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Grace Dillon on Indigenous Sciences, Technologies, and Science Fiction

In this episode we chat to Grace DiIlon, Professor in the Indigenous Nations Studies Department at Portland State University. Grace, an Anishinaabe cultural critic and a phenomenal storyteller in her own right, gives an overview of the fiction and science books by indigenous writers doing very cool things. We talk about apocalypse and healing, ceremonial science, and the genre of native slipstream.


Grace L. Dillon is an American academic and author. She is a professor of Anishinaabe and European descent in the Indigenous Nations Studies Program, in the School of Gender, Race, and Nations, at Portland State University. Similar to the concept of Afrofuturism, Dillon is best known for coining the term Indigenous Futurism, which is a movement consisting of art, literature and other forms of media which express Indigenous perspectives of the past, present and future in the context of science fiction and related sub-genres.


We apologies in advance for any errors in the transcript.


READING LIST:


Grace kindly sent us the most spectacular reading list for this episode! Thank you so much Grace!


Anishinaabe White Earth Nation Louise Erdrich's The Future Home of the Living God. Harper Collins P, 2017.


Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass: IndigenousWisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants, 2015.


Apalech clan in NE Queensland, Australia Tyson Yunkaporta's Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World. Harper P, 2020.


Mvskoke Nation Laura Harjo's Spiral to the Stars" Mvskoke's Tools of Futurity. U of Az P, 2019. This also develops Mvskoke non-linear and spiral ways of thinking along with Indigenous approaches to geography and mapping.


Cha'orti Maya (from El Salvador) and Zapotec (from (Mexico) Jessica Hernandez's Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science. North Atlantic Books, 2022


We Are the Middle of Forever: Indigenous Voices from Turtle Island on the Changing Earth. Edited by Dahr Jamail and Cherokee Nation Stan Rushworth. The New Press, 2022.


Wahinkpe Topa (Four Arrows) and Darcia Narvaez's edited collection of Restoring the Kinship Worldview: Indigenous Voices Introduce 28 Precepts for Rebalancing Life on Planet Earth. North Atlantic Books, 2022


Santa Clara Pueblo Gregory Cajete's Indigenous Community:Rekindling the Teachings of the Seventh Fire. Living Justice Press, 2015. Chapter 5 explores the high-context of Indigenous sciences and low-context sciences as lab-only experimentations.


Candace Fujikane's Mapping Abundance for a Planetary Future: Kanaka Maoli and Critical Settler Cartographies in Hawai'i 'Olelo Hawai'i Editing by C. M. Kaliko Baker. Duke UP, 2021. Like all excellent settler allies, Candace fills her book with many, many voices that are Kanaka Maoli peoples to illustrate abundance exhibited with Indigenous sciences rather than relying on scarcity capitalism.


French philosopher Isabelle Stenger's Slow Science translated into English and a reflection of the patience of intergenerational knowledges and slowing down forms of sciences that could be bad forms of tech if pushed out too fast.


Michaela Stith who, as a Black and mixed-race person, grew up in Alaska interacting with Alaskan Native tribal nations and alter visits Sami peoples in Norway writes in her early 20s Welp: Climate Change & Arctic Identities. New Degree P, 2021.


Cree Nation Neal McLeod's edited collection mitewacimowina: Indigenous Science Fiction and Speculative Storytelling. Native-operated press in BC: Theytus P, 2016.


Cree Nation Damon Badger Heit's "The Inheritors".


Cherokee Nation Brian K. Hudson's Cherokee punk story, "Land Run on Sooner City".


Lipan Apache Nation Darcie Little Badger's "Litmus Flowers" illustrated by Metis-Cree Jerry Thistle in Moonshot:The Indigenous Comics Collection Volume 3 on Indigenous Futurisms edited by Anishinaabe/Metis/Irish Elizabeth La Penseé and Caddo Nation Michael Sheyahshe


Metis Cherie Dimaline's The Marrow Thieves.


Metís Chelsea Vowel's new set of stories Buffalo is the New Buffalo. Arsenal Pulp P, 2022.


Lipan Apache Nation and Earth scientist Darcie Little Badger's novel A Snake Falls to Earth. Chronicle Books P, 2021.


Another excellent story "Becoming Birch" being expanded already as a novel and written by Anishinaabe Carter Meland explores Native slipstream as an Ojibwe White Earth band's music raises and explodes the rooftop and the audience and dancers turn into birch trees.


Black American Robin Maynard and Anishinaabe Leanne Betasamosake Simpson's letter-correspondences during the lock-downs of Covid in Rehearsals for Living. Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2022. As David Chariandy speaks of these correspondences collected in a book: [It] illuminates in essential ways the entwined lives of Black and Indigenous peoples...It is a book of relation, radical generosity, and care-a book, too, of running children and the colour of the sky and of "holding within [ourselves] that nascent shimmering of possibility."


TRANSCRIPT:


KERRY MCINERNEY:

Hi! I’m Dr Kerry McInerney. Dr Eleanor Drage and I are the hosts of The Good Robot podcast. Join us as we ask the experts: what is good technology? Is it even possible? And how can feminism help us work towards it? If you want to learn more about today's topic, head over to our website, www.thegoodrobot.co.uk, where we've got a full transcript of the episode and a specially curated reading list by every guest. We love hearing from listeners, so feel free to tweet or email us, and we’d also so appreciate you leaving us a review on the podcast app. But until then, sit back, relax, and enjoy the episode!


ELEANOR DRAGE:

In this episode we chat to Grace DiIllon, Professor in the Indigenous Nations Studies Department at Portland State University. Grace, a phenomenal storyteller in her own right, gives an overview of the fiction and science books by indiginous writers doing very cool things. We talk apocalypse and healing, ceremonial science, and the genre of native slipstream. We hope you enjoy the show.


KERRY MCINERNEY:

Brilliant. So thank you so much for joining us here today. So just to kick us off, could you ask us a bit about who you are, what you do and what's brought you to the topic of indigenous futurisms?


GRACE DILLON:

Thank you very much, Kerry and Eleanor for speaking and chatting with me. I'm a full Professor in Indigenous Nations Studies Department with the school of gender, race and nations. We also have Black studies, Woman, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and I’m English. In the school of gender, race and nation, we also have Latinx studies. And we are welcoming in a new department that will be Pacific Islanders and Asian American Studies. So we have a really delightful school that we work with together.

ELEANOR DRAGE:

And stuff they're amazing, were incredible disciplines. And I think it's really important for people to know that there are lots of different really important areas of study that haven't been included. You know, there's things that we don’t hear about a lot of the time. And now this brings light to the fact that these are really understudied disciplines, but also incredibly interesting. So I look forward to going through the syllabus and, and seeing what comes out of it. I'm really excited about how you're going to answer our 3 billion dollar questions. So what is good technology? Is it even possible? And how can indigenous knowledge help us get there?

GRACE DILLON:

You know, I was looking over that. And I was thinking, in some ways that good or bad in terms of technology, it can be used in different ways so that it can become good or bad. But we also do have as indigenous peoples certain leanings towards what we view as forms of good technology. And forms of good technology often invites practice in everyday life, rather than just simply theoretical, for us theory and practice or theory, methodologies are one in the same. And so I do have a couple of quick examples of good and bad technology. And this is from mitewacimowina, That's Cree for speculative literature, indigenous science fiction and speculative storytelling, edited by Neal McLeod. And in one story, you have an AI. And this is a story by Damon Badger Heit, who's from the Cree Nation, the…. First Nation. And the story is called the inheritors. And here you have an AI and a Rose, who takes away most of the Earth people and they leave in the ship called Bastion. Of course, that would have to be tremendously big. But most of the Earthers leave with him. And then billions and billions of years later, he comes back and sees the incredible change of the world from overheated climate change to now what has become a very frozen arena. And in a sense, he becomes a very good form of technology, you could say, because as his sentience develops, and he comes back to Earth, after these billions and billions of years, he runs into a people who have been living underground. And what you realise, if you're familiar with Cree, is that they are speaking in Cree, not English. And that is now the old traditional language that is being carried on. And because of his brilliance and adapting to so many situations out in space, is soon able to pick up on their language And so he learns about intergenerational knowledge transfers, and really respects that, because that's what he was supposed to do is accumulate all of this information. But you have the slight note, at the very end of the story, where he has not yet explained his worries to these Cree peoples underground, that Bastion, his ship has taken off again. And that he knows that it's going to be coming back. And he's worried about the other pilot that will be commanding that because that too will be essential in AI. But even in Andrews, this mind, there's a real worry and concern, that that may turn out to be bad technology rather than good technology for the Cree peoples. And so the way that he is going to prepare them, and the way they will become prepared, is through time and stories, telling stories in advance in preparation for potential bad technology. And another story that many people may be familiar with is the TV series that has come out in Canada, Cherie Dimaline who’s herself from Georgian Bay, has written the novel, The Marrow Thieves. And then Hunting by Starlight is the second novel that came out with this. And, to me, this was, again, it's the intentions or motivations behind the technology that can become problematic - along with certain forms of technology. And in this story, it’s a lot of time after the water wars of 2025. And it's about a time when the people of the world stopped dreaming. And they figure out that somehow indigenous people with all of our stories and ceremonies still dream, and they begin experiments on the indigenous people. Because they feel that they have to find a cure for the Dreamlessness of the population that's making them mad and suicidal since the wars. And so in that sense, you see the, you know, taking the marrow of the bones of indigenous peoples in a way that leaves them debilitated or dead. And so that becomes a really problematic form of technology then, and I kind of wonder, taking away dreams from anyone. Would that really be bad for technology? What would be the good in it?

ELEANOR DRAGE:

Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. I love these different stories that have all these, really prescient motifs that are so important in AI today in the way that we are thinking about technology. One of the things that comes up in most in the stories that you've just been telling, and the other story that you have collected in the volumes that you've edited, is space-time: is how indigenous futurisms evoke nonlinear ways of thinking about time and space, that are often ignored by Western approaches. And this is something that resonates with what lots of our other guests have discussed, like Chen Qiufan, Emily Jin, and Regina Kanyu Wang they've talked a podcast about Chinese Science Fiction and the way Chinese Science Fiction also manipulate space time in a way that gets us to think a bit differently about how technology in the future can also change our present. So in Walking the Clouds, which is one of the volumes you've edited, you use the idea of the native slipstream. This is a beautiful phrase. I love that - to discuss how space and time flow together like currents in the same stream. So could you tell us a bit about how these ideas of space time play out and indigenous science fiction and how they relate to contemporary forms of scientific thinking around multiverses and parallel worlds?

GRACE DILLON:

And yes, when I coined the term indigenous futurisms in 2003, I had already been reading about multiverses and parallel universes, but I think it became more popularised by 2007 with a number of scientists around the world coming out and saying yes, absolutely, we have parallel worlds and multiverses. There's all kinds of stories. Carter Meland who is an Anishinaabe descendant like I am, I forgot to mention. My Anishinaabe family, relatives and friends are from Bay Mills nation in the states and garden River in Canada. And Carter Meland and is at the University of Minnesota as Assistant Professor. And this is a short story that he did that is actually being written into a novel and it's called Becoming Birch. And I thought that that was kind of a wonderful story to talk about slipstream native slipstream. Because it's a space-time that slips, right. It's not just space, or it's not just time. It's both together, space-time. And so you can have things that are shifted and distorted like in Walking the Clouds with 'Custer in the Slipstream' in which Gerald Vizenor wrote that in the 1970s and where he and Diane Lancy, who's Cherokee, He's Anishinaabe, we're trading back and forth letters and correspondence about what slipstream was and they just use the term Slipstream, then, and the only reason why I use the term made of slipstream is to differentiate it from now. Bruce Sterling is somehow given credit for coining the term Slipstream in the SF field, the science fiction field. And he really did it quite later, you know, in the 1990s. Or maybe the 1980s. But they were doing it in the 1970s. Anyway, in becoming Burj, they're listening to this White Earth Ojibwe musical band. And at a certain point, the noise shifts and the rooftop is blown off. And everyone starts changing in this native slipstream moment. And they're becoming birch themselves, they're becoming a birch tree. And there's actually a lot of wonderful science behind it that Carter himself has talked about, you know, the strength and fragility of forests and how, once you have a blow down or a fire or a scrub, then the birch moves in. And then after that they restore the soil. And then you have the birch retreat and deciduous trees come in, and then later on the conifers. And so the Wiigwaas, the birch tree for us, is sacred. And that's part of it, sacredness is the way it regenerates soil.

KERRY MCINERNEY:

That's really amazing. And that actually opens up another aspect of your work that we find really wonderful and fascinating, which is how your work demonstrates the plurality of indigenous sciences. And also storytelling is a really key way of transmitting scientific knowledge, which is something that stands in quite stark contrast to a lot of white and Western approaches to science, which firstly often ignores the plurality of sciences suggesting there's only one right or true science. And then secondly, as we discuss in our upcoming episodes with Lorraine Daston, science prizes objectivity as a central epistemic virtue. So could you explore for us even more, you know, some of the kinds of indigenous sciences that emerge and that shed through indigenous science fiction?

GRACE DILLON:

Absolutely. There are so many wonderful books that all start off with that, I was living in that world and grew up doing Iskatewizaagegan, which is called our traditions and knowledges and stories, but it's specifically of plants and animals and a knowledge of, you know, what part of a plant is toxic and how that toxicity can be taken out, and that sort of thing. So first, I'll just start with a few incredible nominal books on indigenous sciences themselves that have come out. And at the time I said indigenous scientific literacy in Walking the Clouds. But more and more, I love the term indigenous sciences with an ‘s’ to show that our sciences in place locally are forms of sciences that build up upon themselves. And so for instance, here we have the Grand Ronde nation, and Spirit Mountain, and many, many mountains that are forested with a lumber company. And what they do, the lumber company works with the Grand Ronde nations specifically, every year to do the kind of important fire burning at that lower level that keeps things from going into huge, huge wildfires. And we really appreciate that since we lost our home to a wildfire in an area where that kind of annual burning of the brush ceremonially was not happening. So we're very conscious of that. Now, in terms of just incredible, phenomenal books, I just want to get the titles right for you. First of all, there's Gregory Cajete’s amazing books. He's Santa Clara Pueblo, and he has a number of them. But the one that tends to be overlooked is the one with his most new ideas, even though he's written lots. And that book is called Indigenous Community Rekindling the Teachings of the Seventh Fire. So on the surface of it, there's no word about indigenous sciences. But in chapter five, it's all about indigenous sciences. And he gives three different meanings to it. But what what is very interesting there, as he points out how additional sciences are high context, compared to certain forms of science that are low context, low context is you're looking and kind of tearing apart minutely through a lab, high context sciences, we have tribal colleges with biogenetic, engineering degrees and labs. So labs are not the issue. But we go much further than just labs and lab knowledge. We add new scientific terms and foreign languages. And when we do that, we have ceremonies about it. And so high context sciences is when you combine music, dancing, ceremony, all of the other things that are very important to bringing those sciences into our communities and thoroughly engaging with them. And then, one thing I think to keep in mind, in contrast to scientific objectivity, is Isabelle Stenger who is a French scientist, I really love her work. And though she doesn't reference us all the time, her thinking really is appealing to many of us indigenous people. So her book that was translated into English called Slow Science really, really fits our way of thinking, which is, don't rush into something, you have intergenerational knowledge that you pass on down through these stories. And so that's slow science, you know, that's evolving and adapting and strengthening. Tyson Yunkaporta who is actually Australian First Nation, from the Apalech Clan, in the far north of Queensland, has written a book that also does not have the word indigenous sciences in it, but that's what it's all about. It's called Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, that came out quite recently in 2021 or so. And in there he very much works with space-time as well, an indigenous sense of space time. And then Laura Harjot, who is Mvskoke herself, has written. She's a geographer. And she's written Spiral to the Stars: Mvskoke Tools of Futurity. And in it, she actually references my book and ideas, and then takes the native slipstream in native space and nonlinear ways into her sciences, which are topographical. And then there's so many good ones just coming out.

ELEANOR DRAGE:

No, this is amazing. Thank you so much. There are so many books there that I want to read. The only author I’m familiar with is Gregory Cajete, who you just mentioned, and like you said I love his writing on indigenous ceremonial science, what he calls full contact science. And it strikes me as so interesting that, while we may think, oh, gosh, ceremonial science, you know, that's definitely not something that Western science does. It actually completely is - we celebrate new forms of technology and new medicines in ceremonial ways. Yes, they may be different kinds of ceremonies but when big pharma or Apple release a product, I mean, there's a big ceremony and song and dance around it. So I love that.

From what you’ve just said, it strikes me that indigenous sciences are not just about heath and wellness but about survival and healing the effects of having survived a series of extinction events and catastrophes.

In AI there’s lots of work on extinction, which is what my next question is about. This discipline, for listeners, is called Existential Risk, and they are concerned with whether AI might threaten humanity in the future. And what some of these existential risk thinkers do is belittle the extinction events that indigenous populations have already been through, because those events according to them don’t threaten the future of intelligence. So can you tell us about how these kinds of long termist risk thinkers and their existential risk narratives fail to acknowledge how indigenous people have already in many ways faced particular kinds of apocalypses and how they are coming back from them?

GRACE DILLON:

Sure, this will just be a quick quick blurb, but there's so much more to it. Now we have become really interested in not only decolonizing the Anthropocene, but actually going beyond that to radical resurgence, that is sometimes an expression that is used now. Or sometimes I just call it oiling the Anthropocene. And in decolonizing the Anthropocene you have for instance, Louise Erdrich, who is from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, of the Anishinaabe, and her book Future Home of the Living God, her novel from 2017. And it took her 10 years to be able to get a science fiction novel published, because they wanted to keep her in that box of the great Native American novel. And she worked really hard on this. But in that book, what's fascinating is, there's this backwards, sideways skewed slantwise evolution for animal persons, bird persons, plant persons and human persons. And what is fascinating about this is that I've taught this novel now for a bit and students are really struck by the fact that Cedar the main character, who's half Anishnaabe, she is willing to accept her unborn baby as not malformed or deformed or backwards - which is the way it is being treated in the society there as forms of mutancy that have developed almost like Philip K Dick’s Eye in the Sky and the those kind of where they would take a drug in that sense called CAN-D, And then would develop these, you know, much pushed forward foreheads, and we're basically devolving back for millions of years perhaps. And so that shows to me a real difference in indigenous thinking, is that the adaptations that come to you and we've had that experience for well over 500 years, it's the adaptations that you make, you make those and you do it with joy and contentment, and gift-giving, and thanks to your Creator for that. And, and so, everyone in that sense is viewed as a fully-infused person, whether you're a river and I've noticed recently that corporations are called persons so Mizzu-kummik-quae, Mother Earth, all of the rights of Mother Earth, the rights of rivers and mountains, all of that should be a part of that right? In Leanne Betasamosake Simpson's...songs and stories that she tells a science fiction story from an indigenous futurism perspective in which all forests have been lost. And it's hit the point where there is only this one small dome that remains up in Canada, where people can go in and experience for a lot of money, moments of being in this cedar forest. And so an Annishnabe couple go in there. And what happens for them is, instead of it being this strange and phenomenally unusual kind of experience, they start really having their stories and their family stories and the ways of thinking coming back. And so they eat strawberries in this moment, and what is not explained carefully in the story - you're just supposed to know about it - is that the strawberry is the heart berry for Annishnabe people. And so ceremonially, we use strawberries in that kind of way. And of course, Robin Wall Kimmerer, who's from the Potawatomi Nation, and has written this biological book, Braiding Sweetgrass, develops some time on those kind of wild strawberries that we would grow and collect around us. And so that is a moment of hope for a couple that will soon have to leave that boreal forest and will not be able to afford to come back.

KERRY MCINERNEY:

Thank you so much. I mean, I just think that all the stories that you've described and the insights that they give, they're just so beautiful. And I was wondering, to kind of finish up this episode, if you would be interested in maybe sharing one of these stories with us, for our listeners, as we would really, really love to hear one.

GRACE DILLON:

Okay. And what I'll do here is, there's this amazing, amazing novel by Lipan Apache Tribe, Darcie Little Badger. It's her second one, it came out in 2021. And she's an Earth Scientist specifically, and has what many people would call an interdisciplinary background, but what we call a holistic background. And in A Snake Falls to Earth, it represents this comprehensive, radical future or today, it's a contemporary setting of Global Weirding, and a series of tornadoes that merge with a huge hurricane coming from the Gulf Coast to Refuge County, Texas. Two worlds exist contingent upon the existence of one another: the Earth world and the Reflected world, with a young Lipan Apache Nina diving into an Jurilla Apache dictionary to better understand her Great-Great-Grandma Rosita’s story. Born in the 1870s (give or take) and dying over 150 years later, Rosita has passed along a story bundle, one that Nina takes several years to translate with the start of just a few phrases: homeland/home, she was in pain, the healer, the nightmare, and animal people (22-23). Grandma wonders to Nina after the possibility of Rosita seeing a fish girl in their well and considers it “closed-minded to discount the possibility that there was something otherworldly about Odd Man Jobs and his bookish friends who by appearing at night in sunglasses and trench coats discreetly carry away boxes of books, no matter the condition, and as the story itself develops, are animal persons and people whose true form is animal-person and whose false form is human largely in appearance (with wings, claws, and fur in odd places peeking out from their clothes and headwear in Earth world. Grandma’s pondering: “Many people claim that no animal people remain on Earth. That’s the price those spirits made to survive us. But there must be exceptions to the rule. It’s not like they all went extinct after the joined era. So…perhaps brave ones will visit us now and then, In secret.” A deep, deep immeasurable well in Earth world and on their land, one that Nina tries to measure with long, long lengths of rope but cannot do so and a deep, deep lake perhaps bottomless that Oli, a cottonmouth person in the Reflected world, practices diving into for up to two hours at a time become portages and passages between the worlds. Originators (like the rainbowed giant serpent in Ambelin’s Tribe series) exist as well as a giant 30 foot tall Bighorn Sheep intermingling with aeons of time of plants, moss and roots, appearing as stone and a sculpture at first bounds up to the 4th peak, the tallest of the 7-peaked mountain, past the pseudo-sun found to be a passage to the Earth World and its light a less brilliant rendering of Earth’s sun and, really, a tunnelling UP passage to and Falling down to Earth, hence the title A Snake Falls to Earth. So it’s about interspecies communication and animal nations and animal-persons as energetically capable of creating kinship relations with human people.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

These are beautiful stories. Thank you so much for sharing them with us. I feel so honoured. It was a great pleasure and I hope you'll speak to you again soon.

GRACE DILLON:

Thank you so much you guys!

ELEANOR DRAGE:

This episode was made possible thanks to our previous funder, Christina Gaw, and our current funder Mercator Stiftung, a private and independent foundation promoting science, education and international understanding. It was written and produced by Dr Eleanor Drage and Dr Kerry Mackereth, and edited by Laura Samulionyte.





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