William LempertJanuary 29, 2017

Indigenous Filmmakers Reimagine Science

Films

In today's politically polarized climate, climate change denial and other profit-driven positions have led to caricatured rifts between pro and anti-science positions, undermining productive and nuanced debates about what science is, could be, and should be. Expanding the genre of science fiction, Indigenous filmmakers help to critically and thoughtfully engage the nature and limitations of science.

Cultural Logics of Science

After decades of spirited debate, it seems clear that science is neither wholly objective nor simply one more system of knowing among many. Nonetheless, science does have a value system, and one historically grounded in the logics of Western religion and philosophy.

For example, the big bang theory of the universe largely mirrors the first lines of Genesis, in which matter and light are created out of ostensibly nothing. While this theory is not merely a manifestation of a shared cosmological cultural origin story, this perspective does help to explain the relatively placid acceptance of a radical theory that provides little causal explanation for the creation of the entire universe.

There are similar shades of monotheistic Judeo-Christian influence in the widely-shared belief by physicists that all forces are unified, despite the lack of a robust model to demonstrate this. Einstein, an early proponent of a unified field theory, famously stated that “God does not play dice with the universe” in his critique of seemingly chaotic interpretations of quantum mechanics. While not particularly religious, and speaking metaphorically about God, this paragon of science nevertheless held a deep faith in a particular universal order.

String theory, perhaps the most creative attempt to unify fields, has become so abstract that many experts question whether this endeavor has departed the realm of physics for mathematical metaphysics or philosophy.

The biggest mysteries of the universe may require scientists to broaden Western cultural worldviews regarding the nature of reality. For example, quantum entanglement, which Einstein regarded suspiciously as “spooky action at a distance,” is a phenomenon in which ‘entangled’ particles such as photons appear to influence one another instantaneously regardless of distance, seemingly violating basic laws of physics. In contrast to the big bang theory, this similarly descriptive yet non-explanatory phenomenon remains confounding and even disturbing to physicists.

Yet many Aboriginal Australians might view these theories inversely, with instant communication across distance based on previous relationship seeming commonplace, while the sudden emergence of the universe out of nothing appearing illogical.

Boundaries of Science

Broadly speaking, Western science is a powerful and generally self-corrective process that effectively builds upon cumulative knowledge. Excelling at isolating individual variables through careful testing, it has led to such feats as walking on the moon, saving millions though vaccination, and identifying subatomic particles—while at the same time creating nuclear bombs, gas chambers, and biological weapons. Indeed, it is the very sublime power of science that can lead to hubris regarding both its technical and humanistic limitations.

By bringing thoughtful attention to Indigenous knowledge systems, scientists can reimagine their disciplines through alternative perspectives. The thousands of Indigenous societies around the world tend to take markedly different approaches to knowledge creation, that in contrast to the West are informed by highly-sustainable systems of social and ecological interrelationship. To borrow the language of science, instead of controlling for individual variables, they tend to emphasize interconnected variables and synergetic forces understood through intuitive trial and error over generations. Pharmaceutical companies know the power of this process well and have long-mined traditional knowledge to develop new drugs.

Indigenous Cinemas Beyond Science and Fiction

Radically reimagining sci-fi through the creation of rich visual worlds, Indigenous filmmakers engage what Grace Dillon (Anishinaabe) articulates as the “Indigenous scientific literacies” embedded within knowledge systems. While spanning topics, moods, and sub-genres, each short film showcased here provides a creative commentary on the importance of imagining diverse Indigenous futures. These cinematic perspectives also help to temper over-optimism on the past, present, and future moral applications of science. Considering the brutality of colonization, race-based medical testing, and ongoing health epidemics, Indigenous peoples have just cause for suspicion regarding the real-world impacts of science.

From such a perspective, the faith of many today in inevitable scientific solutions to climate change—or in technological complexity tending toward policies of justice—seems misguided. Indeed, Indigenous peoples and languages are virtually absent from the entire Western sci-fi canon, which represents the popular scientific imagination regarding who thrives, or even exists, in technological futures. Given this sobering relationship to the history of science, Indigenous science fiction films are markedly less fictive than sci-fi more broadly, grounded in personal parables of the past and present as much as in speculative futures.

File Under Miscellaneous

In File Under Miscellaneous, Jeff Barnaby (Mi’kmaq) embodies the ways in which scientific technologies could continue to have a disastrous impact on Indigenous peoples, painting a Blade Runner-esque dystopian future mirroring present day assimilation, in which Canadian Aboriginal people must submit themselves to have their tongues cut out before being gruesomely re-skinned as white.

Future Warrior

Jeana Francis and Nigel LongSoldier’s (Pawnee) Future Warrior is a little more hopeful. Playing on Star Wars, it places Native Americans as the main characters who integrate biotechnology and cultural knowledge in their fight against the evil empire that has created a highly toxic world in which citizens are controlled through mind-altering drugs.

Hoverboard

Highlighting the important role for Indigenous youth in uniquely engaging with scientific imaginaries, Sydney Freeland’s (Navajo) Hoverboard illustrates the creative imagination of a curious young Indigenous girl who loves Back to the Future.

The Rocket Boy

Donavan Seschillie’s (Navajo) The Rocket Boy also highlights the importance of youth, in which a young Navajo boy constructs a makeshift rocket to see his deceased father. This short provokes viewers to understand that not everyone views outer space as empty or even of this reality.

The 6th World

In The 6th World, Nanobah Becker (Navajo) envisions a future in which the Navajo Nation leads the first human settlement mission to Mars, which is saved by Navajo sacred corn pollen when the specialized GMO monocrop fails.

Delivery from Earth

Michael Becker's (Non-Indigenous with Indigenous cast) Delivery from Earth echoes The 6th World, broadcasting the first baby born on Mars back to its Navajo family on Earth, centering the role Indigenous people in the destiny of an entire planet.

Anamata Future News

Focused more explicitly on the deep future is the Anamata Future News, a Maori TV web series of 10 speculative news shorts spanning from 2018 to 2499, including Western ecological disasters, holographic carving, haka dances to welcome alien visitors, and intergalactic voyaging that mirrors traditional Pacific navigation. Like many Indigenous sci-fi films, this series highlights Indigenous technological innovation that radically departs from the logics and goals embedded within Western science.

About the Author

William Lempert is a Ph.D. candidate in cultural anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His work focuses on long-term collaborative filmmaking with Indigenous media organizations in Northwestern Australia. For in-depth discussions on these and many other Indigenous sci-fi films see his Navajos on Mars blog and online film archive.

 

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