by Lizzie Ross
Rebecca Roanhorse, quoted in a 2020 New York Times article, said, “We’ve already survived an apocalypse.” The “we” here refers to the Native American, First Nation and indigenous civilizations of North, Central, and South America, who were nearly wiped out as a result of European colonization.
For Roanhorse, it’s no surprise that authors from indigenous backgrounds would find a comfortable home in fantasy and science fiction genres, creating worlds newly invaded by monsters from native mythologies—monsters brought to life as a consequence of ecological, economic, and/or geopolitical disasters caused by white people.
These authors, tired of stories that wallow in past defeats, show us native communities that are strong, thriving entities, working to maintain their languages and cultures despite efforts to erase them completely.
Because Chris and I were committed to representing a wide range of BIPOC authors, I decided to feature writers from the American continents. The options were immense: Black authors (Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, N. K. Jemesin), Latinx authors (Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Lizz Huerta, Lilliam Rivera), and classic authors of magical realism (Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende, Gabriel García Márquez). But a recent spate of books by contemporary indigenous writers caught my attention, and I found myself reading more and more of them. I’ve pulled out just four to include in this review.
• A Snake Falls to Earth, by Darcie Little Badger (Lipan Apache), Levine Querido (2021).
• Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo), Saga Press (2018, first volume of her Sixth World series).
• Moon of the Crusted Snow, by Waubgeshig Rice (Wasauksing First Nation/Anishinaabe), ECW Press (2018).
• Take us to Your Chief and Other Stories, by Drew Hayden Taylor (Curve Lake First Nation/Ojibwe), Douglas & McIntyre (2016).
Darcie Little Badger’s A Snake Falls to Earth is told in two voices, alternating between two locations. The section set on earth is narrated in third-person, from the POV of Nina Rios, Lipan Apache teen and expert story teller (she video blogs on the fictional St0ryte11er app). As Nina explains in one of her videos, “My grandmother shared [this story] with me, and her grandmother shared it with her. That’s the way it goes, all the way back to the original storyteller. The person who witnessed—or experienced—the event.” In one of her great-grandmother’s stories, Nina finds a clue not just to the existence of a spirit world, but also to a pathway for traveling between the spirit world and Earth—a pathway that may start in the well next to Nina’s grandmother’s house.
The other section, set in the spirit world (the “Reflecting World”), is told in the quirky first-person voice of Oli, a cottonmouth person who enjoys nothing more than lying on a rock in the light of the “pseudosun”. We meet him just as his cottonmouth mother sends him away. Just to make the point that she doesn’t want to see Oli again, she sheds her false human form and bares “curved, venom-filled teeth in my direction, warning me to skedaddle.” Oli heads out for the “dammed town” (“dammed”, not “damned”; beaver people live there) but he never arrives. He befriends Ami (toad person, old and ailing), Brightest (hawk person), and the coyote sisters, Reign and Risk.
Through Oli, we learn about this spirit world. “It had been generations since my many-great ancestors more or less gave up living on Earth,” he explains. “It was beautiful, but too dangerous, too heartbreaking. So—like most animal people—they slithered through the burrow between worlds, taking refuge in the world of monsters and spirits. Sometimes, I almost forgot that Earth existed.”
As Ami grows weaker, Oli and his friends leave the spirit world to find a cure for the Toad. They land at Nina’s door, just as a hurricane threatens Southeast Texas. Their arrival draws Nina into an inter-universe battle between the animal people of the Reflecting World and a witch, known as “the Nightmare King”, who has settled on earth and hires hunters to kill any animal people they can find. The Nightmare King himself never appears (leaving open, I suspect, the option for a sequel), but the menace is there, behind any stranger Nina meets, even before she knows of the pathway between earth and the spirit world.
(In case you missed it, A Snake Falls to Earth was short-listed for the inaugural Ursula K. Le Guin Prize for Fiction. The winner, announced on 21 October, is now in my NYPL ebook queue and I’ll be reading it soon.)
Darcie Little Badger’s books, written for middle grade readers, are tame in comparison with other indigenous SFF fare. For instance, Rebecca Roanhorse’s debut novel, Trail of Lightning, written for an older, “new adult” audience, offers a wild and violent ride. My usual fantasy reads are calming experiences compared to this deep dive into a post-apocalyptic world. In the first scene, the narrator, a female “monster-killer”, tracks a voiceless monster that has kidnapped a child. When she reaches it, it is gnawing at the child’s throat. Bloody battle ensues, which she wins. But the child cannot be saved, and the narrator reels from the horror of the scene. Who is the monster here? she wonders.
Deep in the arid desert and mountains of Arizona, a cataclysmic flood has destroyed much of North American east of the Rocky Mountains and made possible the return of ancient monsters and gods, which threaten the survival of the Navajo population.
Roanhorse riffs on Navajo origin stories to build a world where gods and superheroes are part of the natural landscape, their arrivals and departures announced by bolts of lightning which leave the air crackling with ozone. The violence is graphic—beheadings, fist-to-face and iron-clad-boot-to-kidney beatings, blood and gore everywhere, the ground often covered with eviscerated bodies—and Maggie’s violent urges make her feel like a monster herself. It isn’t difficult to make the leap from these scenes to those of the massacres that occurred throughout the collision between indigenous peoples of North America and colonizing invaders from Europe, a sobering reminder for someone descended from those colonizing invaders.
Maggie Hoskie, a Diné (Navajo) warrior, battles gods, witches, and their creations—voiceless monsters made of stone (tsé naayéé). Maggie is a sexy, super-powerful, punk heroine: think Emma Peel as MMA pro, only better, because Maggie has been trained by the famous Diné monster-killer, Neizgháni, and she also is acquainted with that trickster god, Coyote. When sparked, her clan powers turn her into an efficient killer able to take out dozens of the tsé naayéé without mussing her hair. Roanhorse gives her plenty of opportunities to do just that.
A quieter, more slow-building story, Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice takes place as a world-wide economic breakdown occurs. An isolated First Nation enclave in northwestern Ontario, reliant on weekly deliveries of food and gas from the south, is cut off from the world when they lose electricity. No power, no cell phone reception, no news of what’s going on out there.
But this has happened before; services to the community have always been spotty at best, and the people of this town hunker down to get through the next few days with diminishing supplies of propane and fresh food. Hunting and firewood preparation continue, and the community leaders meet to assess their situation and consider how to address a possible longer cut in supplies. Snow continues to fall as autumn turns to winter. The narrator, Evan Whitesky, who has spent his adult years reclaiming his Anishinaabe heritage, can’t quite pin down why he senses an existential threat to the community, yet he spends these first days of the novel carrying on his life as husband, father, and community member.
The plot progresses slowly, with no explicit evidence of why the power has been cut until a third of the way into the novel. Two young men of the town, who’d been away at college, return on snowmobiles pulling sleds loaded with supplies. They bring news as well: The town they had left, because of what appears to be nation-wide power failures, has descended into the violent chaos that one would expect in such circumstances. They barely managed to escape with their lives and the few supplies they could gather.
Two days later, a white man arrives with even more supplies, and, with typical white male privilege, Justin Scott begins to take over. This is when the novel becomes unmistakably dystopian. Scott provides some of the people with cigarettes and alcohol, bringing predictable consequences. The windigo, an Anishinaabe mythological creature with insatiable appetites, is embodied in one of the characters. The snow keeps falling, food runs low, and people begin to die.
I can’t say that Rice gives us a “happy” ending, but he does show us the resilience of this community, with their ability to live in nature without destroying it. What’s even more important is that the only way they can save themselves is to turn their backs on white civilization. The ultimate cause of the blackout and ensuing chaos is never specified—one can only imagine the complete breakdown of national and international systems—and probably isn’t even important. Think of it as Rice’s MacGuffin. What is important is that this community is finally able to move back into their own ways of living, and we can be sure they will thrive.
I’ll end on a somewhat happier note, with a collection of short stories by Drew Hayden Taylor (Curve Lake First Nation/Ojibwe), Take Us to Your Chief and Other Stories (2013). These fit easily into the traditional sci-fi mold, although they are filtered “through an Aboriginal consciousness,” as Taylor explains in his Foreword. Taylor, an admitted Star Wars and Star Trek fan, goes on to admit, “First Nations and science fiction don’t usually go together.” Well into his career as a writer, he began to wonder why. To him, “sci-fi was a world of possibilities. … [Sci-fi-] was still writing, still literature in all its glory, but here they used different tools to explore the human condition, be they aliens, advanced technology or other such novel approaches.”
Taylor’s stories, which feature First Nation characters and themes, take us into space, to other planets, or keep us firmly on the earth, in the past, present, and future. Some of these tales are funny, especially the title story, whose laconic beer-drinking lead characters find themselves selected as diplomatic envoys to a distant planet. Others are thought provoking: three boys from different times and different galaxies contemplate the universe; an AI program learns about the horrors inflicted on First Nations people around the world; a toy robot (see cover image) talks a young boy out of shooting himself; coded petroglyphs make time travel possible.
The “Aboriginal consciousness” through which Taylor filters these stories reveals truths about the human condition that apply across cultural, geographic, or historic borders. This is, in fact, what fiction is for, and what all the authors in this review have achieved in their books.
You can easily find various on-line lists of SF/F books and short stories by indigenous North American authors, but a good place to start is with this list from BookRiot.com. It includes at least one book by an Australian First People author, and several books featuring LGBTQ characters.
Debbie Reese (Nambé Pueblo) & Jean Mendoza (White) edit the website American Indians in Children’s Literature, where they discuss issues of Native American/First People’s representation in picture, middle grade, and young adult books.
Thanks to Apex Magazine, you can read Rebecca Roanhorse’s Hugo and Nebula award-winning story, “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” here.
Lizzie Ross (White), author of Kenning Magic, blogs at LizzieRossWriter.com
Native American Heritage Month
7 thoughts on “#WitchWeek2022 Day 3: Indigenous Futurism”
Thank you so much for these tantalizing glimpses into the riches of fantasy by indigenous authors. I’ll be delving into these for sure.
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Glad to have inspired you, Lory. I was especially struck by Darcie Little Badger’s work. Her first novel, Elatsoe, is wonderful.
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I enjoyed Trail of Lightning https://necromancyneverpays.wordpress.com/2020/07/21/trail-of-lightning-rebecca-roanhorse/
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Great review, Jeanne!
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What a fantastic selection, Lizzie. I could find all but Taylor’s TAKE US TO YOUR CHIEF. Looks like I have some great reading ahead of me.
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