Sci-Fi, Star Wars, and...the Southwest?
Updated: Oct 20, 2020
Ryan Singer, Tuba City Spaceport, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 30" x 40". Image courtesy of CBC Radio, https://www.cbc.ca/radio/unreserved/from-star-wars-to-stargazing-1.3402216/star-wars-characters-take-off-in-navajo-artist-s-landscapes-1.3402873.
An adobe building stands out in the middle of the landscape with a sign proclaiming it to be the Tuba City Trading Post in Arizona. People bring their wagons with goods to trade or buy and tie their animals up outside the store. Light, fluffy clouds sweep across the bright blue sky as the sun beats down upon the red clay earth of the American southwest.
But this is not the landscape you’re looking for.
Milling amidst the Diné (Navajo) people coming and going about their daily lives at the trading post are droids, jawas, and even Luke Skywalker’s cruiser. Imperial stormtroopers patrol the area and galactic citizens walk away with their purchases of Blue Bird Flour. It seems that Star Wars has invaded the southwest. Or is it the other way around?
Despite its humble beginnings as an obscure subculture reserved for only the most marginalized nerds, science fiction has taken root in our popular culture in a way unique to any other literary, film, or visual art genre in recent memory, and the ways we can engage with it are almost as numerous and diverse as sci-fi fans themselves. Whether it’s going to see the Rise of Skywalker for the third time (yes I loved it, you can keep your sequel trilogy rants to yourselves for the time being), gearing up for Comic Con this summer, or poring over well-worn copies of H.G. Wells novels again, science fiction is cool and here to stay.
Amid all the entertainment that this genre affords, there is one trend on the rise within sci-fi that is carving out a place for some incredible voices that have hitherto been excluded from its pages: that of Indigenous Futurism. Futurism is an art movement that began in Italy in the early 1900s that emphasized a belief in human achievement and unparalleled potential . Futurists called for casting off the shackles of the past, and embracing new technologies, industry, and the loosening of rigid forms, whether in the visual or literary arts [I.1]. But however lofty its goals, Futurism has sometimes spurred on exclusionary ideas, as seen during the rise of fascism in 1930s Italy, even as other avenues explored what the future means to all of us.
A recent trend within this movement is Indigenous Futurism, enveloped under the umbrella of sci-fi, which honors Native voice and perspective in the genre. This not only means representing diversity and Native peoples as complex characters within sci-fi stories, but also recognizes the importance of Native knowledge systems as equally valid methods of knowing as Western science. By incorporating Indigenous knowledge and empowering Native characters, Indigenous Futurism asserts that all people have the right to imagine fantastical futures for themselves and that the tragedies of humanity’s colonial past should not, and will not, be repeated in its future . For centuries, Native peoples have had to justify why they belong in the present, much less the future of our world. Indigenous Futurism boldly defies stereotypes of Native peoples and proclaims the validity of an inclusive future for all.
Ryan Singer, whose painting Tuba City Spaceport is featured above, is one of the artists pushing the boundaries of Native voice. A member of the Diné tribe, he describes his thought-process on this work:
“I was imagining a dimension where life on the Navajo reservation (Tuba City)
would co-exist with the life on the planet Tatooine, mainly the spaceport Mos
Eisley [...] Hence, the title 'Tuba City Spaceport.' The characters from ‘Star
Wars’ are interacting with the common folk of the Navajo reservation in this
setting. As I was working on this painting I was listening to audio on theories
of ‘multi-verses’ and parallel universes. So as I was working on the painting,
it made more sense, on a whole other level.” 
The appearance of Native, non-Native, and fictional people seamlessly embedded into this pictorial narrative, going to the trading post to buy bags of flour of coffee, or taking refuge from Imperial eyes, does not make the actions of the Native American earth-dwellers fantastical, but rather makes the actions of the extraterrestrials conventional. The composition is a visual matter-of-fact statement, a deliberately casual method of showing that Native earthlings and droids can, in fact, coexist quite harmoniously, and have every right to do so. The landscape serves as the anchor to the entire scene, showing that the Diné people have opened up their doors to these newcomers, and go about living their lives as they always have.
Besides being a fascinating and powerful art form, Indigenous Futurism is also a fast-growing literary movement. Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction edited by Grace L. Dillon is a collection of stories centered around ideas of the slipstream (the blending and compression of various timelines), alternative history, apocalypse, and the concept of “biskaabiiyang” or “returning to ourselves” which honors authenticity and identity, both on a personal and cultural level, when dealing with the aftereffects of colonialism [4, I.2]. Many Native artists are also turning to alternative formats within the science fiction genre like comic books and graphic novels to reach readers across all platforms and age groups. For example, Denver-born artist Kristina Bad Hand is currently working on a series of graphic novels that retell classic fairy tales in a modern Indigenous voice with heroines like Kaui, a Polynesian woman who encounters a man who has been cursed to live as a beast to atone for his pride . Sounds very familiar to all of us Disney nerds, yes?
Native and non-Native people alike have much to learn from this movement, whether it emboldens us to explore new forms of expression or simply rethink what we know about a particular genre. Personally, my first encounters with Indigenous Futurism pushed my mental boundaries of what I thought was possible in science fiction, and made me think about all kinds of futures and dreamscapes that I had never considered. Science fiction is about aliens and technology and apocalypse yes, but it is also about the idea that those who control the present are those who shape what we think our future is, and the "future" is not one static image, but a thousand, a million different streams of consciousness, hopes, actions, and expressions. Science fiction enables us to consider our futures, plural.
As we read and write, it is imperative for us to continue using language for its most essential purpose: to communicate, to promote all voices, and to allow us to grow our compassion as we step into the thoughts, feelings, aspirations, and experiences of others, to walk a mile in their shoes. By expanding our notions of what a particular genre, like science fiction, can be, we open up worlds of possibilities that divert our assumptions, make us think more deeply as writers and artists, and hopefully challenge us as people to broaden our consciousness and step outside of ourselves to see the larger tapestry of human history, achievement, and potential. The ability to express one's hopes for the future and exert control in shaping that future belongs to all writers, to all people, and movements like Indigenous Futurism show us how to acknowledge our past while leaving behind its limitations to leap boldly forward. And why not have some fun while we do it? After all, which one of us doesn't secretly, or not-so-secretly, wish that there was a place where we could trade jewelry and cloth with droids and Jedis? I for one will keep hoping.
Yours in fantastical Futurism,
 "Art Term: Futurism," The Tate (accessed March 15, 2020), https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/f/futurism.
 Kristina Baudemann, "Indigenous Futurisms in North American Indigenous Art: The Transforming Visions of Ryan Singer, Daniel McCoy, Topaz Jones, Marla Allison, and Debra Yepa-Pappan," Extrapolation 57, nos. 1-2 (2016), pp. 117- 150 (accessed March 15, 2020), DOI:10.3828/extr.2016.1.
 Ryan Singer, quoted in Baudemann, "Indigenous Futurisms," p. 129.
 Grace L. Dillon, ed., Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction (Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 2012), p. 10.
 Neil Greenaway, "Pilla, Kaui, & áyA Studios- An Interview with Rafael & Kristina Maldonado-Bad Hand, Nerd Team 30 (published July 07, 2018, accessed March 15, 2020), https://www.nerdteam30.com/creator-conversations/pilla-kaui-aya-studios-an-interview-with-rafael-kristina-maldonado-bad-hand-dink-2018.
Embedded Image Credits:
[I.1] Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913, bronze. The Tate. Image courtesy of https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/f/futurism.
[I.2] Cover image of Walking the Clouds. Image courtesy of https://www.amazon.com/Walking-Clouds-Anthology-Indigenous-Science/dp/0816529825/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=walking+the+clouds&qid=1584331646&sr=8-2.