrespect for the legacies of Indigenous lives lost stands in stark contrast to Anishinaabe values, which have been repeatedly and clearly articulated in the novel through the act of hunting;  hunters always give thanks for the life that has passed on, and it is plainly established that they must never take more than what is necessary [“It’s not the Anishinaabe way to take more than you need,” explains Jeff, Evan’s friend, to Scott during a hunting mission (Rice 125)].” Scott, in contrast, is presented as a pragmatic, unscrupulous, power-seeking survivalist whose primary aim is to preserve his own life and satisfy his appetite at any cost. Like the cannibalistic Windigo, Scott is an insidious, sinister figure who takes advantage of the vulnerability of an Indigenous community under unusually challenging circumstances.   

Scott represents an additional dimension to the colonialism metaphor in an Indigenous context; specifically, he signifies colonialism-as-apocalypse. In Moon of the Crusted Snow, the termination of cellular services, internet, radio, and other amenities signals the commencement of a widespread “apocalypse,” but it is not the end of the “civilized” world as one knows it that truly brings terror for our First Nations characters. This is because, for Indigenous peoples, the “apocalypse” has already happened, and has been managed and dealt with repeatedly throughout history. During a private discussion between Evan and the Elder Aileen, the reader is provided some insight into what the “end of the world” means to this First Nations community. To note first, Aileen maintains that there is no such translation for the term “apocalypse” in their language. “‘Yes, apocalypse!’” she declares, “‘What a silly word. I can tell you there’s no word like that in Ojibwe’” (Rice 149). She continues:

‘The world isn’t ending. Our world isn’t ending. It already ended. It ended when the Zhaagnaash [colonial settlers] came into our original home down south on that bay and took it from us. That was our world. When the Zhaagnaash cut down all the trees and fished all the fish and forced us out of there, that’s when our world ended. They made us come all the way up here. This is not our homeland! But we had to adapt and luckily we already knew how to hunt and live on the land’ (Rice 149). 

 “‘Yes, apocalypse,’” she says, “‘We’ve had that over and over. But we always survived. We’re still here. And we’ll still be here, even if the power and the radios don’t come back on…’”  (Rice 150). Indeed, the arrival of Justin Scott and his ghastly actions are directly reflective of the consumption, abuses, and defilement of Indigenous bodies and values that are part and parcel of settler colonialism. However, as Aileen maintains, Indigenous peoples have already encountered these atrocities and injustices through forced, often violent, assimilation and other aggressive colonial policies. While they have signified the end of a certain way of living for their communities, Indigenous peoples have nevertheless actively—and repeatedly—survived, adapted, and endured.

At the end of Moon of the Crusted Snow, Evan and two of his friends are compelled to take Scott down in a violent final face-off. In the epilogue, we follow Nicole as she loads her children and her belongings in their truck to meet with Evan, who has been scouring for new territories to settle with a few companions. “There was no use staying somewhere that had become so tragic,” Rice explains (211). Further, “the collapse of the white man’s modern systems…withered the Anishinaabeg here. But they refused to wither completely, and a core of dedicated people had worked tirelessly to create their own settlement away from this town” (Rice 212). Finally, Nicole, Evan, and a few other survivors “begin a new life nestled deep in the heart of Anishinaabe territory” further South ( 213). Though Moon of the Crusted Snow ascends to a violent and disturbing climax, the conclusion provides space for hope and revitalization for this Indigenous community. Though the “white man’s apocalypse” has deeply disadvantaged the people of this reservation, they continue on as they always have, creating new possibilities for their collective future, while rooting their existences in the continuance of Indigenous values, knowledge, and tradition.

Wheetago War II: Summoners

“Wheetago War II: Summoners” by Richard Van Camp is the third short story installment in Taaqtumi: An Anthology of Arctic Horror Stories, which is comprised almost entirely of contemporary tales of Arctic terror written by Indigenous authors. In Wheetago War II, we follow a nameless narrator as he guards a bush school field trip through a perilous landscape during a near-future in which monstrous creatures have been awakened by global environmental degradation and misuse. These creatures are called “Wheetago,” or “Body Eaters,” and are loosely analogous to the legend of the Windigo. These barbarous beasts freeze humans with their petrifying screams and suck the brains out of the victims through their eyes while they are frozen, subsequently possessing and then consuming their bodies. While these beings eat adults, it is revealed that they abduct children: “And why do they want our children? You ever think of that? It ain’t killing. It’s something more. Something…for their rituals. We seen their altars out there on the land. Some of our scouts have seen them smudging with human hair” (Van Camp 32).  

Despite the ominous premise, it is made clear in “Wheetago War II” that this Inuit community has continued to live effectively off their land and maintain their cultural traditions even against a post-apocalyptic backcloth. Our nameless narrator explains that bush schools have been established in the community to teach children how to survive and manage their environment efficiently. For safety, each child embarks on expeditions with Silencer rifles around their chests along with brightly colored life jackets. Further, the narrator explains, “Each [child] was marked in the way of the walrus or the caribou: this signified if they were guardians of the land or the sea” (Van Camp 21). I suggest that this signification indicates a perpetuation of Indigenous ways of teaching in terms of practically and spiritually sound environmental ethos, which overwhelmingly emphasizes responsibility and guardianship in relationship to the land in the Indigenous lifeworld (Kawagley). Concomitantly, the narrator demonstrates a keen affection and appreciation for his Arctic environment even amidst a series of circumstances that ought to make the landscape seem overwhelmingly threatening: “It was a beautiful day,” the narrator states as he leads a group of children into the wilderness. “The leaves were yellow, gold. Frost had been on the grass just that morning. No wind. You could hear for miles” (Van Camp 24). Like Evan in Moon of the Crusted Snow, the narrator of “Wheetago War II” sees beauty through brutality in the frozen tundra, an ability that I suggest is heavily informed by Indigenous values and land relations. 

“Wheetago War II” also emphasizes storytelling as a vitally important way of Indigenous tutelage (Barnhardt & Kawagley). For example, a teacher called Norma cites an Inuit legend to the children on their trip: “A long time ago, there were Na acho, the giant ones… See that mountain? Look along the sides. That was all scraped smooth by giant beavers as they made their way south for war” (22). Additionally, much like in Moon of the Crusted Snow, the characters in “Wheetago War II” adhere to the Inuit way of honoring the dead. The children, for example, are taught to harvest porcupine quills ethically and with respect for the deceased being:  

[Norma]…motioned for us all to approach the body of a dead porcupine as she pulled on thick gloves… ‘I saw this little one yesterday when we were picking berries. We drop tobacco in honor of this little life’s passing’ …So the teachers and students dropped tobacco and offered it to the earth and to our mother (Van Camp 23).

Like in Moon of the Crusted Snow, in “Wheetago War II” there is much to be found in the “unseen” spiritual and cultural landscapes of the Indigenous Arctic North through the actions and values of its characters (Aamold 85). Despite the apocalyptic conditions rendered upon the landscape, the characters of “Wheetago War II” use their Arctic environment to find meaning and utility, as well as gratitude. As Norma further explains during the bush school field trip, “Today…we give thanks for all we have. My husband’s birthday is soon approaching, and I want to make him new moccasins…you can use porcupine quills to decorate just about anything if you know what to do (Van Camp 23).” But tragically, as Norma bends down to conscientiously harvest the porcupine quills, it is revealed that a Wheetago has possessed the body of the dead animal. The creature attacks Norma, seizing possession of her body and snapping her spine in half. The narrator and other guards swiftly pursue the Wheetago, shooting it with their Silencers while attempting to protect the group of children from abduction. It is a gruesome scene, resulting in several disappeared children and countless adult bodies ripped apart and devoured. 

In “Wheetago War II,” our narrator elucidates a theory regarding the events and circumstances that caused the Wheetago to emerge to his nameless listener. Specifically, he refers to pervasive environmental degradation and resource exploitation and overpopulation resulting in climatic warming: 

Let me think about this: they say that Earth had seven billion humans before the Wheetago returned, right? I think that was their magic number. I think they warmed the world and unthawed themselves from whatever Hell they came from. I think seven billion was the magic number for the food they’d need to make the world maggoty with them and their kind (Van Camp 30).

The narrator of “Wheetago War II” offers a critique of industrialization in excess while the events of the story champion the sustainability of Indigenous ways of caring for the environment, which inform their relationship to the land. Despite the intensely graphic nature of this story, the narrator of “Wheetago War II” can’t seem to help but hope: “I think if I make it, I’m gonna witness an answer to all our prayers,” he asserts (Van Camp 30). He continues, “…we have to take back our kingdom. But, first things first, we have to find our children” (Van Camp 33). It is heavily implied that the resilience of his Indigenous community and its collective values are part of what provides him with this courage and resolution: “The Outpost was growing. Again, we had hope. Strength in numbers” (Van Camp 25).  Much like in Moon of the Crusted Snow, the apocalypse described in “Wheetago War II” often results in brutality and violence, but also provides a discursive and actionable place for the resilience of Indigenous peoples, whose traditions and community values endure while much of the rest of the world dramatically changes or even perishes. Further, I suggest that the characters of “Wheetago War II” demonstrably ground the root of their survivance in community land relations; rather than being solely apocalyptic and desolate, the Indigenous Arctic as depicted in this short story maintain their collective values, eco-folklore, and environmental ethos, both drawing out and offering life and character to the Arctic landscape.

Conclusion

In the corpus of global literature thematizing “Indigenous issues” or centralizing/utilizing Indigenous characters, outsiders’ literary voices have been historically paramount. This discrepancy has, in recent years, given rise to what has been described as an “Own Voices” movement, which attempts to decolonize the literary sphere by championing the works of Indigenous writers so that Native and First Nations communities may enjoy ownership over their own stories and their own portrayals in both fiction and non-fiction (Jensen 2020). This movement is important for several reasons; first, Own Voices novels and short stories allow Indigenous writers to rectify stereotypes and humanize the Native experience through narrative. Further, Indigenous storytelling is essential for the survival of Native and First Nations ethos and cosmologies, and, most relevantly for the purposes of this paper, values regarding land relations, which critically underpin Native systems of ethics. Moon of the Crusted Snow and “Wheetago War II” serve as critical examples of Own Voices fictions that champion the survival of Indigenous environmental ethics and values through a very specific lens – through the post-apocalyptic horror narrative –  and through very specific settings – the near-Arctic and Arctic North. Indeed, in both of these texts, the characters exemplify Indigenous resilience and active survivance through the maintenance of Native values and land relations, lending social, ethical, spiritual, and cultural character to a tundra environment that has been historically portrayed as frightening, barren, and desolate by outsider novelists. In this way, I suggest that Own Voices literature possesses the opportunity to portray Indigenous characters empathetically, but also to portray Indigenous environments and landscapes with greater depth and complexity.  

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Keenleyside, Anne, Margaret M. Bertulli, and Henry Fricke. “The Final Days of the Franklin Expedition: New Skeletal Evidence.” Arctic, vol. 50, no. 1, 1997, pp. 36-46.

Lam, Anita. “Arctic terror: Chilling decay and horrifying whiteness in the Canadian North.” Horror Studies, vol. 11, no. 2, 2020, pp. 187-204.

Lewis-Jones, Huw. Imagining the Arctic: Heroism, Spectacle, and Polar Exploration.
I.B. Taurus, 2017.

Lovecraft, Howard Phillips. At the Mountains of Madness, and Other Novels. 1936. Arkham House, 1964.

McCorristine, Shane. “Searching for Franklin: A contemporary Canadian ghost story.” British Journal of Canadian Studies, vol. 26, no. 1, 2013, pp. 39-57.

Poe, Edgar Allan. A Descent into the Maelström. 1841. Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2010.

Rice, Waubgeshig. Moon of the Crusted Snow. ECW Press, 2018.

—. Interview with Alix Hawley. Storybrain, 18 April 2019, https://www.alixhawley.com/storybrain/eight-questions-for-waubgeshig-rice.

Smallman, Shawn. Dangerous Spirits: The Windigo in Myth and History. Heritage House, 2015.

Van Camp R. “Wheetago War II: Summoners.” Taaqutumi: An Anthology of Arctic Horror Stories, compiled by Neil Christopher, Inhabit Media, 2021, pp. 21-37.

Weaver, Roslyn. “Smudged, Hidden, and Distorted: Apocalypse as Protest in Indigenous Speculative Fiction.” Science Fiction, Imperialism, and the Third World: Essays on Postcolonial Literature and Film, edited by Ericka Hoagland and Reema Sarwal, McFarland & Company Inc. Publishers, 2010, pp. 99-115.

Wiebe, Rudy. A Discovery of Strangers. Vintage Canada, 1995.

Vizenor, Gerald. Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence, University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

Kelsey Lee earned her PhD in Social Anthropology from Durham University in 2021, having just passed her viva in April. Her thesis explored Sámi cinema as part of a broader decolonial endeavor in the Arctic European North. She graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a Master’s degree in Social Anthropology in 2013, earning High Distinction on her dissertation exploring the complex intersections among cosmology, traditional knowledge, and reindeer herding practices with the Indigenous Sámi peoples of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. She also has a background in museology and has worked alongside and for Indigenous curators and museum professionals in the American Southwest and beyond. She loves reading Indigenous literatures of all genres but is particularly drawn to speculative fiction.


Trans-Indigenous Sci-Fi in French: Language and Temporality in Wapke


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 4

Trans-Indigenous Futurity


Trans-Indigenous Sci-Fi in French: Language and Temporality in Wapke

Malou Brouwer and Camille Roberge

An examination of the depths of trans-Indigenous science-fiction would not be complete without paying attention to Indigenous sf produced in French. Published in May 2021, Wapke is the first short story collection of Indigenous anticipation stories in French in what is colonially referred to as Quebec. It brings together fourteen authors from different Indigenous communities who imagine wapke, or “tomorrow” in Atikamekw. From time travelling Indigenous warriors to rebellious language and knowledge keepers, from Big Trees in a lake to a human sausage factory, from living on the land to living in cyberspace, these stories provide a trans-Indigenous colonial critique. Crossing communities, generations, languages, times, and places, Wapke is indeed inherently trans-Indigenous in form. Moreover, when read together, these stories convey trans-Indigenous messages about language, temporality, colonialism, and decolonization. Thus, in this article, we aim to demonstrate how Wapke goes beyond the confines of settler colonial ideologies and imagines decolonial futures. Closely reading Wapke and drawing on Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s theory of Indigenous resurgence, Daniel Heath Justice’s take on Indigenous wonderworks, and Chadwick Allen’s notion of trans-Indigenous methodologies, we seek to answer the following questions: As a trans-Indigenous wonderwork, what messages about language and temporality does Wapke communicate? How are these enriched by its trans-Indigenous form? We argue that, on the one hand, by offering criticisms of “civilization” and settler colonial structures, these stories dismantle colonialism, and, on the other hand, they build tomorrows rooted in Indigenous resurgence by creating alternative temporalities and reflecting on linguistic diversity. 

As settler scholars in what is now called Canada, we are committed to engaging with Indigenous literatures in ethically appropriate and respectful ways. To us this means continually learning about the cultures and communities from which these artistic expressions arise, privileging the work of Indigenous scholars, writers, and community members, and critically engaging with these works and texts – as Sam McKegney points out, “healthy skepticism and critical debate are signs of engagement and respect” (85); all of which we aimed for in our analysis of Wapke as a trans-Indigenous wonderwork.

Situating Wapke as trans-Indigenous wonderwork

Wapke is characterized as “le premier recueil de nouvelles d’anticipation autochtone au Québec”, as the book’s back cover indicates. [1] Although associated, anticipation and science fiction are not synonymous: while both imagine other worlds, science-fiction can be set in the past, present, or future while anticipation always portrays a future. Anticipation stories are not necessarily science fiction either, since they can portray futures without “sci-fi elements”. In reading Wapke, we found this Western genre distinction to be counterproductive as it would classify some stories as sci-fi but not others. In our understanding of Indigenous sci-fi, we follow Indigenous writers and scholars like Daniel Heath Justice (Cherokee) and Grace Dillon (Anishinaabe) who argue that Western genre categorizations are limited, and can even be dangerous to Indigenous sci-fi, literatures, and people, since they are “so deeply entangled in settler colonial logics of dead matter, monolithic reality, and rationalist supremacy” (Justice 152). As an alternative to colonial understandings of Indigenous sci-fi, Justice proposes to think about these works as Indigenous wonderworks: 

Wondrous things are other and otherwise; they’re outside the bounds of the everyday and mundane, perhaps unpredictable, but not necessarily alien, not necessarily foreign or dangerous – but not necessarily comforting and safe, either. They remind us that other worlds exist; other realities abide alongside and within our own. Wonderworks, then, are those works of art – literary, filmic, etc. – that centre this possibility within Indigenous values and towards Indigenous, decolonial purposes. (153) 

Indigenous wonderworks remind the reader that there are other ways of being in the world than the colonial ways we have been taught to accept. Indeed, as Grace Dillon writes in Walking the Clouds, these works “return us to ourselves by encouraging Native writers to write about Native conditions in Native-centered worlds liberated by the imagination” (11). Indigenous wonderworks offer a future, even if it is only an imagined one—for now (Justice 156). Wapke’s anticipation stories do exactly that: they offer the reader other futures and worlds—some still colonial, others decolonial. 

Wapke is not only an Indigenous wonderwork, but also a trans-Indigenous wonderwork. To Chadwick Allen, the trans-Indigenous centers Indigenous communities and relations; trans-Indigenous methodologies are “a broad set of emerging practices designed explicitly to privilege reading across, through, and beyond tribally and nationally specific Indigenous texts and contexts” (“Decolonizing Comparison” 378, emphasis in original). Additionally, Allen asserts that trans-Indigenous methodologies are “purposeful Indigenous juxtapositions” (Trans-Indigenous xviii). [2] As a collection of short stories, Wapke intrinsically embodies the notion of trans-Indigenous: short story collections are, in essence, purposeful juxtapositions of stories, and Wapke is a purposeful collection of Indigenous anticipation—or wondrous—short stories. Indeed, it brings together authors from different communities, [3] generations, [4] places, and traditions, inherently shaping Wapke in a trans-Indigenous form. In that respect, a trans-Indigenous approach on our part is appropriate: we read Wapke in a trans-Indigenous way, keeping in mind the local contexts from which the stories emerge, all the while staying cognizant of the whole of this short story collection. The question arises then as to what a trans-Indigenous reading of these stories brings to the fore. We focus our analysis on the themes of language and temporality to explore how these function as sites of resistance to settler colonialism and of Indigenous resurgence and self-determination. 

From Indigenous Language Revitalization to Indigenous resurgence in Wapke

Multiple stories in Wapke deal with language, although in different ways. While some focus on linguistic diversity between French and Indigenous languages, others portray a universal language created through mixing various languages. Whereas some stories offer the reader a critique of colonial languages, others center language revitalization and linguistic resistance as essential components of Indigenous resurgence. 

Wapke’s first short story is Innu poet Marie-Andrée Gill’s “Dix jours sur écorce de bouleau,” which is composed of ten diary entries written by the main character, an unnamed boy. He reflects on French, writing “je sais pas quoi écrire. Le français, j’aimais pas ça. Les seules choses que j’aimais quand on était au village, c’était jouer au hockey quand on pouvait encore, jouer à ma console et monter dans le bois” (Gill 16). [5] The boy’s assertion that he did not like French reads, on the one hand, as an adolescent’s dislike of the school subject French, and, on the other hand, as a critique of this language being forced on Indigenous people through colonialism. Indeed, in the last diary entry, the boy recounts how another small community found theirs: 

On voulait tous leur poser des questions mais on était aussi un peu gênés, c’est bizarre de voir du nouveau monde. C’est comme si les mots restaient pris dans la gorge parce que le cœur bat trop fort. Je pense que ça leur faisait ça à eux aussi. Ils devaient être habitués de juste parler leur langue entre eux. Avec Simba, Jack et kukum Denise par contre ils pouvaient parler en atikamekw et ils se comprenaient super bien. Moi je poignais juste des bouttes, comme un radio qui poigne un poste à moitié. (Gill 18)

The community that found them had been speaking solely in Atikamekw [6] until they arrived there. In the boy’s community, only three out of twelve people were still fluent in the language, the others—including the boy—spoke mainly French with some Atikamekw words. The metaphor of the radio is quite significant too since earlier in the story the boy recounts how there was less and less communication over their radio until it completely stopped – apart from the signal they picked up hearing people speak with an Atikamekw accent, who turned out to be the people who later found them. In this quote, the radio detecting only half the signal is a reflection of how the boy only catches half of what is said in Atikamekw. His grandfather was the only one who knew about how to work with electronics and had tried to teach the boy, but he was not interested at that time. To the boy, his former disinterest in his grandfather’s teachings “n’a plus de sens aujourd’hui” (Gill 11); it would have been useful if he had paid attention to his grandfather’s teachings back then. [7] The idea that he missed out on learning from his nukum indicates that he is now interested in relearning the language, not necessarily to get rid of his French, but rather to be able to communicate with the Atikamekw communities close to him.

In the story “Kanatabe Ishkueu” by Innu poet Natasha Kanapé Fontaine, Innu-aimun appears beyond rescue at first. Even though Kanatabe, a future version of what is now called Canada, has implemented Indigenous knowledges to survive the new ice age, the language has not fully endured: “cependant, la technologie ne nous a pas permis de sauvegarder notre langue maternelle, l’innu-aimun” (Kanapé Fontaine 164). [8] In this world, their language has disappeared apart from some names and states that have been named by taking a word from an Indigenous language or by coming back to the roots of the word:

le Keb était autrefois une province, le Québec, aujourd’hui un état libre au sein des États unifiés du Kanatabe. Le Canada et le Québec, comme d’autres États du monde, ont été renommés, soit en reprenant un nom issu d’une des langues autochtones du territoire, soit en revenant à l’origine de leur nom. Kanatabe (Kanata-Ahbee) signifie ‘terre des nombreux villages’, et Keb provient du Kebeq, ‘là où le fleuve se rétrécit’, pour désigner la capitale, la ville de Québec. (Kanapé Fontaine 164-5) [9]

These names appear to be the only traces of Indigenous languages throughout the first part of the story and can be considered a form of tokenism; the Kanatabe government has only symbolically given Indigenous names to the states and cities all the while maintaining the oppression of Indigenous people, partly through the further erasure of their language. However, the story turns around after the main character’s Traversée (or Crossing): the person who found her addresses her in Innu with “kuei”, and throughout the second part of the story, other Innu words are used (such as mushum); in this alternate, separate world Innu-aimun is still alive. Quite like Gill’s story, Kanapé Fontaine’s story ends on a hopeful note. The character explains she was able to make the Traversée guided by a book explaining how to get to this other place. This underscores the power of literatures; as Jo-Ann Episkenew (Métis) asserts, Indigenous stories have real-world effects “as [they] move outside the boundaries of a text to affect the material world” (193). Or as the main character in Gill’s story writes: “C’est puissant, les mots, quand même” (10). [10] Since she left the book in Kanatabe, “ca veut dire qu’il y en a d’autres qui viendront” (Kanapé Fontaine 177). [11] Not only are Innu-aimun (Innu language) and Innu-aitun (Innu culture) very much alive, but others will also be able to join this community and live within Innu traditions. Gill’s and Kanapé Fontaine’s stories thus provide a hopeful image of Indigenous language revitalization in their imagined futures, hinting towards Indigenous resurgence as a possibility.

Virginia Pésémapéo Bordeleau’s story “Les enfants lumière” paints a different picture in which languages are morphed together into a universal language. In the story, the world has completely changed due to capitalism’s continued extractivism, and attacks on the earth. Among the Survivors of “L’Événement” (the Event) are the original people from the Abitibi region: in line with their traditional values of “l’accueil chaleureux” and “une large conscience sociale” (59), they welcomed the refugees, among them Chinese students, people from African countries and Haiti, and a descendant of the Aboriginals of Australia. This resonates with Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s (Anishinaabe) idea of solidarity between Indigenous peoples and people of color as an essential part of radical resurgence: “If we recognize settler colonialism to be dispossession, capitalism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy, that recognition points us to our allies: not liberal white Canadians (…) but Black and brown individuals and communities on Turtle Island and beyond that are struggling in their own localities against these same forces, building movements that contain alternatives” (As We Have Always Done 228-9). This story shows that co-resistance and solidarity are essential to building an alternative reality rooted in renewed, traditional values such as hospitality and relationality. After the Event, most people renounced having children, as their mentalities had radically changed. However, Sam, a member of the Anishinaabeg, and his wife Bella still had hope, and did have a child, Nibi. The third and last part of the story indeed focuses on Nibi and “les enfants lumière” (the light children). They bring joy and hope to the new people; after couples were formed among the other community members, they gave birth to a new generation that will carry forward the knowledge of the People: 

Le savoir serait transmis. […] Au fil des années, des enfants de toutes les nuances possibles du genre humain animèrent les maisonnées et le grand village cosmopolite. Ils parlaient plusieurs langues à la fois en mêlant les mots, inventant ainsi un langage unifié tout comme ils créeraient avec le temps une humanité sans races. (Pésémapéo Bordeleau 67) [12]

This universalization of the language is born out of solidarity between Indigenous peoples and other people of color. Here, traditions are reactualized rather than staying put in the past: the story shows tradition as a living entity that adapts to and through time and space. Tradition can and should be recalled and used in ways that reflect and suit present life. The decolonial world imagined here by Pésémapéo Bordeleau is then built on the “very best practices of our traditional cultures, knowledge systems and lifeways in the dynamic, fluid, compassionate, respectful context in which they were originally generated” (Dancing on our Turtle’s Back 18). 

While the authors mentioned above have taken up language as a theme, others use Indigenous languages in their stories. The title of the collection underscores the importance of using Indigenous languages: “Le titre, Wapke, un mot atikamekw qui veut dire demain ou avenir, n’est d’ailleurs pas anodin dans les circonstances et représente un message fort” (Yvon). [13] These circumstances include the continued extractavist practices targeting Indigenous land, the environmental crisis, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, Québec’s refusal to acknowledge systemic racism in the province, not to mention the current and ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. [14] Although the writers had not gotten any specific assignment, all stories reflect on and connect through such social, political, and environmental themes; through sharing such elements, these stories portray trans-Indigenous content. Cyndy Wylde (Anicinape and Atikamekw) said that “c’est un peu décourageant qu’on se projette tous comme ça,” but also emphasizes that she wanted a positive end to her story: “je voulais qu’on soit les gagnants dans l’histoire” (qtd. in Yvon), [15] which is a goal that Wapke’s contributors seem to share. Indeed, as the title reminds us, these short stories offer a tomorrow from an Indigenous perspective.

Some authors have used words, phrases, and expressions in an Indigenous language in their stories. Natasha Kanapé Fontaine, for example, uses mushum in her story to refer to the main character’s grandfather and kuei, an Innu greeting, to signal the continuance of the Innu language in the other world (as we have discussed above). Joséphine Bacon, in turn, uses Innu words like Uatan (the village in which her story takes place), Nutshimit (the inland), Tshishikushkueu (“la femme de l’espace qui veille sur la Terre” (203)) and teueikan (drum). In using Innu words, these authors underline the continued existence of Indigenous languages, cultures, and peoples into the future, especially since the words used here are mostly related to family and to inherently Innu places, traditions, and knowledge. In a similar vein, Atikamekw language teacher, actress and writer Janis Ottawa’s story includes many Atikamekw words, especially those that refer to traditional knowledges of the land (“wikwasatikw, le bouleau blanc” (180), “minihikw, une épinette blanche” (181), “awesisak, le gibier” (181), etc); traditional ways of living (“nous allons apprendre le kotosowan, la façon dont nos ancêtres le faisaient, pour appeler l’orignal juste à temps pour la chasse” (182)); people in the community (“awacak, les jeunes” (181), “kokom, grand-mère” (181), “moshom, grand-père” (181), etc), and the others (“ka wapisitcik, des Blancs” (182)). Miko, the story’s main character, indeed uses Atikamekw language and his life in the community is rooted in traditional practices. Nevertheless, Miko has a strong desire to leave the island and go to the city to find his lost love. Towards the end of the story, he even says to himself that he does not want to be Anicinape anymore: ‘Je ne veux plus être un Anicinape”, se dit-il. Puis il regrette; c’est insensé de vouloir changer d’identité, aussi bien de mourir (186-7). [16] Miko realizes that he should not try to change his identity as Anicinape. He becomes aware of the interconnection between the island where he and his community live, the way they live there (including their language use), and his identity as Anicinape. In that sense, the story exemplifies Jeannette Armstrong’s concept of interdependence and the centrality of land and language to Indigenous existence: “language was given to us by the land we live within” (146).

Ottawa’s, Bacon’s, and Kanapé Fontaine’s stories also have in common an Indigenous place setting: Bacon’s story takes place in the village of Uatan in Nutshimit; Ottawa’s story on the island, and Kanapé Fontaine’s story partly in Kanatabe, which is still colonial, and partly in the Innu world. In these places, Indigenous people lead a life practically separate from a colonial world, and it comes as no surprise, if we keep in mind Armstrong’s idea about the land speaking, that their languages are spoken in these places. These stories thus exemplify Indigenous resurgence and its relation to language. For Simpson, Indigenous resurgence is strongly rooted in Indigenous languages: she argues that Indigenous resurgence and decolonization involve learning from Indigenous languages as they carry Indigenous epistemologies, philosophies, and meanings in their structures. Indigenous resurgence centers self-determination and Indigenous resistance. The imagined futures by these three authors are indeed centered around self-determination of the community in their own spaces, speaking their own languages, and living on the land. They move away from a politics of recognition focused on reconciling with the settler state to root their lives in their own values, traditions, epistemologies, and lands (Coulthard). [17]

The idea of Indigenous resurgence and self-determination becomes even more clear in Cyndy Wylde’s story. “Pakan (Autrement)” begins in 2022 and takes us to 2063 following a line of Anishinaabeg women beginning with Kanena and followed by Nibi and her daughter Maïka. These three women are confronted by the decisions of a hegemonic government, but they find ways to actively resist, notably by using their language: 

Tout était donc susceptible d’être entendu, mais une barrière demeurait pour les fonctionnaires du régime actuel: les langues autochtones. Nibi s’était fait un devoir de transmettre sa langue à Maïka. Tous les Autochtones de sa génération devenus parents avaient fait de même. La revitalisation de l’identité était un moteur, mais elle roulait dans l’ombre pour ne pas susciter les foudres de l’État. Nibi elle-même avait dû user de plusieurs ruses pour conserver sa langue maternelle. Née de parents chez qui les pensionnats avaient ciblé la destruction de l’identité autochtone en interdisant d’utiliser leur langue, Nibi s’était promis d’honorer ses ancêtres et de perpétuer la sienne. Elle avait réussi à garder l’anicinape bien vivant avec sa fille et, aujourd’hui, la confidentialité qu’il permettait l’aiderait à préserver quelque chose de tout aussi vital. (…) Les deux femmes marchent au bord de l’eau, reconnaissantes d’avoir peu de risques d’être écoutées ou, du moins, comprises. En parlant anicinape, Nibi ajoute une obstruction qui la rassure. (Wylde 101-2) [18]

Nibi then continues to explain to her daughter how the government has oppressed Indigenous peoples in the past, and how they continue to do so. Nibi had relearned the Anicinape language to honor her ancestors and to continue the Anicinape language, knowledges, and traditions. In that sense, this act of Indigenous language revitalization forms an act of Indigenous resurgence, as does the fact that she transmits it to her daughter. At the same time, speaking the language also serves as a layer of protection as well as an act of active resistance. Since the authoritarian government listens to everything that is being said, they could not  have this honest conversation in French. Speaking in Anicinape allows them to criticize the government without retribution and, thus, to actively resist oppression. 

Although in different ways, Gill, Kanapé Fontaine, Pésémapéo Bordeleau, Bacon, Ottawa, and Wylde deal with language—as a theme and/or as a practice—to embody Indigenous resurgence. Language is a path to resisting settler colonialism and building a future rooted in Indigenous languages and epistemologies. Another way these authors resist settler colonialism is by putting forward different conceptions of time and temporality, which are another form of resistance and resurgence. 

Dismantling Time: Stories of Temporalities as Indigenous Resurgence

Time and temporality are not synonymous, as “[t]emporality is subjective progression through moments, while time attempts to objectively measure and mark that progression. Time is necessarily temporal, but temporality can exist plainly without time—a slow clock still measures temporality, even if it doesn’t do so in a timely fashion” (Joelle). Time is associated with “objectivity,” measurable and detached from context, while temporality is deeply embedded in subjectivity, place, and relationships. Time works in a linear way, pulling apart temporality to analyze it without the set of relations that makes it whole. Although our settler backgrounds necessarily influence our understanding of time and temporality here, we attempt to follow, as much as possible, Indigenous conceptions throughout our analysis. Wapke’s Indigenous anticipation stories makes it possible to link story and history together, creating new narratives for relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. As the authors play with temporality to make visible the horrors brought on by colonization, past, present, and future collide in the stories to make space for an allyship between the readers and the authors. While offering insightful criticism about the ongoing story that is colonialism, these stories demonstrate that “other realities abide alongside and within our own” (Justice 153). As the authors (re)build their houses, they give the readers the necessary space to feel and think about the issues brought forward. 

Wendat writer Jean Sioui’s short story, “Les couleurs de la peau”, takes place in 1534 with the “discovery of Canada” by Jacques Cartier, and challenges the notion of Terra Nullius: [19] “Ils sont restés sur le territoire qu’ils prétendaient avoir découvert” (88, emphasis added). [20] The story then moves on to the year 2234, when a new mutation of the smallpox virus—the same one that decimated the Hurons-Wendat in the early 1700s—strikes the newborns of Kanata, making their skin blue—but not affecting Indigenous peoples. From there, it does not take much “pour que les horreurs d’un temps à oublier ressuscitent” (88): [21] the children from the story being taken away from their communities to medical laboratories remind the reader of the forced placement of Indigenous children in residential schools, [22] including the medical testing some of these children suffered. [3] This imagined future is rooted in the past and stems from preconceived ideas:   

Au début des années 2000, les gouvernements parlaient de pardon et de réconciliation avec les peuples autochtones. À l’aube de 2270, trente-six ans après le début de l’épidémie, les Autochtones sont toujours sous l’emprise de préjugés et de racisme systémique. Presque quarante ans à vivre avec le nouveau virus. Les politiciens, les complotistes et les médias accusent effrontément la nation wendat de sorcellerie. Ils prétendent que des chamans ont jeté un sort aux Canadiens pour se venger de leur inaction après plusieurs études, des rapports gouvernementaux nombreux et des promesses qui sont restées lettre morte. Des promesses qui devaient pourtant corriger les injustices commises envers les Premières Nations. (89) [24]

Demonstrating the failure of recognition and reconciliation policies, Sioui emphasizes how colonization is not a fixed moment in history, but a process that persists by constantly reinventing itself. [25] This reminds us of Glen Coulthard’s deconstruction of the policies of recognition and reconciliation—empty words of action which are not about change but about appeasing Indigenous claims, allowing governments to retain all power. Moreover, the narrative of recognition and reconciliation also serves to naturalize colonization as an historical event; but settler colonialism is not “an anomaly of time and space—it’s an ongoing process of violent self-justification through the erasure of Indigenous peoples as anything but an empty symbol” (Justice 10).

While Sioui’s short story warns us about the emptiness of the recognition and reconciliation discourses, Janis Ottawa’s short story emphasizes the dangers of giving into that same narrative. In “Minishtikok (l’île)”, reconciliation is subtly discussed through Miko, the main character. Growing up, Miko dreams of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. But it quickly becomes clear that reconciliation is not an option: water and animals are getting harder to find; they are searching shelter from non-Indigenous people; they are in continuous danger of being found; and the men chosen to leave the island to bring back food and materials (like Miko’s father) do not come back. Towards the end of the story, it becomes clear that reconciliation is a trap set to capture Indigenous people in erasure. When Miko asks his mom what happened to their people, she tells her son about the dangers of hospitals, the construction of pipelines on stolen land, the communities poisoned by the government’s alimentary help provided to families with low income, how these deaths were covered-up by the medias as collective suicides, and how his father always believed in reconciliation only to leave the island and never come back.

In reminding us of the colonial history that led to the death of tens of thousands of Indigenous people, Sioui and Ottawa demonstrate clearly that it could happen again, that it is still happening in more pernicious ways. Indeed, colonialism is perpetuated through government policies of recognition and reconciliation. For Vanessa Watts (Mohawk from Bear Clan, Six Nations & Anishinaabe), this act of remembering “is not a question of accessing something, which has already come and gone, but simply to listen. To act” (32). In this sense, the authors invite the readers to become allies by listening to their stories and by speaking up. Here, remembering “is not a question of “going backwards”, for this implies there is a static place to return to” (Watts 32), but rather is embedded in a juxtaposition of temporalities. 

​​In Cyndy Wylde’s short story, the juxtaposition of temporalities is embodied in form and content. Indeed, “Pakan (autrement)” starts with an ending, the drowning of Maïka. The story then jumps to the year 2022, when Kanena, an Anicinape woman living in Kepek (Quebec), is deeply concerned about the impacts of the recent pandemic on Indigenous people, as discrimination and racism continue to exist in public services and educational institutions. In 2042, Kanena’s daughter, Nibi, is stunned by the news of her pregnancy given that she never had intercourse. She cannot get a second opinion since hospitals specific for Indigenous people were created after the pandemic – although they are staffed by Quebecers only. She cannot talk about this with her mother either, because Kanena disappeared one day: “La disparition d’une femme autochtone avait laissé la plupart des gens dans l’indifférence la plus totale” (98). [26] A year later, Nibi opens a letter from the government in which her daughter’s Indian status is denied because the father is unknown. But when, in 2063, Maïka announces to her mother that she is pregnant (again, without being sexually active), Nibi’s suspicions are confirmed: “L’histoire se répète, ce n’est pas une coïncidence, c’est clair” (100). [27] She explains to her daughter—in Anicinape—that in 2022, a secret government policy was instituted, in which the doctors were ordered (under penalty of disbarment) to insert into every Indigenous baby a programmed chip that assured a pregnancy within eighteen to twenty-five years of their installation. The babies born from this process also get a chip. Without a known father, the children could not be recognized by the law, releasing the government from any obligation towards them, especially economically. Here, we can draw a clear parallel to the Indian Act’s regulation of status—and how it has disproportionately impacted Indigenous women [28]—as well as to the coerced and forced sterilization of Indigenous women that is still happening to this day in Canada. [29] Furthermore, the fact that the doctors in Wylde’s story are “ordered” (with a negative incentive) rather than forced shows the degree to which they are complicit: as much as they (should) want to help, they do not when they risk losing their privilege. This example of complicity asks readers to think about their own complicity in settler colonial structures. Completely overwhelmed by this revelation, Maïka starts running and ends up falling in the water near her—bringing back the readers to the beginning of the short story. But this is not the end, as the narrative continues towards the (re)creation of the earth: “L’île de la Tortue renaîtra, et Maïka deviendra la grand-mère de tous les êtres humains sur cette nouvelle terre” (107). [30] Then, the Creator explains to Maïka that the first Mother Earth is falling apart and that they are responsible for the next one: “Vous êtes les protecteurs de la tortue, vous appartenez à la terre et non le contraire. Dorénavant, il ne faut plus laisser le mal prendre autant de place sur son dos. Protégez la Terre mère” (108). [31] Here, the last words of Wylde’s short story remind us that acting, and listening is everybody’s responsibility, the settlers as well as Indigenous people. 

As the story starts with an ending and ends with a beginning, the temporalities are juxtaposed in ways that demonstrate the continuity of colonialism while moving towards change—the recreation of Mother Earth. To us, this represents resurgence, as the author builds on ancestral knowledge about time and temporality to create a “new” narrative deeply embedded in a traditional Creation story. Indeed, Wylde’s story embodies a conception of time that is not linear. This reminds us of what Grace Dillon, quoting Gerry William (Spallumcheen Indian Band, Enderby, British Columbia), writes about:

This is also reflected in Louis-Karl Picard-Sioui’s (Wendat from Wendake) short story, as the characters travel through time andspace. In “La hache et le glaive”, Yahndawara’ is charged with protecting the Strendu, a technology that allows both traveling through and altering time, against the Glaive, an all-powerful sect (39) that is trying to gain power over the machine to rule time. Created in 2124, the Strendu was an experiment that went horribly wrong: “la machine avait été aspirée par la brèche qu’elle avait elle-même générée. La surface du temps avait été fissurée” (39). [32] Yahndawara’ has been running for a long time across spatiotemporal currants trying to prevent this catastrophe, to stop this system that could cause “assez de paradoxes et d’anomalies pour déchirer la toile de la réalité elle-même et briser de façon définitive le cercle sacré de l’existence” (37). [33] Here, the idea of movements across spatiotemporal currants is echoed by Diane Glancy’s (Cherokee) explanation of time, which is like:

a rubber band, stretchable, or as little loops. Millions of years can be ‘kinked up and crawled over. There are wormholes you can fall down and get lost in and then come back up and move on and travel. So time is certainly not really circular, and it’s certainly not linear. There are lapses and times within times, and coils, and other geometrical patterns that time can follow. It can undulate, and be wavelike, going back and forth… History is a multiplicity… [akin to] the unrolling of many scrolls… going back and retrieving what was there but has not had a voice.’ (Dillon 26-7)

Yahndawara’ is coming from far away, in space and in time, as she was born in the 16th century when her city was among the first to be invaded by the colonizers. As an Indigenous woman, she is a guardian of this sacred circle of life. As she comes close to succeeding in her mission, meeting general Providence, the leader of the Glaive, becomes inevitable. Their encounter illustrates the clash between two conceptions of time, as for the general, time is something controllable and the Strendu is a given right: “Bientôt, il pourrait récupérer ce qui était sien. Il pourrait corriger le passé” (45). [34] But for Yahndawara’, the Strendu is an aberration that does not belong to anybody. Indeed, when Yahndawara’ and the general meet, it becomes clear that you cannot solve an issue with what caused it in the first place, as the Sorcerer also affirms in the story: “On ne peut régler un problème avec l’outil qui l’a causé” (40). [35] This not only refers to the Strendu being unable to resolve the breach of time, but also of the impossibility of settler colonial logics to solve settler colonialism: there can be no decolonization without dismantling settler colonial thinking, policies, and structures, nor without Indigenous resurgence, which provides a sustainable alternative.  

Conclusion

At the beginning of this article, we asked ourselves what Wapke teaches us through its trans-Indigenous nature as a short story collection. The ways that the authors deal with language and temporality demonstrate resistance to settler colonial structures and center Indigenous resurgence as an effective way forward. Indeed, on the one hand, Wapke offers a sharp critique of the devastating effects of colonialism. Despite the open instructions the authors had received, they tended to take up and criticize similar issues: colonial hegemony, government control, institutional and personal violence, land exploitation, language loss, etcetera. These critiques effectively dismantle the master’s house, to borrow from Audre Lorde, in order to affect change. On the other hand, the authors move beyond a colonial framework, which is often damage-centered and recognition-based, to imaginative futures where Indigenous resurgence and resistance are central to the continuity and life of Indigenous people. The tomorrows envisioned in Wapke are rooted in Indigenous resurgence through the creation of alternative temporalities and realities and through the reflection on linguistic diversity often centered around Indigenous languages. In this way, bringing together fourteen authors with different backgrounds, experiences, and histories, Wapke offers a trans-Indigenous perspective of what the future could be.  

As a trans-Indigenous wonderwork, Wapke teaches the reader about how Indigenous resurgence is not only rooted in language and conceptions of time and temporality, but also in place, space, (renewal of) traditions, presence, ethics, and more. Further exploration of this topic would benefit from a land-based approach reflecting on how language and temporality as parts of Indigenous resurgence inherently come from the land. In our analysis of Wapke, we came to understand that Indigenous resurgence is strengthened by the trans-Indigenous as it centers Indigenous-to-Indigenous relations; the short story collection embodies Simpson’s idea of a constellation of active co-resistance: “Individual stars shine in their own right and exist, grounded in their everyday renewal of Indigenous practices and in constellated relationships, meaning relationships that operate from within the grounded normativity of particular Indigenous nations, not only with other stars but also the physical world and the spiritual world. Constellations in relationship with other constellations form flight paths out of settler colonial realities into Indigeneity” (Simpson, As We Have Always Done 217-8). Each story shines in its own right, but read together they recreate the future “pakan, autrement” (Wylde 108).

NOTES

[1] “The first Indigenous collection of anticipation short stories in Quebec” (our translation).

[2] Juxtaposition is understood broadly here as placing texts close together.

[3] Marie-Andrée Gill, J.D. Kurtness and Michel Jean are Innu de Mashteuiatsh. Katia Bacon, Natasha Kanapé Fontaine, and Joséphine Bacon are Innu from Pessamit. Alyssa Jérome is Innu from Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam. Louis-Karl Picard-Sioui, Isabelle Picard, and Jean Sioui are Wendat from Wendake. Virginia Pésémapéo Bordeleau is Métis-Cree from Rapide-des-Cèdres. Cyndy Wylde is Anicinape and Atikamekw from Pikogan. Elisapie Isaac is Inuit from Salluit. Janis Ottawa is Atikamekw from Manawan.

[4] Wapke comprises stories of writers of different generations. The younger generation includes emerging authors such as Katia Bacon and Alyssa Jérome as well as more established authors such as Natasha Kanapé Fontaine and Marie-Andrée Gill. Wapke also includes stories by those who are Elders in their communities such as Joséphine Bacon.

[5] “I don’t know what to write. French, I didn’t like that. The only things I liked when we were in the village were playing hockey when we still could, playing on the console and going up to the woods” (our translation).

[6] “We all wanted to ask them questions but we were also a little embarrassed, it’s weird to see new people. It’s like the words are stuck in your throat because your heart is beating too fast. I think they felt that too. They must have been used to just speaking their language to each other. With Simba, Jack and kukum Denise however they could speak in Atikamekw and they understood each other very well. I could only pick up some parts of what they were saying, like a radio that is not quite tuned.” (our translation)

[7] “today that doesn’t make sense anymore” (our translation).

[8] “However, technology has not allowed us to save our mother tongue, Innu-aimun” (our translation).

[9] “Keb used to be a province, Quebec, nowadays it’s a free state within the United States of Kanatabe. Canada and Quebec, like other states in the world, had been renamed, either by retaking a name from one of the territory’s Indigenous languages, or by going back to the origin of their name. Kanatabe (Kanata-Ahbee) means ‘land of numerous villages’, and Keb comes from Kebeq, “there where the river retreats’ to refer to the capital, the city of Quebec” (our translation).

[10] “Words are powerful though” (our translation).

[11] “That means that there are others who will come” (our translation).

[12] “The knowledge would be transmitted. […] Over the years, children of all possible shades of the human race animated the houses and the big cosmopolitan village. They spoke several languages at once, mixing words, thus inventing a unified language, just as they would in time create a humanity without races” (our translation).

[13] “The title, Wapke, an Atikamekw word meaning tomorrow or future, is not insignificant under the circumstances and represents a strong message” (our translation).

[14] “La pandémie était aussi un terreau fertile pour imaginer le pire comme le meilleur” [The pandemic provided also fertile ground to imagine the worst as well as the best] (Yvon, our translation).

[15] “it’s a little discouraging that we all project ourselves like that” (our translation); “I wanted us to be the winners in history” (our translation, emphasis added).

[16] “‘I don’t want to be an Anicinape anymore,’ he says to himself. Then he regrets; it is insane to want to change identity, might as well die.” (our translation)

[17] In Red Skin, White Masks, Dene scholar Glen Coulthard argues that a politics of recognition does not challenge the Canadian state; it only upholds current power relations. A politics of recognition refers to the range of recognition strategies and models that try to ‘reconcile’ Indigenous assertions for nationhood and self-determination with(in) settler state sovereignty. Coulthard argues that instead of creating mutual recognition and reciprocity, a politics of recognition only serves to uphold and reproduce colonialist, racist, patriarchal state power that Indigenous peoples sought to transcend.

[18] Everything could be heard, but one barrier remained for the officials of the current regime: the Indigenous languages. Nibi had made a point of passing on her language to Maïka. All the Indigenous people of her generation who had become parents had done the same. The revitalization of identity was a driving force, but it was carried out in the shadows so as not to incur the wrath of the state. Nibi herself had to use many tricks to keep her mother tongue. Born to parents for whom residential schools had targeted the destruction of Indigenous identity by forbidding them the use of their language, Nibi had vowed to honour her ancestors and perpetuate her own. She had managed to keep Anicinape alive with her daughter, and now the confidentiality it allowed would help her preserve something equally vital. (…) The two women walk along the water’s edge, grateful that they have little chance of being heard or, at least, understood. Speaking Anicinape, Nibi adds an obstruction that reassures her. Suddenly, she stops and looks Maïka right in the eyes. (our translation).

[19] Indeed, the settlers rationalized their asserted right to the land, its resources, and its history through the myth of “terra nullius—the racist legal fiction that declared Indigenous peoples too “primitive” to bear rights to land and sovereignty when they first encountered European powers on the continent, thus rendering their territories legally “empty” and therefore open for colonial settlement and development” (Coulthard 175).

[20] “They stayed on the territory they pretended to have discovered” (our translation).

[21] “For the horrors of a time to be forgotten to resurrect” (our translation).

[22] For more information about the forced removal of Indigenous children, see Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future. Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. 2015.

[23] For more information on this matter, see Mosby, Ian. “Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952”. Histoire sociale / Social History, vol. 46, no. 1, 2013, pp. 145-172.

[24] “In the early 2000s, governments were talking about forgiveness and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. At the dawn of 2270, thirty-six years after the epidemic began, Indigenous people are still in the grip of prejudice and systemic racism. Almost forty years of living with the new virus. Politicians, conspiracy theorists and the media brazenly accuse the Wendat Nation of witchcraft. They claim that shamans have cast a spell on Canadians to avenge their inaction after several studies, numerous government reports and promises that have gone unheeded. Promises that were supposed to correct the injustices committed against First Nations” (our translation).

[25]  In “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native”, Patrick Wolfe indeed asserts that settler colonialism is a structure not an event.

[26] “The disappearance of an Indigenous woman had left most people in total indifference” (our translation). This points to the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. See, for example, National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Reclaiming Power and Place: Executive Summary of the Final Report, 2019, available at https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/final-report/.

[27] “History repeats itself, it’s no coincidence, that’s for sure” (our translation).

[28] For a detailed analysis of how Indigenous women were disproportionately affected by the Indian Act, see, for example, Barker, Joanne. “Gender, Sovereignty, Rights: Native Women’s Activism against State Inequality and Violence in Canada.” American Quarterly vol. 60, no. 2, 2008, pp. 259-266.

[29] See Delphine Jung. “‘Je ne me sentais plus femme’, raconte une Autochtone stérilisée malgré elle.” Radio Canada: Espaces Autochtones, March 24, 2021, https://ici.radio-canada.ca/espaces-autochtones/1779442/ligature-trompes-femmes-premieres-nations-sterilisation (accessed August 15, 2021); Boyer, Yvonne and. Judith Bartlett. “External Review: Tubal Ligation in the Saskatoon Health Region: The Lived Experience of Aboriginal Women.” July 22, 2017, https://www.saskatoonhealthregion.ca/DocumentsInternal/Tubal_Ligation_intheSaskatoonHealthRegion_the_Lived_Experience_of_Aboriginal_Women_BoyerandBartlett_July_22_2017.pdf.

[30] “Turtle’s Island will be reborn, and Maïka will become the grandmother of all human beings on this new land” (our translation).

[31] “You are the protectors of the turtle, you belong to the earth and not the other way around. From now on, you must not let evil take up so much space on your back. Protect Mother Earth” (our translation).

[32] “the machine had been sucked in by the breach it had itself generated. The surface of time had been breached” (our translation).

[33] “enough paradoxes and anomalies to tear the fabric of reality itself and definitively break the sacred circle of existence” (our translation).

[34] “Soon, he could reclaim what was his. He could rectify the past” (our translation).

[35] “You can’t fix a problem with the tool that caused it” (our translation).

WORKS CITED

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

—. “Decolonizing Comparison: Toward a Trans-Indigenous Literary Studies.” The Oxford Handbook of Indigenous American Literature, edited by James H. Cox and Daniel Heath Justice, Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 377-394.

Armstrong, Jeannette. “Land Speaking.” Introduction to Indigenous Literary Criticism in Canada, edited by Heather MacFarlane and Armand Garnet Ruffo, Broadview Press, 2016, pp. 146-161.

Coulthard, Glen. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

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

Episkenew, Jo-Ann. Taking Back Our Spirits. Indigenous Literature, Public Policy, and Healing. University of Manitoba Press, 2009.

Jean, Michel, editor. Wapke. Les Editions Stanké, 2021. 

Je m’appelle humain/Call Me Human. Directed by Kim O’Bomsawin, Terre Innu, 2020. 

Joelle, Michelle. “The Difference Between Time and Temporality,” 18 June 2014,  https://storiesandsoliloquies.com/2014/06/18/time-and-temporality/#:~:text=Temporality%20is%20subjective%20progression%20through,so%20in%20a%20timely%20fashion.

Justice, Daniel Heath. Why Indigenous Literatures Matter. Wilfrid Laurier Press, 2018. 

McKegney, Sam. “Strategies for Ethical Engagement: An Open Letter Concerning Non-Native Scholars of Native Literatures.” Learn, Teach, Challenge: Approaching Indigenous Literatures, edited by Deanna Reder and Linda M. Morra, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2016, pp. 79-88. 

Simpson, Leanne. Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence, and a New Emergence. ARP Books, 2011.

—. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Watts, Vanessa. “Indigenous Place-Thought and Agency amongst Humans and Non-humans (First Woman and Sky Woman go on a European Tour!).” Decolonization, Indigeneity, Education and Society, vol. 2, no. 1, 2013, pp. 20–34.

Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research, vol. 8, no. 4, 2006, pp. 387-409.Yvon, Anne-Marie. “Wapke : l’avenir imaginé par 14 voix autochtones.” CBC Radio: Espaces Autochtones, May 1, 2021, accessed August 11, 2021. https://ici.radio-canada.ca/espaces-autochtones/1789324/wapke-avenir-autochtones-dystopie-futurisme-michel-jean-stanke.

Malou Brouwer (she/her) is a settler scholar living in Treaty 6 territory. As an international PhD student in Transnational and Comparative Literatures at the University of Alberta, she examines the use of languages – Indigenous, colonial, poetic, visual – by Indigenous women poets to trace how community is built and decolonization envisioned in/through their poems. She has published academic articles in Post-Scriptum, RELIEF, and Raffia Magazine and a short story in Les ponts à construire (2019). Her research interests include Indigenous literatures, Indigenous feminist theories, Francophone women’s writing, ecocriticism, and decolonial studies.

Camille Roberge (she/her) is a settler-scholar living on Tiohtià:ke, the unceded territory of the Kanien’kehá: ka Nation. She is currently a candidate for the individualized master’s degree in Indigenous transontology at the Université de Montréal. Following the completion of her B.A. in Anthropology in 2019, she pursued her desire to deepen her theoretical and critical knowledge through Indigenous literatures. Her research interests include Indigenous literatures, decolonial studies, ecocriticism, ontological and epistemological questions, the more-than-human and relationality.


Wandering the World’s Most Isolated Metropolis: Structured Dispossession & Post-Apocalyptic Stress Syndrome in the Film Waikiki


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 4

Trans-Indigenous Futurity


Wandering the World’s Most Isolated Metropolis: Structured Dispossession & Post-Apocalyptic Stress Syndrome in the Film Waikiki

Nicole Ku’uleinapuananiolikoawapuhimelemeleolani Furtado

Waikiki, by Christopher Kahunahana, is a kaleidoscopic, speculative vision of surrealist and experimental filmmaking that deconstructs the colonial imaginary of Hawaiʻi as a tourism-based “paradise.” The film unearths the sickness colonialism brings upon Indigenous peoples through homelessness, mental illness, domestic abuse, overdevelopment, and the loss of Hawaiian identity. Kahunahana’s cinematic vision elucidates navigating the metropolis that is Honolulu and its dark underbelly of inflated houseless populations. These populations are disproportionately Native Hawaiian and most live in tent cities throughout the island of Oʻahu, a painful truth that doesn’t fit into the tourism industry’s narratives of Hawaiʻi. Waikiki is centered around the main character Kea. Her plight operates as a stand-in for the hard realities of many Native Hawaiians who are homeless within their own homeland. Kea, played by actress Danielle Zalopany, is a young Kanaka Maoli woman who supports herself through hula dancing in Waikiki, being a bar hostess in Chinatown, and serving as a Native Hawaiian cultural teacher to children. By following the life of Kea, Kahunahana’s film embodies “Post-Apocalyptic Stress Syndrome” (PASS) of Native peoples who, through the advent of colonialism, experienced the end of their worlds (Gross). Waikiki conveys these issues by stretching boundaries of time and space to embody a Native Slipstream that comments on the dystopian elements of living in Hawaiʻi after the apocalypse has already happened for Native peoples. As Grace L. Dillon (Anishinaabe) has stated, the Native Apocalypse has already happened (Dillon 8). Therefore, Gross’s theory on Post-Apocalyptic Stress Syndrome is vital to showcasing beyond a “thought-experiment” format of speculative storytelling and instead illuminates lived realities. PASS can be identified in multiple levels of loss and cultivates intergenerational trauma through the severance of land or ʻike ʻāina [to know the land]. Therefore, this cultural trauma of surviving the apocalypse is implicated throughout Kea’s life of struggle and survival. Through a visual reading of Waikiki, I engage Glen Coulthard’s “structured dispossession” and its capitalistic endeavors and emphasize the importance of reigniting connection to Kānaka Maoli epistemologies. 

The film begins by following Kea through her different jobs she has to survive living in Honolulu. An altercation with her abusive boyfriend outside of a bar after work causes Kea to escape in the van she lives in until she runs over a homeless man named Wo. Kea takes Wo, played by Peter Shinkoda, into her life and thus the film takes a turn wherein past, present, future, and fantasy begin to blend together. Although it is commonplace for folks who live in Hawaiʻi to survive by working multiple jobs, Kahunahana’s choice to have Kea work in the tourism industry and in sex work, interpersed with her connection to teaching Native Hawaiian language and culture, illuminates the complexities and messy entanglements of the lived realities and challenges contemporary Native Hawaiians face. By surviving the apocalypse and having connection to land severed, Indigenous peoples endure systems of violent dispossession that “ensur[e] that Indigenous land and resource bases remain open for exploitation and capitalist development [and futures]” (Coulthard 77). Surviving the Native Apocalypse means living within structural systems of extractive frameworks. The film, aptly named Waikiki, beckons to the militourism leviathan of cultural commodification that happens to Native Hawaiian culture. As formative Kanaka Maoli scholar Haunani-Kay Trask, who has extensively written about cultural exploitation, states, “The attraction of Hawaiʻi is stimulated by slick Hollywood movies, saccharine Andy Williams music, and the constant psychological deprivations of maniacal American life” (Trask, From a Native 137). Hawaiʻi represents a form of desirable escapism ripe for touristic consumption.

Film therefore becomes the medium and message to relay Kahunahana’s sentiment that “Hawaiʻi is much more than Hollywood’s backdrop” and to chronicle a story of failure within a colonial matrix as well as cultural survival (Sanders). The saccharine, slick Hollywood vision that is commonly accepted of Waikiki and the overall image of Hawaiʻi Nei to visitors is powerfully refused in Kahunahana’s story. [1] The film portrays a gritty realness to aspects of Hawaiʻi that the tourism industry actively attempts to conceal in order to sell the idea of Hawaiʻi to the rest of the world. The accepted spelling in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi (the Hawaiian language) is actually Waikīkī, however, Kahunahana has stated that he chose to name the film after the touristic version (without diacritical marks) to highlight the commercialized aspects of Kānaka culture that have proliferated throughout Hawaiʻi’s history. Surprisingly, most of the film does not actually take place in Waikiki. Though Kea’s journey throughout the film begins there, the majority of it takes place in Chinatown, the Sand Island industrial area, and the metropolitan outskirts of Waikiki—all considered the extra ‘dirty’ areas of Oʻahu for its high influxes of tourists and houseless populations.

Promotional Shot for Waikiki. Kea wears a haku and visually confronts viewers with a traditional form of cultural expression and a dead-locked stare.

Waikiki reignites the need for rebuilding and maintaining ʻAuwai [caring and tending for the ʻāina or land and ecologies of kalo] through the praxis explained by Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua. She states, “We need all the resources of our pasts and innovative capacities of our peoples to help us shape those transitions in ways that can bring us into preferred, non-imperial futures” (Goodyear-Kaʻōpua 246). In referencing cultivating ʻauwai or developing sustainable wetland cultivation, Goodyear-Kaʻōpua is utilizing a metaphor for restoring pathways of cultural knowledge transmission (particularly in educational systems) against continued imperialism by rehabilitating economic and ecological systems that “will again allow us to feed ourselves and our ʻāina.” This dire need for reconnection to land is set up early in Waikiki and repeated with the phrase “He aliʻi ka ʻāina, he kauwa ke kanaka.” In one of the most powerful scenes that haunts the rest of the film, Kea arrives to work late after experiencing domestic violence from her boyfriend and having to show up to teach with Wo alive but injured in her van. Kea, a fluent speaker of ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, discusses with her elementary students the literal translation of the phrase to mean “The land is the chief and the people are the servants.” Sonically, the scene differentiates itself as it happens completely in the Hawaiian language. Kea then instructs her students that the kaona or deeper meaning behind “He aliʻi ka ʻāina, he kauwa ke kanaka” is actually “We all must care for the land. Because in turn it will take care of us.” While the film takes place in the densely populated metropolitan areas of Honolulu, echoes of ʻāina (land) are cut and interspersed as images of Hawaiʻi’s lush landscapes, bountiful rivers, waterfalls, and forests. These intersperses call on the viewer to recognize this ancestral truth of Hawaiʻi that Kea, who is mentally, physically, and spiritually lost a majority of the time within the metropolis that is Honolulu, conveys to her haumana (students). 

The importance of connection to land within the film is part of a larger genealogy of Hawaiian cultural beliefs and worldviews. Many Kānaka feminst scholars have called upon this genealogical connection to land to highlight a praxis of Aloha ʻĀina or love of land. As Haunani-Kay Trask has stated, “Our survival depends, especially today, on understanding and connecting to this land of our ancestors… Aloha ʻĀina means in economic terms agriculture and aquaculture—not hotels and not military bases… [it means] a profound cultural belonging to the land as our ohana, or elder brother, elder sister, those who went before…” (Trask, “69”). Therefore, the viewing audience of Waikiki is confronted with the hyper-overdevelopment of Honolulu and as “He aliʻi ka ʻāina, he kauwa ke kanaka” reminds us: we must, as a people who have survived the apocalypse, rebuild our worlds and sacred connections. Grace L. Dillon has noted of the Native Apocalypse that telling our stories is a “returning to ourselves” and a recovering of our ancestral traditions in order to adapt to a post-Native Apocalypse world (Dillon 10). Waikiki, through its interspersed edits/cuts of the realities of living in Hawaiʻi, highlights these truths through Kea’s plight of cultural loss and survivance centuries after Native Hawaiians experienced the apocalypse.

Surviving the Apocalypse

“Post-Apocalyptic Stress Syndrome,” a term created by Lawrence Gross (Minnesota Chippewa), indicates how American Indians have experienced the end of their respective worlds and also survived the apocalypse. His work is incredibly important to highlight how the effects of surviving imposed cultural destruction lingers and results in personal trauma and social dysfunction that can be combated by the rebuilding of American Indian communities that recognize conditions of both the past and the present. While describing the structured collapse of Native American livelihood and sovereignty and the need for cultural world-building, utilizing a trans-Indigenous approach with Gross’s work is necessary to begin to understand the destruction of Kānaka Maoli worlds that occurred. While the sheer depth of “unabridged sovereignty” that existed in precontact Native cultures and subsequent destruction of our ancestors’ worlds is hard to fully grasp, Haunani-Kay Trask describes the decimation of Hawaiian culture as such: 

Like most Native peoples, Hawaiians lived in our mother’s keeping until the fateful coming of the haole [or] Western Foreigners in 1778. Then our world collapsed from the violence of contact disease, mass death, and land dispossession; evangelical Christianity; plantation capitalism; cultural destruction, including language banning; and finally, American military invasion in 1893, and forced annexation in 1898. During the course of little more than a century, the haole onslaught had taken from us 95% of our Hawaiian people, 99% of our lands and waters, and the entirety of our political sovereignty. As the 20th century dawned, we were but a remnant of the great and ancient people we had once been. (“The Color” 11) 

Promotional Shot for Waikiki. The two main characters, Kea and Wo, in front of a fake illusion of the “paradise” image of Hawaiʻi.

Thankfully, due to the foundational works of many Kānaka scholars and activists like Haunani-Kay Trask, a Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance has flourished since the 1970s.  Further, in the present time, the Native Hawaiian population is over 500,000 in Hawaiʻi and across the Hawaiian diaspora. There is a rebuilding of worlds occurring every day, all the time, and in different contexts. However, living in the post-apocalypse causes tremendous stress institutionally and personally upon Indigenous communities that can result in pervading intergenerational trauma. These stressors can manifest this trauma in ways succinctly described in Gross’s research:

On the personal level,

  1. An abandonment of productive employment
  2. An increase in substance abuse
  3. An increase in violence, especially domestic violence
  4. An increase in the suicide rate
  5. An increase in the rate of mental illness
  6. The abandonment of established religious practices
  7. The adoption of fanatical forms of religion
  8. A loss of hope
  9. A sense of despair
  10. A sense of survivor’s guilt

These prevalent issues can hit close to home for many Indigenous families. Gross’s work delineates a clear and important connection between the cultural traumas Native communities must face and endure. Homelessness is the issue at the heart of Waikiki. Kahunahana highlights the bitter truth that over 15,000 folks are estimated to be homeless in Hawaiʻi and suffer lower life expectancy, high rates of mental illness, addiction, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“Homeless in Hawaii: Facts and Resources”). The homeless population in Hawaiʻi is also overwhelmingly Native Hawaiian. The historical and material conditions that have produced this situation are directly related to the apocalyptic cultural devastation that Native Hawaiians experienced and the critical severing of land-based pedagogies that are central to Kānaka worldviews. The film Waikiki sees Kea living out this sense of incredible loss on a personal level. Kea desperately attempts to survive in a post-apocalyptic environment while enduring domestic violence, battling her own mental illnesses, her own despair and loss of hope, and (outside of her work as a cultural teacher) being employed in the prostitution of her own culture.

Kea dancing Hula ʻAuana (contemporary hula) for tourists in the film as one of her jobs.
Kea’s plastered smile for the guests of a touristy lū‘au in Waikiki. Her smile is haunting as viewers know the truth behind her living situation. Adorned in ornamental Hawaiian-esque clothing that does not reflect traditional practices, girls in coconut bras and mishmashed versions of other Polynesian cultures dance for tips from tourists.

Early in the film, we see Kea dancing hula in Waikiki for tourists in a resort. Like a distorted mirror in a carnival funhouse, Kea’s cultural dancing no longer reflects the sacredness the dance holds. At this point in the film, the audience knows Kea is homeless and struggling to make ends meet. The scene showcases a sea of tourists that is a typical sight of Waikiki lū‘aus (parties) where visitors go to get an “authentic” Hawaiian experience. In reality, these types of resort spaces embody very little of Kānaka culture. Famously, Haunani-Kay Trask in From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai‘i tackles issues of cultural prostitution and the pernicious grasp of manufactured Hawaiian cultural expression that multinational resort complexes utilize to entice tourists. Trask is adamant that Hawaian culture cannot be ornamental as seen in spaces such as Waikiki:

…hula dancers wear clownlike makeup, don cos­tumes from a mix of Polynesian cultures, and behave in a manner that is smutty and salacious rather than powerfully erotic… In the hotel version of the hula, the sacredness of the dance has completely evaporated, while the ath­leticism and sexual expression have been packaged like ornaments. The purpose is entertainment for profit rather than a joyful and truly Hawaiian celebration of human and divine nature. (144)

This striking critique of resort-based hula reverberates to Kea’s own dancing to survive in a capitalistic system. Her makeup emphasizes the need to focus on her “customer service” smile. The focused and lingering shot on Kea’s smile turns eerie as the subsequent startling cut scenes to her real world are less colorful and vibrant. Hula, a sacred expression of culture, turns into a job and not part of erotic cultural pleasure. The viewer is then confronted with the transformation of Kea and the defacing of hula and Waikiki (a place once known for its spouting waters and lush wetlands) as it once was. Hawaiʻi, as an idea, becomes packageable and consumable for the tourists, non-Natives, and visitors. It is marked “for sale,” thereby removing true Hawaiian cultural context and rendering the tourist versions of Waikiki as capitalistic and meaningless.

As a symptom of PASS, Kea is unable to secure enough stable employment to gain permanent housing. Kea uses public utilities such as beach park showers to maintain hygiene amongst tourists and beach goers while she survives by living out of her van—a familiar and harsh reality that can be witnessed all throughout Hawaiʻi. This sense of personal loss also culminates in a fiery and distressing one-sided argument Kea has with Wo. Unsure of what to do with Wo after hitting him with her car, she begins spouting vitriol as he sits silently. Kea’s boyfriend, who had previously assaulted her, tells her over the phone to “get rid of him” and that Wo is “…using you. Fucking pilau bum, drop him off Waiʻanae, get rid of him!” Kea, in a manic spiral afterwards, screams at Wo:

“What am I supposed to do with you? Homeless pilau bum! What would your family think? They must be so fucking ashamed of you. Stupid ass pilau bum! Stop looking at me! Don’t you sit there fucking judging me!”

The dialogue in this moment is significant. The signaling of Kea’s boyfriend to get rid of Wo in the Waiʻanae area of Oʻahu is a direct reference to the high houseless population in that part of the island. Waiʻanae has the highest concentration of Native Hawaiians in the world and is famously known for having high levels of houselessness. Kea’s boyfriend’s demands to drop Wo off and forget about him because Wo is using Kea indicates the State of Hawaiʻi’s willful ignorance of the crises that occur on Oʻahu and the State’s desire to erase unsightly problems. Kea interpellating Wo as a “pilau bum” means he is a dirty, distressing, and parasitic problem. While Wo sits there and just listens to Kea’s abusive words, it seems to us viewers that she is actually screaming her own hate for herself and her situation. 

Witnessing Kea spiral downwards into a path all too familiar for local families showcases the blatant struggles of homelessness in Hawaiʻi. Kea screams at Wo because he is a reflection of herself and the consequential severing she has experienced in her own Native lands. The irony of being unable to find a safe place to live on her ancestral lands is the result of many factors: mental health, economic status, and structural dispossession.  Kea feels shame and guilt for the situations she finds herself in, even though her situation is symptomatic of the structural inequalities beyond Kea’s control.

After Kea’s van is towed, she passes out with Wo under a makeshift tent in Kakaʻako Park. In a desperate attempt to secure a place to stay, Kea is told paying in all cash is not an acceptable form of payment from a Waikiki-based realtor and that “[she’s] not gonna get a place from anyone… [and] need[s] paystubs.” Kea defiantly states, “I had cash. I need that room. I don’t have any place to stay,” only to be hung up on as the realtor states, “You’re not going to qualify for anything.” This scene parallels a subsequent moment in which Kea watches Honolulu Police Department officers harassing a homeless man pushing his shopping cart full of possessions near a highly gentrified, high-income area of Oʻahu. As the film progresses, viewers are unsure if Wo is real or just a figment of Kea’s imagination. This uncertainty is a directorial choice on Kahunahana’s part.  The central sentiment is simply that Wo and Kea’s journeys are deeply intertwined. Kea and Wo strike up a tentative friendship and reliance on each other during Kea’s spiral into further disconnection from herself, her family, and her friends. Therefore, much like her berating of Wo feels like self-flagellation, Kea’s attempts at comforting Wo by saying, “I know things have been shitty… We are going to be alright. Everything’s going to be alright” feels like an empty and hopeless reassurance to herself amongst immense hardships.

Past, Present, & Future Momentums: Native Slipstream in Film 

The realities of living in this post-apocalyptic moment in Hawaiʻi are illuminated through Kahunahana’s use of Native Slipstream throughout the film. These temporal movements of slipping between past, present, future, and potentially Kea’s own fantasies encompass visual sovereignty through the medium of film. Kahunahana’s film engages visual sovereignty by “employing editing technologies that permit filmmakers to stage… Indigenous notions of time and space that are not possible through print alone” (Raheja 1163). Native Slipstream best describes the experimental and surrealist cinematography and pacing of Waikiki. Kahunahana himself has stated that film doesn’t follow a linear or A-B-C structure as a harkening to Kānaka conceptions of temporality. For Kahunahana, the audience needed to be able to “see through/behind/as/in spite of/in contrast” to Kea (Sanders). By exposing different ruptures and self-representations,

Kahunahana engages with the Hawaiian praxis of makawalu or “eight eyes.” This multi-relationality, multi-dimensional, and holographic way of thinking speaks to the need of looking at things from at least eight different perspectives. These perspectives aren’t limited to humans but include the concepts of time, or even the natural elements of the planet. 

A young Kea chants with her grandmother.

Waikiki follows a timeline that swirls together past, present, and future that is interspersed with shots of Kea within the modern landscape of Honolulu, temporality-breaking moments of tenderness with her grandmother, and being in ʻāina. Audience viewers are not sure whether they are viewing Kea’s past, present, or future at any given moment. Kahunahana explains that Kea’s “flashbacks to traumatic events were left intentionally muddy as a means to present memory almost as a form of time travel, and to note the relativity of time” (Sanders). We are taken into the mind of Kea, whose state of being slowly devolves into an enmeshed and increasingly panicked predicament by the end of the film.  Visual sovereignty is therefore expressed within a framework of Native Slipstream to engage in a multiplicity of lived realities that have already occured, are happening now, and will happen in the future.

The organization of the film can be thought of as occurring in two simultaneous, yet psychically different, spaces. The first is the dystopian metropolis of Honolulu and its surrounding districts. Kahunahana emphasizes this dystopian landscape by including prolonged shots of concrete buildings and glassy skyscrapers. While most of the film surrounds Kea’s work in the tourism industry, her boyfriend works in construction and the development of luxury apartment complexes in Honolulu. Scenes that take place in the metropolis are sonically signaled with jetliners and military airplanes that create deafening sounds. The metropolis of Honolulu is in stark contrast to the scenes of AlohaʻĀina that ground the viewer in what Hawaiʻi actually means.

Juxtaposed against the harshness of metropolis is Kea’s longing for re-connection to land. The ultimate message of the film centers around Kea’s journey to (re)connect. In scenes where nature appears in the film, Kea occasionally touches base, as a child, with her grandmother while they sing the mele “Ke Ao Nani”—a song about connecting with land and nature. Despite all the chaos that happens in the film, the mele works its way back into the film in unexpected moments, especially when Kea’s struggles to survive increases. While sounds of air travel signal the metropolis, Aloha ʻĀina is sonically signaled with Kea and her grandmother’s chanting, the sounds of birds, and the powerful grounding of the ocean currents/waves. Kahunahana highlights that removal of Hawaiians from land with structured dispossession results in intergenerational issues of violence, anger, and abuse. He marks these intergenerational issues on the film by mixing the temporalities and spatialities of the lands and bodies of Hawai’i. In much the same way that viewers are unable to tell past from present from future, they are unable to temporally or spatially differentiate the Hawai’i of the metropolis from AlohaʻĀina.

A scene of lush waterfalls juxtaposed against the development of Honolulu.
Kea stares at the statue of Queen Lili`uokalani at the State Capitol.

Conclusion

Wandering with Wo through the metropolis of Honolulu, leads Kea to become broken and exhausted. Eventually she comes to the State Capitol, where she stares at the statue of Queen Liliʻuokalani, beckoning for answers that will not come. By the end of the film, we see Kea make her way to Sand Island Park as her boyfriend pursues in an effort to bring  her back home after accusing her of mental instability. The film ends on an ambiguous note. We don’t see Kea get a job, secure housing, or reconcile with her family. None of the problems that we see Kea attempt to navigate are solved. The final shot of the film is Kea on her knees desperate for connection to ʻāina as she grasps red volcanic earth in her hands. A solemn stare and last chant from Kea end the film as she faces water and the high-rise buildings in front her. The phrase that echoed from the beginning of the film He aliʻi ka ʻāina, he kauwa ke kanaka resonates again with what has been lost for Kea and what urgently needs to be (re)connected.

Waikiki ignites the dire need for reconnecting Kānaka epistemologies to land. Christopher Kahunahana’s film highlights the struggles Native Hawaiians face with the ever-increasing threat of being priced out of their own homelands and the cultural trauma that accompanies structured dispossession. Through the struggles of Kea, we see how failure is relegated to Hawaiians who are coping with Post-Apocalyptic Stress Syndrome. While we do not see Kea achieve a typical movie magic ending to her story, the kahea or call, to see from multiple perspectives through Kahunahana’s ruptures of colonial common sense leaves us, like Kea, seeking more answers.

NOTES

[1] Other promotional shots for the film featured a bloody “Shaka” image. The Shaka is a hand-gesture associated with Hawaiʻi as a form of greeting that has frequently been appropriated by outsider surfing culture (particularly California-based) to mean “hang-loose.” These promotional images indicate Christopher Kahunahana’s commentary on the taking and misappropriation of Hawaian values and culture.

WORKS CITED

Coulthard, Glen Sean. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

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

Goodyear-Ka’ōpua, Noelani. “Rebuilding the ‘Auwai: Connecting Ecology, Economy and Education in Hawaiian Schools.” AlterNative: an International Journal of Indigenous Peoples, vol. 5, no. 2, 2009, pp. 46–77.

Gross, Lawrence. “Post-apocalypse Stress Syndrome and Rebuilding American Indian Communities.” The Role of Research in Building Communities: The African American and First Nations Experience Conference, November 2004, University of Kansas, Conference Presentation.

“Homeless in Hawaii : Facts and Resources.” Homeless In Hawaii: Facts and Resources, ltgov.hawaii.gov/homeless-in-hawaii-facts-and-resources/

Raheja, Michelle. “Reading Nanook’s Smile: Visual Sovereignty, Indigenous Revisions of Ethnography, and ‘Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner).’” American Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 4, 2007, pp. 1159–85.

Sanders, Jason. “‘It Is Being Told Now-Because It Is Supposed to Be Told Now’: Christopher Kahunahana on Waikiki and Native Hawaiian Storytelling.” Filmmaker Magazine, 25 Nov. 2020, www.filmmakermagazine.com/110662-it-is-being-told-now-because-it-is-supposed-to-be-told-now-christopher-kahunahana-on-waikiki-and-native-hawaiian-storytelling/#.YUrzlS1h1bV.

Trask, Haunani-Kay. From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawaiʻi . Revised ed., University of Hawaiʻi Press, 1999.

—. “The Color of Violence.” Color of Violence, Duke University Press, 2020, pp. 81–87, doi:10.1515/9780822373445-010.

—. “69- Hawaiians do not come from Adam and Eve.” Youtube, uploaded by Noʻeau Woo-O’Brien, 8 December 2019, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qAjX1kgv-e0.

Nicole Ku’uleinapuananiolikoawapuhimelemeleolani Furtado is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the English Department at the University of California, Riverside. She is of Kanaka Maoli heritage and is from Nanakuli, Hawaii. Her research interests are in Speculative Fiction, Indigenous Studies, Digital Art, Disability Studies, Science and Technology Studies, and Decolonial Futurities.


Sherman Slipstream: (Dis)Associating Settler Time


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 4

Trans-Indigenous Futurity


Sherman Slipstream: (Dis)Associating Settler Time

E Ornelas

As I read the Board of Anthropological Research expedition reports, our family records from the SA Museum, State Aboriginal Records and SA Link-Up, I am transported. I am with my family at the hands of the scientists being measured, bled, poked and prodded as their object of fascination-titillation-subjugation. I am standing before Inspector-‘State-Ladies’ and Probation Officers being inspected, watched from shadows, and shamed in the great Australian assimilation-experiment.

–Natalie Harkin, “The Poetics of (Re)Mapping Archives: Memory in the Blood,” 11

Native peoples occupy a double bind within dominant settler reckonings of time. Either they are consigned to the past, or they are inserted into a present defined on non-native terms. From this perspective, Native people(s) do not so much exist within the flow of time as erupt from it as an anomaly, one usually understood as emanating from a bygone era.

–Mark Rifkin, Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination, vii

In the spring of 2021, the remains of over one thousand Indigenous children were located on the grounds of multiple former Canadian residential schools, including St. Eugene’s Mission School, Marieval Indian Residential School, and Kamloops Residential School. Reports mark these as “discoveries” as if something previously unknown or unseen has finally been made known or visible. According to “settler reckonings of time,” these children are “emanating from a bygone era,” constantly consigned to a dead-end past, as Rifkin’s epigraph explains. But Indigenous peoples subjected to state- and church-run boarding schools have known and seen the effects of these sites of incarceration for centuries (Trafzer, Gilbert, and Sisquoc 2; Trafzer, Smith, and Sisquoc 3). These children are testament to “a past that is not past” [1] that ruptures the flow of settler time. Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indian Nations (FSIN) notes, “These children are sitting there, waiting to be found” (Austen and Bilefsky). Cameron’s words indicate that these children are present, not past. Even though they are “sitting there, waiting,” they are active not passive, making themselves known and demanding to be acknowledged.

Although St. Eugene’s, Marieval, and Kamloops were operated by the Roman Catholic Church and not (directly) under the auspices of the settler government, these children’s experiences no doubt resonate with those of Indigenous students at the hundreds of other boarding schools that operated throughout Turtle Island (e.g. North America) well into the twentieth century. Such schools have rightly been considered “death factories” for “the most vulnerable portion of the Native population,” who were seen by whites as more assimilable than their adult counterparts (Keller 8; Trafzer and Loupe 21). While perhaps not a physical “death factory,” [2] the Sherman Institute—a Native boarding school located in Riverside, California—was far from a healthy living environment, since “separating children from their parents for the purpose of assimilation” and “eliminating traditional lifeways for the sake of ‘civilization’” is decidedly unhealthy, itself a certain kind of death. Indeed, “deceased pupils were usually buried at the school’s cemetery,” a space carved out of “a one-acre plot of land” in “the southwestern corner of the school farm” (Gilbert xxviii; Keller 8; Trafzer and Keller 160). In this way, youth buried at Sherman were kept like the ones “sitting there, waiting” at St. Eugene’s, Marieval, and Kamloops. On the one hand their “voices are silent” and yet, on the other hand, “their voices live on” (Keller 9).

I am dedicated to exhuming the voice of one such Sherman Institute student, one who was kept but at the very least released alive: my paternal grandfather, Louis Ornelas, or Grandpa Louie as he was affectionately called. Grandpa Louie exists mostly in stories, narratives, family histories, pictures, and memories. His image sits in a dusty picture frame, on a dusty shelf, in a dusty corner—or an even dustier realm in the corner of my mind. I only met him in person on a few occasions as a child. So his image has been warped since those moments. Yet sometimes I slip into the bending stream of time and meet Louis. This is a story of one such instance, similar to that of Narungga scholar Natalie Harkin’s account of being “transported” to moments throughout Harkin’s family history of navigating Australian settler violences.

This essay attempts to trace the ripples of Native and Indigenous slipstream, (ancestral) memory, and (dis)association, through critically fabulated accounts of Louis’s years spent at Sherman, my family’s own oral history, and the official chronicle of the Sherman Institute. I argue that Native boarding schools were meant to dissociate Indigenous children from culture, language, tradition, kinship, and lifeways. Yet through the power of science fictional time travel or, more accurately, Indigenous slipstream, I am able to associate (rather than dissociate) with my grandfather’s traumatic experiences and survivance. As a feeling and witnessing of a past that is not past, this essay serves as an Indigenous refusal of hegemonic time and history as well as an affirmation of Indigenous knowledges and realities.

Dominant settler conceptions of time view it as “a linear ordering of the flow of experience” (Al-Saji 339). But Indigenous thought would have it that memory and remembrance have their own “natural current” that is sovereign from this progressivist flow (Vizenor 103). This is why I am drawn more to “slipstream” as a concept than “time travel” to explain my experiences of associating with Louis, because the latter implies that the past is a separate place on a linear timeline that can be travelled to, perhaps requiring elaborate Westernized machinery, know-how, and technology. Instead, the tendency or genre (if one could call it that) of slipstream has been categorized as being, well, slippery. Called “assemblaged,” “hybrized,” “permeable,” “porous,” “incomplete,” “disruptive, experimental, and counter-realist,” with “no fixed or even provisionally demarcated boundaries,” slipstream is in good company with Indigenous epistemologies, ontologies, and modes of thinking about and with time (Butler et al. 12; de Zwaan 2; Frelik 27; Rossi 346;  Rossi 355). It is widely (and falsely) believed that Bruce Sterling coined the term “slipstream” in the ‘80s [3] as a way to disparagingly “refer to mainstream works that take advantage of sf tropes” and later “referred to any sf- or fantasy-like work published or marketed outside the genre, or written by non-genre writers” (Wolfe 19). Sterling himself said that at “the heart of slipstream is an attitude of peculiar aggression against ‘reality.’” Slipstream texts, according to Sterling, “tend to sarcastically tear at the structure of ‘everyday life’” and tend “not to ‘create’ new worlds, but to quote them, chop them up out of context, and turn them against themselves.” Although the originator’s commentary has been debated (and rightly so), I adopt Sterling’s definition insofar as this “tearing,” “chopping up,” and “turning against” is precisely the utility—rather than the failure—that slipstream yields.

Indigenous speculative fiction and, in particular, slipstream could be said to foster an “aggression against ‘reality’” and take things “out of context” by refusing hegemonic time, history, and narrative structure. Grace L. Dillon (Anishinaabe) specifies that “Native slipstream” is similar yet distinct from Sterling’s settler slipstream: “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” (“Imagining” 3). While there may be some overlaps with slipstream as a “catchall” term in “other contexts,” Native slipstream is a “reflection of a worldview” and a “cultural experience of reality,” therefore differentiating it as a uniquely Indigenous epistemology (Dillon, “Imagining” 3-4). And it is certainly “nothing new,” as Dillon also tells us that “incorporating time travel, alternate realities, parallel universes and multiverses, and alternative histories is a hallmark of Native storytelling tradition” (“Native” 345). Indigenous science fictional elements are, therefore, an affirmation of Indigenous knowledges and realities that help to navigate the current of ancestral memory. Just as a single drop of water becomes indistinguishable once it slips into a stream, I see the pasts, presents, and futures of my grandfather and I as flowing together.

What I remember of Grandpa Louie is minimal and vague. As a small child, I visited his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he lived with my paternal grandmother, Rafaela Concepción (or Connie, for short), and my aunt, who acted as caretaker to them both in their old age. I was fascinated by their single-story house full of knick-knacks and sweets in an arid desert climate, a far cry from the overcast, wet environment of my childhood spent in Portland, Oregon. When I was in New Mexico, I thought of (space) aliens, Area 51, and The X-Files. I was also, for the first time in my life, entirely surrounded by my brown family members: grandparents, aunts, and cousins. I barely knew them, yet I felt the need to connect with them and was drawn to this place they inhabited. Louis never seemed particularly interested in me, however. He was quiet and withdrawn, hunched over a bowl of food, more fixated on it than the people around him. At the time, I attributed his stoicism more to his age and declining mental and physical health. My father told me that Grandpa Louie had, on numerous occasions as a septuagenarian, found himself lost and confused in various parts of Albuquerque. His dwindling memory was exacerbated by several small strokes. Now I wonder if his alienating demeanor was also a symptom of retreating into his own bodymind as a coping mechanism for the trauma he endured in his formative years.

I am 8 years old and I have just watched a documentary television show about alien abduction. The image of a grey’s face filling up the screen is still burned into my eyes as I retire to bed on the fold-out couch in my grandparent’s living room. I lay awake for the next several hours thinking about how close I am to Roswell, New Mexico, the supposed proximal location of a 1947 sighting of an unidentified flying object. My sleep is fitful, as I envision strange lights and visitors in the room.

On one hand, my 8-year-old self sympathized with this elderly man. On the other, the stories my own father told me about their relationship deeply troubled me. Many of my earliest memories of Grandpa Louie were tinged with the upsetting accounts of my father’s childhood. He was candid about the physical and verbal abuse that he and the rest of the family endured at Louis’s hands. My grandfather’s anger was explained by my father not as the result of a generational norm (“That’s just how it was back then”), nor as one individual’s irrational tendencies (“He was a sonofabitch”), but as the tragic, but logical outcome of Grandpa Louie’s own subjection to violence, death, and grief starting at a very young age. As Kaba and Hayes remind their readers, “it is hurt people who hurt other people” (69). Or as my father put it, Louis enacted “trickle down abuse.” I was told that Grandpa Louie had been placed in an orphanage as a child, only to have later gone into the U.S. armed forces, [4] where he was deployed to Pearl Harbor and witnessed the events there on December 7, 1941, as well as participated in the Pacific theater of World War II. Early life abandonment and post-traumatic stress seemed the likely culprits to characterize his actions later on.

I am 13 years old and I live in Fontana, California, in 1960. I have spent the school day worried about being held back yet again for speaking Spanish, my mother’s native tongue, in class. I proceeded across the street to my after-school job working in chicken coops for 50¢ an hour, nauseating work that leaves me with a ripe odor of bird droppings. Other children bully me, cut me, and call me “smelly,” a “dirty Mexican,” or worse. Despite these things, what I fear most today is going home to my father, his rage, his belt. Neither my siblings nor my deferential mother can help. So I go to my room to avoid any interaction.

However, what was recounted to me throughout the first three decades of my life was not the entirety of what Louis endured. In the summer of 2017, as I was preparing to enter a PhD program in the fall, I travelled to the Pacific Northwest to attend a ceremony to scatter my late sibling’s ashes into the ocean. During this trip, my father informed me that he had found the name and location of the place his father was held as an adolescent: the Sherman Institute in Riverside, California. After some initial web searches, I realized that the “orphanage” that Grandpa Louie stayed at was, in fact, a Native boarding school. Although he survived the Sherman Institute, he was literally and figuratively orphaned—not only were both of his parents deceased when he was released from Sherman as a teen and thus he had no immediate biological family to return to, but he had also been indoctrinated and assimilated into white supremacist, settler colonial societal and linguistic norms and was therefore orphaned from his culture. My father and I don’t have firsthand accounts of Louis’s experiences at Sherman because, as my aunt put it, it was a terrible place and a terrible time in his life. He didn’t want to talk about it. But it’s not hard to imagine, considering the reverberations of these experiences throughout our family’s history. For example, there was a deep fear and obsession in my father’s family about him and his siblings being molested by strangers, which leads my father and I to presume that Louis was abused or witnessed abuse by fellow classmates and teachers at Sherman. [5] It’s also not hard to imagine Grandpa Louie’s experiences if I utilize Indigenous slipstream [6] to transport myself and think beyond settler reckonings of time.

I am barely a teenager and I am alone for the first time in my life. Taken. Discarded. Trapped. Abandoned. They all mean the same thing here. My father wasn’t always kind but at least we had each other. My mother and father are gone now—first my mother, then my father—so I was given a new family. Now I am surrounded by others just like me. Alone.

Most scholarship on the Sherman Institute has, up to this point, relied heavily on archival records—themselves initially created and curated by school administrators and settler bureaucrats. Official documents tell “only one version of the truth,” though, and “are sorely lacking” in Indigenous students’ voices (Keller xviii, 3). “Institutional time,” Vizenor (Anishinaabe) contends, “belies our personal memories, imagination, and consciousness” (101). Rather than accepting settler institutional history “as a factual and objectively recorded account of the past,” I align with those scholars who “view history as just another type of narrative” (Ibarrola-Armendariz and Vivanco 29). Creative counter narratives that employ a “disorientating” and “surreal maelstrom of time-traveling and body jumping” are of great use for the purposes of (re)asserting the importance and validity of Indigenous epistemologies and temporalities (Ibarrola-Armendariz and Vivanco 30, 42).

One such form of counter narrative is critical fabulation. Hartman defines this manner of speculation thusly:

‘Fabula’ denotes the basic elements of story, the building blocks of the narrative. …By playing with and rearranging the basic elements of the story, by re-presenting the sequence of events in divergent stories and from contested points of view, I have attempted to jeopardize the status of the event, to displace the received or authorized account, and to imagine what might have happened or might have been said or might have been done. (11)

Through critical fabulation, Hartman is able to shift stories away from a primary focus on the violences done to captured and enslaved Black girls and women, and refocus to “fill… in the gaps” and “paint as full a picture… as possible” (Hartman 8, 11). More than that, though, critical fabulation insists that there are ways of seeing, witnessing, and knowing the past other than those the white supremacist, settler imaginary has provided. This is similar to the “imaginative histories” and the “remembrance past the barriers” that Vizenor urges for in the face of institutional timekeeping (101). If official accounts of Black enslavement or Native genocide are created and kept by supposed experts [7] in documenting human life—accountants, clergy, historians, etc.—then telling “our own stories” is an act of resistance against such claims to authority (Justice 2). We are the authors of our own lives—who better than us to narrate the lives we live? Even what has been written on our bodies from the outside is best recollected from our own unique vantage point (Harkin 4). What I hope to demonstrate is that this vantage point is not singular nor individual; it is plural and collective. I am able to fabulate and associate with my grandfather’s experiences because they are part of a past that is not past and, therefore, still present for me and other survivors and descendants of Native boarding schools.

The official history of the Sherman Institute is a narrative of white bureaucrats steeped in the violent pedagogical lineage of earlier iterations of Native boarding schools, such as the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Originally founded in 1892 as the Perris Indian Industrial School located in Perris, California, U.S. Senate funding was approved in 1900, allowing Indian agents like Harwood Hall and businessmen like Frank Miller to successfully advocate for the relocation of the school to Riverside, California in 1902, where it continues to this day as the Sherman Indian High School (Keller 1, 12; Trafzer, Smith, and Sisquoc 6; Whalen, “Labored” 153). At its height as a site of incarceration, it held youth from “indigenous communities and mixed-race Native families from California, Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, Oklahoma, Montana, Utah, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Nebraska” (Smithers 44). Sherman was one of twenty-five federally-run off-reservation boarding schools, the purpose of which was assimilation through education or, more accurately, indoctrination (Gilbert xxi; Smithers 44; Trafzer, Gilbert, and Sisquoc 3; Trafzer, Smith, and Sisquoc 7). Upon arrival, students were stripped, deloused, had their hair cut, and were issued utilitarian clothing (Trafzer and Loupe 25). On a day to day basis, students at Sherman would’ve been subjected to military-like regimentation, with half of their lessons on rote academic work and the other half spent in highly gendered vocational training (Gilbert xxvi; Trafzer and Loupe 24; Trafzer, Smith, and Sisquoc 3). Administrators further endeavored to indoctrinate Indigenous youth through “outing programs,” meant to lift up these children into a settler capitalist workforce serving white communities (Archuleta, Child, Lomawaima 34-5; Trafzer, Smith, and Sisquoc 8, 10; Whalen, “Beyond” 277; Whalen, “Labored” 151). Records of children’s experiences at Sherman range from excelling academically to actively resisting and attempting to run away (Archuleta, Child, Lomawaima 48; Gilbert xxvii; Smithers 46-7; Trafzer and Loupe 26; Trafzer, Gilbert, and Sisquoc, 7; Trafzer, Smith, and Sisquoc 10). Surely some students were able to gain knowledge and resources that helped them and their communities, especially once Sherman turned toward more Indigenous-affirming programming in the mid-twentieth century and beyond (Trafzer and Loupe 30; Trafzer, Smith, and Sisquoc 1-2; Whalen, “Labored” 152). Some families even consented to this process, however reluctantly (Archuleta, Child, and Lomawaima 16; Trafzer, Smith, and Sisquoc 6). These experiences are not dichotomous, though, as noted by both Gilbert [8] (Hopi) as well as Trafzer (Wyandot), Keller, and Sisquoc [9] (Cuhilla/Apache). That is to say, students and their families exercised agency—though constrained—within and beyond the permeable boundaries of the Sherman Institute (Whalen, “Beyond” 277). However, just like other Native boarding schools, Sherman was ultimately founded on and acted in service to settler colonial practices of elimination—in this case the elimination of association between young people and their communities.

I am 17, not yet old enough to enlist in the military but old enough to be subjected to the discipline of a 5:30 AM wake up and roll call starting an hour later. I couldn’t say whether or not I enjoy my classes, but at least they provide me with distraction. The relentless cleaning and the mandatory physical activities are the same. No enjoyment. Only distraction. I need distraction. Distraction from the things I want to forget. It’s only after the last roll call at 8 PM and the bugle call at 9 PM signaling lights out that I’m left inescapably isolated with my thoughts.

Settler colonial boarding schools for Indigenous peoples the world over were meant to dissociate Indigenous children from culture, language, tradition, kinship, and lifeways. That is to say, young people were forced to sever ties and connections to the people, places, and selves that made them who they were and are, in service of connecting them to white supremacist, settler colonial ideologies. The verb “associate” comes from the Latin associare (“to unite”), itself a combination of the prefix ad- (“to join”) and sociatus (“companion”). Adding dis-, a Latin prefix meaning “apart,” “asunder,” or “away,” to the beginning of “associate” qualifies a move from—even destroying of—union and companionship. Dis- has a markedly different feel than, say, the prefix un-, which simply indicates “not.” To be “not united” is not the same thing as to be “apart from union.” The latter implies spatial and perhaps emotional and psychological distance; certainly all of these forms of removal and being apart are present in boarding schools (Archuleta, Child, and Lomawaima 19). I don’t invoke a Eurocentric etymology as a way to eclipse Indigenous language. Rather, this terminology illuminates that settlers did exactly what their words intended. At one time united with their community and companions, Native and First Nations children were stolen and intentionally orphaned—boarding and residential schools moved apart, tore asunder, ripped away, and utterly devastated their associations. In the specific case of Cherokee students at Sherman, Smithers emphasizes that the intention of such a space was to “sever linguistic, cultural, or any emotional connections to Cherokee identity” thereby making it significantly difficult for youth to cultivate and maintain “a meaningful sense of self or attachments to family and community” (47-8, emphasis added). Other scholars describe these experiences of being “disconnected” and “alienated” from Indigenous communities and epistemologies (Trafzer, Gilbert, and Sisquoc 5-6). Even decades later, Harkin describes the “yearning” to reconnect with more than just the “archive” of colonial documentation: “I remember aching to touch something, anything more of our recorded past to understand this journey and the particular impacts of colonialism on my family” (3). The feeling of “aching to touch something” implies that Harkin and other family members were unable to and actively disallowed from touching and connecting with one another, whether across space, time, or psychic gulfs.

I have never been to Riverside, California, let alone the Sherman Institute. Yet when I first heard the more complete story of my grandfather’s childhood, I was transported to that place. No one had told me what the buildings looked like, I hadn’t yet seen the photos or read the books about it, and my father had yet to imbue in me a sense of what Grandpa Louie’s time there had been like. All I had been given was the name and a grainy cellphone photo of the line in the Sherman Institute’s ledger indicating my grandfather’s stay. So what I saw when I slipped “back” to the 1930s was alarmingly real and unanticipated. My body was “here” in 2017, located physically in the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest, while my consciousness wandered freely to the Southwestern coastal region in an era almost a century before I currently existed, a half century before I was even conceived. Here were children half my age, structures that have long since been transformed, if not completely razed, all swirling in my mind. It wasn’t “in my mind,” though, in the sense that I wasn’t “imagining” it; it was as real as any memory or experience of my own. But it also wasn’t “my own.” Whose eyes were I seeing through? I didn’t see my grandfather in these slipstream memories, so I quickly understood that I was with him, seeing with him. These snippets of life at Sherman came and went for weeks in August of 2017 as I sought to uncover more about the space and place he’d been held. Intense moments of grief followed these slips into the stream of time. Eventually the unofficial narrative buttressed the knowledge I gleaned about the official narrative.

I am 31 years old and I haven’t yet been born. I am in a school with gleaming, waxed floors, immaculately cleaned by some small, unseen hands. I am primed to enter a terminal degree program in the Midwest. The halls are cool despite the heat of the California summer blaring outside. The faculty welcome me with reassuring smiles. I am still processing the loss of my father to a train yard accident. I am still processing the loss of my sister to cancer. I see a girl about my age, round face and dark brown skin. She wears a white smock and a blank stare, unaware of my presence, absent-mindedly engrossed in whatever menial task she’s been assigned. I think, “She’s like me.” I think, “She’s nothing like me.” I think we share the same fate. I wonder what she’s thinking about, who she is and where she came from, who and what she left behind. There is a wooden door to a closet or an office or some other confined space that none of us can enter and none of us want to.

At first glance, this might appear to be a form of “blood memory,” but I assert that the ancestral association I experienced was Indigenous slipstream, a form of science fictional time travel technology. Blood memory or “memory in the blood” is itself a contested term, originally brought to prominence by Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday (Allen 93). In Momaday’s writing, there is a “blurring” of experiences in which the writer is “coincident with indigenous ancestors and with indigenous history” (Allen 101, 106). Even in its creative and playful form, blood memory is controversial for its potential similarities to the use of blood quantum for official federal tribal enlistment and recognition (Allen 96-7; Mithlo 106). Nevertheless, Mithlo (Chiricahua Apache) claims that the term is not necessarily regressive or essentialist. “Blood relationships,” Mithlo counters,

reference not only the common understanding of what is considered biological heritage or race but also, in an expanded sense, the internalized memories of communal history, knowledge, and wisdom. Blood memories are powerful political tropes mobilized to call attention to the legacies of colonialism in contexts as diverse as battlefields, boarding schools, and sacred sites. This common tribal value of multigenerational remembrance runs directly counter to prevailing Western traits of individual achievement, lack of transgenerational memory, and transcendence of one’s genealogical fate and place of origin. (106)

Similar to Mithlo’s warning against the “prevailing Western traits” of individualized experiences of knowledge and time, the most compelling argument for a more generous, abstract reading of memory in the blood comes from Harkin’s poetic (re)telling of history. In searching beyond the official records, Harkin calls upon a nonlinear narrative relationship between past-present-future that rethinks Momaday, whose “memory in the blood… is not about genetic or biological determinism, notions of fixed identity or timeless essences, but can be understood as an evocative synonym for culture, reconstructed and reimagined on the record” (Harkin 7). I’m certainly not invested in espousing genetic essentializing or authenticating tropes that reproduce settler ideas of blood quantum. Instead, I’m interested in how Indigenous slipstream—offering association through alternative models of knowledge, memory, and history—operates as a kind of technology that counters settler colonial narratives.

When I recounted these experiences of slipping between time periods and consciousnesses to a white friend, they replied that it sounded like I was “dissociating.” They based this on the fact that I was not fully in my bodymind, was not cognizant of (current) reality, and therefore feeling something akin to the psychological phenomenon correlated with trauma responses. Černis et al. define dissociation as containing “a subset of dissociative experiences sharing the phenomenological common denominator of a ‘felt sense of anomaly’ (FSA),” a “subjective feeling of ‘strangeness’” that “can take various forms” (461). At first, I agreed with my white friend insofar as the invasive thoughts of settler colonialism were clearly an expression of a traumatizing history and surely weren’t emotionally stabilizing. Plus, my friend has felt dissociated as a trauma response in their own life, so I trusted their firsthand knowledge. Later on, I spoke with a Sámi friend whose grandparent was also forced into a boarding school imposed by Scandinavian policies (Trafzer and Loupe 28). Relating the same experiences as well as my friend’s assessment, my Sámi friend countered that rather than “dissociating” it sounded more like I was “associating.” To them, I was uniting across time and space with my grandfather. I realized that they were right, that my grandfather and I were joining as companions in a shared history, separate and parallel from settler time. This reality was not “away” or “apart” from one another or from Indigeneity, as the settler colonial imperative of elimination would have it. Louis was no longer orphaned from kin and culture in those moments when I slipped to the Sherman Institute of the 1930s.

In these slips, I was chafing against the settler timeline and tearing at the fabric of coloniality in a way that Al-Saji discusses as “critical hesitation.” The “chrononormativity” of time, as conceived in the West, is unidirectional and progressive, a smooth controlled surface that is dictated by particular monolithic epistemes (Rifkin 185). Critical hesitation works to question and interrupt this. When hesitating, Al-Saji describes pausing long enough to see the ways in which “the colonial past remains with the present,” running parallel to and informing one another at all times (337). Hesitation then connects these seemingly discrete timelines so that those of us who hesitate within and against settler time actually perform a “critical reconfiguration of the past” (Al-Saji 338, emphasis in original). In other words, by stopping to acknowledge and associate with my grandfather’s experiences, I was able to cause such a hesitation or rupture to Western chrononormativity, to resist its totalization, thereby reconfiguring the past to a fuller representation of its actors. Rather than the singular, “masterly, or direct, reiteration of the past” that settler colonial history demands, hesitation is “indirect and faltering,” since “it delays a habitual or unreflected line of action” and “creates an opening into which memories could come flowing back” (Al-Saji 338). Al-Saji’s emphasis on faltering, delayed, crucially imperfect timelines, and uncontrollable, flowing memory are valid sites from which knowledge and resistance might spring. Grandpa Louie and I were in “cross-time proximity,” bridging the span of linear time as well as the gulf imposed by the forced assimilation and dissociation of boarding schools (Rifkin 131).

In some ways, Louis represents the things that I seek to abolish through my personal and professional work. He was indoctrinated into settler colonial epistemes, by complicity, force, or both, never again returning to his linguistic and cultural roots. He joined in military activity, part of an imperialist tradition. He physically and emotionally scarred the people he was supposed to care for. He retreated into an unemotive masculinity, not sharing his own experiences or feelings, let alone seeking reconciliation or healing. Still, recounting the past—not through official channels but through the Indigenous technology of slipping into the stream of ancestral memory—allows me to associate with, connect to, and understand this man’s troubling life. Like Harkin’s poetic exploration, I too “enter those hidden in-between places full of mystery, pain and possibility; to peel back layers of memory and flesh and liberate our stories and skin” (3). Like discussions of Native literature, “time-traveling and body-migrating devices perfectly serve [the] purpose of delving into the cycles of violence…” as well as help “to forgive those who have hurt…” (Ibarrola-Armendariz and Vivanco 42; Johnson 144). Fortunately, Louis was returned to us. Countless youth incarcerated in boarding and residential schools never made it out alive. All the same, we cannot accept that their “voices are silent,” because as Chief Cameron’s words inform us, these children are “sitting there, waiting.”

In the epigraph, Rifkin articulates, “Native people(s) do not so much exist within the flow of time as erupt from it as an anomaly” (vii). Borrowing from this notion of Nativeness as ruptive and anomalous rather than flowing with time, I maintain that it is not so much that we as Indigenous peoples are anachronistic but rather that chrononormativity is such that we cannot be explained by and contained within its current. To paraphrase Rifkin, Indigenous time is not an affirmation of settler time, reducible to, or nested within it (2). Our narratives are not (science) fictional—they are real and valid. And yet, using speculative tropes like slipstream to (re)tell our stories, our memories, and our associations, exceeds the bounds of settler time.

NOTES

[1] We now lay, as Sharpe might say, in the wake of a half-millennia-long genealogy of violence (13).

[2] Despite “funding constraints and a lackadaisical attitude,” youth held at Sherman Institute were “a relatively healthy student population” compared to their reservation and white peers (Keller xvii).

[3] However, Dillon corrects this oversight by clarifying that “Anishinaabe author, scholar, and activist Gerald Vizenor (White Earth Chippewa) clearly ‘coined’ the genre in his 1978 essay ‘Custer in the Slipstream’” (“Native” 344-5).

[4] Writing about World War I, Medina concludes that Sherman “students carefully weighed their decision to enlist for military duty,” many choosing to enlist “for a variety of reasons other than patriotism,” such as “economic necessity” or “experience” (65-6).

[5] “Boarding schools could be violent places,” but less commonly “told are the stories of sexual abuse” (Archuleta, Child, Lomawaima 42). Considering that adolescents were sent into the world to work for complete strangers—often in the intimate proximity of whites’ homes—and were not always well supervised even when on-campus—leading to grave physical harm and even death—then it’s likely that sexualized violence also befell Sherman students, despite purported attempts to protect them (Whalen, “Beyond” 278; Whalen, “Labored” 158).

[6] Dillon uses the term “Native slipstream” but throughout this essay I will refer to this as “Indigenous slipstream” (3).

[7] As Harkin avers, the “supposed agents of protection and integrity determined what data was important, relevant and interesting for the record” (9).

[8] In an in-depth study of Hopi strategies of coping with boarding schools like Sherman, Gilbert states that while some Hopi “saw little benefit in allowing American ways to enter Hopi society and culture,” still others “strategically learned to adopt components” (xxiii).

[9] Trafzer, Keller, and Sisquoc refer to this as “turning the power” (Boarding 28).

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Dillon, Grace L. “Imagining Indigenous Futurisms.” Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction, edited by Grace L. Dillon, University of Arizona Press, 2012, pp. 1–12.

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Johnson, Robyn. “Dancing in Circles: Fanonian and Benjaminian Violence in Sherman Alexie’s Flight.” Journal of American Culture, vol. 42, no. 2, 2019, pp. 137–146.

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Kaba, Mariame, and Kelly Hayes. “The Sentencing of Larry Nassar Was Not ‘Transformative Justice.’ Here’s Why.” We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice, edited by Tamara Nopper, Haymarket Books, 2021, pp. 68–71.

Keller, Jean A. Empty Beds: Indian Student Health at Sherman Institute, 1902-1922. Michigan State University Press, 2002.

Medina, William O. “Selling Patriotic Indians at Sherman Institute.” The Indian School on Magnolia Avenue: Voices and Images from Sherman Institute, edited by Clifford Trafzer, Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert, and Lorene Sisquoc, Oregon State University Press, 2012, pp. 65–80.

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E Ornelas (they/them) is a PhD candidate and Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellow at the University of Minnesota. As the descendant of a survivor of the Sherman Institute, a Native boarding school in Riverside, California—and therefore robbed of cultural, linguistic, and tribal identity—E’s research interests focus on the continued survivance and futurity of Indigenous peoples, particularly through the use of literature. E studies community-based, abolitionist-informed responses to gendered, racialized, and colonial violence that Black and Indigenous fiction authors write about.


On Writing “Ghost Hunt” and Preparing My Own Spirit


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 4

Trans-Indigenous Futurity


On Writing “Ghost Hunt” and Preparing My Own Spirit

Melissa Michal

We who are Indigenous have been erased in the academy, Hollywood, education, politics, and technology.  Any space that you can imagine, we do not exist because oftentimes, even if you find us there, we have been interpreted, wrangled, rearranged, and crafted to fit Euro American ideologies, even though most often those are entire fabrications. In the past few hundreds of years, we must imagine our own futures, because it was presumed we would not have futures. In fact, it was even desired that we have no futures. In an annual report from the Commissioner of Indian affairs dated October 24, 1881, he states, “There is no one who has been a close observer of Indian history and the effect of contact of Indians with civilization who is not well satisfied that one of two things must eventually take place, to wit, either civilization or extermination of the Indian. Savage and civilized life cannot live and prosper on the same ground. One of the two must die.”  He recognizes here a long history of settlers wanting us exterminated. Erased. There is no white savior then or now. What they didn’t count on for their futures is that we are still here. 

Some of us are working hard to take the walk back to our communities after erasures have taken over. My great grandfather was ashamed of his Seneca identity and walked away. My desire to kick down the hefty walls and all the boxes courses through my blood. He may have felt shame, and hopes that I won’t, yet I too, am left shamed all of the time for being too white-coded, for being too Indigenous-minded, for being too sensitive and empathic, for being a woman, for working on genocide and truth and reconciliation for Native American genocide, for being a woman desiring a family and lost without one, for having dreams, and for speaking truths. It seems I cannot thrive in the eyes of others no matter which part of me I assert. Someone will always have something negative to say. I sometimes wonder how we can truly be ourselves here on land that is ours, that has been stolen, that is continuously being colonized. And then I remember community teachings. We do because our ancestors hover there, with us, wanting different lives for us, wanting our futures to be stronger and less trauma informed.  Wanting our true sovereignty. 

In this erasure state, I feel like a ghost sometimes, drifting there right in front of folks, but never really seen unless I move an object valuable to others. When I realize this, a different future begins appearing to me, but only after I understand the past histories that have been forcibly removed from my education. In graduate school, I work with Indigenous mentors and accomplice mentors, who assign Indigenous-centered texts and critical work from emerging BIPOC scholars which all help me turn a pivotal point of what will be many of my own shifts and changes.

The community of “Ghost Hunt” begins with an entirely different character, first. I wrote a separate novel chapter where a mother searches for her daughter during the boarding school period. She comes to me while listening to Indigenous female writers who include female leads in their work. I have already been centering women as the heroines to their tales, something I still don’t see often in American Indian stories. I am not surprised then when a mother knocks within my brain, entreating me to write, to tell her story. The first chapter, of what would years later become a novel, involves this mother uncovering the bones of her daughter. I can’t stop writing her story until it’s finished—multiple flash pieces upon flash pieces challenging what it means to craft psychological breaks of a character who remains both broken and hopeful that her daughter is somehow alive.

But her daughter is a Lost One.

Lost Ones are children who never return home from boarding schools centered on forcibly educating American Indians to assimilation and stolen minds. I wonder why I am uncovering bones in this dark, dark basement and making this character enter the worst moment of her life. That’s when I realize that I wrote this particular chapter to teach those who don’t know our traumas exactly how those emotions rise and fall and tear apart. To show how trauma appears in full, daily, we are still breathing, form. Because the trauma doesn’t take us down how settlers want those breaks to occur. At least not most of us. That complete realization doesn’t occur to me for several more years of working on this novel.

Shortly after the spring when this first chapter and the mother’s character pours out of my pen, I spend a summer week in the archives at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. I work between the archives at Dickinson College, the Cumberland County Historical Society, and the War College. All of the people in these spaces are extraordinarily nice. But I’m not sure they know what it means to thumb through pages, photos, interviews, and student newspapers aimed at extinction and erasure.

I notice that many of the students’ voices are either left out, unbalanced, or reframed through white perspectives. The newspaper is controlled and edited by the “man on the bandstand.” Letters home are closely monitored for inappropriate complaints and comments about the school. When DeWitt Smith III later completes interviews throughout the late ‘70s he only interviews three folks related to direct student experiences: John Alonzo, a student at Carlisle, and Mr. and Mrs. George Sarracino, both of whose fathers were students. We also hear from many white community members. All of this makes me feel more and more uncomfortable, including the cold, orange and brown 70s inspired modern architecture of the buildings I have to sit in to read such materials. At that time, archives are at the very beginnings of digitizing this boarding school collection. Now, you can scroll through these files at home in your own space. Back then, it’s against the rules to seek to take the pages anywhere but in the specific rooms for viewing. I understand the idea around protecting vulnerable documents—vulnerable to decay and oils in our hands. What I can’t comprehend, and still don’t, is that we have to ask permission to do so—that this is considered keeping documents safe. When were those students kept safe and valued? Parents have been promised that. And of course, the schools break those promises.

On the last day of my research, I visit the barracks where the first ever government-run boarding school had been converted into school grounds in 1879—built to kill us, but yet to save our humanity. It isn’t our humanity that needs saving. The space has been turned back to a war barracks after the school closes in 1918. I am glad to be outside, but the discomfort doesn’t leave my body. Just at the barracks’ entrance stands a graveyard from the time-period of the boarding school where both students and other staff are buried. Mind you, this has been moved from the very back of the grounds. I still wonder why they had to disturb those bodies. Why move these vulnerable, sacred children?

Moving Indigenous bodies or bulldozing over our burial grounds is not new to us. The #NoDAPL movement received attention for a summer, fall, and part of a winter, then disappeared, even though digging on Indigenous burial grounds against our permission continues. I think that our bodies are ignored because they can’t see our spirits. We then again become ghosts. There are still important energies and ancestral knowledge tied to those graves, however. 

I notice a light in Carlisle at the barracks that surrounds the area, even though clouds cover the sky. That’s why the bones glow at the end of this story, which I only recognize now. I also notice dream catchers and small bags of tobacco by the stone entrance of the cemetery. Someone has been looking after these children. Tobacco bags also sit along many of the students’ gravestones. As difficult as this experience is, I sigh in relief to see these other knowledge holders lining the space, a protectant that the children don’t have while at that school. A line created of love and care which they also don’t have on these grounds until now, but which had certainly spread out from their communities.

I won’t talk here of boarding school stories. Readers can do research on their own about Carlisle and other schools, much of which is done by other Indigenous scholars now. But I can say these were, and still are, toxic spaces. Strong ceremonies need to clear these spaces because of the harm, violence, and multitudes of atrocities that occurred here.

What I remember about the two interviews with the student survivors are their stories of friendships. Out of horror, our youth, our interrupted seven generations, make lasting relationships. Relationships that I can only hope help them through the trauma of the moment—although these could not be enough to keep the trauma from happening. It’s vital to point out here that these students remember their friendships, picking strawberries, and playing ball. I try to see that while on the grounds, but I fail and can only imagine the man on the literal bandstand, a white gazebo in the middle of the grounds used to closely monitor students—a gazebo modeled after the center of a prison where prisoners are watched for misbehaving.

My walk across the grounds of the former school leads me to write “Ghost Hunt,” and wondering how we move forward to begin healing from boarding schools. Those characters have called out to me to place them carefully on paper and to take a similar walk with them on the grounds of a boarding school up near my home. Thus, seven characters, seven best friends, growing up on a reservation sometime fifty years from now, have moved through my dreams and out onto my computer screen. 

I am often surprised at what does and doesn’t emotionally and mentally impact me in the moment—how I am able to let some stories work through me, but not break me. I would only realize years later how rocked my body is from visiting the school grounds. I am shaky afterwards and I experience this feeling of not wanting to leave, but being pushed bodily to go immediately after walking around the entire space. I cry while watching a documentary on the schools the year previously, but I can’t cry here. I take those stories, energies, and images in, straight in, and they sit in my body.

Writing “Ghost Hunt” does not release toxins from my body. That would be too easy for this work. For this depth of trauma and loss. However, the story then unrolls from my fingers quickly, making words pop up as the pages scroll on. When visiting Carlisle, I know there are secrets there under the dirt and along the horizon. I can see, too, that we will never know the whole story.

During my research, I find that there is a mass grave site of now 82 known graves in Florida at Dozier School for Boys, a place that abused those from infant to teenage years, of both young white and black men. All I need to know is that the US has one mass grave that they have hidden, to know that there is a large capillary system of lies through the bedrock of bones, dirt, and decaying buildings across the country. The US is built on the belief that if you can control human bodies, whether through education, prison, slavery, cheap labor, laws, or religion, then you can also have control of the land. But nature doesn’t concede to this kind of relationship. It’s easier to hide something when you literally bury the secret. And the secret is that children are forced to horribly alter their identity and their minds in ways their bodies can’t always survive. Those schools kill the children who die under their “care” because our Lost Ones are never cared for at all. Because remember, these students aren’t seen as human yet. That has to be beaten into them whether verbally or physically. Let me return to that letter: “Savage and civilized life cannot live and prosper on the same ground. One of the two must die.”  Die either by assimilation or by body.

And so the “Ghost Hunt” character Brenner creates a quest for his friends to bring them together. He is that elusive character that takes adventure to extremely strange levels. But he doesn’t want to do this particular adventure without his friends. Throughout the novel from which this story derives, he goes off on his own self-discovery without them or the readers and I think he knows this is that last moment before they part for a while. As much as he continues to call this a ghost hunt, Brenner really knows that this is simply a label which means family members. He wants to connect to his ancestors just as much as some of the other characters who are hiding this from themselves. Others of them don’t need to connect here because they can in other ways, they just don’t know it yet. Some need the tangible quest, while others will journey in their dreams.

But in the here and now of this story, they are in shock. Shock and first reactions will look different for everyone, just as it does for me. Some are angry, some sad, some numb, some oblivious. There are a wide range of emotions when grieving the Lost Ones. I was numb then. Am numb still sometimes. I see and hear so much violence against Indigenous bodies that if I don’t let quite a bit of those stories ride over me in those first moments, I wouldn’t still be here. But don’t think that means I never feel the violence reverberate through me. 

Late at night, I sometimes rock with the pain, pain brought out by reading other stories, or hearing other stories, or simply by being alone. These are often tears and shakes. The anger, which turns to rage during Covid and the responses of unwoke folks to the activism and the major health crisis, enters my body too, just more often than it used to. I rock with that emotion, too, and rage and anger rise when people don’t understand, when they say and do racist things and then mask their harm with liberal ideals, and when they refuse to do the work and dig settler colonialism out of themselves. The scar from the digging will heal, but they don’t want to feel the small, biting pain that comes with the digging.

They will never know microaggressions and that constant biting, searing pain which marks each day that those like them create by being unsafe spaces which cause harm, and sometimes are abusive. So then, I’m angry again, and then they do something again and I find it harder and harder to let those moments roll off of my back where I say nothing.  

When there is a war scene in a movie, I sometimes imagine that is us conquering settler colonialism for good. Until I return to reality where we are erased from Hollywood. And then I become even more angry, and I take my imaginary self and I re-create Hollywood our way. I am one of those heroines on the front lines, charging through the fray ready to stop at nothing to rid the world of all its terror and violence and Twisted Mind. Someone once said to me, it’s loving to tell an oppressor that they are being violent. Fighting back is not succumbing to their ways because the fight takes care of us and can be protective.

And so these characters emerge and they take that fight on for the future. In order to do so, in order to push them forward, they must first see the trauma from a different angle, down under the dirt, from their ancestors. This discovery will become their motivation, much like it becomes mine. 

For readers experiencing only this story here in this special edition, this discovery is our daily tangle with managing trauma and being our resilient selves anyway. We step in, we step out. It’s not always that smooth or complete.

I step back in when I hear about Kamloops.Years after writing these seven characters and their first chapter, someone says, “Did you hear?” I then find myself sweeping through news articles. I’m not just finding the stories in Canadian newspapers, as I hear a week after the discovery. The US reports this news, too. 215 bodies radar detected in Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, the village where Kamloops Indian Residential School, one of the largest in Canada, is located. And I’m shocked.

I’m not shocked at the discovery. My story foresaw this occurring—including the detectors—just perhaps not right now. I do, however, have a momentary retreat to awe. Awe at those doing the work. Awe at ensuring the news picks up the story. I am shocked that the US has an ear on the story. Maybe they are comfortable writing about the mass graves because the discovery isn’t in the US. US newspapers don’t mention then that there were other discoveries here, that people have been working to detect similar sites on US boarding school grounds—including unmarked graves at Carlisle. A few spaces will later report this, but the part about the US does not make the major news channels. Instead, they continue to question Canadian residential schools.

When something is far enough away that you can’t imagine it on your own land, critiquing those actions becomes very easy and there seems an anger that goes along with the critique.

But this trauma doesn’t run through their blood. 

I hear many stories from other Indigenous folks. I believe all of them and take their words in as precious beings that deserve careful and kind care. I have heard several stories already about Indigenous writers and teachers encountering folks who had thought “all the Indians had died.” People simply walk up to them and tell them they can’t possibly exist because history classes or movies tell them otherwise. I have yet to experience that myself until a few years into teaching.

One day, a student sits in my office discussing her paper. She has just been home visiting for either fall break or Thanksgiving. 

“I brought up our class to my family,” she says. She explains that there are a number of older relatives gathering for a meal. “My dad said that he thought all the Indians had died a long time ago. He didn’t understand why we were studying them.”

A chill runs up my back and then I pinch myself so that she can see. “Well, I’m still here, so…”

She laughs. “I know. I tried to tell him. But he wouldn’t believe me.”We move on to discuss her paper topic. But that moment remains embedded in my skin and my brain. I already know this is a common experience and I don’t feel alone. But yet, this is a common experience to be so invisible.

These moments are pricks to the skin. Hearing about Kamloops is a prick to the skin. Hearing US newspapers ignore their own history is another prick. Making major revisions to a department letter about the discovery is an even deeper prick that bleeds. There are these scars all along my body and my brain that come from the constant and consistent breaches into trauma. When relegated to a ghost, a disappearing trick, there is this moment of others looking right past the problem. You see, a ghost is still there, still present, but unless the spirit can move objects, that presence can’t be seen by most people. That is what microaggressions do—they turn us into ghostly apparitions. Our experiences can’t possibly happen, can’t possibly be racist, can’t possibly be homophobic, can’t possibly be narcissistic, according to those outside this realm of injustice. By my very existence I prove that the vanishing Indian is the myth told by outsiders rather than our stories being the myths. When I make choices to ensure that I am seen, I risk a sense of safety that I create and what I want from that is respect and to be believed. Those are the first steps in reversing erasure and invisibility. 

How do I prepare my spirit for injustices then? I can have someone brush me off. Or I can smudge myself. Or I can go out by the beach or the woods and let nature soak into my skin. But honestly, there is not always a way to prepare. I recently speak with another Indigenous artist. Kamloops weaves into our conversation because this is a steady presence for all of us right now. She has offered to help write her university’s letter addressing the continued discoveries of mass graves. And she wondered the exact same thing, how do you prepare to enter that darkness?    As we move through our conversation, the lines of connection we already have deepen just then and I can see the lines strengthening. She then suddenly says, “We’re preparing every day.” By rising and meeting the day and by living our own community’s ways, we are preparing. We have to because we experience the pricks every day. Maybe, too, we center ourselves. Maybe we have a conversation like this. Maybe we put up boundaries. Maybe we say no to something. Maybe we speak up. But it is our focus on our community that guides us through.

If you felt unprepared to read the short story, then that seems appropriate, that seems realistic. No one deserves trauma. There cannot be silence around the experience. People unprepared still need to read the story and move through trauma with the characters. Otherwise, how else do we understand except through story? Many of us don’t live in the trauma every moment. Settlers cannot have that power over us and don’t.  However, genocide and erasure lives and breathes around us because settler minds are still present. That’s what needs preparing. That’s what needs shedding in all of us—the ways of genocide and the inching around that evil does in our everyday lives. So I continue to write the erasure, the harm, and the trauma out of me, out of my characters, and out of my community. New worlds can then be born and scaffolded for future generations.

Students who attended Kamloops didn’t know where their friends had gone. One day, they simply disappear. Their friends presume that they have escaped or been sent home. I cannot imagine finding out they have died and that this was kept from me. A future pre-apocalypse world then is the only setting where I think, non-Indigenous people might understand such a discovery.

I struggle to find the words to describe what it means to have Kamloops stream across the news. To have the Lost Ones found and brought home. To have non-Indigenous people, including my dean, talking about the discovery now.  Right here before the future. To have people asking what residential schools are.

We are in a moment—the kind of moment that if we stop talking about the schools, they will bury us again. They will put our bones underneath dirt to become one with the dirt so that we cannot be found. So that our voices are choking on the minerals. What they don’t know is that we see these minerals as relatives. That’s why they find, and will continue to find, our Lost Ones. That’s why news keeps breaking of even more mass graves found because the chain has begun.

When I finished writing this story, I did not feel complete or fulfilled. And it’s okay if readers don’t either. The novel these characters move through fulfills this in some ways. However, as I write more and more about the futurity of my community, I realize this is a series, a continuing on, a fighting for daily sovereignty. And I’m still figuring out how we get that sovereignty for our land and for our sacred sites, when in reality, we already have sovereignty for our bodies. You can’t mind control us anymore. We are figuring out that you wanted and still want us dead in both body and mind. And I don’t know about you, but that will make many survive the unimaginable. White futurity is now. Our futurity is the future. Which by the way, the future begins tomorrow.

A few summers ago, I visit a campus that had been a former boarding school. When I pull in, the air held this lightness to the movement of the trees. The sky is a pale blue with a few clouds in the center. Students have talked about seeing figures and hearing voices in the old dormitory. A colleague says that she saw the students in the windows sometimes. Briefly. They feel their spirits have been caught in a limbo they can’t escape because of the traumas they experience.

The previous year before I arrive there, a community member holds a ceremony for those Lost Ones. The grounds when I am there are quiet until I meet with my colleague. We catch up and have a conversation with another colleague. As we leave to go to lunch, she points out a few places in the courtyard, including a statue of Grandmother and two children created to honor the past, present, and future of the many Native American peoples who attended the boarding school that once stood there. 

In that courtyard, I hear children laughing and playing—children who are not physically there. Some of them stay behind to protect other Indigenous students attending school there. They gift me right there with their laughter and their love. We can all learn from them. The system isn’t made for our healthy passage through education. It was and is still made for our demise. A few weeks after I leave, a Native American girl has committed suicide and counselors attempt to offer other Indigenous students help. 

I recognize that the characters in this particular story are not in a world without traces of settler colonialism. I suppose that’s because at that point in my writing, I couldn’t imagine far beyond now, until I wrote this novel. I experience settler colonialism every day. It’s simply right there hanging in front of my face as I work in the Ivory Towers. I have to labor through the trauma with the characters before fully seeing that there are other worlds, most right now in the liminal spaces in our minds, where there is no settler colonialism.

The story must go on. And the characters must persevere. And so I continue to write through the anger and the sadness and the passionate beliefs in our futures. And these characters will continue to hunt down their histories, live the present, and fight evil with the resilience that only the now can build. There is both resilience and perseverance here in what I have written, and in what other Indigenous writers craft. Our future visions that we’ve been having in our re-imaginations of speculative works are not so far off. They are right here. Waiting for us to enact them. Waiting for the rise-up.

Which my characters will do. 

Melissa Michal is


“Ghost Hunt”


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 4

Trans-Indigenous Futurity


Ghost Hunt”

Melissa Michal

Seven of them stood in the twilight. The one building left from the schools rose in front to be outlined by clouds and a gray sky fading into black. The brick expanded to the east and to the west, one long, large block of rooms and rotting wood. This was no mansion, no castle, no estate, however. In size, yes. Not in history. Not one had admitted to being there before, maybe tossing stones when young, or writing on the brick as part of a dare.

Even in 2071, they still heard the stories from other kids of seeing shadows and hearing crying starting in elementary school—getting less concrete as the people telling them grew older. They made a pact that once June came, graduation weekend to be exact, they would explore the school grounds. Really, they would ghost hunt. Brenner had brought the plan to them, the one excited about uncovering mysteries and revealing “truths.” He wanted to know what was left there.

“What really happened? Shouldn’t we know. For sure. Shouldn’t we?” His brown eyes turned round and browner. 

The quick static of his words pushed them. His adventures were often fun…in the end. They could feel the excitement, or at least curiosity, float to their own blood. Well, most of them.

“Should we be bringing that to the surface?”  Carrie had asked. “The spirits—We could find anything.” She had shivered then when he first brought up the idea. But long-time friends often agreed to things they normally wouldn’t.

“Spirits?” said Brenner. He sighed. “Maybe they need us to do this. Why else would I see it so clearly?”

Carrie stared into his eyes, then carefully searched his face for answers. He seemed serious. She shrugged.

So there they were. Graduated. Holding gear and covered in it. Ground detection devices. EVP machines. Special spirit sonar signaling things that only he knew the function of. Another Brenner desire. He searched around the internet for deals on rentals of the stuff. Gear was so easy to get, ghost hunting a big business in every town now. 

Carrie didn’t understand the need. Wasn’t it all there everyday without boxes of electric static and heat readers? But they mostly did everything together—grew up side by side through blood relation and parents who were best friends. 

Lena had agreed. They sat on Carrie’s bed in the middle of a Chilkat blanket with ovoids and formlines worked into a sea monster. Carrie’s aunt by another marriage, not blood, lived in Alaska, married to a Tlingit man. The ghost hunt had made Lena giggle. “Those boys and their toys. It will be fun, though.”

They all stared at him, waiting for their directions, Lena and Carrie exchanging glances. Brenner grinned wide. He put the two cases in his hands down on the grass. “We need to get our stuff organized. Let’s turn everything on and set up some kind of meet room as a main space.”

“Do we know what’s safe? Where to walk or stay away from?” Shenan asked. He pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his nose. Wavy blonde hair fell across his eyes. Always practical, he was on safety that night. Or so he decided.

“Yeah. Maybe let’s check the blueprints,” said Tim.

Jayden stepped forward and strode over to the stairs. “Just go in,” he said. He rolled his eyes, which no one else could see. They all knew he did it, though. He dragged his wheeled bag full of equipment up the stairs, scraping wood as he went.

Nonie followed and nearly hopped up the stairs, Brenner right behind her.

A dog howled close to the house. His eyes lit in movements of green and yellow. 

Carrie turned to glance behind her and saw the dog’s glowing eyes. “This should be fun.”

The dark didn’t fully dissipate with their headgear and flashlights. Brenner wanted the air to remain mostly black anyway. That way, perhaps the ghosts will feel less disturbed. They decided to use the front room to the left, which appeared to be an office complete with desk and filing cabinets and a screen of cobwebs. 

They popped open cases with clicks and snaps. Tripods and other stands set up with one button. Shenan unwound cables and cords. Most everything worked on battery. The small lights emerged from the cases and cast light enough to shine around the room. Yellow spread across their faces and sent shadows along the walls in the shapes of their bodies.

Brenner directed the set up.

The phone implant buzzed music into his mind. Another latest. No one really understood how the implant worked. That had been kept secret. One day in surgery, and there the information began. Feeds ran through his head of phone numbers calling him. Literally contacting him. His brother. His cousin. He ignored them and swiped them away in his mind.

“These cameras will capture the human form. We can then see who they were.” He typed on the tiny keyboard and brought up a program. It cast a green light off of the screen when the camera sent information back. Nothing showed. “Pose in front of the camera.” Brenner pointed to Carrie.

She stood there, her hands behind her back.

“Lighting seems good enough,” said Brenner.

Carrie stepped immediately aside.

“Didn’t your aunt explore caves?” asked Jayden.

Tim shook his head to stop Jayden.

Lena threw Carrie a look, her eyes going from blue to gray.

“Yeah. She did,” Carrie said.

“Well, didn’t she teach you tips for looking for ghosts?” asked Nonie.  

Carrie stared for a minute, blinked, then said, “No. No tips. That wasn’t ghosts.”

Nonie shrugged. 

“That was sooo long ago,” said Lena. She waved her hand to move away the moment, and put her arm through the crook of Carrie’s. The two steered toward Shenan and his cables.

“You know, she doesn’t talk about her family,” said Jayden. He moved a camera over a few inches, and then peered through the lens.

“Why did you ask, then?” said Nonie. Her red curls bounced around her shoulders.

“Why not? She could use some prodding.”

Nonie laughed and leaned over closer to the camera cheek to cheek with Jayden. He also ignored the buzzing in his head full of numbers and noises.

Brenner sat at the desk, hands crooked behind his head, he leaned back in the creaking chair and took it all in.

Tim and Nonie were the first to put on the equipment, pushing buttons, and setting dark lights to flame. The stairs creaked under their weight with each careful step. Brenner made it clear they went slowly to fully capture everything. 

“Turn your heads around. Allow the whole picture to come through.” Brenner adjusted their small headgear until he was satisfied. “We want to capture everything!”

With his hand up behind him, Tim kept Nonie just next to him from running ahead. 

“What’ll we find?” she asked. 

“I don’t know,” he said. “I think maybe it’s best that we don’t.”

“Oh, but to talk about it. We have to. Then we actually proved that they’re here. All those things that people don’t know about. You know.” Nonie peered up at him. He towered over her, he in his six-foot frame and she at five-foot three. Her eyes appeared serious, not the usual bright.

“What do we have to prove?” he asked. 

“Their existence, silly. You know, we’re not just talking to the air when they’re around.” Light entered her face.

At the top of the stairs, she sprinted ahead. He let her go. A small smile lifted around his mouth. Before moving in her tread, he caught the edges of a window, dark night hanging on, with moonlight streaming through the glass.

Lena turned on her light and adjusted her equipment. The boxy heft of it all fell mostly on her shoulders.

Brenner pointed to Jayden to go with her. They would cover the grounds outside taking with them a detector—something that wasn’t light or easy. There were a number of crumbled buildings out there that might hold some answers.

“Jayden knows the stuff. And he can explore that out there in the pitch black with nothing else if need be,” said Brenner.

Lena figured out why. Some of those writings on the walls looked familiar. Words in old language she had heard elders whisper. She sighed. Lena and Jayden had dated for about four months when they were fifteen. The group thought they would get married, considering how Jayden stared at her in hidden moments. So the boys thought. And Carrie. He lost interest really quickly when some new girl with larger breasts gave him saucer brown eyes at his locker every morning. Probably also didn’t help that his dad had just gotten out of jail and settled back at home.

“Careful,” said Carrie after them. “Some wild dog was out there earlier.”

They opened the back door, quite a few rooms away from the front office, and stared out at black. Clouds shifted over the moon, covering most of the orb.

“Well, put on the goggles,” said Jayden. He tilted his down on to his nose. “Where’s that dog?”

Lena put her goggles on. Ghost hunting became popular again in Rochester in Mount Hope Cemetery the previous summer. A team of paranormal investigators said they had caught Frederick Douglass on camera chatting with Susan B. Anthony. Ghost hunting skyrocketed.

“I don’t see him. Think he’s gone?”

“This way,” said Jayden. He pointed to a large willow in the back, hanging down in strings of leaves.

The goggles gave them night vision without all the bulk.

“Well come on.” Jayden tugged on her jean jacket and practically steered her.

“Good lord. Let me go and figure out my own way.”

“Stop the feisty act.” He paused at the tree and took out the detector. “It doesn’t suit you.”

Lena yanked a camera out of her backpack. “You’re a smart ass.” Fiddling with the buttons and the screen, she pulled up the setting for nighttime, outdoors, and ghost apparitions. 

“You used to like that.”

“Yeah, well, I grew up.”

“Off to Yale in the fall?”

“Maybe.”   

“Seriously. Maybe. All that intelligence going to waste.”

She laughed. “Look in the mirror.” Even in the dark, and even with night goggles, she could just make out a frown and his turned eyes. “Let’s just get this done.”

Jayden snapped parts together. With a whir and a flashing light, the detector blinked on.

Nonie stepped across the wooden floor, which gave way to old age and boards grating against each other. She thought she saw something down at the end of this hallway. Tim followed behind her. He couldn’t quite keep up. Most people couldn’t quite keep up with Nonie.

“Something’s here,” she said. “Can you feel it?”

“No,” he said. He leaned on the wall and stared down the hallway. The corner of their glasses showed the camera’s output—where those of the other side might appear. Nothing.

“Keep going.” She waved him on.

They passed a room where the door stood slightly ajar. Nonie pushed the door open. The darkness took over corners. This didn’t seem to bother Nonie. She rushed around the room, then shrugged. 

Tim wondered, though, and paused. The hairs on his arms prickled and he felt a movement spread up his arms. With a whir of air, Nonie left the room.

She slowed down only long enough to let questions spin out of her mouth. “What do you think of the new implants?”

“Don’t know as I would want voices in my head.” He shook his head. Tim couldn’t imagine anything good could come from metal in the head that rang in phone calls and music and all manner of other things. It was supposedly a private company start-up, inventing what only science fiction had ever imagined. But where does anyone get that kind of money?

“Well, it’s only as you would choose. You know.” She pointed to her head. “All the music of your choice. Talking with no phone in your hand.” Her legs carried her forward again, into the next room. The words echoed against the walls.

They continued down the hallway, in and out of rooms on either side. Most of the building stood empty. Perhaps people had ransacked the rooms and walked away with items. Some rooms still held objects, left just as if the person would return. Dressers, glistening metal beds, clothes hooks on the walls, and one mirror with corrosion over half the image. Dust and dirt caked everything. A spider sat very still in its web as the two passed by. The silk strands shook ever so slightly.

Tim remained in the room with the beds a bit longer than in the other rooms. Long gone were the mattresses. Empty frames almost said no one was here. 

“Tim,” called Nonie.

He sprinted toward her voice. 

Her eyes bright, and perhaps frightened, too, blinked. “I saw them.”

Brenner sat in the office flipping from camera channel to camera channel. Nothing but darkness. But he knew something would appear. They would have to be attracted to this attention. These were their ancestors.

The air in the office hung heavy with dust and the smell of wet dirt. It had rained a few days before. And the chill from that lingered in all aspects, even though mud patches around the yard had begun to dry up and become manageable again.

Still, sweat dripped down his forehead. The humidity of the area normally saved for the end of July came earlier—in that moment, in that space.

The music app in his head played “Brokenpromisedland” by Bon Jovi startling Brenner. He hadn’t called up the music and immediately told the notes to quiet. 

Darkness crawled into the corners around him, as well. Where there was no light, there was no need to see. So the rooms said.

This didn’t bother Brenner. Or really, he didn’t notice. He never wavered from his laptop and from the cameras of others.  He didn’t notice the drawers of the filing cabinets slowly slipping out out out, along the old tracks.

On the first floor, Carrie swung her flashlight around. The strange intensity of the night goggles and the cameras appearing in the corners of their eyes bothered her. She knew it would. Shenan walked next to her, his goggles on over his glasses, creating a strange bulging out along his face.

He continued to try to put his hand on the small of her back, a habit of guiding women, not out of a need to touch her. She saw this, and each time, walked ahead, just out of reach. 

“We should slow down a bit,” he said. With his head down, he tapped his foot on the boards, checking for rot.

“They made this place pretty indestructible. Not a lot of air gets in here,” she said.

Carrie appeared to own the place with her shoulders straight, long strides, and blank eyes. He knew this way she was trying to push back what she felt. She didn’t want to give herself away.

“Here,” she pulled on a doorknob. Behind the door were stairs, working their way down into the unknown black. Shining her light, they both noted the footprints in the dust. “It’s the basement. Maybe one of the others went down.”

“Those look fresh.” He swiped his fingers in one of the feet. “Yeah.” Shenan held out his hand and pushed her back. “Maybe not this way right now.”

“Why not?” She steered around him, her shoes hitting stairs with their swift movement.

Back and forth, Jayden moved the detector in slow pivots along the ground, along the trees, along the night air. Lena waited with her hands on her hips. The night noises invaded their space. Cicadas echoed each other, buzzing on low with consistent vibrations. A peeper frog joined, with high pitched peep peep peeps. Then an owl called out. This particular call, she recognized as the hunter aiming for his prey. Trees hung over them, forming motionless straggly arches.

“Nothing,” said Jayden. 

“Maybe that’s a good thing.” She stared at the night’s deep blackness beyond them.  Even though she had passed this place many times during middle school dares, she still couldn’t imagine what had occurred here. There were rumors…

Jayden shrugged. “He swears there must be something here. Somewhere.”

She pushed her thoughts away. “He has spent a little too long planning this out.”

Jayden smiled. “Our whole high school existence.” He admired Brenner’s intelligence and passion. He had his own thing, which Jayden hadn’t yet found.

“What was that?” A twig snapped, close enough to cause her to turn in a 360.

“Nothing is out there.” He held the detector steady, but his voice waved her off. He remembered that she got scared easily.

“Then why are we here?” 

“I mean nothing out here will hurt us,” he retorted. “That dog is probably a neighbor’s dog.” He walked further and further back, sweeping, crossing his path twice, and then crossing over it again. Electronic waves emanated over the area and outlined trees and momentarily even the dog. But nothing beyond that.

Lena held up the camera, panning it around, also crossing her own digital path.

Jayden stopped.

Lena almost ran into him. She stopped.

He swept the area again. Fast, then slow. Slow, then fast. A dog howled in the distance, or maybe a coyote.

The music in his head turned off, then on. Off, then on. Maybe Beethoven. 

“What the fu—”

Tim had caught up to Nonie. They came to the end of the second floor and she finally slowed with fewer places to explore.

“What was in this building, do you think?” asked Nonie.

“Beds, dressers, dorm rooms? Some kind of living quarters. I don’t know.”

“Medical center?” Her voice went quiet. The last room, this one on the right, stood darker than the rest. If that was possible. The window faced the backyard. However, the moon still held back behind clouds. A long, gray metal table fallen over on its side, and the sink by the door, created a distinct difference between this room and the rest. A stethoscope looped over the clothes hooks.

Tim’s heart sunk and quivered. Nonie stood still.  

“Those stories…” Nonie whispered.

“Nothing good came of any of these places.” He closed his eyes.

Scratching came from the closet now behind him.

Nonie grabbed his sleeve and stared from him, then to the closet. Nothing showed in her goggles.

The basement’s musty air floated around them. Carrie had made her way to the center of the room. Or at least what they could see. Nothing hung back in this room. No objects, no leftover materials.

“It just looks like a basement,” said Shenan. He scuffed his foot in the dirt floor, sending swirls up in the air he could not see, but felt when he swallowed.

“There isn’t anyone else down here,” she said. She had shown her light all the way around. The footprints ended at the stairs.

“That a door?”

Carrie squinted her eyes. Far in the right-hand corner, a gleam revealed a doorknob, perhaps. A cobweb marked her face and grabbed onto her hair. She tried to pluck the strands out, but felt it useless. The strings lingered, sending twitches along her arms in response.

Once closer, the door stood only as tall as she and disappeared into the wall, built to match the corners.

“This space isn’t as long or far back as the house.” Shenan ran his hands over the sides of the hidden door.

“What does that mean?” Carrie asked.

“This can’t be all of it.”

“Clearly. There’s a door.” She laughed. The sound floated along the walls and out into the house.

“No. I mean—” He stopped. “That might not be all.” He slowly, slowly turned all the way. Nothing else in the room.

The door creaked and groaned. “Come on,” she said. She passed through to the other side before Shenan could pull her back in.

His goggles continued to see only outlines of walls and braces rising up not too far above them. He didn’t like the sheer emptiness of the space, not for all he knew the brick and wood had once held.

The ceiling dipped in the middle and they would need to bend to continue on through the door.

“It doesn’t go any further,” she said. This was a small room, smaller than what they had just walked through. The square space was dark, sure, but also empty. A person couldn’t hide in that space. But staring inside gave her deep chills. What was the room for?

“Any other doors?”

“No.”

They both bent and leaned in to peer all the way back.

The office grew warmer with all of the clicks and whirs of equipment and lights. Brenner leaned back. He should have been out there. But he couldn’t leave. His eyes remained on the screens.

The front door slammed.

He couldn’t decide between the screen and the door. Screen or door. Finally, he pushed his chair back and broke himself away. The hallway was clear. The extra pair of goggles helped him to see. No people. Or rather no past people. He smirked to himself.

He didn’t hear any wind outside or even bursts of breezes.

Out onto the front porch, he scanned the night. Satisfied that he only heard some wind or animal, Brenner headed back to the office. He noticed the filing cabinet drawer rolled out partway.

It wasn’t like that before, he thought.

Inside, lined up in rows, stood files upon files. He assumed the other drawers held the same. They wouldn’t open. So he flipped through these names. His aunt called and called, her numbers scrolling through his mind, which he ignored as his fingers touched old, old paper.

The scratching stopped. Nonie and Tim stood still. Nonie’s eyebrows raised and her hands swayed a bit. 

“I am not opening that door,” said Tim in response to Nonie’s pleading eyes.

“Well, I’m not either.”

They both stared at the door.

He leaned on the windowsill. She tapped her foot.

“We can’t stand here all night,” said Nonie. “Why don’t the goggles show anything?” She tapped the ends of her frames.

“The wood? …The closet is by the only exit. I don’t know. Brenner didn’t exactly explain how all of this works.” He paused. “Wait, why aren’t we all in communication with one another, or at least with Brenner.”

She shrugged. “That’s not the only exit.” She twisted her thumb toward the window behind him.

He leaned back and peered down to the grass below. It was too far for them to jump, over… just a ghost. “No.”

They both sighed.

“I could’ve sworn I saw something.” Her voice lost most of its perk. As much as she wanted to see one of her ancestors, this was not the way. Her father had told her that her great great aunty and great great grandmother had attended this school. The thought that she could interact with her relatives made her giddy, up until now.

“I know.” Tim wanted to relieve her fears. But something began to work up his spine. Their experience reminded him of his cousin warning him not to disturb what couldn’t be seen. When he was a child, he had seen shadows and wanted to talk to them. 

“Dude, that’s Hollywood shit,” his cousin had said, shutting Tim down. He had pressed everything back and back after that.

“They were real figures. Not ghosts,” she emphasized.

“I know.” He turned to look out the window again. Jayden and Lena remained side by side. But they had moved, were moving. Lena’s hand laid flat against her mouth. And her body may have been trembling.

A yell came from the backyard. Glowing light, the only light, beamed from the detector they leaned over.

“They found something,” he said.

“We have to look in there, you know.” Nonie touched his arm. He didn’t move.

Facing the closet again, he said, “I know.”

He arched the detector in circles. And more circles. It continued to pick them up. They were all over the yard in that area past the tree. The notes ran all over his head, in his ear drums, vibrating his blood. Voices from the metal device pushed in.

“How…” Lena stopped. She had been trying to speak for ten minutes. Her words came out in starts. She never finished them. “I…”

He paused at one spot sometimes. But he couldn’t help but keep rotating and making more appear on the screen. He couldn’t help what was below. But he knew he had to find them all. And he also knew that wasn’t possible. He began to use the beat banging along his brain cells, to move with the tone’s drive. 

“Who…”

He couldn’t help her. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t stop.

She sighed. Bumps had already worked their way over her arms and legs. The prickles began shortly after. All sounds in the yard seemed to fade into the far back of her ears and mind.

“Shouldn’t we…”

She noticed that the grass didn’t grow very tall in this area. It did far far back from there. Nobody mowed the property that she knew of. Brown clumps of dirt and moss spread across the entire expanse. Stubby shoots pushed out here and there. 

“Nothing grows here.”

He stopped and then pivoted around. She was right. They met eye to eye.That whole area. There could be hundreds of them.

The moon pushed away the clouds and filtered down into the basement. Gritty dust and dirt over the panes of glass made the light appear fractured and cloudy.

“There’s nothing down here.” Shenan felt the walls. The crumbled texture bit at his fingertips and left a damp after touch to them. “Here.” He reached for her flashlight. She held on even when he took it. Finally, she let go. He swiped his longer brown hair behind his ears as the strands had fallen across his eyes.

Following the walls, Shenan stooped and stepped around the entire room. He touched each crack, checking for any gap or any other way into the rest of the basement. “It has to be here.”

“What?” She turned another 360 degrees slowly, taking in each crack and each shadow.

“More ways under the house.”

“Do you think there might be other stairs in another part of the house?”

“Maybe.” His voice showed distraction.  Once he covered the entire room, he threw his hands up. “Can’t find anything more. It just seems so strange.”

“The whole place is strange. The whole idea is strange.” Carrie shivered and rubbed her hands up and down her arms.

“What do you mean?” 

She stared up at the ceiling. Her eyes adjusted to the dark without her flashlight. The lines of the wood showed careful craftsmanship. Grooves fit together just so.  Yet knowing its age, she assumed there must be dry rot underneath in the veins of the boards. How did this building still stand, so caught in time?

“There’s nothing here and everything here.”

Shenan searched her eyes. They had turned downward, and he knew she was sad. He didn’t wish to see her that way.

“Let’s just go look for other ways down to the other side,” she said.

The closet door made no noise as it opened.  Tim stepped back, assuming the worst. When nothing ran out, he peered around into the inner depths. His goggles didn’t pick up anything. No figures.

Nonie put her hands on his shoulder and leaned in.

“Wow.”

“What is going on?” He scratched his head.

“I don’t know. They were here. I just know it.” She squealed out the last line.

“Well, we’ve looked at everything. There’s nothing here.” Maybe mice or something had scrambled about through the rafters, he thought. That seemed more…realistic. “Let’s go outside,” he said. “See what they found.”

As they wandered back through the maze of hallways, around and around, the dark rooms pulled back inside themselves, even just as the light turned outside.

Jayden and Lena startled when Nonie and Tim stepped up next to them.

“Find anything?” asked Tim.

Jayden kept his eyes on the detector. Lena’s eyes appeared wild and shifty. Neither spoke.

“Oh, come on. Share,” said Nonie. When she peered down into the screen of the detector, she choked on her own saliva. That sent shivers down Tim’s spine. She held up her hand to keep him away. Tim pushed past her.

“Good God,” said Tim.      

Nonie’s entire body began shaking. Her arms around herself did not stop this. They followed each other, kind of like geese. When one turned, the rest instinctually reacted in the same turn or step.      

“How many?” asked Tim. He had already counted twenty-five in the five minutes they stood there, back and forth, back and forth.   

“More,” said Lena. “More.”

“Should we catalogue them?” asked Tim.

“Catalogue?” said Lena. She stopped, then got close enough to Tim so that they were chest to chest. “They don’t belong in a catalogue. Do. You. Hear. Me.” Her finger on his chest resulted in a hard swallow from him. She turned back to the screen, then looked back at the house.  A deep purple spreading along the skyline changed the hue    of the landscape. But the deep brown of the house remained the same, dark.

“Brenner?” Lena peered toward the house, wondering if he saw. If he knew.

The downstairs held many doors. So Shenan and Carrie spent precious time moving around the space and in and out of rooms. 

“How is it that this building is so intact?” asked Shenan. He expected to find floors they couldn’t cross, ceilings falling down, doors off of hinges. Cobwebs and dust were about the only things that seemed normal about the old place.

Carrie turned every knob and peered into every room. She chose to focus on what was inside rather than Shenan. Every detail, every nook behind each door, she took in and filed away in her memory. These spaces had stories to reveal that perhaps weren’t something that evening could offer them. “Maybe a way in doesn’t exist.”

“It would have been a great waste of space back then if they didn’t use all areas.”

“Doesn’t mean it was built that way. It could have just been filled in from the beginning, concrete or something.” She paused at one room in particular, closer to the front of the house. Carrie thought she heard a noise down the hallway and paused. Nothing. This room she stepped into. It was small, perhaps only large enough for a desk and shelves, which no longer existed. What surprised her was how dark the room was, even with their headlamps. Not even a small amount of starlight could alter this darkness. She almost thought she saw a figure writing at a desk, scribbling names, and then it was gone. Carrie shook her head. 

“I suppose. Hey, shouldn’t we be slowing down as we open those doors? You know, check every room out?”

“I just want to find it if it’s here.”  He hadn’t seen her doing just that. Her scans might have been quick, but she would never forget how the rooms made her feel and what she imagined in each piece of wood.  

The next door, the one farthest to the left side of the house, released must and damp from its space sealed so long. She smiled and started down.

It was like a large box. Smaller than the other side. One shine of the flashlight, and they could see that there was no other door. No other anything. 

“Dust and cobwebs and dirt floor,” said Shenan. “Let’s go back and check out the other rooms.” He wanted to keep them moving and not let her settle into the darkness.

Shadows moved, cutting by the tiny, rectangular windows.

“Fine.”   

Rooms were small, like the second basement room. Identical box next to identical box.

“These must have all been administrative,” said Shenan. “It’s odd that there’s no living room or dining room or the like.”

“It’s got to be the main house, then, for sure.” Carrie’s body and voice revealed defeat. “Everything processed here.”

“I haven’t heard a thing from anyone else. Where are they all?”

“Don’t know.” A rising sun caught her attention. From a window in that room, the four others stood still, right at her vantage point. They stayed, locked in their stance as Carrie stared. Lena stared right back at her. “There,” she pointed.

She didn’t wait for Shenan.

The two emerged on the back porch. Shenan’s headlamp flickered off and he saw darkness suddenly flow over him. The only light the glow from the detector. At the site, the others didn’t stir. Carrie had run ahead of him, but he knew to take his steps slowly.

“Have you seen Brenner?” asked Lena. Both shook their heads ‘no.’ “He’s not responding to the walkie. I’m going in then. He’s got to come out here.”

“I’ll come with you,” Shenan offered. She waved him away.

“What’s going on?” asked Carrie. “Lena?” She watched her friend walk away, back straight, and for her, tense. “Y’all?”

Nonie pointed to the screen, still glowing, blue and yellow and white. Glowing.

Her aunt who had cave explored had always told Carrie that the unexpected happened when you believed in those occurrences. But what happened was never what you assumed. The unknown could be more shocking and it could be nothing at all. 

“What the hell?” said Carrie. She yanked the detector from Jayden. His grip had tightened so that his knuckles were white.  She somehow pried it away with one pull. He stood there, his face contorted into disbelief, disbelief that he had stopped. Disbelief that he could no longer see the screen, see them. He couldn’t turn off the music in his head, no matter how much he willed the waves gone.

Carrie held the detector up close to her face, staring down into the light and into the outlines of many small bodies.

“Brenner! Brenner! Where are you?” Lena made her way from the back to the front. “Why aren’t you on the walkie?” Once at the office, she found him, eyes on the screens in front. Just as they had left him. “Brenner?”

“Yeah?”

“I’ve been calling you. On the walkie. Throughout the house.”

“Oh.” He checked the walkie, pressing buttons. “Battery’s dead. Strange. I replaced all of them.”     

“Maybe it’s a dud…Brenner. You need to come outside. Haven’t you seen us all out there?”

He looked around. Everything was in order, it seemed. He had visuals for all cameras. And now, they stood outside. All of them. How had he missed that? He shook his head. “No, I didn’t notice.”

“Jayden and I have been out there nearly three, maybe four hours.” She lost her breath and couldn’t slow her words down. Her lungs had to work more than usual and all she wanted to do was drag him outside.

Brenner’s eyes remained blank. He really hadn’t seen them. She snapped her fingers a few times. Then she took his hand and led him out of the room. When he walked ahead of her, she turned back to the room. Everything hummed and whirred and worked. She couldn’t see anything to cause worry. The cameras really were fine. Did Brenner fall asleep? After all this planning?

Carrie counted. Just as they all had. The outlines of what used to be bones lay in various positions, curled into a ball, flat out, face up, face down, intact, not fully all there. All white with a blue glow around them from the camera. All in their own suspended, small space. When bones decayed, their degraded materials stood out differently from the rest of the soil. There were marked graveyards at other schools. Carrie had even heard rumors that years ago long before they were born, Canada had findings of mass unmarked graves. But that searching stopped when the long sickness stopped. None of it taught in history class in the US. That much she knew. No one paid attention to human rights when their own life wasn’t hanging in the balance. She sighed. And then stopped after a while. She got to twenty. That was enough for her. She knew there were more without asking. She knew the site went back far beyond their scope.  When Brenner and Lena returned, she handed the detector over to Brenner.         

He stared for a moment. “This isn’t what I thought,” he said.

“None of us thought,” said Shenan. “It’s still…something. It’s still what we need to know.”

“It’s not them,” said Brenner.

“What the fuck, man. Who is them?” Jayden barked.  His hands swung around with his words. “This…Uuughh.”

“You know, talk to them. Talk to ghosts. Interact with them. With our ancestors.” Brenner blinked. He was serious.

“Nonie heard something. Even saw something, too,” said Tim.

Nonie kept her head down, but nodded. “Yeah. I guess. I don’t know anymore.”

“You did?!” Brenner grabbed her shoulders. “What did they look like?”

“Didn’t you get the moment on film?” she asked. “I don’t know. I didn’t talk to them. It was a fleeting moment. God, Brenner.” She threw his hands off of her and leaned on Tim. He put his arms around her.

“Sorry,” Tim said. “I thought there was more, I guess.”

“Maybe it is on film. But I didn’t see anything while watching your walkthrough.” Brenner hurried back inside, practically running, running.

“He was weird when I found him,” said Lena. “It’s like he phased out—maybe the whole time. Maybe part of the time. It…It’s like he wasn’t there.”

They all turned to each other and then back to the house.        

They put their equipment away with clicks and pops of cases the only sound. Arms and legs moved slower than set up. The excitement had left everybody. 

“It’s for the best,” said Carrie. When she looked back down the hallway, a shiver passed down her spine. This was not the place to talk to their ancestors. Something terrible lived here. Or maybe nothing at all could be captured there, barren of life. 

Lena nodded, as did Shenan. Lena hid a tear sliding down her cheek. The rest kept to themselves, engrossed in packing up.

The seven of them stepped outside into the morning. Some of the cases gleamed. They trudged down the steps and toward the road over the hill.

“It’s just an old building,” said Jayden.

“You saw those bodies.” Shenan’s voice rose. He could feel heat rise throughout his chest and face.

“I know. But that doesn’t mean the school’s haunted. It’s not the same…” Jayden shrugged, his arms fully out like he might fly or flap those arms.

“We came for nothing.” Brenner’s voice spoke softly. The lines of the house stood behind him, just lighting with dawn.

Nonie shook her head. She wrapped her arms around her body. Prickles on the back of her neck had been rippling for several hours. No, maybe it was the whole night or half the night. “I don’t think it was nothing,” said Nonie.

Tim continued to hold Nonie.

Lena remained quiet. She picked up her equipment.

No one else spoke.

Their silhouettes disappeared, hills rising beyond them.

From behind one corner of the house, shadows hang, maybe watching. Maybe waiting.

Melissa Michal is of Seneca, Welsh, and English descent. She is a fiction writer, essayist, photographer, and a professor. She received an NEH summer fellowship and has been grateful to read at the National American Indian Museum in DC and Amerind Museum in Dragoon, AZ. Melissa has work appearing in The Florida Review,Arkana, Yellow Medicine Review, and other spaces. Her short story collection, Living Along the Borderlines (2019), out with Feminist Press, was a finalist for the Louise Meriwether first book prize.  Her first novel, Along the Hills, and non-fiction lyric essay collection, Broken Blood, are both finished. She is at work on a new dystopian novel. 


Review of Loki



Review of Loki

Zahra Rizvi

Loki. Created by Michael Waldron, Disney+, 2021.

Apocalypses have long been a fascination for SF and dystopian fiction, whether it is to look at possibilities for alternate futures or exploring the horrors of the present which carry within themselves roots of impending, near-future disaster. Often narratives dealing with apocalypses place themselves in a post-apocalyptic universe, where irreversible changes have caused an impossibility of going back to a pre-apocalyptic existence. Loki too seeks to participate in the mythmaking of the apocalypse by trying to reinvent this engagement in new and interesting ways.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is introduced to the Time Variance Authority (TVA) when he is picked up by the organization and tried as a ‘Variant’. The story starts off as a divergent thread of a hand-picked scene from Avengers: Endgame (2019), a possibility of which was already teased in the film. The throwback to the film—the Avengers traveling through time to reverse the effects of an apocalypse of their own—works to set up the premise of the series: a combination of time, technics, and the persistence of the apocalypse. The TVA endeavours to ensure that order is upheld by strictly regulating the Sacred Timeline, or the decided timeline of the Time-Keepers, the three elusive beings who are said to have differentiated between the multiversal disorder of multiple timelines (and their respective alternate universes) to decide on the one timeline that is now protected by the TVA against any divergence from this set path.

Director Kate Herron has described the series as “a big love letter to sci-fi” and it is the TVA where the mood and tone of this love letter is set up (Polo). There is a certain quality of timelessness to the TVA and yet at the same time, it seems to carry anachronisms of all sorts that serve to make the fabric of this celestial space even more unique and strangely, believable. This can be attributed to the identifiable popular SF influences of Herron and her team. Miss. Minutes, the adorable yet infuriating, animated AI mascot of the TVA is the Loki version of Jurassic Park’s Mr. DNA (Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous), and primarily functions as a posthumanist, cheerful explicatory trope to fill in details of the story that are more economical to conveniently tell rather than show. The design of Miss. Minutes is much like the overall design of the TVA, a strong retro-futuristic style that is a memento of not only popular SF but a nod to what Herron calls ‘the golden age of comics’, with the tech deeply reminiscent of the bureaucratic, corporatist technocracy of Brazil (1985) and its eerie, dystopian undertones. The technology, including archaic computers with Alien-inspired font and Dune-esque timedoors, is placed within an architecture that is an oddly well-made mix of Brutalist and Midwest architecture, and the uncanny oxymoron serves cleverly to house the misplaced even repressive ‘heroism’ of the TVA. These allusions and the overall intertextuality of Loki no doubt enrich the SF tradition it is a part of, but at the same time, they rupture it instead of securing continuity of it, and at this early outset itself present the multiversal chaotic potential present in the otherwise sanitized order of the TVA. The series upholds this pendulum-like debate between order and chaos throughout its six episodes, and it is embodied in its titular character’s struggle at the brink of the age-old question of fate versus free will.

Again and again, Loki is brought face-to-face with the futility of his ‘glorious purpose’ in the light of being shown that all of his life, his decisions, his choices and even his death, are predetermined. Anything he does off-course is picked up as a variance and demolished, a fate that would be his own if he hadn’t been tasked to catch a dangerous version of himself—Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino)—who he finds out has been hiding in apocalyptic events. Loki and Sylvie go from one apocalypse to another and it is interesting that even on the Sacred Timeline, free will is surprisingly possible in a time-space where one least expects it to be so. This apocalyptic chronotope is one of the strengths of Loki, as it presents the endless possibility of life at the end of the world, of a forever, short but existent present. It is in one such chronotope that the transformative power and redemptive possibility of love and companionship is revealed and the series presents it with moving emotion and feeling.

In the later episodes, Loki faces the anarchic multiplicity of his variant selves, in scenes that pay tribute to the superhero genre (see, for example, DC Comic’s Crime Syndicate) and, especially, Marvel comics history and its continuing engagement with alt-universes of the Marvel multiverse of as early as the 1960s. For example, in 1962 the Fantastic Four often come across alternate Earths, one of which is even inhabited by a variant of Kang the Conqueror, as seen in Strange Tales #103 (1962) and Fantastic Four #19 (1963). In another story, multiversal travel takes Doctor Strange and the Fantastic Four to alternate universes in Strange Tales #126 (1964) and Fantastic Four Annual #6 (1968). MCU’s open acceptance of the multiverse in Loki is supposed to spearhead MCU Phase 4 and it is interesting to carry out a comparative analysis of the multiverse in Loki as part of the MCU against the multiverse in the Marvel Comics revealing “one big, odd MCU/Marvel Comics coincidence (or planned synchronicity?) between the kick-off of the MCU Multiverse and its comic book counterpart” (Marston). Indeed, Loki, by carrying out a bricolage of sorts with comics/superhero history, SF, and more importantly, specific Marvel history, hints at the increasing instances of retcons in upcoming MCU creations.

The fracturing of the ‘ustopia’ of He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors) presents the simultaneous co-existence of all SF, retcons and more, and it is with immense speculation that the promised Season Two will be awaited for studying more of the multiverse.

WORKS CITED

Marston, George. “The Marvel Multiverse and the meaning of Earth-616 explained.” Gamesradar, 2021. www.gamesradar.com/marvel-multiverse-earth-616-mcu/.

Polo, Susana. “Loki director on the sci-fi that inspired its timeless, time-traveling look.” Polygon, 2021. www.polygon.com/tv/22529833/loki-sci-fi-references-time-variance-authority-brutalism.

Zahra Rizvi is a Ph.D. scholar at the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, and founder member of Digital Games Research Association India. She was recently MHRD-SPARC Fellow at the Department of Linguistics and Germanic, Slavic, African and Asian Language Studies, Michigan State University, and works in the fields of popular culture, young adult participatory spaces, and geopolitical issues in and of cross-platform media.


Review of Love, Death & Robots, season 2



Review of Love, Death & Robots, season 2

Jeremy Brett

Miller, Tim, creator. Love, Death & Robots, season 2, Netflix, 2021.

Reviewing an anthology television series can be tricky. With exceptions, perhaps, like Black Mirror, which has a central theme (the societal and personal dangers of new technologies) around which critics and scholars can work a targeted thesis, most anthologies are too varied, too diverse in theme and tone and story and quality, for a single opinion to cover an entire production run. The Twilight Zone has been rightfully enshrined in the pantheon of great SF television programs, but any fan or regular viewer will testify that many episodes are, to put it charitably, clinkers. It’s a phenomenon reminiscent of the slew of publications from the Pulp Era: certainly literary treasures could be found within their pages, often in great numbers, but for every Bradbury or Asimov or Heinlein or Lovecraft, there were examples of equal and opposite hackery, best forgotten except as curiosities. The same applies to The Outer Limits, Tales from the Crypt, or Masters of Science Fiction: the tonal and thematic varieties are so great that it’s really impossible to consider the anthology series as a discrete object.  The closest Love, Death & Robots (LD&R) might have to a thematic predecessor is the 1981 animated film Heavy Metal (as well as the groundbreaking magazine on which the film is based); it’s hardly a coincidence that the show started life as a reboot of that production. Both are constructed with a comic book sensibility in mind, marked by powerful imagery, and heavily steeped in adult themes with instances of both erotica and intense violence, love and death together. But Heavy Metal had a (thin) framing story connecting its vignettes together, whereas in LD&R and its fellow genre anthology programs there is no such narrative linkage. In that sense the series is much more like Analog or The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

However, shows like these can certainly be analyzed and judged on their ability to tell an entertaining or enlightening story, and that intrinsic storytelling quality is the essence of Love, Death & Robots. The show is best examined not for any ethical lessons (arguably, the only story in Season 2 that outright provokes moral inquiry is “Pop Squad”, based on a story by Paolo Bacigalupi—a dark tale of a future where overpopulation is countered by a special police unit tasked with killing unregistered children), but more for the visual and emotional impacts the episodes provide the viewer. The intensity of these impacts is heightened by the stories’ brevity and, I would suggest, the shortness of the second season (8 episodes, down from the first season’s 18) which encourages binge viewing and more emotions hitting the viewer in a briefer period. It appears that the show’s producers are taking their cues from Season 1, which was also marked by small-scale stories that ranged in their emotional and narrative impact from the whimsical to the action-packed to the gut-wrenching. Love, Death & Robots reflects less the Rod Serling-style of didactic, thoughtful morality and more a consciousness of the emotive and cathartic power of storytelling. There is a great imaginative power in the ability to tell a good story well, and the show succeeds in this for the most part.

There is Love; in “Ice” (story by Rich Larson), two brothers, Fletcher and Sedgewick, live on a bleak industrial colony planet covered in ice and snow. Sedge is an “extro”, a human without cybernetic mods that enhance speed, strength, and agility, while his younger brother Fletch is, like most of the colony’s population, modded. Sedge is seen as an outsider by Fletch’s friends and as a weakling by his rough father, weighed down by an inferiority complex, (“Different. That’s what the grown-ups say, but they mean ‘better.’”) He resolves to join Fletch and his friends in a dangerous race across the ice to outpace the massive ‘frostwhales’ before they breach. During the race, Fletch risks his life to allow Sedge the chance to save him, giving Sedge a new cachet with the modded teens and demonstrating a deep love for his brother. “Snow in the Desert” (story by Neal Asher), also set on a hostile planet—this one a desert—brings together a widowed hermit named Snow, who is being relentlessly pursued by bounty hunters for his genetic immortality, and the mysterious Hirald, carrying her own secrets and her own key to long life. The two form a romantic bond centered on their shared loneliness and on being mutually set apart from the rest of the universe around them. And in the aforementioned “Pop Squad”, parents’ love for their children drives them to break the savage anti-overpopulation law that mandates those children’s deaths. When Squad investigator Briggs traces one mother to her home, he is struck by her fierce commitment to her daughter, who “makes everything new and gives [her] life.” Briggs’ realization of the strength of this love, combined with his growing PTSD caused by his legal murder of children, results in his death at the hands of his squad partner.

There is Death; the largest example of this—literally so—comes in the season’s final episode, “The Drowned Giant” (story by J.G. Ballard), in which the corpse of a giant naked man has washed ashore on the English coast. The story is an extended meditation by an academic investigator named Stephen on the realization of mortality and inevitability of change, as well as the frivolous nature of humanity. The giant corpse quickly becomes a tourist attraction and a spot on which people pose for pictures, skate, and scrawl graffiti. Stephen is nearly alone in his respect and consideration for the sheer presence of the giant, while workers systematically cut the body up and haul it away, popular interest dimming in the body as it decays and becomes smaller. In time, the giant is forgotten about or misremembered, leaving only Stephen with a memory of this vanished colossus. In “The Tall Grass” (story by Joe R. Lansdale, in one of his typical thoughtfully creepy tales), a train passenger, stopped in a lonely prairie, encounters a herd of ghoulish, demonic creatures that try to kill him. They are driven off by the conductor, who posits that in this little lonely section of the world, “it’s like a window opens up out there, I figure it leads to some other world”, one populated by people once alive, now lost and become savage terrors. 

And there are Robots; in the comedic season opener, “Automated Customer Service” (story by John Scalzi), a woman and her dog reside in “Sunset City”, a retirement community where robots do all the menial work. The woman’s robot vacuum is accidentally set to “Purge Mode”, pursuing her and the dog across her house and attempting to eliminate her. While this death hunt is going on, the woman frantically tries to connect to VacuBot’s customer service line, where an automated voice takes the woman through increasingly nonsensical levels of options and useless advice on how to stop the rampaging bot (including hurling her dog at the bot as a distraction). The final conflict ends with a cheery recorded “Congratulations! You’ve stopped the unstoppable killing machine that is VacuBot!” from the customer line, followed by the unwelcome (though delivered equally cheerily) news that all VacuBots have now been signaled to attack the woman. Rather than pay for an upgrade that will add her to the do-not-kill list, the woman, newly determined (and royally angry), flees town with her dog in a commandeered golf cart, pursued by countless robots. 

In a more serious tale, “Life Hutch” (story by Harlan Ellison), a space fighter pilot crash-lands on an airless planet; reaching an automated shelter, he must also battle a malfunctioning robot intent on murdering him. Trapped in a small space by a robot that tracks by sound and movement, the pilot has to call upon his own deepest resources to survive (the episode bears some resemblance to Season 1’s “Helping Hand”, in which an astronaut cast adrift faced a likewise intense kind of mental and physical challenge in a hostile environment).

Even when the stories themselves are a bit thin dramatically, or rushed (some, like “Pop Squad” or “Life Hutch,” would benefit from a longer runtime), the animation is detailed and nuanced, which helps capture the viewer’s eyes and imagination. (“Ice”, from Passion Animation Studios”, is particularly lovely in its spareness and starkness.) In an age of popular cartoons marked by cheap-looking or outright unpleasant animated stylings, LD&R has a certain rich aesthetic to it that helps set it apart from other televised SF.

In the end, what Love, Death & Robots does well is to reinforce the nature of science fiction as story, as a tale to be told. It more than adequately fulfills SF’s traditional function of using fantastic settings as stages for telling and retelling the classic stories about humanity and the ways with which we engage with each other and the universe around us. In small and easily digestible doses, it asks the same universal questions about our existence that we have asked since we began telling each stories long ago, in new but still recognizable ways. And, to my mind, one of the deepest and most existential questions comes at the conclusion of the show’s shortest and most frivolous episode. In “All Through the House”, two children are awoken on Christmas Eve by noises coming from downstairs. Hurrying down to catch Santa Claus, they discover that “Santa” is a hideous, clawed, Xenomorph-like monster, that vomits up wrapped presents and departs with an ominously hissed “Stay…Good.” Back upstairs, now gifted but traumatized, one child asks the other “What would have happened if we weren’t good?” Indeed.

Jeremy Brett is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M University, where he is both Processing Archivist and the Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection. He received his MLS and his MA in History from the University of Maryland – College Park in 1999. His professional interests include science fiction, fan studies, and the intersection of libraries and social justice.


Posthuman Mysticism: From the Zero Point of Humanity to the Parallel Worlds in The Gift


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 4

Selected SFRA 2021 Papers


Posthuman Mysticism: From the Zero Point of Humanity to the Parallel Worlds in The Gift

Sümeyra Buran

Göbeklitepe, located at Örencik village in Şanlıurfa, a city in southeastern Turkey, is the world’s first and largest temple in history. It has recently been discovered as the zero point in time that shifts human  history back to more than 12,000 years ago—7,000 years before the great Egyptian Pyramids and 6,000 years older than Stonehenge. Şanlıurfa is called the town of prophets and is mostly linked with the prophet Abraham, the ancestor of the whole of humanity in monotheistic religions, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Urfa is associated with the town Ur  from the Bible, and Edessa (modern Urfa) is also known as the first home of the Holy Mandylion-Christ icon on the Taurus Mountains. Göbeklitepe was built in the pre-pottery Neolithic period and is a significant point in the evolution of religions, as the root of monotheistic religions. With the temple’s 14-tonne pillars, Göbeklitepe has been on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list since July 2018. Göbeklitepe, which translates to “Potbelly Hill,” was discovered in 1963 during joint research by Istanbul University and the University of Chicago, and it was unearthed by the 1995-2006 excavations led by the German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt. In the studies carried out in Göbeklitepe and its surroundings, it was revealed that  religion, not agriculture, caused humans to shift to a sedentary lifestyle. So, Göbeklitepe has rewritten the history of the beginning of human civilization.

The 2019 Turkish Netflix series The Gift tells the (hi)story of (post)humanity by the archaeological discovery of a gate in Göbeklitepe that leads to parallel universes. Inspired by Şengül Boybaş’s novel The Awakening of the World, the series is about the “mystical” story of a young and beautiful painter named Atiye (meaning gift) who opens the doors to the past and begins to question everything between the past and the future, between the real and the spiritual.

The mysterious gate is tied to the extraordinary artifact buried for millennia and to the (her)story of Atiye, who explores her post-Goddess power throughout the history of humankind by her mysterious journey to parallel worlds. [1] As an artist living in İstanbul, Atiye discovers that she has been drawing the same symbol since childhood when she meets the archaeologist Erhan. It was Erhan who found the symbol in Göbeklitepe, which then becomes the connection point between Atiye’s different selves that exist in the parallel worlds. The series weaves the topics of awakening after death, rebirth within history, and her story of parallel worlds. The series has a plot that feeds primarily on mysticism, anthropology, and cosmology. I explore the strains of posthuman mystic reception of cosmology in Turkish SF film in the context of the myth of the mother goddess.

Metaphysical Space and Time in Myth

The Gift is an interesting representation of the posthuman condition, achieved by mixing together Turkish mythology and posthumanist ideology. There is a close relation between posthuman and mythological narratives that both live beyond time, place, and space of existence. According to Mircea Eliade, historian of religions, “the myth relates the events that date back to the origins, to the primordial and legendary time of beginnings. In doing so, it refers to realities that exist in the world, explaining the origins: cosmos, man, plants, animals, life” (6). Thus, we cannot decrease myth to a mere fantasy, fairy tale, or scientific fact. Myth “does not have a claim of realistic and historical reconstruction of the facts; it does not relate the history of the genesis and development of a reality: it says something profoundly real, that mere scientific explanation of the facts could not explain” (Valera and Tambone 354). The dimensions of space and time are sacred in the myth since, as Elaide claims, events in mythical time “make up a sacred history because the actors in the drama are not men but Supernatural Beings” (13). Thereby, the Netflix series The Gift is a symbolic expression of historical reality through the mythical expression of metaphysical nature that is not natural.

As Julien Ries explains, “[t]he myth is a symbolic expression through which the human being interprets the relationship between the current time and the origins” (6). Following Donna Haraway’s claim that “[b]y the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are all cyborgs” (150), Atiye is the cyborg goddess, a chimera hybrid of human and supernatural mythical organisms. The first scene of The Gift shows Atiye watching her own funeral from a distance, which symbolizes her rebirth. The posthuman narrative in The Gift deconstructs the Western dichotomies of organic/inorganic, death/life, nature/culture, male/female, fact/fiction, human/environment, natural/supernatural, past/present, soul/matter, etc., so The Gift moves beyond Western real time and space and instead enacts its own time and space. 

As a mythological heroine, Atiye gets rid of the past and the future by realizing her power over the moments she can control. This is what it takes to be eternal, and the hidden mythical element is the present, so Atiye finds her power when she stays in the present: “Eternity does not mean having endless time. It means timelessness. If you want to experience infinite enlightenment, you need to get the past, the future out of your mind. And stay in the present” ― Shams-i Tabrīzī (S1, E3). The show depicts the idea that as humans, we have always been posthumans in a divine/eternal plan and that we cannot change the past, but we can shape the future as it is also stated in the series: “Maybe time is not linear as we are told, my son, maybe the past and the future have melted into each other and we are in a dream and a delusion/illusion” (S1, E8). In this sense, as in Pepperell’s “Posthuman Manifesto,”  “[t]he future never arrives” (5) because we live in the past, present, and future at the same non-dimensional time and space that depict the posthuman turn of integral metaphysical understanding. The series depicts the past, present, and future happening at the same time:

There is no such thing as time. Everything in the universe happens at once. We only perceive things sequentially because that’s what we were taught. Yet every choice we made leads to a new possibility. We affect everything in a timeless place even if we don’t realize it. (S3 E2)

The metaphysical time and space in The Gift explain how “[e]verything that exists anywhere is energy” (Pepperell 12); that there is no need for matter in the flow of energy. There is no ultimate time and space in the posthuman myth of the Göbeklitepe as the turning point of humanity. The fluidity of Atiye’s posthuman body without physical boundaries moves beyond the spatial limits in parallel worlds and becomes whole in the eternal time of past, present, and future in human history. We see the posthuman goddess coinciding with the whole Atiye in each multi-parallel universe.

The most important mythical element in The Gift is the Sun and Moon iconography, which is also found on the actual pillars of Göbeklitepe.Archaeologist Schmidt believes the “H” sign motif located above the Kün-ay (sun-moon) motif is a reference to marriage (God-goddess) in spring, which is a kind of symbol of male and female togetherness. This type of Kün-ay/god-goddess reunion ceremony brings us to the origin of hıdırellez festivals, which is how the spring equinox is celebrated in Turkey, when nature awakens and the earth is reborn (Çığ 2014; Esin 2001). Kün-ay symbols are also seen in many ancient artworks, such as Sumerian and Akkadian cylinder seals and Proto-Turkish culture (from the Chu Turks, Hun Turks, to the Gökturks), as well as to the flag with the crescent and star used by modern Turks. The pillar also symbolizes the life-death-rebirth cycle and reminds us of the sacred marriage ceremony of Inanna, goddess of fertility and love, and shepherd Dumuzi (who is also called Tammuz) [2] in Sumerian civilization. Göbeklitepe is the first home for the fertility cults in the Anatolian and Mesopotamian civilizations. [3]

That is, Atiye and Erhan are depicted as “Adam and Eve, Jesus and Magdalene, Isis and Osiris, call them what you will” (S1, E8).Atiye represents the goddess Umay, Mother Earth (also called Ayasin or Ece); Umay is the symbol of birth and fertility, the protector of pregnant women, animals, nature, and non-humans in Turkish mythology. In Season 2, Atiye’s symbolic meaning  is directly conveyed in an inscription written in the Göktürk alphabet in tunic letters: 

You are the mother of the universe, nature itself, the sum of divine spirits from beyond time, the queen of souls, you are life and light, you are always the one who will always be Venus or Isis. You are the one that begins in every realm, you are the goddess with ten thousand names and you are the only one for me. (S2, E6)

The symbol of Göbeklitepe in Atiye’s art consists of the Moon, Sun, and Womb (referring to a baby in the uterus). The moon and sun are depicted on Atiye and Erhan’s foreheads and symbolize the awakening of nature and the rebirth of posthuman earth. [4] The series shows that Göbeklitepe gives birth to human and superhuman beings which then attribute it a posthuman feature.  Atiye, as the representative of the fertility goddess, is captured in the caves in Nemrut Mountain, [5] and her emergence from the cave symbolizes her rebirth. Atiye realizes the dream of Antiochus I Theos, (considered a god in human form), who built a huge mortuary with enormous statues of himself, other gods, and animals to be protected and live forever. Atiye achieves immortality as a posthuman goddess so she can protect all creatures in all universes. This rebirth scene portrays the notion that nothing dies and disappears, only time flows, so that the past might be our future, or the future may be lost in our past:

Don’t worry, everything is as it should be, we are all parts of the divine plan, we are all a continuation of each other. You couldn’t have stopped what happened, but creating what will happen is in your hands. A gift was given to you, Atiye. You really can do whatever you want. (S1, E8).

The Gift references collective consciousness and divine unity, which is also the cosmology of Sufism in Turkish culture; as Simurg explains, “[a]nd the real journey is the one where we realize we are all One” (S3, E5). Resurrection after death is explained in the series in the religious/spiritual/Sufi way as in the following quotes:

God removes the living from the dead, the dead from the living and revives the earth after his death. Thus, you shall also be removed.—Qur’an (S1, E6)

Birth begins with death. Our last day is the beginning of the first day. And when the time comes, a new age will begin with the first seed. She will come. She will open the door to real life. (S3, E3)

Death is not the end but an interlude. Really. They took me out of that interlude . . . beyond what we think we know. (S3, E4)

These lines illustrate how Atiye travels through time and places in order to complete her own inner spiritual journey. Atiye discovers her way by realizing her posthuman mythological power of resurrection in alternative universes. For example, when Atiye passes through the womb/gate of Göbeklitepe, she finds herself in a different universe where her dead sister Cansu continues her life as a different character, Elif, and does not recognize her. When Atiye, as a posthuman mythological heroine, understands her power can resurrect the dead, she brings her sister back to an alternative universe. As it is said in the series: “There is no time, no separation, everything is as it should be” (S1, E8).

Tree of Life

There is also a reference to the mythological Turkish tree of life—the great beech Ulu Kayı—in the second season, which takes place in a dystopian parallel world where women cannot get pregnant for an unknown reason. According to a belief in Turkish mythology, tying rags to trees, parks, and elsewhere  to ask Mother Earth  for children. [6] This more-than-human nature, tree, is believed to have posthuman features as it holds the sky with its arms, one touching the sun and the other the moon, and its roots reach the deepest point underground. The tree is the symbol of posthuman rebirth in the series: 

The door you are looking for is beneath that tree. 
That tree which joins the heavens/skies and earth. 
That has been here forever. 
That tree has been entrusted to you for generations and 
That will exist forever.
(S2, E7)

The great beech, Ulu Kayın, was planted by Kayrahan, the son of Tengri, the Sky God, and from the tree nine human species descended from nine branches. This also demonstrates how posthuman species have always existed in Turkish mythology and The Gift is one of the good examples of Turkish posthuman culture.

Snake-Woman: Şahmaran

The ouroboros,—a snake biting its tail—represents the multiverse; in mythologies, it describes the cyclicity of time. Superheroes are the most well-known examples of posthuman figurations in narratives. In The Gift, we encounter them in the characters of Atiye, her grandmother Zühre and her daughters, Atiye’s daughter Arden; Atiye in particular is a posthuman superheroine who tries to save the world from infertility. Atiye comes across her grandmother Zühre who suddenly appears and disappears and seems to come from another universe. Zühre represents the Şahmaran (Shahmaran), a posthuman mythological creature called the “Queen of Snakes” from a Middle Eastern mythological half-human half-snake being: 

Everyone thinks that snakes are dangerous, that they’re poison, the devil itself. But in reality, snakes are defined as knowledge and the mean rebirth. They are tasked with protecting what’s sacred. Shahmaran was the beautiful and graceful queen of snakes. She reigned a secret garden of paradise hidden underground. But then, one day . . . people came and found her and killed her, believing her dead body would create miracles. But don’t worry, when Shamaran dies, her soul passes to her daughter and continues to live within her. (S1, E6)  

The story of Şahmaran is important for the series, which depicts the posthuman mythological figures shaping the history of humankind. The miraculous abilities to heal and all the supernatural power that pass from mother to daughter in the series evoke the matriarchal system [7] that posthuman mythological goddesses de- and reconstruct the history of time, space, and existence. 

Conclusion

The most important message from this posthuman mythological SF is to accept what comes from the gift of life itself. I want to close my talk with Şems’s sayings in The Gift: “Instead of resisting to changes, surrender. Let life be with you, not against you. If you think ‘My life will be upside down’ don’t worry. How do you know down is not better than upside?” ― Shams-i Tabrīzī (S1, E3).

NOTES

[1] The Gift focuses on parallel universes as in other series, such as Finch, Dark, and The OA.

[2] Tammuz, in Turkish Temmuz, was also the name of the month July.

[3] These symbols also have cosmic references that attribute Göbeklitepe to be built as an observatory place to observe planets and celestial objects.

[4] The symbol of Sirius in the series is used as a sign of posthuman power. 

[5] Statues of gods and goddesses are located in Nemrut Mountain (southwestern Anatolia in Turkey), home for the Commagene Kingdom (163 BCE–72 CE).

[6] Trees are also planted even in cemeteries in Turkish culture. Tying rags also dates back to the old Turkish belief shamanism, to the Turk-Mongolic native religious movement which is called Tengrism.

[7] The villagers attack Zühre’s house because they think her abilities are those of  a wizard and devil. They also kill her husband and burn one of her daughters by throwing her in the fire. Zühre’s daughters bear a star shaped birthmark and are healers who can travel through time and universes. Zühre and her dead daughter,  with the star-shaped birthmark on her forehead, help Atiye get out of the cave of Nemrut.

WORKS CITED

Boybaş, Şengül. Dünyanın Uyanışı [The Awakening of the World]. Küsurat Yayınları, 2018.

Çığ, Muazzez İlmiye. İnanna’nın Aşkı: Sumer’de İnanç ve Kutsal Evlenme. Kaynak Yayınları, 1998.

Eliade, Mircea. Myth and Reality. Waveland Press, Long Grove, 1998.

Esin, Emel, Türk Kozmolojisi’ne Giriş. Kabalcı Yayınları, 2001

Haraway, Donna J. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Social Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, pp. 149-181, Routledge, 1991.

Pepperell, Robert. “The Posthuman Manifesto.” Kritikos. vol. 2, 2005, pp. 1-15. 

Ries, Julien. Mito e rito. Le costanti del sacro. Jaca Book, Milano, 2008.

Schmidt, Klaus. Göbekli Tepe: En Eski Tapınağı Yapanlar, translated by Rüstem Aslan, Arkeoloji Sanat Yayinlari, 2006.

The Gift, 2019. Netflix Turkish Series. 

Valera, Luca, and Vittoradolfo Tambone. “The goldfish syndrome. Human nature and the posthuman myth.” Cuadernos de bioetica: revista oficial de la Asociacion Espanola de Bioetica y Etica Medica, vol. 25, no. 85, 2014, 353-66.

Sümeyra Buran is a visiting associate professor at the University of California Riverside (from Istanbul Medeniyet University) since she was awarded a research grant by the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TUBITAK) in 2018. She is the founding and coordinating editor of Journal of Posthumanism, the editor of Posthumanism Series by Transnational Press London, the editor of the collection Posthumanism in Literature (Edebiyatta Posthümanizm 2020), co-editor with Sherryl Vint of Technologies of Feminist Speculative Fiction: Gender, Artificial Life, Reproduction by Palgrave (soon), co-editor with Jim Clarke of Religious Futurisms (2022), and co-editor with Jire Gozen of Beyond the Occident: Perspectives on Past, Present and Speculative Future in Fiction, Art, Media and Film (2022) to be published by Routledge. She is also co-editor of the first Turkish Anthology of Science Fiction (2022). She is also a scientific coordination committee member of the European Observatory on Femicide (EOF), a committee member of BIPOC at IAFA, and a country representative (Turkey) at SFRA. Currently, she is writing her monograph, Su-fi: Sufi Science Fiction, to be published by Routledge (tentative).