The idea of Native Americans in space never really occurred to me until coming across a flyer for The Symposium for Just Futures: Speculative Arts and Social Change. A red-scarfed Native American woman standing near a pyramid gazed into the grey mountains beyond, a spacecraft in the sky above; the flyer promised science fiction, indigenous futurism, and hearty discussion concerning social change. Interestingly enough, what I found was a presentation on The Handmaid’s Tale that compelled me to think more critically about the nature of utopia and dystopia as it relates to our mission as EAH students.
The Symposium was hosted by the Annares Project, a local group dedicated to raising conversations and sharing ideas that foster a future free of oppression and exploitation. Their website states: “The Project is based on the understanding that past, present, and future are not separate.” In other words, multiple futures are constantly coming into existence and the Annares Project hopes to facilitate the best of those futures. The symposium featured a number of speakers covering a range of topics, but my schedule permitted me only one small timeslot, Power and Resistance from Tale to Testaments: The Politics of Margaret Atwood.
I have never read nor seen The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Atwood. I knew almost nothing about it, even including that it was the subject of the presentation. This was good because I had no expectations or preconceived notions about the story. Instead I let the presenters interpret the story, highlight key themes and issues, and describe the feelings and contemplations that it instilled in them. In this way the story became a case study with the focus more squarely on what the techniques and tropes used mean in our world.
Presenter Malori Musselman, a Political Science PhD student, described the story as a lens for interpreting religion and environmental crisis, to say nothing of totalitarian governance. Readers are meant to connect with the sense of oppression and control. Blame for the crisis is placed on the moral depravity of the lower classes, the gays and women. The story even obliges us to embrace dubious heroes, like the Aunt; despite helping to enforce gender roles and the status quo, she changes slightly for the good as circumstances shifted around her. Musselman attests that Atwood wrote this book to be discussed in symposiums, to have it broken down and analyzed.
But wait, what does this have to do with Native Americans in space?
A keen audience member noticed and inquired about the lack of Native American representation as well. Their omission was not lost on Atwood nor was that of African Americans. These groups, purposefully excluded, beg to be noticed and questions about their exclusion demand to be asked. Musselman explained that our perspectives of the future in this story are through white women’s eyes, oppressed they may be, but in many ways still a more privileged class.
Another commenter wondered why a dystopia? They attested that at the time this story came out, many other positive stories about utopias, progress, and change were also reaching the shelves.
Dystopias and utopias fulfill different roles in our quest to imagine a just future. A utopia allows us to design a future scenario where the forces of good win – human needs are met, oppressed peoples are released from bondage, and the heart prevails over the industrial machine. They allow us to break down the structures in our minds holding us in place and to focus on what we do want. On one level, dystopias can be thought of as a warning call. Dystopias generally depict a world where the good guys did not win, or at best are struggling to change. The feelings of oppression and moral decay generally direct our attention to what we do not want. However on another level, dystopias can challenge us to ask deeper questions about what we do want and why things are not that way. As Musselman put it, dystopias can help to externalize anger and frustration so that positive action can be taken.
As EAH students we grapple with the polarity of utopia and dystopia throughout our studies. Some of us are writing fictions or histories, others are painting and drawing, some of us are even using movement and the body to convey our environmental consciousness. Each one of us has to reconcile ourselves to the realities of living in an imperfect and unfair world while cultivating the peace of mind to champion a just future. This certainly means something different for everyone, but for me it involves creating mental space to reflect on both the utopia I wish to see and the dystopia I hope to avoid. So what did any of this have to do with Native Americans in space? Perhaps nothing. Yet Atwood’s politics compel us to ask whose perspectives are being highlighted and who are our heroes? She challenges us to notice not just what we are presented, but who is being left out.