‘We’ve already survived an apocalypse’: Indigenous writers are changing sci-fi
(Arden Wray | The New York Times) The author Cherie Dimaline near her home in Midland, Ontario, Canada, July 28, 2020. Long underrepresented in genre fiction, Native American and First Nations authors are reshaping science fiction's otherworldly (but still often Eurocentric) worlds.
When Cherie Dimaline was growing up near Penetanguishene, a small town on the Georgian Bay in Ontario, her grandmother and great-aunts told her stories about a werewolf-like monster called the rogarou. It wasn’t spoken of as a mythical creature but as an actual threat, the embodiment of danger in a place where Indigenous women face heightened risk of violence.
“This wasn’t like, here’s a metaphor,” she said. “They would say, ‘The rogarou’s out, and he’s really hungry.’”
Decades later, Dimaline, a member of the Métis Nation in Canada, was working on a novel about a woman whose missing husband reappears with no memory of her, seemingly under a spell. She needed a charismatic villain, and when the rogarou — a wily trickster figure in Métis oral traditions — popped into her head, she realized the creature had never been given its due in popular culture.
That flash of inspiration turned into “Empire of Wild
,” a genre-bending novel whose modern Indigenous characters confront environmental degradation, discrimination and the threat of cultural erasure, all while battling a devious monster.
Dimaline, along with Waubgeshig Rice, Rebecca Roanhorse, Darcie Little Badger and Stephen Graham Jones
, who has been called “the Jordan Peele of horror literature
,” are some of the Indigenous novelists reshaping North American science fiction, horror and fantasy — genres in which Native writers have long been overlooked.
Their fiction often draws on Native American and First Nations mythology and narrative traditions in ways that upend stereotypes about Indigenous literature and cultures. And the authors are gaining recognition in a corner of the literary world that has traditionally been white, male and Eurocentric, rooted in Western mythology.
“There’s a big push now for the telling of Indigenous stories,” Dimaline said. “The only way I know who I am and who my community is, and the ways in which we survive and adapt, is through stories.”
As more Indigenous authors break into the genres, there has been an explosion of novels, comics, graphic novels and short stories from writers blending sci-fi and fantasy with Native narratives, writing everything from “slipstream” alternate realities to supernatural horror to post-apocalyptic stories about environmental collapse.
“There’s so much variety and so much experimentation,” said Grace Dillon, a professor in the Indigenous Nations Studies Program at Portland State University, who edited “Walking the Clouds,” an anthology of Indigenous science fiction published in 2012.
, whose novel “There There
” was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize, said the growing prominence of Native authors in genre fiction is long overdue. “It’s not just one Native author a year anymore,” he said. “Given the history of us not being able to tell our stories, the people who are from these communities need to be telling them, and telling them like this.”
Some authors say that sci-fi and fantasy settings allow them to reimagine the Native experience in ways that wouldn’t be possible in realistic fiction. Writing futuristic narratives and building fantasy worlds provide a measure of freedom to tell stories that feel experimental and innovative, and aren’t weighted down by the legacies of genocide and colonialism.
“We’ve already survived an apocalypse,” said Roanhorse, who is of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo descent.
Little Badger’s debut novel, “Elatsoe,” out later this month, is a young adult fantasy about a 17-year-old Lipan Apache girl who can awaken the ghosts of dead animals and sets out to solve her cousin’s murder. Little Badger, 32, who is a member of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, said she wanted to write about young Indigenous characters in an alternative, magic-filled, contemporary America because so much fiction featuring Native characters is historical and feels outdated.
“A lot of times when there’s an Apache main character, it takes place in the 1800s,” she said. “It almost feels like in fiction, people think we didn’t survive, but we did, and we’re still flourishing.”
In Jones’ new horror novel, “The Only Good Indians
,” friends who grew up on a Blackfeet reservation in Montana are haunted by an elk-hunting trip they took 10 years earlier. The young men, who were caught hunting illegally on land reserved for tribal elders, are stalked by a vengeful spirit who sometimes takes the form of a woman with an elk head. It evokes Deer Woman
, a menacing fertility goddess in North American Indigenous mythology, but Jones mainly drew inspiration from movie villains like Jason from “Friday the 13th,” he said.
Jones, a member of the Blackfeet tribe who grew up in Texas, often uses the framework of horror to examine inequality that Native Americans face. He was drawn to slasher fiction because of its emphasis on justice and order. “In the slasher story, wrong is punished,” he said. “The intent is to rebalance the world, and the world we live in is not like that.”
For Indigenous authors, writing themselves into sci-fi and fantasy narratives isn’t just about gaining visibility within popular genres. It is part of a broader effort to overcome centuries of cultural misrepresentation.
“What most people know about Native people was created by outsiders, so it’s no surprise that it’s faulty,” said Debbie Reese, who is tribally enrolled at Nambé Pueblo and founded the site American Indians in Children’s Literature
, which analyzes representations of Native people and beliefs in children’s books.
While Indigenous writers are still underrepresented in the literary world, especially in genre fiction, their work is having an outsize impact. Roanhorse won two of the genre’s most prestigious awards, the Hugo and the Nebula, for her 2017 short story, “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™,” and the Locus Award for best first novel for “Trail of Lightning.” Both works have been optioned for screen adaptations.
Dimaline’s novel, “The Marrow Thieves,” which unfolds in a dystopian future where Indigenous people are hunted for their bone marrow, won the Kirkus prize for young adult literature and is being adapted into a television series. She and Roanhorse have signed multibook deals with major publishing houses in recent years.
Roanhorse said she started out writing “Tolkien knockoffs about white farm boys going on journeys” because she figured that’s what epic fantasy was supposed to be. After deciding to feature a Native woman as the hero, in 2018 she released “Trail of Lightning
,” the first novel in a four-book fantasy series. Set on a reservation after a flood destroys most of North America and reawakens traditional gods and monsters, the series centers on a Navajo woman named Maggie, who has superhuman monster-slaying powers, and features sacred figures from Navajo mythology like Coyote and Neizghání, one of the Hero Twins.
“The stories that I’m writing, these are the traditional American gods,” Roanhorse said.
Some see the rise of Indigenous sci-fi as a natural extension of Native American narrative traditions, which often have sci-fi elements, like tales about visitors from outer space and a creation myth about humanity descending from the sky
. Decades ago, authors like Leslie Marmon Silko, Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel and Gerald Vizenor incorporated fantastical themes in their fiction.
“Indigenous people have always been writing and telling science-fiction stories, but it hasn’t been labeled as such,” said Blaire Topash-Caldwell, a citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians who has written about the rise of Indigenous sci-fi. “We’ve always been interested in prophecy, alternate realities and different spheres of existence.”
There has been some resistance to repurposing venerated ancestral narratives as plot elements in popular fiction. Some members of the Navajo Nation have objected to
Roanhorse’s depiction of Navajo religious beliefs and teachings.
“There are things that are not meant for entertainment,” Jennifer Nez Denetdale, a professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico, said of Roanhorse’s work.
Roanhorse, who lived on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, said she worked with a Navajo cultural consultant to make sure her depictions were accurate. Young Navajo readers have responded enthusiastically to the representation of Navajo characters and culture, she said, as well as her use of Diné or Navajo language in the dialogue.
One of her aims in writing post-apocalyptic narratives, Roanhorse said, is to depict a world where Native culture, language and people have endured, in spite of efforts over the centuries to wipe them out.
“I set it in the future specifically so I could say hey, Natives exist,” she said, “and we’ll exist in the future.”