Afro-Indigenous Futurism(s) are concerned with the very question of how we can envision Native futures and Indigenous cultures in the future that also embeds the past and how social tropes can be converted into culturally loyal elements. In line with this objective, Afro-Indigenous futurism portrays native cultures in a futuristic framework that combines technology, science fiction, and other media means to reclaim agency in an Afrocentric universe.
Afrofuturism and Indigenous Futurism owe their existence and vocabulary to the cultural critics, Mark Dery and Grace Dillon. Dating back to the 1990s, Afrofuturism registers a new cultural representation, antedating Indigenous futurism. In 2012, Grace Dillon coined Indigenous futurism. And in 2014, Ramirez used Chicanafuturism for the first time. Consequently, both helped to expand the discourse of Indigenous cultural representations. The common aim behind these movements is to challenge the oppressive Western narrations and preconceived notions of Indigenous cultures. Literature, particularly speculative fiction and science-fiction, art, music, online platforms like CyberPowMow, and other forms of media, portray Indigenous people in futuristic settings, fusing their traditions with science fiction and technology.
This blog aims to cast light upon the emblematic works of Afrofuturism, Chicanafuturism, and Indigenous futurism that display how cultural narratives fused with sci-fi reimagine Western stereotypes and tropes and ask in what alternative worlds we could have been living.
What is Afrofuturism?
In his 1993 article “Black to the Future,” the cultural critic Mark Devy coined the term Afrofuturism. And Dery asked the frequently cited question: “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history imagine possible futures?”. Then, he continued by sharing some examples from different media forms, such as graffiti and speculative fiction. He exemplified how African American writers and artists subverted the commonly accepted notions of Black culture and history.
To go back to Afrofuturism, it is the first spark preceding the other futurism-oriented discourses. First of all, Afrofuturism redefines the African-American experience, merging science-fiction with visual art and music. It generates new ways of thinking of the black body, juxtaposing it with science and technology. Furthermore, it is about building personal and communal mythology, incorporating futuristic elements.
In other words, Afrofuturism refers to a body of texts including speculative fiction, science fiction, magic realism, music albums, and art designs that aim to subvert the mythic archetypes and reterritorialize the cultural epistemes concerning the black body. Some even refer to it as Pan-Africanism, outreaching to African psychogeography. For instance, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther has been a recent phenomenon and is a great example of Afrofuturism. The film imagines Africa in a utopian place in an Afrofuturistic setting. The technologically advanced society incorporates African rituals and cultural traditions, such as the fighting scene between two cousins to get the throne and vibranium-based high-tech products. Additionally, costumes and designs are powerful. Overall, it portrays Africa in an unconventional way.
Below, I will share the works of two musicians: Sun Ra and Janelle Monae, who constructed their own mythologies.
Sun Ra (1914-1993)
Born and raised in Alabama, an American jazz composer, Herman Poole Sonny Blount, was a dreamer who hoped to travel into space, seeking ways to go beyond time and talking about isotope teleportation, which, he believed, would only be enabled by music. He was specifically driven by the Egyptian culture and its technological and architectural advancements. This also shows in the name Sun Ra he adapted as an inspiration from the Egyptian god of the Sun, saying “Any name that I use other than Ra is a pseudonym.”
According to Sun Ra, he was abducted by the aliens, taken to Saturn, and tasked to save the planet. For sure, he had a strong narration with his music, evoking the listener’s unearthly feelings. The stage performances were no less. Sun Ra and his band, Arkestra ( ark+ orchestra), wore shining elaborate costumes. He also wore a headdress reminding us of the Egyptians.
As a witness to an age of turbulence in the 1950s dominated by the civil rights movement and nuclear war, he sought a breakaway with his whimsical music. He felt proud of presenting his black community in space and endowing it with a futuristic voice. He basically created his own personal mythology, integrating Egyptology and Afrofuturism with his avant-garde interplanetary melodies and sporadic free jazz. After his death, his band “Arkestra” continues performing and furthering his legacy. As for Sun Ra, he lies in Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham.
“I’m a cybergirl without a face a heart or a mind,
(a product of the man, I’m a product of the man),
Janelle Monáe identifies herself with androids as she reveals in an interview. Her two concept albums, Metropolis: The Chase Suite and its follow-up Archandroid, exemplify this identification. For instance, the latter follows a cyborg messiah sent by a divine God to free the citizens of the Metropolis. In this concept album, Monae adopts an alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, as a cyborg messiah, who falls in love with Sir Greendown in a place where “Here the dolphins walk like men Here the cyborgs have a plan.” Outlaws and “illegal aliens” invade her songs. She addresses problems shared by non-normative bodies due to their race and other cultural and economic barriers. As she also says, ” I create music to celebrate our differences, our individuality, and unite those people.”
Archandroid is like an epic journey; Sir Greendown tells his lover Cindy to “fight like Achilles in Troy”. As seen here, she borrows from Western narratives. Also, Franz Ling’s Metropolis (1927) is another example that inspires her headdress on the album cover. This Afro-futurist project promises a cinematic experience, merging different music genres such as pop, R&B, neo-soul, psych rock, disco, and folk. Her works are on par with what Sun Ra wanted to achieve. They feature space travel and futuristic ingredients, participating in the tradition of African American music, hoping ” May the song reach your heart.”
What is Indigenous futurism?
“All forms of Indigenous futurisms are narratives of biskaabiiyang, an Anishinaabemowin word connoting 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 Apocalypse world.”
This quote is an excerpt from Grace Dillon’s guidebook on Indigenous Futurism called Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. As an Anishinaabe cultural critic and professor in Indigenous Nations Studies, she is an important figure in Indigenous futurism studies, who coined Indigenous Futurism. Also, since 2012, she has been calling it “Indigenous Futurisms,” because this choice “reflects the richness of Indigenous communities globally.”
Like its precedent Afrofuturism, Indigenous futurism, in a similar vein, introduces us to Indigenous voices expressing their own culture in new forms.
Mohawk multi-media artist Skawannati and online Indigenous communities
“I’m really interested, in my art practice, in telling stories about Native people that are in the future. The majority of images I saw of Native people were in the past, unhappy-looking, and unnamed. I want us to be there, in the future, alive and kicking and thriving.” – Skawannati
Famous for her online cyberspace projects reinventing aboriginal territories in a virtual world, such as Cyber PowWow, Time Traveler, and She Falls for Ages, Skawannati, with her colleague Jason E. Lewis, provides us with some of the best examples of Indigenous futurism. They not only endow us with web-based art projects but also encourage and inspire other Indigenous people to start their own projects. For instance, they arrange video game design workshops for young aboriginal people. This turns into a productive chain and gives life to Cyber Pow Wow. As they stated in their article, “Among those who marshaled the necessary resources were a few Aboriginals who learned the programming techniques necessary to build in the blank spaces. This was the beginning of CyberPowWow.”
CyberPowMow and other projects
To briefly mention what these projects are all about, Cyber Pow Wow is a digital art gallery and a chat room (Palace). The aim is to “overcome Aboriginal stereotypes; to help shape the World Wide Web, and to generate critical discourse.” In time, one project inspires another; AbTec ( Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace), as a follow-up to CPW, becomes their next and most comprehensive project. It includes artwork, writing, lectures, workshops, residencies, and exhibitions as stated on the website.
Skins workshops, for instance, guide teens to learn about computer technology and programming as an effective tool for a means of creative expression. What is more, Within Reservations aims at training young Aboriginal people in programming and software design. Lewis and Skawenitti also take into account places that are poor in natural resources. And they plan to site firms in such places. Using Skins as a foundation to equip young people with necessary skills for programming, Within Reservations’ goal is to make this opportunity available for everyone, including remote places.
Last but not least, as for She Falls For Ages, it is a machinima (machine+ cinema) about a “sci-fi retelling of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) creation story that reimagines Sky World as a futuristic, utopic space and a Sky Woman as a brave astronaut and world-builder.”
This controversial, iconic artwork, Our Lady, by Alma Lopez garnered a lot of attention. Many considered it blasphemy; it sparked debates. But by far, it is the most popular work that comes to mind when Chicanafuturism is the topic. Inspired by Afrofuturism, in 2004 Catherine S. Ramírez introduced Chicanafuturism in Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies. It belongs to a more encompassing label, Latinofuturism, which also includes a rich spectrum of artworks by different ethnic and national groups.
Chicanafuturism is about the empowerment of Chicanas through technologic and futuristic applications in imaginative art and science fiction. These mediums allow them to propose counterarguments to the oppressive views of the West. One example of this is Martinez’s works that embed futuristic aesthetics, bringing old and new together. Above all, she employs Catholicism as a major theme and reinterprets it, shaping it in accordance with her Hispanic roots.
The Chicanafuturist artist: Marion C. Martinez
Born in New Mexico and raised in the farming community of Los Luceros, Marion C. Martinez grew up in the Hispanic culture of Northern New Mexico. Martinez’s engagement with the medium of art starts with her interest in jewelry. She particularly loves creating wearable art such as pins, bolo ties, “techno tags”/mone” clips, and pendants. This also overlaps with how she learns to work with a circuit board. She borrows from her native culture and tradition and reinterprets social tropes via the application of technology in the 1980s. Especially famous for her “Mixed Tech Media” and circuit board art, she uses technological waste such as wires, resistors, and circuit boards to recreate Hispanic identities.
As Ramirez states, Martinez’s artworks possess “pure God energy; it’s spiritual energy” because of its beauty, order, and symmetry. First, she salvages a circuit board from a basement or garage, cleans, sands, buffs, and polishes it. Then she shapes it into a gleaming bulto of Christ child or a retablo of the Virgin Mary. And she believes that she transfers her “essence” and spirit” to the object through her labor.
What does science fiction mean for Indigenous authors?
Until now, we have looked at music, art, and virtual environments which reidentify cultural narratives. In addition to them, literature suits the endeavor of Indigenous communities to redefine themselves in their own words. Since they seek alternative realities and play with futuristic elements, science fiction and speculative fiction serve as the best literary tools for them. As an Anishinaabe, Metis, and Irish, Elizabeth LaPense expresses what science fiction means for her in the following:
“Indigenous Futurisms recognize space-time as simultaneously past, present, and future, and therefore futurism is as much about the future as it is about right now. In my work, it means telling alternate histories, dreaming about liquid technology, imagining a future where unceded territories are taken back, and, ya know, space canoes. kimiwan’s zine issue, Extrapolation’s special issue, and RPM.fm’s mix-tape.”
As she states in an interview, one of the key distinctions between Indigenous science fiction and mainstream science fiction is that they imagine a world where the advancement of technology doesn’t destroy ecosystems or the balance of power between humans and nature. Most importantly, stories serve to explore how we can co-exist with alien worlds with their own Indigenous lifeforms. So, science fiction allows Indigenous writers to examine how they can evolve in these alien new worlds while keeping their cultures and languages intact.
Counter-opinions: Is the future really an answer?
However, there are also groups holding counter-opinions and refusing the use of technology and the future to readdress the problem of native identity. It’s because, contrary to the western notion of progress and teleological purposes, their native cultures don’t inhabit such notions. Instead, they argue that they need to be in the present and remember the past to preserve it.
Cultural Significance of Afro-Indigenous Futurism
“There can … be no simple “return” or “recovery” of the ancestral past which is not reexperienced through the categories of the present: no base for creative enunciation in a simple reproduction of traditional forms which are not transformed by the technologies and identities of the present.” Stuart Hall, “New Ethnicities
Afro-Indigenous Futurisms allow Indigenous and Black communities to affirm their own existence without submitting to any Western stereotyping and hegemonic gaze. More, they liberate Indigenous cultures and Black history from the Western definitions and are notable as a decolonization process. Lastly, these affirmative claims resist the long-standing Western notions and inscriptions of Indigenous identities, challenging western ideologies. It continues to grow with the incorporation of online platforms, which allow the reconstruction of Indigenous communities. What is more, it becomes a shared experience in a virtual space. From that perspective, cyberspace, music, literature, and art serve as a backdrop upon which Afro-Indigenous communities reinscribe or encode African and Indigenous identities.