Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

In 2012, Grace L Dillon (Anishinaabe), a professor in the Indigenous Nations Studies program at Portland State University, coined the genre “Indigenous futurism” to recognize the diverse and vast network of science fiction authored by Native peoples. In Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction (2012), Dillon details how Indigenous Futurism is a cultural form of decolonization and that the concepts animating this genre, including Native slipstream, First Contact, Indigenous Science, and Native Apocalypse, help shape emerging narratives about Indigenous futures delinked from colonial capitalism.

As Dillon writes: “It might go without saying that all forms of Indigenous futurisms are narratives of biskaabiiyang, an Anishinaabemowin word connoting the process of ‘returning to ourselves,’ which involves discovering how personally one is affected by colonization, discarding the emotional and psychological baggage carried from its impact, and recovering ancestral traditions in order to adapt in our post-Native Apocalypse world”. Dillon continues: “This process is often called ‘decolonization,’ and as Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Maori) explains, it requires changing rather than imitating Eurowestern concepts” (10, emphasis in original).

Indigenous futurism radically reframes the present, especially one defined by pandemic. Indeed, naming genres can help us see what has been in front of us the entire time.

Today, COVID-19 is largely narrated as a radical disruption of the everyday. In an April 2020 essay for the PopMatters “Reading Pandemics” series, I wrote: “As routines become broken, the familiar becomes estranged, and the everyday becomes foreign, each of us, in our own way, loses the world.”

But from an Indigenous perspective, pandemics are not novel interruptions into the world. Rather, pandemics are one of the defining features of Indigenous history since the onset and expansion of European colonialism.

Photo by ASTERISK on Unsplash

The European colonization of the Americas can be understood, as geographer and historian Alfred W. Crosby argues, as a form of “ecological imperialism”. Building upon Crosby’s work, Charles C. Mann writes the modern world inaugurated by Columbus created a “pathogenic cavalcade” (14). Before Columbus, “none of the epidemic diseases common in Europe and Asia existed in the Americas. The viruses that cause smallpox, influenza, hepatitis, measles, encephalitis, and viral pneumonia; the bacteria that caused tuberculosis, diphtheria, cholera, typhus, scarlet fever, and bacterial meningitis […. ] All were unknown in the Western Hemisphere” and hence, Indigenous Americans had no immunity (14). When smallpox reached Mexico in 1520, it tore through the Indigenous population, killing nearly half of the Aztec population (Diamond 210).

In Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), Jared Diamond writes: “By 1618, Mexico’s initial population of about 20 million had plummeted to about 1.6 million” (210). In 1493 (2011), a book that explores the catastrophic world ushered in by Columbus, Mann writes: “Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries novel microorganisms spread across the Americas, ricocheting from victim to victim, killing three-quarters or more of the people in the hemisphere” (14). Mann continues: “In the annals of human history there is no comparable demographic catastrophe” (14). Yale historian David Brion Davis describes the European genocide against First Nation peoples as “the greatest genocide” in “history”, and that most of the “carnage” and “suffering was caused not by swords or guns but by germs” (qtd. in Cowley 268).

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization. Chelsea Haith writes that Indigenous peoples “have long since treated colonialism and the diseases spread by the colonisers as the source of what is currently experienced as an ongoing apocalypse. For many people in formerly colonized places, the apocalypse has already come – pandemics (both literal and metaphorical) have already obliterated their populations” (“Pandemics from Homer”).

The apocalypse “has already come” and it has resurrected in vicious form. As The World Economic Forum reports (June 2020), COVID-19 “poses a disproportionate threat to Indigenous communities” (Letzing). In their article “Indigenous populations: left behind in the COVID-19 response”, Kaitlin Curtice and Esther Choo write: “the COVID-19 pandemic is having a disproportionately devastating effect on Indigenous peoples: in Brazil, deaths among its Indigenous population are reportedly double that of the general population; in the USA, Navajo Nation has surpassed New York in numbers of per capita COVID-19 cases.”

From an Indigenous perspective, pandemic is the story of the past, the present, and one threatening to stretch into the foreseeable future. The interconnectivity of all temporalities animates the Indigenous practice of “Native slipstream”, an important practice within Indigenous Futurism and a salient form of decolonization.

Photo by Sandro Cenni on Unsplash

In her invaluable introduction to Walking the Clouds, Dillon summarizes the importance of Native slipstream in Indigenous literature as follows: “Native slipstream views time as pasts, presents, and futures that flow together like currents in a navigable stream” (3). In contrast to western epistemology that posits space and time as separate categories, Native slipstream begins with the premise that time and space are inextricably conjoined. Native slipstream helps make visible that western epistemology, with its classificatory system that views time and space as separate and distinct categories, is a form of colonial alienation.

This alienation from place, from nature, from the rich, robust, more-than-human narratives, is one of the defining properties of western colonial capitalism. The dominant epistemology of colonial capitalism imagines time as an empty, homogenous category deracinated from place and nature. Moreover, this hollowed out conception of time—bankrupting time of its sacred narratives and interspecies connections—becomes reduced to a linear narrative. In colonial capitalism, time is imagined as an arrow, hurtling violently away from the past, piercing through the present, and rushing towards a myopically conceived future.

In contrast to this colonial conception, Native slipstream recognizes all temporalities as alive and palpable in the here and now. Native slipstream defies western colonial formulations in myriad ways. The past, present, and future are not singular and distinct entities; rather each is plural and pregnant with possibilities in an inextricable web of human and non-human relations. Moreover, this pluralized temporality is narrated and experienced in geographic terms. In Native slipstream “pasts, presents, and futures […] flow together like currents in a navigable stream”. Time is spatialized and space is temporalized.

Put differently, what the west calls “history” is not accessible exclusively through textbooks arranged in chronological order. Rather, history—and time in all its dimensionality—is experienced in and through place. Time is a “navigable stream”. Human responsibility, in part, is learning how to navigate the multiple possibilities enfolded within and unfolding upon the land.

One prominent way for Indigenous peoples to navigate colonization is through “survivance”. In Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence (1998), Gerald Vizenor (Anishinaabe) emphasizes the importance of Native “survivance”. As Vizenor elaborates, survivance is “more than survival, more than endurance or mere response [….] Survivance is an active repudiation of dominance, tragedy, and victimry” (Fugitive 13). Put differently, survivance is about telling stories that refuse and negate the organizing categories naturalized by colonial capitalism.

Native slipstream is a form of survivance. While Indigenous genocide remains a forceful tide in Native slipstream narratives, such narratives typically find alternative tides that offer glimpses of geographies unmarked by colonial capitalism.

The challenge, in part, is learning to see beyond the dominant forms of US culture that actively colonizes imaginations. Indigenous futurism is this beyond.

In the poem ” Dear John Wayne” (1984), Louise Erdrich (Anishinaabe) focuses on a group of Indigenous Americans, sitting on the hood of a Pontiac at a drive-in theater, watching Indian representations in a John Wayne movie. In the dominant US imagination, John Wayne is a hero, a fictional figure who perpetuates a national myth that ideologically transforms Indigenous genocide into Manifest Destiny. In Erdrich’s poem, colonial capitalism perpetuates through cultural means, through soft power. On screen, Indians are represented as barbarous figures who are “barring progress” (8). When “Indians” fire arrows on the white colonialists—portrayed as empathetic heroes—the latter

die beautifully, tumbling like dust weeds
into the history that brought us all here
together: this wide screen beneath the sign of the bear. (15-17)

In the sanctioned national culture, white colonizers author and create history. In contrast, Indigenous Americans are either reduced to props in a narrative of white supremacy or written out of the national archive.

The poem ends with a stanza that dramatizes how the power of culture extends far beyond a text’s official end.

How can we help but keep hearing his voice,
the flip side of the sound track, still playing:
Come on, boys, we got them
where we want them, drunk, running.
They’ll give us what we want, what we need.
Even his disease was the idea of taking everything.
Those cells, burning, doubling, splitting out of their skins. (37-44)

The voice of John Wayne resounds long after the movie ends. His colonial voice continues to echo across the decades, across all discourses: ” Come on, boys, we got them / where we want them“. As the poem’s concluding lines signify, the white genocidal process plays out at all scales, including at the molecular level.

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In Erdrich’s wordplay, “cells” has a double meaning, formally anticipating the gerund that appears two words later (“doubling”). In the context of film, “cell” refers to the building block of films: “film cells” collectively make up a movie. In the context of an Indigenous Holocaust, cells also signify on a biological level, gesturing towards the narrative of how white, colonial genocide was abetted by Eurasian epidemics and pandemics.

In Erdrich’s poem, both meanings of “cells”—molecular and film cells—equally contribute to the ongoing Indigenous genocide. Colonial figures such as John Wayne continually resurrect to colonize the present and the foreseeable future.

But the decolonial project of Indigenous futurism is to reinforce that the future is radically open.Indigenous futurism is a genre and mode of thinking that sees the racist genocides of the past and present and simultaneously sees a future not determined by these histories. For subjects interpellated by national narratives and paradigms, though, it’s difficult to even recognize Indigenous futurism.

As Dillon critiques in Walking the Clouds, white genres—colonial modes of classifying and organizing literary and cultural texts—both appropriate and silence Indigenous voices. For example, James Patrick Kelly and John Kelly’s 2006 anthology on slipstream science fiction, Feeling Very Strange, credit sci-fi author Bruce Sterling for coining the term “slipstream” in his 1989 column sf Eye. Dillon critiques: “Noticeably absent from Sterling’s original list of 135 so-called slipstream writers is Native author, scholar, and activist Gerald Vizenor (Anishinaabe), whose 1978 story ‘Custer in the Slipstream’ unmistakably invokes the genre” (15).

While white literary history claimed “slipstream” as a new literary practice developed in response to the postmodern condition, slipstream has been a salient form of Indigenous writing and storytelling for decades, for centuries (Dillon 16). Native slipstream is not just the name of a genre. Rather, it’s a form of “Native intellectual thinking” (Dillon 16). For Vizenor, Native slipstream is a practice of survivance, a theme explicit in his 1978 story, “Custer in the Slipstream”.

The story begins by declaring that General George Armstrong Custer is not a figure of genocide located in the distant past. Rather, he’s a figure that repeats throughout the US’s colonial history. In the story’s late 20th-century present, Custer returns in the form of an employee named Farlie Border, who works for the United States Department of Labor “to serve tribal people and the poor” (Vizenor, “Custer” 17).

As an epistemology and philosophy, Vizenor’s practice of Native slipstream allows us to see how the genocidal project of Custer remains active in the present. Rather than see Border as a unique individual, Vizenor’s story figures the federal government administrator as the latest incarnation and “resurrection” of Custer, who is transformed from a historical figure into a repeatable colonial figure in the long history of the Indigenous genocide (17).

In Native slipstream, the present is a stage upon which specters act. And it is not just colonial figures who populate the present; so too do Indigenous freedom fighters.

When the contemporary iteration of General Custer speaks to an Indigenous audience, George Mitchell intervenes, an Indigenous individual figured as an incarnation of both Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse (19). The past is alive and fights.

Mitchell/Sitting Bull/Crazy Horse challenges the resurrected form of General Custer as follows: “The Bureau is yours, your government made it up, and it is killing us [….] The white man has been killing us since he first drifted off course and got lost on the shores of our great mother earth […]” (Vizenor, “Custer” 20).

Despite the federal government creating a Bureau ostensibly to help Native communities, Mitchell/Sitting Bull/Crazy Horse ßexhorts, the reality is that: “Now our pockets are empty and mother earth is polluted and stripped for coal and iron” (20). The history of European colonization, a history which continues into the present, is the history of pilfering the riches of Indigenous lands to fuel and enrich the dominant culture of white supremacy. Crazy Horse continues: “Now all the original people on our mother earth go through white men and stand in lines for everything. The white man tries to make us like you to sit and listen to white people talking about money and things and good places to live away from the poor” (20).

But as the specter of Crazy Horse promises: “The land will be ours again” (20).

The stories and philosophies of Indigenous Futurism are about seeing the colonial past and present—one in which European epidemics and pandemics play a central role—yet having the courage to believe that the future can and will be different.

Image by David Sunfellow from Pixabay

Works Cited:

Crosby, Alfred W. (2004). Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900. (2nd ed., Studies in Environment and History). Cambridge University Press. 2004.

Cowley, Geoffrey. “The Great Disease Migration”. Anthropology: Contemporary Perspectives. Ed. Phillip Whitten and David Hunter. HarperCollins College Publishers. 268-70. 1993.

Curtice, Kaitlin, and Esther Choo. ” Indigenous populations: left behind in the COVID-19 response”. The Lancet vol. 395 (10239). 6 June 2020.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Society. W.W. Norton & Company. 1997.

Dillon, Grace L. Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. Ed. Grace L. Dillon. University of Arizona Press. 2012.

Erdrich, Louise. ” Dear John Wayne”. 1984.

Haith, Chelsea. ” Pandemics from Homer to Stephen King: What We Can Learn from Literary History”. The Conversation. 16 March 2020.

Kelly, Patrick James and Kessel, John, eds. Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. Tachyon. 2006.

Letzing, John. “This is how COVD-19 is affecting indigenous people.” World Economic Forum. 05 June 2020.

Mann, Charles C. 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. Vintage Books, 2011.

Poll, Ryan. “Why Boccaccio’s ‘The Decameron’ Can Help Us Guide Us Through COVID-19.” PopMatters. 22 April 2020.

Vizenor, Gerald. “Custer on the Slipstream”. In Walking the Clouds. 17-25. —. Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.