An Old New WorldWhen One People’s Sci-Fi Is Another People’s Past

illustration of mixed Indigenous space wayfarers on an orange planet

Illustration by Sloane Leong

This article was published in Sanctuary Issue #85 | Winter 2020

When Princess Leia enters Jabba the Hutt’s lair in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, she greets him with “Yá’át’ééh, yá’át’ééh,” a Navajo greeting, and her iconic double-bun hairstyle imitates a traditional Hopi style for young girls. In the “Spirits” episode of Stargate SG-1, a science-fiction series that ran between 1997 and 2007, the team lands on a planet inhabited by the Salish, a Native American tribe with ancestors on Earth, and the episode is peppered with animal totems and mysterious spirits. Even Jordan Peele’s 2019 movie Us features Native imagery: At the beginning of the film, a young Adelaide (Madison Curry) enters a fun house on the Santa Cruz boardwalk called “Shaman Vision Quest Forest,” sees a mechanical owl (an animal some tribes consider a foreshadowing of death), and whistles at night (an act some tribes believe beckons bad spirits). 

In many mainstream science-fiction narratives, Native Americans—as people, not lifted cultural elements that make a scene more exotic—are virtually nonexistent. Yet many of our most iconic science-fiction tales offer perspectives about colonialism. Aliens or apes invade or attack planet Earth, aiming to replace us (the “us” usually being white people), and cataclysmic wars bring about the end of the world. This connection isn’t coincidental: In his 2008 book Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa English professor John Rieder notes that Western science fiction rose to prominence in the late 19th century during a period of massive European colonial expansion. “Evolutionary theory and anthropology, both profoundly intertwined with colonial ideology and history, are especially important to early science fiction from the mid-19th century on,” he writes. “The complex mixture of ideas about competition, adaptation, race, and destiny that was in part generated by evolutionary theory…forms a major part of the thematic material of early science fiction.”

As European nations were developing new ideas on racial hierarchy—including Social Darwinism, the belief that “inferior” people would “naturally” die off—writers of science fiction were exploring futuristic wars, invasions, and discoveries of new species. Their works often imitated violence occurring in the real world: H.G. Wells’s 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, one of the first massively popular science-fiction books, imagined a world in which martians invade England—and was inspired by the British colonization of Tasmania. More than 100 years later, James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar, which was also a story about invasion and colonialism, became one of the highest-grossing films of all time. Colonization and marginalization are commonly used as plot points, but for Native Americans these are not fantastical, imagined scenarios. We live them.

As Portland State University Indigenous Nations Studies professor Grace L. Dillon wrote in the introduction to 2012’s Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction, “It is almost commonplace to think that the Native Apocalypse, if contemplated seriously, has already taken place.” Indigenous authors are thus in a unique position to reclaim sci-fi narratives as a form of resistance against settler colonialism. Indigenous science fiction or speculative fiction—which Dillion encapsulates with the term “Indigenous futurisms,” inspired by the Afrofuturism movement—offers a space for Indigenous writers, filmmakers, and artists to explore possible futures. From cowboy films to government-assimilation policies, Native American communities and cultures are often portrayed as a “vanishing race” with no place in the present, let alone the future. Indigenous futurism is a contemplation of what our futures look like as Indigenous people, one that recognizes the significance and strength of Indigenous knowledge systems.

Such possible futures are prevalent themes in Cherie Dimaline’s 2017 novel The Marrow Thieves and Rebecca Roanhorse’s 2018 novel Trail of Lightning. Both books create new worlds that center and celebrate Indigenous people, knowledge, and land. “You don’t see a lot of Native Americans in science fiction and fantasy, and when you do they are usually not situated in a world that is specifically Native, like the Navajo reservation,” Roanhorse told Barnes & Noble in 2018. “I wanted to read a science fiction and fantasy story where Native characters held front and center, where the landscape was filled with the places and the people that I knew from living on the rez, where the gods and heroes were of North American Indigenous origin.”

Normalizing Indigenous Knowledge

The normalizing of Indigenous knowledge and science is a core aspect of Indigenous futurism literature and art. Indigenous knowledge systems are often thought of as primitive or illegitimate, so situating them in speculative worlds allows Indigenous futurists to assert those systems’ strength and perseverance. The U.S. government spent generations attempting to destroy Native people’s systems of knowledge in many ways, including creating residential schools and banning Native American religious practices (which were illegal until 1978). But in Trail of Lightning, the first book in Roanhorse’s Sixth World series, Diné knowledge—from their clan systems to their understanding of ghosts—is simply the way of the world. Trail of Lightning opens at the end of bloody wars over control of oil and natural gas that have destroyed the United States. Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) has built a wall separating itself from the rest of the former United States. Protagonist Maggie Hoskie is a trained and talented killer, and with the assistance of Kai Arviso, a young medicine man trained by his grandfather, she travels Dinétah to battle ancient monsters who’ve been resurrected.

Colonization and marginalization are commonly used as plot points, but for Native Americans these are not fantastical, imagined scenarios. We live them.

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The Sixth World that Roanhorse has created is specifically Diné: Maggie and Kai aren’t side characters in a colonial landscape but central to a world that is entirely their own. Yet Roanhorse does not invent fantastical creatures or settings; instead, she draws from Diné history, storytelling, and cultural teachings. Ma’ii, for instance, is a sly coyote, a trickster with intimate knowledge of Dinétah. Ma’ii has a dual personality: He’s both good and bad, both a truth teller and a liar, and, for Maggie, both a close friend and an enemy. Neizghání, a former mentor with whom Maggie had a toxic relationship, is a monster slayer in Diné mythology. Even the world painted in Trail of Lightning is rooted in the Diné Bahane’ or origin story: According to the Diné, the beings who eventually become humans evolved through four worlds, each time becoming more human.

As each world is destroyed, a new one begins. The Diné believe that we are now in the fifth world, and in Trail of Lightning, Roanhorse creates the beginning of the sixth—one that takes shape in the aftermath of global destruction brought about by climate change and human hubris. In effect, Roanhorse is modernizing Diné stories and history without translating it for readers. She expects those who read her books to already know about these traditions and beliefs, making the Sixth World series uniquely accessible to Diné and other Native peoples in a way that other sci-fi and fantasy series are not.

Reclaiming History

According to Dillon, several historical events are commonly rewritten in Native American science fiction: the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, Custer’s death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, and the Ghost Dance religious movement. In The Marrow Thieves, Dimaline focuses on another chapter in our sordid history: residential schools. Nineteenth- and 20th-century residential schools removed Native children from their communities to forcibly assimilate them into American and Canadian culture. The Marrow Thieves brings us to a future world in which everyone has lost the ability to dream except Indigenous people, who hold dreams in webs made from their bone marrow. In order to dream again, white recruiters hunt Native people and lead them to schools where their marrow is violently extracted. For Dimaline’s characters—and Indigenous people more broadly—dreams are the tangible hope they need to fight for our futures.

Despite its title, the book focuses more on the Indigenous people being hunted than the recruiters who hunt them. The coming-of-age story follows a band of eight Indigenous people, including a young man named Frenchie, as they travel North to escape this fate. Throughout their journey, the elderly group member Migwaans tells stories to educate others about colonialism, residential schools, and treaties. “I wanted to write a story that talked about commodification of culture, the ache of Indigenous survival, the reality of attempted Indigenous genocide,” Dimaline told the Globe and Mail in 2017. “The Marrow Thieves is a kind of Trojan horse. Readers care about the characters and get involved in the story before they realize what’s being talked about is residential schools, albeit set in a dystopian future.”

Literature and pop culture tend to portray Indigneous Americans through a primarily historical lens, as wearing warbonnets and riding horses across the plains rather than living in a contemporary context. The Marrow Thieves may be a warning for non-Native people but is also about the hope and dreams that keep a people strong. Recognizing Indigenous communities as strong and resilient in the past, present, and future is important for Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences alike. In a roundtable discussion for Strange Horizons, a weekly magazine on speculative fiction, geoscientist and comic writer Darcie Little Badger observes:

“Imagining a future, period, is a great start. Please, please, please give me stories that acknowledge we survived the 1800s. I’ve had my fill of Apaches in Westerns and historical fantasies, which is saying a lot, since Native American characters, even secondary ones, are so rare. Both in and outside fiction, we are pushed to the past tense. The reality is, many Indigenous cultures in North America survived an apocalypse. The key word is survived. Any future with us in it, triumphant and flourishing, is a hopeful one.”

Authors like Roanhorse and Dimaline are helping us imagine those futures. Even though their characters continue to face violence, they are surviving precisely because of their indigeneity. Their ancestral knowledge gives them strength.

Imagining (Re)new(ed) Communities

“Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in speculative fiction,” writes Walidah Imarisha in the introduction to the 2015 anthology Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. “All organizing is science fiction. Organizers and activists dedicate their lives to creating and envisioning another world, or many other worlds.” When resisting colonialism—whether during the 19th-century Ghost Dance religious movement or in the creation of tribal language revitalization schools today—Indigenous writers, activists, and organizers are imagining a world free from colonial oppression. 

When water protectors gathered at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in 2016 to oppose the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the economic and social system the protectors developed to sustain the camps was a form of resistance. While fighting against pipeline development on tribal lands, water protectors also created, sustained, and funded the camps through a radical mutual-aid system. Federal and state governments blocked protestors from receiving on-site emergency medical care, protection from police violence, and access to food and building materials. To sustain the camp, the tribal government paid for some of the supplies (like latrines and emergency medical services), but the protectors themselves sustained and organized many of the physical spaces (like a women’s health lodge and kitchen).

The camp offered an anticapitalist, anticolonial model for community organizing and community building, one built not on competition or meritocracy but on the centering of Indigenous values. In many ways, Standing Rock was a microcosm of speculative fiction. More recently, at protests against the building of the Thirty Meter Telescope at the top of Mauna Kea—an ecologically sensitive and sacred Indigenous land—Native Hawaiians have created independent systems of support. Kaniela Ing, a Native Hawaiian and former member of the Hawaii House of Representatives, tweeted: “11 days in, Hawaiians have established: Free Healthcare [Mauna Medics], Free College [Pu’uhuluhulu University], Free Childcare [Kapunana] / 241 years in, America still no can. We’re not just stopping the TMT, we’re building a nation.” (Or, more accurately—as many replies pointed out—rebuilding one.)

Science fiction itself may not change colonial policies, but it challenges us to think beyond oppressive, normative structures and histories. Unfortunately, the mainstream genre continues to be dominated by white people. A 2015 analysis by Vocativ found that since the 1953 founding of the Hugo Award for Best Novel—the most prestigious award for science fiction writers—just five of the award’s 300 nominees were nonwhite. Even this paltry number was too much for some white men: In 2013, a group of right-wing authors who objected to growing racial and gender diversity in the Hugo nominations pool attempted to hijack the nomination process. White authors may be eager to write about (and award) dystopian stories where they are oppressed, but Indigenous and POC stories are still rare.

Still, Dimaline, Roanhorse, and other Native writers of science and speculative fiction offer brave new settings in which Indigenous people are the heroes, and Native knowledge is a sacred assertion of power and perseverance. This imagination—where water is valued over oil, Native women are respected leaders, and Native children grow up proud and strong in their cultural heritage—helps us create our futures. As Trail of Lightning’s Maggie puts it: “The Diné had already suffered their apocalypse over a century before. This wasn’t our end. This was our rebirth.”

illustration of Indigenous futurist landscape


by Abaki Beck
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Abaki Beck (she/her/hers) is a writer and public health researcher. She comanages a mutual-aid fund for formerly incarcerated people and runs a social justice resource website. You can find her writing in Bitch, Yes! Magazine, Health Affairs, and other outlets. She is Blackfeet and Red River Métis.