Indigenous Futurism: A way forward?

10 May 2023

Written by: Grace Tan

How Indigenous Futurism has become a space for truth-telling through the arts.

Historically, futurism is a movement that demands a dynamic imagining of the future in a new age. Its purpose isn’t meant to dwell on happenings of the past. For First Nations people, however, the imagining of a future must carry the burdens of their colonial past, meaning it is often, in a sense, looking back at history too.

Traditionally, imagined futures overlooked the Indigenous perspective. For example, mainstream sci-fi movies such as the film series Avatar showcase topics like colonialism and displacement of Indigenous people, yet Indigenous people’s realities are virtually non-existent, and the story is centred around whiteness. Another example would be Herbert George Well’s famous 1898 science-fiction, The War of the Worlds, which is about Martians invading England, inspired by the British colonisation of Tasmania, yet Indigenous Tasmanians, nor First Nations people in general, don’t exist in that story.

These days, First Nations people have been able to utilise what has become known as Indigenous Futurism to create stories that centre on Indigenous experience and imagine an unlimited future. The term Indigenous Futurism was first coined by Anishinaabe American Professor Grace Dillon, in 2003, and pays homage to the idea of Afrofuturism, where the experience of racism and colonialism persist around African people. Dillon believes the genre helps to “recover ancestral traditions” by discarding the “emotional and psychological” impacts of colonisation.

Indigenous Futurism: A look into the future while looking back

Noongar writer Claire. G. Coleman. Photo: Used with permission.

For Noongar writer Claire G. Coleman, Indigenous Futurism is a means to reckon with a difficult and sad colonial past. Coleman says Australia’s difficult history is one of the reasons why Indigenous writings so often examine the past via the future. She sees this as a process of “truth-telling”, that forces readers to confront the past through an imagined future.

“I use my fiction to unpack and examine the apocalyptic habit of white Australia, in that white Australia is active in the cause of the apocalypse,” she tells upstart.

Coleman’s most recent novel, Enclave, looks into a dystopic future of surveillance, disruption and segregation that reflects the colonial past, and examines the harsh reality of an apocalyptic landscape that Indigenous people live in. Coleman’s work demands that readers see Indigenous Australians living in a post-apocalyptic landscape.

“I think we need to accept that Indigenous people lived through an apocalypse and still made it into an apocalypse.”

While Coleman believes that First Nations Australians are still in a phase of truth-telling, some are also focused on imagining a better future through their work, too. For some, Indigenous Futurism is meant as a space that looks at imagining a future where indigeneity is empowering and healing and centres Indigenous people’s experience to overcome their exclusion in mainstream media.

Although Indigenous Futurism often involves the realm of science fiction, the umbrella term speculative fiction better describes the genre. Dillon labels Indigenous futurism’s purpose as “not the form of fantasy” but as an approach that tells the truth through the ideas of body, mind and spirit”. In other words, speculative fiction focuses on breaking away from reality and tells the story in another world.

Claire Coleman believes Indigenous Futurism in Australia often takes more of a speculative turn than most traditionally futurist forms.

“Indigenous Futurism, for the most part, is using speculative futuristic techniques to unpack and examine the history of the country, rather than looking at the future,” Coleman says.

Approaching decolonisation via Futurism

For some proponents, futurism for Indigenous people isn’t necessarily only used as a tool to remind of us their heart-breaking reality, it can also be a chance to reconnect with country that sees Indigenous sovereignty.

Biripi writer Stevie Wappett. Photo: Used with permission

Biripi writer Stevie Wappett living in Bundjalung Country, says she uses futurism as a way to reconnect with her country through a decolonisation process. Part of the ‘Under Bunji’ series on First Nations lived realities, Wappett’s story Camphor Laurel dives into settle-colonialism through the metaphorical lens of a plant living on the lands of her country.

“Indigenous futurism is a space where I can go beyond [with] what I have and the tools that I have for imagination and storytelling and being able to connect in a way that is also inclusive of disconnection, disruption and septennial colonialism,” she tells upstart.

Wappett feels that she doesn’t have many connections to her people, apart from her intimate family.

“We’re connected more to different mobs like Bundjalung but I’m heritage wise, Biripi, and my nana was forcibly taken off in land and my mom was part of the stolen generation,” she says. Her disconnection led to her not knowing enough about her cultural heritage. The worse thing, she says, is that people don’t think she’s Aboriginal.

“They’re like ‘Oh you’re Aboriginal? Why are you white? Why do you have a Western education? Why don’t you know your country?’ So, those things can be explained through Indigenous stories,” she says.

Different writers have different approaches to Indigenous stories. While Wappett acknowledges that many Indigenous stories are sad, she sees Indigenous Futurism as a way to transcend the boundaries between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to learn about the truth of Aboriginal realities.

“I feel like it’s a little bit softer, and a way to include readers into an exciting story without necessarily going straight for their heart,” she says.

“But like more of the meaning that I’m getting at my stories is about finding people who you connect, with other Indigenous people.”

Indigenous Futurism in the arts scene

Another way of looking at empowered futures can also be discovered through the lens of art.

Waanyi and Queensland-born artists Gordon Hookey’s current ongoing exhibition Murriality introduces a collection, including New Commission, that imagines Indigenous-empowered futures. It exhibits three decades’ worth of work with a mix of artmaking and activism.

Gordon Hookey ‘New Comission’, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist, Institute of Modern Art and Milani Gallery, Meanjin / Brisbane.

The collection introduces Hookey’s perspective as a living Murri person on historical and contemporary issues. One of the pieces dives into word plays with the Russia-Ukraine issue. Although it focuses on the invasion of Ukraine, Hookey is reminding us of the violations that are also happening in other countries including Australia.

“I invoke the viewer by saying ‘You, crane’, there’s the ‘you’ the finger pointing that you’ve gotta be responsible for this too, you’ve gotta see this,” Hookey tells upstart.

“I also make reference to our home here as First Nations people in Australia that we’ve probably still actually fighting for our sovereignty and our rights in our own country so while that’s happening, I’ve just alluded to the fact that it’s not the only war that’s going on.”

Indigenous Futurism and Queer artists

Many mainstream futurist stories also fail to include the existence of Indigenous Queer artists, let alone Queer people of colour.

Futurist films that consider either Black or Queer perspectives have begun to emerge. Black Panther, was one of the first breakthrough stories about and for black culture in movie history. The 2014 Brazilian movie Futuro Beach dives into a story involving queerness and futurism. However, it’s hard to find a fantasy that involves the futuristic collective of Black, Queer and Indigenous in one.

‘Anito / all idols’ featured at Blak Dot Gallery’s Blak-Queer Futurism exhibition 2018. Photo: Supplied.

Interdependent Creative Producer and Curator Eliki (Alec) Reade was a co-curator for 2018’s Blak-Queer Futurism exhibition, which was a platform for LGBTQIA+ people of colour to showcase futurist work. Some of the pieces delivered futuristic imagination from artists such as Sistergirl Bhenji Ra and visual artist Hannah Brontë. Reade says that the artists centre futurism within the connection to mother nature and ways of being in the world that are relational.

“The focus for me was reflecting [on] friends, family, [and] community. I was connected to platforming their stories, their hopes, their dreams,” they tell upstart.

This involved “thoughts around utopia— though I know ideas about utopia itself are quite fraud”, and “thinking about what it is to be connected to oneself in relation to each other and the land and what that means to each person I invited of who identifies as Queer and Indigenous.”

As a producer and a curator, Reade sees truth-telling as an objective of this kind of work.

“What I’m interested in is centring Indigenous narratives, in the now and drawing from the past to sort of find a way to move forward in unison and in reflection and with a sense of honesty and truth-telling about what our history has been and what our history can be,” they say.

Part of the exhibition’s emergence of Queer voices was Reade’s co-founded community-art collective New Wayfinders, which worked with Queer oceanic Pacifica narratives and voices. Reade’s vision continued their project of community building and giving a platform for marginalised voices.

“If we’re able to platform the voices and create a space of exchange and share in this movement that we’re in then we are futuring in our own way by the very nature of living it in the present,” Reade says.

Redefining Indigenous Futurism locally

Many of the Indigenous stories in Australia still focus on the purpose of truth-telling. However, it’s still new to many people and likely to be re-defined by the way it continues to be used in this specific cultural context.

In fact, the creator of the term, Professor Dillon, did not popularise Indigenous futurism until 2012, when she released Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. And as a genre, Indigenous futurism still isn’t often talked about. Enclave author Coleman says she didn’t even realise she was dealing with the concept of futurism in her writing.

“Indigenous Futurism, I suppose, sits within speculative fiction. And, like I’ve said before, I don’t think Indigenous futurism is particularly well defined,” Coleman says.

Some artists don’t define themselves as Indigenous futurists, even though this may be how their creations are described.

“I’m sure if Australian Indigenous Futurism has become a thing. I’m almost certain that I will be considered a pioneer in the genre, even though I don’t really consider it when I’m writing it as a concept,” Coleman says.

For Murrapi artist Hookey, whose certain work have been interpreted as futurist, he says he doesn’t even think of the term when creating his art.

“I have not kind of embraced or engage within it only because I don’t really think of that,” he says. “I just do art. I look at the world and I make art.”

“Futurism is kind of not really my term at all.”

The question may be then, can Indigenous Futurism, which invokes an idealised future, provide the kind of healing and change it envisions or demands for the First Nations people?

“It’s hard to think of a situation of which we could use fiction to heal because colonisation in Australia is not a scale we’re healing, it’s a gaping wound that’s bleeding to death so you can’t go ‘Oh you use Indigenous Futurism to heal’ when we’re still bleeding,” writer Coleman says.

“We are very far from being even able to imagine the concept appealing in my opinion.”

But there still lies hope in their future and although Coleman doesn’t intend to write hopeful works of futurism at the moment, she encourages other people to do so.

“I dream of a better future,” Coleman says.

“I believe things are going to continue the same or get worse but I live my life hoping I’m wrong.”

For an artist like Hookey, he just wants to focus on the present for the future. “I think it’s just more sort of living in the now, and I love to imagine victory, whatever that may be,” he says.

“What all we can do is make what’s good for now, what’s better, make a now better.”


Featured photo | “The future is present” by Lorianne DiSabato available HERE and used under Creative Commons licence. This photo has not been modified.

Article | Grace Loke Tze Tan is a third-year linguistic student in the Bachelor of Arts at La Trobe University. You can find her at @grace_tze