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.