Postcards from the Apocalypse

The first time I met my birth mother, a woman whose family comes from the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo of Northern New Mexico, she gave me two things: a VHS tape of Surviving Columbus: The Story of the Pueblo People and a CD of the Cree singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie. The first chronicles our people’s survival of a brutal genocide that began with our first encounter with the Spanish in the early 1500s and continues to this day. Surviving Columbus is a primer in the mechanics of apocalypse, documenting the truth of what it means to face the end of the world and survive. And then to keep surviving, even thriving, when the world keeps trying to kill you. It is, in a sense, the stuff of speculative fiction. But it is also very much reality.

The latter gift was a collection of songs: anthems, love ballads, and truth-tellings. There were songs about war, songs about displacement, but also songs about love and travel and Indian cowboys. That last song on the album, “Starwalker,” was a song about the power and resilience of Native people. And for Pueblos, a people descended from the master astronomers called the Anasazi/Ancestral Puebloans, a people who once dominated the Southwest United States, it was a particularly poignant title. All in all, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s work was what we would call good medicine—a soundtrack of healing and hope.

In a way, my birth mother’s gifts were symbolic of Indigenous existence. To be a Native of North America is to exist in a space where the past and the future mix in a delicate swirl of the here-and-now. We stand with one foot always in the darkness that ended our world, and the other in a hope for our future as Indigenous people. It is from this apocalyptic in-between that the Indigenous voices in speculative fiction speak.

We have been, we are, and we always will be.

Dr. Grace Dillon (Anishinaabe), inspired by Afro-futurists, coined the term Indigenous Futurisms. Indigenous Futurisms is a term meant to encourage Native, First Nations, and other Indigenous authors and creators to speak back to the colonial tropes of science fiction—those that celebrate the rugged individual, the conquest of foreign worlds, the taming of the final frontier. Indigenous Futurism asks us to reject these colonial ideas and instead re-imagine space, both outer and inner, from another perspective. One that makes room for stories that celebrate relationship and connection to community, coexistence, and sharing of land and technology, the honoring of caretakers and protectors.

Indigenous Futurism also advocates for the sovereign. It dares to let Indigenous creators define themselves and their world not just as speaking back to colonialism, but as existing in their own right. That is not to say that the past is ignored, but rather that it is folded into the present, which is folded into the future—a philosophical wormhole that renders the very definitions of time and space fluid in the imagination.

What if I told you that there had been a zombie apocalypse? What if I told you that you were the zombies?

Indigenous Futurism rewrites the past to reimagine the present. It challenges the dominant narrative, so, for example, the landing of Columbus is no longer the discovery of the New World celebrated in children’s songs and on national holidays, but the start of an earth-shattering zombie apocalypse. Native scholar Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy (Hupa, Yurok and Karuk) talks about the elements of the invasion and settlement of California in terms she likens to the AMC TV series The Walking Dead, arguing that the Mission System and the California Gold Rush were nothing short of “zombies running around trying to kill Indians.” It’s a compelling argument when you realize that the miners of the Gold Rush would organize militias and stage “Indian hunting days.” The militias were paid 25 cents a scalp and $5 a head, and in 1851 and 1852 alone, the state of California paid out close to one million dollars for the killing of Indians:

“In effect, for a long time in California, if you were an Indian person walking around, something or someone might just try to kill you. They were hungry for your scalp and your head. They had no remorse. There was no reasoning with them. And there were more of them then there was of you. Zombies.” 

But, of course, the miners and priests and other California invaders weren’t zombies. They were humans, which makes the atrocities they committed that much worse.

I can’t believe you’re alive! I saw you die. I mourned you. I cried for you.

Thor: Ragnorak, the most recent offering of the Marvel franchise, is directed by Māori director Taika Waititi. It is full of moments of decidedly Indigenous humor. Dan Taipua wrote an article for The Spinoff arguing that the humor in the movie often functioned as a decolonial tool. He calls it “the comedy of deflation,” and anyone who has spent any time on the reservation will recognize it immediately. Natives are notorious teasers, nickname-givers, and peg-taker-downers. If you don’t have a thick skin, best not to visit. Some critics have complained about the humor in Thor. That it went too far, that it was heavy-handed. But, perhaps, it was just Indigenous.

One of my favorite scenes from the movie is a small thing; Thor confronts his brother Loki, whom he has thought long dead. Thor is outraged that his brother is in fact not dead when he should have been. He complains that he saw him die, he mourned for him, cried for him even. Loki, somewhat taken aback that his brother appears to prefer him dead, deadpans, “I’m honored?”

This is a joke that every Native who has had to endure sports mascots, headdresses at music festivals and fashion shows, and the (fake Indian) actor crying a single tear over the environment inherently understands. And when we protest, calling out the dehumanizing mascots or the appropriation and misuse of our culture, inevitably we are met with, “But I’m honoring you.” Which we understand to mean, “Shut up and stay dead; we liked you better that way.” So perhaps it is not out of the realm of possibility to think of Thor: Ragnorak as a delightful example of Indigenous Futurism, a way in science fiction and fantasy to speak back to colonialism, while making you laugh at the same time.

Kill the Indian, save the dreamcatcher. Hang it from your spaceship’s rearview window.

This erasure of actual Native people (while taking openly from our cultures) happens frequently in science fiction and fantasy. Right now, I’m thinking of Star Wars. The Native influence in Star Wars is arguably vast, but I’ll only mention a few of the obvious ones. Princess Leia’s infamous side-buns are a popular traditional Hopi hairstyle, the Ewoks were named after the Miwok people of Northern California (where the Endor scenes were filmed) and, my personal favorite, when Princess Leia enters Jabba the Hut’s lair disguised as a bounty hunter, she greets him in Navajo: yáʼátʼééh, yáʼátʼééh. And while all these references to Native culture are fun to see on the screen, Star Wars lacks Native actors. Again, the culture without the people. Problematic because it reinforces the narrative that we are all dead.

A handful of visual artists have spoken back to this erasure, some with humor and perhaps a longing born in childhood to be part of the Star Wars universe. Artists like Ryan Singer (Navajo) has a series of paintings that set the instantly recognizable characters on the Navajo Nation. Here, R2-D2 and C3PO gaze towards the iconic Window Rock, there Storm Troopers stand under a reservation blue sky. Comic book artist Jeffrey Veregge (Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe) has also reinterpreted Star Wars iconography in his unique style that is influenced by Salish form-line design. He renders the Millennium Falcon, Darth Vader, and even the original Star Wars movie poster into something totally fresh and new.

We are going to save you.

In his novel Robopocalypse, Daniel Wilson (Cherokee) imagines a world where robots take over the world. Not an original premise on its own, but Wilson dares to posit Native Americans as the focus of the rebellion that will save humankind. Wilson takes what others might perceive of as a weakness—the isolation of the reservation, limited access to technology, traditional ways of thinking—and turns them into strengths. The future of humanity is centered on the Osage Nation, danced to life on ancestral grounds, and realized in the guidance found in ancient systems of knowing. It dares to imagine that Indigenous knowledge offers the larger world something that might just save it.

It’s been 191,626 days, but who’s counting.

There is a tendency to talk about the Indigenous inhabitants of North America in the past tense. While it is true far fewer of us made it out of the 19th century alive, it is not the truth that we are all dead. But it is no accident that you might think so. The entire framework of America is set up to support the idea that this is “a nation of immigrants,” an oft-quoted rallying cry that erases those whose ancestors came unwillingly in chains, and those who have been here for millennia before there even was a country called “America.”

It is all a lie.

Miss you. Wish you were here.

I had been searching for my mother for a while when the private investigator called with the news that she had been found. When she asked what made me start my search (a professional curiosity, you see) I told her some made-up story, the details I can’t even remember now. But the truth was, it was because I had started dreaming. It sounds like a terrible stereotype when you’re Native to blame anything on your dreams, but it’s the truth.

Here’s another truth. I’m still dreaming. And I’m not alone. Writers and scholars and creators like the ones I mentioned earlier are dreaming, too. And every good Native knows that your dreams are trying to tell you something. Maybe that something is that our time has come. We are rising from the apocalypse, folding the past into our present and writing a future that is decidedly Indigenous.


Rebecca Roanhorse

Rebecca Roanhorse is a NYTimes and USA Today bestselling writer. She has won the Nebula, Hugo, and Locus Award, plus the 2018 Astounding (Campbell) Award for Best New Writer. Her novels include Trail of Lightning, Storm of Locusts, Star Wars: Resistance Reborn, and the middle grade novel Race to the Sun. Her next novel, Black Sun, comes out from Saga Press in late 2020. She lives in Northern New Mexico with her husband and daughter.

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