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Indigenous Futurisms: Changing the narrative in science fiction and fact

How do Indigenous Peoples fit into futuristic narratives? And not just in science fiction, but also in the tech world?

Recognition of Indigenous Peoples' perspectives in technology is vital, scholars say

An image from Biidaaban: First Light VR, by Indigenous filmmaker Lisa Jackson. (Lisa Jackson)

It's said that good science fiction tells us more about the present than the future. If that's the case, then why does so much of the literary canon focus on white men? And it's not just the movies and books: The tech world also suffers from an intense lack of diversity, especially when it comes to Indigenous Peoples.

So how do Indigenous people, with a range of cultures and perspectives, fit into futuristic narratives, whether they be fiction or the real world?

It's a question that Grace Dillon has examined. She's Anishinaabe, and the editor of Walking the Clouds, an Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. She's also a professor in the Indigenous Nations Studies department at Portland State University.

Grace Dillon (Portland State University/University of Arizona Press)

Dillon coined the term "Indigenous Futurisms" as an homage to Afrofuturism, an examination of how Black culture intersects with technology and the African diaspora.

"It is the community from within that is writing the stories. And one important distinction, since it started in the science fiction field but soon grew way beyond that, is that there's also an interest in it, rather than just looking at the body and the mind as a kind of binary or split," she told Spark host Nora Young.

Dillon pointed out that many Indigenous Peoples are already living in a post-apocalypse world, but the stories provide a way of overcoming that.

"And you do that through ceremony. You do that through stories. You do that through ceremonial stories, dance, anything that would qualify as art, and you integrate that with your knowledge of science," she said.

Promoting an Indigenous perspective on technology

Jason Lewis approaches the idea of Indigenous futurism from a tech standpoint, believing that if Indigenous Peoples built technology that flowed from cultural ideals of relationality and reciprocity, it would look quite different–and wouldn't benefit one group or culture at the expense of others.

"So part of what I'm interested in is thinking about how a technology like artificial intelligence can be shaped and deployed in a way that better reflects the priorities and the ways of being in the world that various Indigenous communities want. At the moment, Indigenous communities, as far as I've been able to see in my research and conversations, are not taken into account at all by the people who build these systems."

Jason Lewis (© Concordia University/Lisa Graves)

Lewis, who identifies as Hawaiian and Samoan, is Concordia University's Research Chair in Computational Media and the Indigenous Future Imaginary. He said, however, there are some promising ways that Indigenous people are influencing digital technology. He runs a series of programs called the Skins Workshops, engaging Indigenous youth.

"Part of what we're doing in those workshops is we're teaching mainly Indigenous youth how to use digital technology to tell their stories," he said.

Incorporate traditional teachings into bio-medicine

Indigenous futures don't have to be separate from other cultures' futures. Ideally, we can combine them to make things better for everyone, said Dr. Lisa Richardson.

In order to properly provide health care in a way that improves the lives of Indigenous people, we need to incorporate more traditional teachings into the medical system, said Richardson, a mixed Anishinaabe physician from Northern Ontario who now practices in Toronto.

That means creating spaces in hospitals and other care facilities that honour First Nations' healing ceremonies and practices, she said. And in order for that to happen, Indigenous leaders need to be part of the design and implementation of new systems and asked to help improve existing practices.

Dr. Lisa Richardson (CPSO Dialogue)

"But we have built a health care system in biomedicine or Western medicine, which has actually excluded that way of healing. And so what I think we're hearing and seeing and recognising is critical is to create spaces or create an understanding.

 "It may not actually be a physical space, but a psychological space and safety for Indigenous Peoples to be able to seek both those forms of care and for them to be respected mutually and for them to work alongside one another. I mean, there are some really concrete examples of that where family practitioners, Indigenous family docs have a healer or elder in their practice and the healer would refer to the family doc or the family doc would refer to the healer, and they really work very much alongside one another," she said.

Both Richardson and Lewis said the current system is plagued with epistemic racism, where one system of knowledge is valued much more than others.

"So what forms of knowledge are valued, what is considered legitimate knowledge, what is considered acceptable and valid, and what forms of knowledge are actually considered lesser than or not important or not significant? And when you look at medicine in particular or health care, there's been such a narrow understanding of what counts as meaningful knowledge that's acceptable within our profession or within other broader health care professions that it has led to racism."

Grace Dillon says the integration of story into the way we understand the world around is critical for Indigenous communities.

"Ultimately we want to share knowledge, not in a way that's stolen and appropriated and misused, but in a way that is a sharing and exchange of ideas that will actually help us get to a point where we don't have to worry about, you know, needing to head off to another planet in order to live."

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