The Earth is Our Mothership (2020)

The Earth is Our Mothership

I had to find another place where they hadn’t perceived Black people to be and that was on a spaceship. - George Clinton

Earthbound. It’s trying to get up that gets us down. - Heid Erdrich, from the poem Earthbound

When Grace Dillon, PhD (Anishinaabe) coined the phrase “Indigenous Futurisms,” a term that pays homage to Afrofuturism, she had sought a place where Native presence could be imagined in science fiction. Her anthology of Indigenous science fiction, Walking the Clouds, is organized under six major concepts such as Native Slipstream, Contact, and Native Apocalypse. Within the context of literature these attributes of Indigenous Futurisms appear well supported; but could Indigenous Futurisms as a larger movement intersect with practices that abandon the subtext of science fiction altogether? Are there places outside of Dillon’s imaginings where visual art, music, and dance are devoid of settler incursion altogether? Are there entirely different metronomes available to us for transcribing time and space that are still identifiable as Indigenous?

I moved to Chicago three years ago [2016] and have found it to be a case study for the necessity of Indigenous Futurisms. Chicago is a city where Afrofuturism is celebrated; it is where musician Herman Poole Blount became Sun Ra, and it is the place where Afrofuturist writers of today, including Ytasha Womack and Nnedi Okorafor, call home. Chicago is also a place of prolonged Indigenous erasure. The area that we now know as Chicago is the land of the Three Fires Council: the Potawatomi, Odawa, and Ojibwe. The Miami, Hochunk, and Menominee are among many other nations who have continually lived in Chicago from time immemorial as well. Gaa-zhigaagwanzhikaag is the Ojibwemowin word for “the place abundant in wild leeks (skunk-grass),” but the truncated Zhigaagong, Ojibwe for “on the skunk,” is Chicago’s likely toponymy. I’ve enjoyed living in a city that is filled with the language of my people, if only in appropriated forms. Near Michigan (“Grand Lake”) Avenue sits a site marker for the now-destroyed Shaganash (“English”) Hotel. The plaque explains that the absent building sat on the site of the Wigwam (“lodge”) Building which had occupied that space at an earlier time. There are, like in all North American cities, street names and statues paying tribute to prolific killers of Indigenous people. At the end of Columbus Avenue is a statue of Christopher Columbus that refers to the World’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893 held in Chicago and a nation celebrating its “handiwork.”

Beyond Chicago’s tributes to genocidal settlers, there is one place-name that doesn’t fit that category, nor does it fall neatly into a recognizable Indigenous reference. I had heard of the name Jean Baptiste Point du Sable only after moving to Chicago. On the north side of the DuSable Bridge is a likeness of Point du Sable in the form of a handsome bust with a plaque characterizing him as the first non-Native who established the settlement that would become Chicago. He was a man of African descent through his Haitian mother, and he is commonly referred to as Chicago’s “founder.” The plaque explains that he established the “first trading post” in what would become Chicago. That seems important, until you consider the fact that Chicago is on the land of the Odawa people and odawa means “he/she trades” in Anishinaabemowin. Are we to infer that the Odawa had no trading posts among them despite their entire nation identifying as traders? We know that Point du Sable was Potawatomi kin, by way of marrying and having children with a Potawatomi woman named Kitihawa. Anishinaabe people didn’t know ourselves in terms of race, but in terms of nations, kin (or clans), and family. Point du Sable was Potawatomi kin, adopted into a Potawatomi familial and political structure. Venerating him in isolation from his family renders his adoption by the Potawatomi people as immaterial to his identity while erasing the context that allowed him to participate under Potawatomi sovereignty. To hear Point du Sable’s story told through the plaques on the city’s monuments, one might assume that the Chicago of the 1770s was in a fog of otherworldliness. It wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to view Point du Sable as a lonely astronaut arriving on Mars as the “first non-Martian founder of Mars.” If Point du Sable were alive today would he even recognise this legend as his own?

The fleeting joys of seeing one’s Indigenous language in our environment—these positive affirmations of Indigenous presence—is easily tamped down by an ongoing history of dispossession meant to extract from, supplant, and disappear Native presence. Severing Indigenous people from our ancestrally given epistemologies is part of the settler-colonial project of assimilation, but negating Indigenous existence was carried out in the minds of settlers too. Historian Jean M. O’Brien (White Earth Ojibwe) precisely characterizes this method of settler erasure and rebranding that was and is used to disappear Native people as “firsting” and “lasting.” We all have examples: the first trading post, the last of the Mohicans, the last Native nation to leave any given city, the first cemetery, the first baby born in any location, or the first experience by non-Natives of anything already known by Native people termed as a “discovery.” Jean O’Brien’s book furthers the work of Indigenous Futurisms because Indigenous Futurisms do not have to be deemed fictional, are often true, and we can expose foreclosures of Indigenous presence of the past. From our ancestors’ vantage point, we are the beings of the future. We are in a position to interrupt continual Indigenous erasure by advocating our presence now. Indigenous Futurisms are as much about healing in the present time and a process of truth telling found in reexamining our pasts, as it is about reimagining the future.

Native peoples’ current existence in the world has been characterized in the dominant culture’s imagination as anachronistic, a failure of order in place and time. Native people are denied contemporaneity. In Beyond Settler Time, Mark Rifkin writes that in this view, “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.” These settler preconceptions are not unnoticed and are targeted by Indigenous Futurists. Grace Dillon’s idea of an “Indigenous slipstream” describes an aspect of Indigenous Futurisms that transgresses settler time by “replicating nonlinear thinking about space-time.” This is an aspect of Santiago X’s 2018 piece THE RETURN (o:lači okhiča) where a slipstream made visible. In this piece, a triangle constructed of fluorescent-tube bulbs frame the lower corner of the gallery. Within it, a projected view of clouds gives the viewer a false sense of hovering in the sky. The effect virtually erases the partitioned floor and wall segments while creating a boundless space—a space without walls. X poetically states that the work is “scripted replacement in a space without space.” X’s refusal of a limited duration that is imposed on Native people is also reflected in his work outside of white-box gallery spaces. Recently Santiago X unveiled a serpent mound in Schiller Woods Park in Chicago, and he plans to build a spiral mound in Chicago’s Horner Park. He is careful to avoid talking about mound building as a historic pursuit, or of Native people in the past tense. He states that the act of mound building is “trying to reinvigorate the [I]ndigenous landscape and is oriented towards giving [I]ndigenous people in this city a place to go. But not be framed in history, but giving us a place that is built by us and where we can celebrate our resilience.”

N. Scott Momaday famously said that “the greatest tragedy that can befall us is to go unimagined.” When we imagine ourselves in public, outdoor spaces where settlers have become comfortable dominating, our presence seems radical. Cultural visibility can be an unintended interruption of the colonial assimilation project. The earthworks of Santiago X, the wearable artwork of Terri Greeves, and Rory Wakemup’s cosplay are forms of “imagining ourselves richly” in outdoor, public spaces. As much as those works are for the enjoyment of Native people, they are mobile and have the ability to occupy spaces where Native people often go unimagined. While it is common for Natives to go unimagined in the public spaces, settler placemaking extends into fictional spaces as well. The universes of non-Native science fiction don’t often explicitly reference Indigenous people, universes like those of Star Wars and Star Trek, and they often code in Native tropes as the “alien other.” In his essay, “Navajos on Mars,” William Lempert discusses Western genre tropes as continuations of stereotypes of Natives in science fiction,

                    “It will come as no surprise that the usual cast of Indigenous film stereotypes abound, while whiteness is normalized and equated with rationality. There are various wizened noble Indigenous oracles (Yoda), barbaric “others” (Klingons), and manipulated tribal groups (Ewoks). With rare exceptions, leaders in the future are presented as Western males (Luke Skywalker), hyper-rational white Euro-aliens (Spock), or white saviors (Jake Sully).”

If the film industry intended to cleverly hide Indigeneity as alien life, Native artists have overtly added Native signifiers back in. This is a tactic I call “Boo! We’re in Star Wars now.” Many Native artists cannot imagine a universe where we couldn’t exist and employ various methods to disrupt any universe where Native presence is omitted or deeply coded.

Native artists inserting Native signifiers could also be a type of “culture jamming,” a guerilla media phenomenon meant to “‘expose the methods of domination’ of a mass society to foster progressive change.” Culture jamming is sometimes confused with cultural appropriation, but cultural appropriation is often cross cultural, where offending parties retain power or economic benefit from the dominating culture. There are elements of culture jamming that may not be applicable to Indigenous Futurisms. For example, the tactic of détournement (French for “rerouting” or “hijacking”) is often used in culture jamming to “uncool” capitalist marketing campaigns. Indigenizing science fiction, or transforming it to center Indigenous people, isn’t antagonizing science fiction, but adding value to it. Jeffrey Veregge’s digital prints reconstruct characters from Alien and Star Wars in formline, abstracting the characters to the point where they seem secondary in significance to the Indigenizing style. Native artists are also exposing how the science fiction of settlers egregiously appropriates from Native cultures. Nicholas Galanin’s 2012 print Things Are Looking Native, Native’s Looking Whiter combines two images—one of Princess Leia and one from the photo A Tewa Girl 1921 by Edward Curtis—cut in half and collaged together to make a semblance of one person. Princess Leia’s iconic hair references the squash blossom whorls worn by young women of Southwest nations. The appropriation is on the level of putting Leia in a headdress. By highlighting this reference, Native artists aren’t allowing George Lucas to deny or obfuscate his appropriation. Galanin’s method wouldn’t be a hijacking per se, but an exposure of someone else’s attempted cultural hijack.

Non-Native science fiction producers take from Indigenous cultures to create a sense of otherworldliness in terms of character portraiture, but what can be said of the landscapes? Many Indigenous Futurists have imagined Native people in space, on the moon, or distant planets, in ways that vaguely resembling the colonization themes of non-Native science fiction. Sonny Asu and Ryan Singer reference the landscapes of their people that are decidedly Earthly, yet uncanny. Asu’s Re-Invaders Digital Intervention on an Emily Carr Painting (Indian Church 1929) superimposes Northwest formline-style spaceships upon Emily Carr’s landscape. Carr was a non-Native, Canadian artist who exploited the imagery and landscape of Native Northwest Coast people. Asu’s reference to the popular 1978 arcade game Space Invaders places the church and crosses in defensive positions as the Native elements retake their space. Space Invaders is also re-configured in the 2015 video game Invaders with design and programming Elizabeth LaPensée, art by Steven Paul Judd, and music by Trevino Brings Plenty. The threat of being invaded as a recurring theme of settler science fiction risks extreme irony, which is not lost on Native re-imaginations.

Although Indigenous Futurisms may be predicated on disrupting Indigenous erasure, and Indigenious Futurists are indeed finding leverage under its banner, thwarting colonial endeavors doesn’t have to be its primary function. Grace Dillion’s poetic definition for Biskaabiiyang—the Anishinaabemowin word for “we make a round trip in a day”—is “returning to ourselves,” equating it with ideas around decolonization and a form of recovery. The idea of bishaabiiyang could also be applied to our own models of the universe and our own cosmologies. It isn’t necessary that Native people must always respond through their art to the wrongs of settler colonization. The images Native people make can refer to other visual grammars, grammars where the universe can take the form of “turtles all the way down,” or turtles again with lunar calendars painted on their backs, turtles craning their necks up to gaze upon a woman being carried on a chariot of geese. Skawennati’s She Falls For Ages machinima is one of these universes. She Falls For Ages is a “sci-fi retelling of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) creation story [that] reimagines Sky World as a futuristic, utopic space and Sky Woman as a brave astronaut and world-builder.” The film is animated using computer graphics engines that are most commonly associated with interactive video games. The effect is stunning. For gamers who have spent time in machinima-rendered worlds, they may relate to the simulacrum environments depicted in She Falls For Ages as places where their characters would have agency and survive. This subtext subverts the time-capsule spaces where Natives are typically depicted with a different topology altogether.

Theoretical associations around space and time are hardwired into our languages. Margaret Noodin makes an observation about Anishinaabemowin (Anishinaabe language), writing that aki is “commonly translated as ‘land’ but closely related to akinaa, the term for ‘everything’ or ‘unity.’” Topologically speaking, the Earth is a sphere. We could endlessly walk around a sphere without ever turning back. Time could be visualized as an everlasting sky on top of an everlasting Earth. This is where the tradition of landscape painting fails the Earth because it places a horizon line in a rectangular frame—bite-sized, possessable Earth pieces. Could depictions of the land be better conveyed as a circle lining the rim of a bowl? Could a line painted across a drum represent the liminality of time or the path of the sun against the Earth? Could a spiral painted on a cliff face track phases of the sun? Could the directions of a city street map out equinoxes and solstices? When I say, “the Earth is our mothership” I hope not to confine, but to look closely at both Indigeneity and the colonial structures we’ve annexed. As we gaze into the night sky with our feet on the Earth, we should understand that we are already out in the stars—we are already time travelers.

Citations to follow.
Published in the catalog accompanying the exhibition:

Indigenous Futurisms: Transcending Past/Present/Future. Curated by Suzanne Fricke, Chelsea
Herr (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma), and Manuela Well-Off-Man, February
13, 2020–January 3, 2021, Institute of American Indian Arts Museum of
Contemporary Native Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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