Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Indigenous Scientific Literacies in Nalo Hopkinson's Ceremonial Worlds

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Indigenous Scientific Literacies in Nalo Hopkinson's Ceremonial Worlds

Article excerpt

IN ARCHEOLOGIES OF THE FUTURE, FREDERIC JAMESON BRIDGES THE SCHISM between science fiction and fantasy by recalling Claude Levi-Strauss's discussion of "thinking Indians," specifically the Algonquin/Ojibwa, whose metaphorical totemic narratives display the allegorical mind necessary to navigate the imagined divide (61). Similarly, in the definitive book on Canadian sf and fantasy, David Ketterer points to native myth-making and Indian and Inuit peoples' folktales and legends as a major source of Canadian speculative literature, whose allegorical "consequential other worlds" emphasize spatial and temporal "otherness" reinforced by "the human other" and concentrate not only on alienation but also on the "recognition of constraints and respect for the powers of Evolution, History, and Nature" (166-167). Brian Attebery reconstructs aboriginality in sf as the indigenous Other becoming a part of the textual unconscious "always present but silenced and often transmuted into symbolic form" (387). He sees sf as a contact zone that "links [Aboriginal] traditional oral literatures with a high-tech or post-tech future" (402).

Whether or not we will remain satisfied with these categories, fantasy, sf, and speculative fiction often rely on so-called "cautionary tales" to depict dystopic worlds where the slavish embracing of advancing western technologies leads to environmental decay. And, increasingly, tellers of cautionary tales are juxtaposing the technologically compromised natural order with native and indigenous worldviews, as Attebery, Ketterer, and Jameson observe. Further refining distinctions, we sometimes include this emerging movement within the larger category of "postcolonial sf" because it reintroduces "indigenous" elements that fifteenth- through twenty-first-century colonization has marginalized.

Drawing on First Nation Ojibwa/Anishinaabe tradition invoked by Jameson, we might go further and characterize postcolonial sf's cautionary tales as "ceremonial worlds." Environmental philosopher Jim Cheney defines ceremonial worlds as "worlds or stories within which we live, the worlds--myths if you like--that have the power to orient us in life" ("Truth, Knowledge" 110). Cheney implicitly points to the primacy of storytelling in the transfer of indigenous knowledge, where story functions as ceremony to preserve tradition--specifically, proper custom and practice. Examples are manifold throughout Native American experience, but in maintaining focus on the Ojibwa/Anishinaabe, one might consider the compilations archived by Basil Johnston (Ojibway Ceremonies; Ojibway Heritage). Ojibwa stories tend to exercise an allegorical spirit while explaining the origins and usage of natural resources, such as the tale of "Mandamin" (corn). Many stories detail the habits of animals, who are considered to have spirits and equal "personhood" status with humans. The tale of the little girl and grandmother picking blueberries illustrates the use of story to pass down knowledge of medicine while also emphasizing the relationship among generations, as the older serves to instruct the younger. A little girl watches as a snake pursues a frog until the frog takes refuge in a grove of poison ivy; fittingly, though, she had not noticed the drama unfolding on her own but was directed to take notice of it by her grandmother:

Once out of the poison ivy the little frog fairly flew over the ground bounding without pause until he came to another grove of plants. Within that grove of jewel weed, the little frog twisted and turned and writhed washing every part of himself.... From the conduct of the little frog the Anishnabeg learned the cure for poison ivy. (Ojibway Heritage 42)

Like these orally transmitted ceremonial worlds, Nalo Hopkinson's Midnight Robber (2000), the preceding Brown Girl in the Ring (1998), and the later The Salt Roads (2004) and The New Moon's Arms (2007), blend history and myth in a manner that heightens the natural extrapolative qualities of sf while offering complex plotlines that at first may resemble dystopic soothsaying, but that inevitably unfold junctures of hope. …

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