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Time for Indigenous futurism

Today’s Indigenous Musicians and Filmmakers Unearth Tomorrow’s Memories

What will the future be like? In the colonial state of Canada, the very notion of the future has for centuries been framed by its settler immigrants. The land was viewed as the great engine of a futuristic society made for white folks, while the dreams, cultures, economies, and arts of its existing Indigenous peoples, if taken into consideration at all, were seen as an impediment to that rosy future of resource extraction.

But the times, they are a changin’. There is an emerging arts of Indigenous futurism, a new way of storytelling using today’s technologies to unearth the traditional ways that have been erased from colonial history, all the while telling new narratives of the future. Arising at the intersection of digital filmmaking, electronic music, and media arts, Indigenous futurism is not so much about the tools as it is about the storytelling, and the act of reclaiming Indigenous story, arts, being and time itself.

As Nehiyan (Cree) filmmaker Thirza Jean Cuthand says, Indigenous peoples have been cast as “living in the past, with the implication that we have no place in the future.” Their 2019 short film Reclamation features an Indigenous couple humourously discussing what to do after white people have abandoned a ruined Earth for Mars, as stock images of environmental destruction cut into the documentary-style interviews. Turning to dark humour, says Cuthand, is a “good tool to disarm people trying to absorb difficult information.” The film projects both a post-apocalyptic vibe and yet a sense of hope through innovative survival, all the while pulling no punches with its (not so subtle) sarcasm that Cuthand says, “makes fun of power structures.” With the at-times ironic dialogue improvised by the Indigenous actors, Reclamation showcases what Cuthand describes as Indigenous futurism, a movement and perspective that “unearths things that people have wanted us to forget.” Cuthand describes the film as a “bitter laugh,” and that powerful act of laughter—at the colonial emperor with no clothes, mocking the latest phallic rocket from Elon Musk’s neocolonialism of Mars—is but one of the tools of reclamation.

The term “Indigenous futurism” has emerged alongside other arts and cultural movements, notably Afrofuturism, that express the desire to reclaim both the past and the future for minoritarian and oppressed peoples that have, until recently, been written out of settler history and its (supposedly) glorious future. If you’ve seen the phrase “THERE ARE INDIGENOUS PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE,” this is what the meme speaks to. This reclamation of the lily-white future, of course, must take place in the present, bringing the act of “reconciliation”—so often seen as but a litany of apologies—into the realm of the representational arts, but also into meaningful social, political, and economic action. For Cuthand, “reconciliation” by way of the arts would mean providing more funding to Indigenous artists, with the aim of reclaiming “the arts of Indigenous peoples.”

However, Indigenous futurism, and other such visions, need not be visual at all. Musical innovation and sonic futurism is a key part of the remix culture, hip-hop, and electronic music that originated across the Afro-diaspora, taking shape through connections with Indigenous artists and settlers, shaping the very cultures of today’s futurisms. Music has long been a way for artists to speak to the fabric of time, history, and memory, and to evoke imaginative sounds of otherworlds.

“A person’s sense of time is deeply cultural, whether that is fully recognized or not,” say Tiffany Kuliktana Ayalik and Kayley Inuksuk Mackay of Inuit duo PIQSIQ via email, adding that “cultures across the world have different ways of perceiving and measuring time.” Combining traditional throat-singing (katajjaq) with digital looping pedals and other electronics to “imagine sonic worlds,” PIQSIQ describe themselves as “modern Inuit living in 2022 . . . a blend of styles, genres and esthetics.” The experience of PIQSIQ in performance is a haunting and ethereal multiphonic chorus, where both the artists and audience “immerse ourselves in a sense of timelessness when throat singing. We have always shared this falling away of time when we sing and often experience difficulty knowing how long a song has gone on.” This timelessness reflects a creative merger of today’s electronics with the “traditional songs as a solid foundation for our experimentation,” says PIQSIQ.

 Raised in Nunavut and growing up in Yellowknife, Tiffany and Inuksuk “didn’t have a lot of access to singers in Yellowknife, so when people would come through town or if we were introduced to other Inuit women, we would always ask them if we could throat sing with them. These moments were never just the singing. They were woven with stories, instructions and language.”

And what is the role of Indigenous futurism in so-called reconciliation? For PIQSIQ, reconciliation “is not a destination that somehow, magically, as Canadians, we all arrive at simultaneously and pat each other on the back while saying, ‘Yay, we did it, we have done it. We are here.’ Reconciliation is a process.” In short, it takes time. Noting that the “ritual” of land acknowledgements have “become almost meaningless as people walk out on a stage with a clipboard and give their address to an audience to make sure that they say all of the proper things,” they ask what is perhaps the underlying proleptic question of what is called Indigenous futurism: what next? 

“What comes after the land acknowledgement?” asks PIQSIQ. “What comes after we discover these bodies? What comes after studies and task forces and research publications? The longer we reveal the depth of our suffering to an increasingly numb and desensitized society without impactful change to repair what was done, the longer reconciliation will sit perpetually on the horizon,” say Tiffany and Inuksuk. This sense of uncertain anticipation holds both Indigenous and settler peoples together, as addressing the damage done by colonialism requires time for all relations to come to terms with what is literally being unearthed from the unmarked graves of many former residential schools.

Haunted Sounds from Lost Histories

There is something ghostly and haunting at work with Indigenous and Afro-futurism that grapples with a past all but erased—a futurism in stark contrast to the Italian Futurists of the early 20th century who sought to eradicate the weight of European history by embracing machines, war, and (at least for movement founder and poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti) fascism. It could be said that Indigenous and Afro-futurism embrace the spectres that haunt colonization, rather than shying from them through avant-garde amnesia. 

Ojibwe artist Jordan Thomas, who hails from Peguis, Manitoba and records as Exquisite Ghost, combines influences as diverse as “Hendrix to Mahavishnu . . . Coltrane and Miles straight to Dilla and Flying Lotus.” This potent brew of genres and cross-cultural influences can be heard on his 2019 album Shrines, in which, in Thomas’ words, “each track is an individuated shrine itself,” showing through musical process how “each instance of music throughout time has its own constituents, like a self awareness of its own history.” This thick sound of time is expressed in the album’s archeological layering of samples, synthesizers, and rhythms. For Thomas, whose music drifts from abstract beats to ambient and instrumental hip-hop, music is a ghostly but living entity that spans worlds and dreams. His latest creations reflect “a cinematic minimal classical vibe segmented with groovy more ethereal beat based interludes.” 

Pushing and pulling apart genres for Exquisite Ghost plays with one’s sense of time and identity, where in Jordan’s own words, “music itself as an absolute expression is not about creating something ultimately new, but about backing up and giving force and power to a story, to a series of stories of tone and drums and the lives of those who lived to share those [sounds and stories] from the past.” It is in this role as Indigenous griot, or storyteller, that Jordan sees himself: “The future as we know it is only perceived as shadows of the past, it’s an image that updates itself as we study and dream of our experiences and stories, so in that sense I’m aware of this and it is the self-certain foundation of my music and myself.”

Indigenous Space Time

The slow and spatial pacing of ambient music often evokes a glacial sense of deep time that nevertheless connects to the cosmos. Nehiyan sound artist Matthew Cardinal, who grew up in Lac La Biche, Alberta, honed his craft in Polaris-nominated “moccasingaze” band nêhiyawak, before releasing his first solo album, Asterisms, on Arts and Crafts in 2020. Cardinal, who also scores films, animations, and installations, describes his ambient compositions as a “sonic diary,” a series of improvised sound sketches made over a long period of time using “accumulative” strategies, working with analogue and modular synthesizers, guitar, electric piano, samplers, and processed voice. There was “no goal or plan going in,” says Cardinal, who after setting up his ad-hoc studio on his bedroom floor, dove into a “meditative and therapeutic” experience to record music as a “small, precious, intimate thing.” Cardinal often speaks of his work as a space in which listeners can discover their own emotional resonances, as he paints a canvas for the listener’s unconscious projections.

The “spur of the moment” approach, says Cardinal, is akin to a jazz musician—or abstract painter—and he describes it as “capturing things to discover something,” creating an “audio-journal” that dwells in many different moods and feelings—and times. Reflecting on the role of time, Cardinal says that colonial time—the capitalist time of deadlines, workdays and weekends, even the passage of years—can be “restrictive, even oppressive in some ways. It forces us to live a certain way, and to dread Mondays, week after week,” with capitalism ultimately wielding time as a “tool used to exploit people.” Through improvisation with modular synthesizers, he reveals how time “can kind of slip away . . . on and on,” by hearing the “same thing multiple times at a different time.” He half-jokingly says he “runs on Indian time,” and I can’t help but think of how his reflections enter into dialogue with African American poet and music critic Amiri Baraka, who wrote about what he called the “changing same” of time in Black music and culture.

With influences from Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine to Steve Reich and Boards of Canada, Cardinal’s work emerges in the hybridity and history of today’s Indigenous futurism. Indigenous futurism “is a thing that’s happening,” says Cardinal. It’s a movement, a culture, and an aesthetic that’s “coming out of this really dark time,” he says, where Indigenous folks are “reconnecting with our cultures, coming out of hiding, and making art. As so much was lost, people are reclaiming it, and that’s the future.”

At the same time, Cardinal points out there are “still a lot of horrible things going on,” from the disproportional incarceration of Indigenous peoples to the dispossession of Indigenous children to state foster care. For Cardinal, what reconciliation sounds like is nothing less than “decolonization,” which means “moving beyond land acknowledgements” to a time where Indigenous people “embrace their culture, being who they are without being restrained by colonialism, without any fear, just existing, living without having to meet expectations of what it means to be Indigenous.”

For Cardinal, the lived experience of Indigenous futurism means that “there is a future. I’m seeing more and more Indigenous people take what’s theirs, take up space, take up time, because they deserve it, filling time.”

Cardinal works closely with visual artist Stephanie Kuse to create audio-visual performances that immerse the listener in this sense of Indigenous space-time. Inspired by Cardinal’s nighttime flash photography, which he captures on lomographic film, Kuse set out to create “something soft, hypnotic, and pretty to suit the music that also reflected the dreamy and nostalgic nature of his photos.” Kuse, a white settler from Saskatoon, says she looks to the “extreme changes in the seasons” to create “video art consisting of digitally manipulated footage of natural textures.” Cardinal has “a knack for producing serene yet energetic sparkling soundscapes,” says Kuse, which “feels like a natural pair with the kinds of material I gravitate towards working with.” Their artistic collaboration speaks to the ways that reconciliation is taking place between settlers and Indigenous peoples by forming new relations to the land and its deep time. “With reconciliation in mind,” says Kuse, “I hope that white artists, including myself, strive to support and elevate Indigenous artists so that we may continue to witness the resurgence of Indigenous art and culture and all the incredible beauty and talent that comes along with it.”

Ceremonial Time for Feminist-Futurism

One way of envisioning Indigenous futurism might be found through a meditative watch of The Ceremony (2019), a post-apocalyptic short film by directors Taina da Silva of Grassy Narrows First Nation in Treaty 3 territory and white settler Becca Redden from Tiohti:áke (Montréal). Like Reclamation, The Ceremony was released as part of the Documentary Futurism project, curated by Montréal-based Cinema Politica, to “usher in a new kind of filmmaking that brings actuality into conversation with speculation, realism with fantasy. . . . in order to imagine, speculate and represent a ‘Canada’ of the future.” The film’s dialogue takes place entirely in the Anishinaabemowin language, which the actors learned during the shoot. 

As Redden recounts, “we wrote the script in English first, and Taina’s aunt translated it. In addition, we had Elders on set that helped adjust pronunciation and word choice. It was really, really interesting. The actors were not fluent but put a lot of work into building their skills, and really honing in to the character through language. It was really an experience for me that I wouldn’t trade for the world. There needs to be more films and media in Indigenous languages, full stop.” Perhaps such a film is more than a film; the filming itself became an act of reclamation, and not just its representation.

Speaking to the film’s strong female characters, Da Silva says that “Feminist-futurism and decolonizing film are important parts of The Ceremony, and it was especially important because of the locations and Indigenous people on the set.”

The Ceremony appears to take place in a future affected by some sort of environmental disaster, and it is one of the more powerful and challenging films from the Documentary Futurism project. It features powerful Indigenous women who have learned to adapt to the toxicity, and who through bravery, patience, and know-how overcome their fear to discover the air is once again good to breath. In the film, the use of functional props such as space suits and helmets creates a feeling of estrangement from Earthly nature, and serves as a technological metaphor for the resource extraction and industrialization wrought by settler culture, but also the innovation and survival technologies of Indigenous peoples.

“Playing around with ideas of different styles and props to use in our futurism is the most interesting part because we had to imagine what Indigenous peoples would look and talk like 150 years in the future,” says Da Silva. The film features scenes of Indigenous hunting on the land with bow and arrow, showcasing the mixture of tradition with technology that speaks to Indigenous resilience. “Indigenous futurism is something that I now understand as a positive image of decolonization, going back to the land, and taking back our old ways of being on the land,” Da Silva says. One could say that through such acts, Indigenous futurism takes place not just by telling a story about the future; rather the act of storytelling itself unfolds that future into the present.

Moreover, The Ceremony addresses very real issues from the past that haunt First Nations in the present. “Cultural loss is a big theme of this short film,” says Da Silva, “and it is an idea that comes from the mercury pollution in my community of Grassy Narrows. The people in my community are living without clean water, [while] in the film, the people are living without clean air. I also want to acknowledge the resilience of the Grassy Narrows people who spent half their entire lives with the effects of mercury poisoning. In the film, there are a lot of emotions, and this is accurate for Indigenous peoples who love their land and cultures but are unable to use them freely.”

 

PIQSIQ, Exquisite Ghost, Matthew Cardinal and Stephanie Kuse are performing live at the Squamish Lil’Wat Cultural Centre on March 26, with limited tickets available at wonderment.ca. Screenings of Indigenous and Afro-futurist films The Ceremony, Reclamation, Camfranglais and LOST ALIEN can be viewed at the SLCC on March 26 with free admission. More info on the films can be found at documentaryfuturism.ca.