Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Take One Cup of History, Add a Pinch of Aliens...
In may 2018, while perusing the latest edition of the Canadian History Round Up on Unwritten Histories, I read the entry for Douglas Hunter's twitter thread on how to make canadian history interesting by adding aliens. Being an Indigenous history PhD student who has just finished comprehensive exams including one in canadian history, I appreciated the wry humour and wonderful art in the thread. It also made me realize that actually, aliens have already been added to history, especially the canadian and american branches, but they may not be obvious to history buffs who aren't also regular readers of science fiction. Other ways of writing, interpreting, and performing history are centrepieces of Afrofuturism and its younger cousins, Indigenous Futurisms, where there are indeed aliens, zombies, space ships (or rather, space canoes), and perspectives at once enlightening and hair-raising.
The connections between science fiction and history are not new. In fact John Rieder wrote a book on how colonialism inflected the growth and development of science fiction that came out in 2008, and the original Star Trek had its share of counterfactual and alternative history episodes such as 1968's "Patterns of Force," infamous for featuring a "nazi-esque" regime including recreations of nazi regalia. The main tell-tale tropes of North American settler history in science fiction can be identified easily enough: first contact, civilizing missions, devastating wars with aliens, vanished alien civilizations, and intergalactic empires. These are all familiar, and until at least the 1960s, we would be hard-pressed to find many overt characters of African or Indigenous descent in science fiction, except for racist stereotypes. To begin with, African and Indigenous peoples were the aliens every time, and always vanishing, if not by dying out, then by catastrophically losing "authenticity" and ceasing to be "really" Indigenous or African. Furthermore, the connections between science fiction and the past were ill-recognized. After all, this genre was supposed to be about the future, not the past.
At the same time, history writing by African North Americans or Indigenous peoples was difficult to find, especially in widely accessible forms. Their access to European forms of both scholarship and publishing remained limited until the 19th century, and once they began to win that access, they were focussed on writing that spoke directly to civil rights issues and mainstream audiences. Nevertheless, a growing movement of African North American musicians and artists began in at least the 1950s, and the message of their work is clear. African North Americans have a future, and they are building it now. These musicians laid the groundwork for what would eventually be called Afrofuturism.
Mark Dery coined the word "Afrofuturism" in his 1993 interview essay "Black to the Future," and some of the most powerful early examples of this genre in print today include novels and short stories by Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney. Focussed on possible technofutures as Dery was, this does not change that Afrofuturistic works take up the task of encoding African North American perspectives on and interpretations of their histories both before and after the slave trade. In fact, one of the best definitions of Afrofuturism I have read states that it "denotes an approach to science fiction that recognizes that stories of technically advanced aliens who kidnap, rape, and enslave human beings are not fantasies but are, rather, retellings of the actual history of contact between Europe and Africa." I do find myself questioning the "technically advanced" aspect of this definition though, because it is a value judgement rather than a description. That aside, as Walidah Imarisha says in her introduction to Octavia's Brood, an anthology of future visions by activists of colour,
...for those of us from communities with historic collective trauma, we must understand that each of us is already science fiction walking around on two legs. Our ancestors dreamed us up and then bent reality to create us.
Inspired by Afrofuturism, its potential, and the rapidly growing field of Indigenous science and speculative fiction, Anishinaabekwe scholar Grace Dillon defined Indigenous futurisms in 2012, exemplifying its diversity in the anthology Walking the Clouds.
Dillon's introduction to Walking the Clouds begins her discussion with an explanation of how "Writers of Indigenous futurisms sometimes intentionally experiment with, sometimes intentionally dislodge, sometimes merely accompany, but invariably change the perimeters of sf." Since so much of science fiction even today repeats tales of conquest and empire, central to many Indigenous futurisms are alternate histories, counter histories, and decolonial histories in the form of multimedia works. I have already illustrated alternate histories (though not an Indigenous one) with a Star Trek example above. Counter histories are closely related to alternate histories in that they tell another version of a familiar historical episode, but instead of changing the outcome it changes the viewpoint. In Indigenous futurisms that might mean the guiding perspective and understanding of what happens comes through the horses at the Battle of Little Big Horn, as in Archer Pechawis' film Horse, as Dillon notes. Alas, in mainstream science fiction trying to do Indigenous, such alternatives usually get us Jake Sully in James Cameron's Avatar, which for almost thirty minutes looked like it might not be a high-tech remake of the colonial imagination's Pocahontas.
I should own up here, because Dillon doesn't actually talk about "decolonial histories" as a category. Instead she uses the Anishinaabemowin word biskaabiiyang, and she explains its meaning as
...the process of 'returning to ourselves;' which involves discovering how personally one is affected by colonization, discarding the emotional and psychological baggage carried from its impact, and recovering ancestral traditions in order to adapt in our post-Native Apocalyptic world.
Since that process is may be called decolonization in english, then to my eye Indigenous futurisms include many decolonial histories. They explore how we might get to a decolonized future, and what new Indigenous worlds could look like besides dystopias.
But now let's circle back to Douglas Hunter's original twitter thread, which dealt in part with the problem of how to teach students who may expect history to be boring. Furthermore, students may be resistant to new understandings of North American history and its ongoing impacts in the present. Indigenous scholars are taking this challenge head on, developing a whole new branch of Indigenous futurism in the process. So let's pause for a moment, virtually turning the clock back four years to read a fresh blogpost by then PhD student in Native Studies Cutcha Risling Baldy, dateline 24 april 2014. She is teaching the history of the invasion of California, and fed up with responses along the lines of "all that stuff happened a long time ago, why can't Indians just get over it?" Her constructive and creative response to this challenge is to teach this history as a zombie apocalypse. This is a counter history, in that the perspective Baldy centres is that of the Indigenous people affected, dealing with conditions in which at any moment a non-Indigenous person could attack and kill them for reasons they can't understand. And the strange newcomers are endlessly, chillingly hungry. Returning to the present, now Dr. Baldy continues to challenge her students, and not just with zombie apolcalypses.
Thinking through this example has made me reconsider H.G. Wells' (in)famous 1897 novel The War of the Worlds. Written back when it still seemed possible that there might be aliens on Mars, the book recounts their invasion of Earth via the example of southern England. Wells takes special care within the first few pages to remind the reader that "The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?" Driven by lack of resources, the Martians destroy civilization, introduce invasive species, and feed on humans. The practical hero of Wells' story is none other than Earth pathogens, which finally wipe out the invaders. With just a few adjustments, it could support a whole new presentation of the so-called "columbian exchange."
There are all manner of examples that could be used to teach the impact of the european invasions on Indigenous peoples. Instead though, let's turn back to Indigenous futurisms, emphasis this time on Indigenous without a side of european. Doctor Who fans might suggest a playful deconstruction of the early original series episode "The Aztecs," using the techniques developed by Chelsea Vowel and Molly Swain in their brilliant podcast Métis in Space, in which listeners get a hilarious and uniquely accessible training in decolonialism, critical theory, and Indigenous history all at once. Then again, the Doctor suggests some real possibilities if we start from an Indigenous place of connectedness and good sense in which the main character is a spirit being much like Elder Brother or Coyote. Better yet, since I am Red River Métis, Chi Jeanne, one of our Spirit Relatives. I know her a bit better than Little Man With Hair All Over, who is closer cousins with Chahkabesh and Elder Brother in his more ribald moments.
Like the Doctor, Chi Jeanne is curious, she wants to learn about everyone and how the ways they have learned to be good relatives in the world. (Okay, okay, the Doctor isn't too much about the latter, but never mind that.) This is an especially key part of Chi Jeanne's job in the world by the way, because we Red River Métis are brand new people, and we need to learn from our elder Indigenous kin how to behave properly and how to interweave into the kinship frameworks of the full lands we have come into. Our earliest Indigenous ancestors are from farther east than where most of us live now, and include members of the Wendat and Haudenosaunee Confederacies. Maybe Chi Jeanne could time-space travel her way on over to see how each of these Confederacies were formed. After all, the Wendat Confederacy was founded by people who moved north into an area already full of people, and in time so did the Haudenosaunee. Since the Haudenosaunee Confederacy is still a going concern, Chi Jeanne could learn a lot about how to continue in a land full of people who are also having to cope with an ongoing invasion in a good way. I suspect the Wendat Nations would have plenty to say as well, including some firm corrections on the topic of what has happened to their confederacy. But foundings first, continuings after. Oh, and yes, we could interpret Spirit People as aliens, in the positive sense this time. Just look up any of the stories of Sky Woman. You'll see what I mean by positive.
So, yes, adding aliens to history is a great teaching tool, and even as an unanticipated way of recording and sharing other histories and views of history than the settler mainstream. If you are an African North American or an Indigenous person, it means a lot more than that. By now, unless you have been incommunicado on dangerous business, you have heard of the Black Panther movie, maybe even seen it, and read some of the rave reviews. I am a bit cynical about superhero movies, so Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok were wonderful surprises. I had no clue how wonderful really, until youtube clips of south africans dancing for joy in the lobby of movie theatres after Black Panther showings came up in my news feeds. Or the first time I listened to Chelsea Vowel and Molly Swain on Métis in Space. Or thinking of Cutcha Risling Baldy's students realizing that no, of course you don't, you can't, just "get over" the zombie apocalypse.