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Issue 005 Winter 2023 Essays

Prophecies and Their Portals

A wave of Indigenous-made sci-fi films are throwing curve balls into the space-time continuum.

By Lou Cornum

From The Cave (2009), dir. Helen Haig-Brown. Courtesy of Rugged Media.

Where do we go when we dream?
If there is a dream self who resembles our waking one,
there is also a dream world: familiar and alien.

As part of a 2021 convening and conversation “An Invitation for Black and Indigenous Artists to Dream,” Kite, the Oglala Lakota artist of many media, offered the following: “Just as our languages are linguistic technology, our dreams help us create vortexes to communicate with the other side.”

Where Kite speaks of vortexes, I think of portals. Perhaps it is a Navajo thing. I was not raised in a traditional Navajo household. I have studied the language in classrooms but never learned it well enough to hold a conversation at the Gallup flea market. But I do know a bit about our creation story. I have heard it told by other Navajos and always as story, told slightly differently depending on the speaker. I’ve even heard it told in the form of a science fiction film about growing corn on Mars. If I were to tell the story, I might narrate it as a journey through a series of portals between worlds, beginning with the first, a world of darkness, and ascending to the current upper fifth world.

I’ve heard some suggest that the creation story is in part a telling of the Diné’s migratory history. We did not always live in what is now but was not always called the Four Corners region of the Southwest. Those four corners are formed at the intersection of four states whose coming to the region is much more recent than our own and much more destructive. Our journey began far, far north. We know this not only because of the traces in our songs and stories, but also because of the language they are transmitted in. Diné Bizaad, the Navajo language, is part of the larger Athabaskan language family. Besides Apache, all of the other Athabascan languages are spoken by peoples very far away, up in Alaska and the Northwest Territories of Canada. This is all preface for establishing a tenuous connection to the Tŝilhqot’in, a First Nations people whose territory is in the interior of British Columbia and whose language is also Athabaskan. I first encountered this nation’s history and language in Helen Haig-Brown’s ʔEʔanx (The Cave), which the director described as a science fiction film and the first, and only, in the Tŝilhqot’in language.

From The Cave (2009), dir. Helen Haig-Brown, courtesy of Rugged Media.

The 11-minute short is based on an old story, one told by Sam Bulyan and passed on by Henry Solomon, who the opening credits tell us has himself since passed. Like many stories, it begins with the time-marking words “Long time ago.” The narrator situates the tale in a place called Gwetsilh. It is with the pronunciation of that name that I first heard resonances with the Navajo language. The sound at the end of Gwetsilh, an area in the northern reach of Tŝilhqot’in territory, is made by placing one’s tongue as if to sound an “L” but instead of the typical flick down and back, air is pushed forth out the two ducts created by the tongue’s interruption against the teeth. This sound reverberates for me across great distances in space and time. It does not collapse the difference in landscape and history from when my ancestors parted ways from their northern relatives, but it brings the history of that distance into relief.

ʔEʔanx was released in 2009, at the beginning of a wave of Indigenous science fiction, also heralded under the banner of Indigenous Futurism. As such, the film shows just how different the future of Indigenous Futurism is from typical associations of the yet-to-come. The film begins in a register some might associate more with the Western genre. The vista is sweeping with its big sky and wide open land. There is a man, jaunty kerchief around his neck, in a cowboy hat and spurs, riding his horse, resplendent in its own dark leather, to the edge of a field. As we take in these initial views, there is guitar music, plucked and strummed in a honky-tonk manner. Unlike in most American westerns, this man is not white. He is, the narrator tells us, a bear hunter going out to find food for his people.

While the film begins with the suggestion of a faraway past, that temporality is almost immediately thrown into question. The figure of the bear hunter is decidedly vintage but recognizable as from the recent past. Any associations with mythic times beyond our apprehension are supplanted by a subsequent title card that reads “1961,” or just 50 years prior to the time of the film’s release. Is this meant then as a repetition? Are we in a time loop or a recurring vision, a story that finds a new past for each of its present tellings? This is only the first curve in space-time the film traverses.

In his cowboy wear, the hunter rides toward the spot where a bear has entered the tree line. The camera lingers on some crushed flowers then a batted-down hive: we are seeing, as the hunter does, the traces of his prey. He comes to a small rocky cave, ties up his horse, and with a gentle farewell enters the cave with a pitch-coated stick to use as a torch. It is not a feast he finds but a whole other realm. Climbing out into a riverside clearing, he breathes in air that has a golden quality. There are pricks of light in the breeze. But the hunter, squinting under this new sky, does not at first realize how different this place is. He squats by a river to splash his face, not unlike a man trying to shake himself from slumber. He sees a woman nearby but obscured by reeds and yells out to her in English (the only English spoken in the film). She turns to him and he realizes she and the others gathering on the banks are mostly naked. And there is something about their breathing. They push air out of their O-shaped mouths with a force different than his, or ours. Their skin is bronze and glowing with that same quality of the air. It is the force of this differently articulated breath that pushes the bear hunter back to where he crawled from. He is not welcome here. And when he returns to his side of the portal, his loyal horse has been reduced to skeletal remains. Time has been lost. And the viewer is left to wonder, as the end credits roll, what world he will return to.

From The Cave (2009), dir. Helen Haig-Brown, courtesy of Rugged Media.

In the dream-like space he emerges into on the other end of the cave, when one of the bare-chested strange breathers tells him, “You are not ready for this place yet,” this utterance has the quality of prophecy. The weight of that one word “yet” is its own force field of possibility even as the “not” is what appears to propel a counterforce: the visual vibrations that push him back and down to his own world, albeit one now in a different future.

There is a whole crop of sci-fi films interested in, or perhaps more accurately anxious about, dreams and their power. The classic example is Lathe of Heaven, a 1971 novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, who also consulted on the film adaptation in 1980. It tells the story of a man whose dreams literally come true, restructuring time-space as he sleeps, and the devious psychiatrist who harnesses and manipulates his patient’s power for his own ends. Dreams are similarly devices for subterfuge in the 2006 anime film Paprika and, of course, the 2010 special-effects spectacular Inception. Though there is a light air of unease and manipulation of space-time, I would place ʔEʔanx not as a work of dreamy science fiction but rather as prophecy futurism. Like dreams, prophecies can be recurring, as we know the story of the cave has been. And, like dreams, they can change reality upon their revelation. Prophecies are not mere predictions. Like the best of science fiction, they are diagnoses of the present and an inspired vision of its undoing.

In 2014, five years after the release of ʔEʔanx, the Tŝilhqot’in Nation won a landmark case in the Canadian Supreme Court establishing “aboriginal title” to their territories in current-day British Columbia. This drawn-out legal battle—as most that deal with Indigenous land claims are both protracted and hard won—came down to the Tŝilhqot’in Nation’s ability to prove certain qualifying factors: first, that the land must have been occupied prior to sovereignty; second, that if present occupation is relied upon as proof of occupation pre-sovereignty, there must be a continuity between present and pre-sovereignty occupation; and lastly, at the establishment of sovereignty, that occupation must have been exclusive. These requirements are formed from a notion of property obsessed with exclusive ownership and static, immutable inhabitance-as-settlement. The stress is on temporal continuity linked to cultural continuity, a continuity not only disrupted by the colonial encounter but one that is also questionably articulated by the Canadian government as a homogenous straight arrow from past to present. Yet even in these constraints of legally legible narratives of valid occupation and ownership, the Tŝilhqot’in now have more ground and precedent on which to embody alternate conceptions of life making and land use. The court decision does not reverse or radically transform the edifice of Canada and its illegitimate claims to adjudicate. But the decision does provide an opening. The world may not be ready for what is on the other side, a space of communal place making without the inherited shames and alienation of life under a colonial government, but it is there. The prophecy inside the cave is the encounter with what was and what could be.

I think of science fiction itself as the modality for finding openings to the otherwise. It is a genre of portals and world building. Just as the cave is a portal for the bear hunter, the black screen becomes one for the viewer. Working in the time-based medium of film, Haig-Brown takes us forward, backward, and sideways simultaneously. I began my reflections on the film thinking of language. It seems a fitting frame for Haig-Brown’s work. Her debut feature film, Edge of the Knife (2018), features the Haida language, currently spoken primarily by about two dozen people in their 70s and older while revitalization efforts are under way—the film itself is a part of this—to spread and teach Haida to more community members. Film allows the language not only to be spoken but also to participate in the work of creation. These too feel like prophetic tendencies, that the film will generate the audience for its own reception, if not now, on the other side of a world waiting to be found, waiting for us to be ready for it. When the portal presents itself, will we crawl through the darkness to emerge?