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From growing medicine to space rockets: What is Indigenous futurism?

Grace Dillon coined the term, Indigenous futurism, paying homage to Afrofuturism, which weaves in traditional knowledge and culture with futuristic ideas and settings.
Dr. Grace Dillon from Portland State University created the term Indigenous Futurism, which she says is a thought experiment placing Indigenous people in a future setting. (Portland State University/University of Arizona Press)
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Originally published on March 10, 2019.

Indigenous people are often historized and placed in the past without imagining what the future might look like.

But Indigenous futurisms — work within art, literature and other media that place Indigenous people within science fiction work — is set to change that.

Grace Dillon coined the term, paying homage to Afrofuturism, which weaves in traditional knowledge and culture with futuristic ideas and settings.

Imagine, Dillon said, everything from singing to dancing to growing medicine to space rockets — all within the same setting.

"So often, so many of us are viewed as the last of the race, or the lost race, or the vanishing race," said Dillon, an Indigenous studies professor at Portland State University.

"Growing up with those kinds of stories is just a natural part of your living, culture and being — then, when you see science and you are fascinated with science, it is the medium that is most interesting to tell that science as a story."

Dillon edited a collection of short stories called Walking the Clouds: an Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction — which was the first of its kind when it was published in 2012.

Before and since, Indigenous people have increasingly become more visible within the futurism genres. A surprising revelation was the release of Black Panther in 2018.

Perhaps a shining example of Indigenous futurisms and its relationship with Afrofuturism, Indigenous people were thrilled to see such a massive representation of people of colour in a futuristic, superhero movie.

Dillon said there are a couple of projects in the works that could liken themselves to an Indigenous version of the film, including one  — being directed by Michael Bay — based on a novel by Cherokee writer Daniel H. Wilson called Robopocalypse.

But, she said the big break will be when an Indigenous filmmaker is also hired to direct those films.

"There are some amazing filmmakers that are getting in touch with us," she said. "We do see ourselves in the future and we're, in a way, contemplating and just experimenting."