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Native American histories show rebuilding is possible — and necessary — after catastrophe

What the Medicine Wheel, an indigenous American model of time, shows about apocalypse.

Part of Against Doomerism from The Highlight, Vox’s home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

In the dead of winter of late 2020 in the city of Shikaakwa, on the frozen shores of Ininwewi-gichigami, there is no pandemic. The high-rise buildings downtown are vertical forests, with balconies and rooftops designed as an outgrowth of nature. The Anishinaabe people bustle through a city of their own design. They watch the championship game of baagaadowewin in sports bars on high-definition flat-screens. They speak Anishinaabemowin into their smartphones on crowded public transportation, drink coffee, debate politics, argue with their families, and gather around communal fires in the middle of the downtown area.

Shikaakwa doesn’t exist. I made it up. It’s the setting of my first novel, The Peacekeeper, an alternate history in which the Americas were never colonized. Shikaakwa is in the place of the city now most often called Chicago. Ininwewi-gichigami now appears on maps as Lake Michigan. Anishinaabe is what my people, the Ojibwe/Chippewa, and my tribe, the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, call ourselves. The Anishinaabemowin language, also known as Ojibwe, was suppressed and, in many cases, illegal to speak until the 1970s. The sport of baagaadowewin was eventually appropriated into lacrosse.

Shikaakwa as I imagined it could never exist — I created it from my 21st-century perspective, which is inescapably shaped by the trajectory the world actually took. Native societies experienced centuries of forced removal and genocide, and much of what we once had is lost and can’t be re-created.

Lately, the news has felt particularly doomy, dominated by fears of a looming apocalypse due to climate change or nuclear war or artificial intelligence. This is understandable — any of these existential threats could irrevocably change the world, and what would lie beyond is unknowable. Native people know a thing or two about that; the world as we knew it ended long ago, and it continued to end again and again and again. Yet we also know that there’s a future even after the apocalypse has come and gone. Rather than conceptualizing time as a linear march toward calamity (or, for optimists, toward the dream of utopia), it can be viewed as a wheel that we cycle through repeatedly, from creation to destruction to recreation.

The Indigenous experience embodies this cycle, providing evidence of a future after disaster. We’re still here, after all, even if the context we live in would be just as unimaginable to our pre-colonial ancestors as a city on the present-day Great Lakes truly untouched by colonial history is to me.

The world we know today will eventually be destroyed, too, whether by our changing climate or some other world-altering force we can’t predict or imagine. But the problem with the doomerist streak that’s taken hold of so much of our zeitgeist is that it just stops there, creating a moral hazard that lets us stop imagining the future. Something new will always be rebuilt on top of what’s destroyed, and we can never abandon our obligation to keep creating it.

The medicine wheel, an Anishinaabe model of time

There’s a stereotype that Native people are stoic and steeped in wisdom. I am no authority and certainly no expert, and I don’t purport to have any wisdom to share. I’m an urban Anishinaabekwe from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula who’s lived most of her life in California. I cannot speak for every Anishinaabe person, let alone every Native person. Our experiences and perspectives are as varied as any other group of people.

In Anishinaabe tradition, as well as in many other Native cultures, the medicine wheel represents the ever-churning cycle of life. Broken into four equal segments of yellow, black, red, and white, it starts on the right-hand side, reflecting the east as the source of the rising sun and beginning of all things. The four segments represent, among other things, the four directions, the four seasons, the four sacred medicines (tobacco, cedar, sage, and sweetgrass), and the four stages of life (birth, youth, adulthood, and elder).

The medicine wheel can also represent the repeating cycle of creation, destruction, and re-creation that has defined all of human history but has particular resonance for Indigenous communities. This cycle is reflected in the Anishinaabe creation story: The world was created by Kiche Manitou (the Great Spirit), then destroyed in a great flood, and then re-created by the Sky Woman, who fell from the sky while pregnant, clutching a handful of seeds. Seeking refuge on the back of a turtle, she created Turtle Island, the Earth anew.

Our histories have been one never-ending turn of this wheel: We create, they destroy, and we create something new out of the ashes of what was left behind, saving what we can, and creating new things from the memories of the old. What’s re-created isn’t necessarily superior or inferior to what was destroyed. It is simply different.

In hindsight, the Americas’ pre-colonial past can be imagined as a generative period of creation. For centuries, we were a continent of self-governing tribes that responsibly managed and lived in concert with the land. We built cities, trade networks that stretched from the Arctic to the Andes, and a system of governance so sophisticated that it eventually influenced American democracy. There was no reason to believe we wouldn’t live this way forever.

Anishinaabe tradition teaches that when you create something, you’re not just creating for the moment — you’re creating for the future as well. We learn to make decisions from a seventh-generation perspective, which you may recognize as a green marketing slogan, but, like so many aspects of American culture, it was our idea first. It’s taught a couple of ways: One is to consider how each decision you make will impact others and the Earth seven generations in the future. We’re also taught to consider the impact of decisions in the context of the three generations that came before you, your own generation, and the three generations ahead of you: Will it honor your past and lay the foundation for a good future?

In either case, you are taught to look beyond the horizon of what you can see and consider the kind of world your decisions will create. But we also recognize that the present is like smoke: visible and real, but ephemeral and impossible to hold on to. What we create lingers until either something replaces it or it is destroyed.

Colonialism brought destruction, but also re-creation, to Indigenous America

It’s easy to feel as though the world is in a unique period of destruction. Housing, health care, and education are increasingly unaffordable; hard-won civil rights are being stripped away; democracy is under threat each day by a major American political party; climate change will have devastating global impacts, however much we do now to mitigate it.

These things aren’t exactly comparable to Indigenous history, but they do share a feeling of senseless and irrecoverable loss. Over the centuries, my people have been the victims of a coordinated effort to destroy us culturally, ethnically, and biologically. The dispossession of Indigenous people did not end with the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890, though that’s usually when US schools stop teaching Native history because it is generally regarded as the end of the Native armed resistance against the American government. In the early 20th century, two of my great-grandmother’s cousins were sent to an Indian boarding school, where they were forcibly sterilized. In 1953, less than a decade after my Anishinaabe grandfather and his brother fought in World War II, the US government began a formal program of tribal termination, with the goal of eliminating Native nations’ independence and requiring Natives on reservations to move to urban areas and assimilate into American life and culture. This practice continued until well into the Vietnam War era and did not officially end until it was repealed by Congress in 1988.

The United States has tried to breed us out of existence through blood quantum laws, which classify people as Native only if a certain percentage of their ancestors were “full-blood” Native Americans, whatever that means. If you fell below the required threshold, you were no longer legally Native. After a few generations of intermarriage, that’s pretty easy to do.

The blood quantum system still exists, both officially and informally. If you want to get a tuition waiver as a tribe member in Michigan, you must be at least one-quarter Native. I don’t look the way most people expect an Anishinaabekwe to look; whatever you’re picturing, I’m probably not it. When I share my affiliation and heritage, the first question I am often asked is what percentage I am. As the old saying goes, only dogs, horses, and Indians are classified this way.

Indigenous sovereignty continues to be attacked and contested, like just last year, when the US Supreme Court partially walked back a ruling that held that most of Oklahoma was Indian land. It will be like this as long as our persistence as independent nations is seen as in conflict with the United States. Rates of violence against Indigenous women are appallingly high and under-covered compared to white victims. The name of the sports teams at my mother’s high school in Marquette, Michigan, is still the Redmen, despite decades of debate and requests for change.

You could say, and many people do, that the past five centuries have constituted one long period of destruction. It absolutely has been. Entire nations, cultures, and languages have been lost, and so much has been lost even among those of us whose traditions and cultures survived. At the same time, you might also see it as part of a cycle of destruction and re-creation, of Native people re-creating and facing the destruction of what we’d rebuilt, only to rebuild it again and again and again. The US government did everything it could to destroy us, yet we are still here.

More than 100 years ago, pursuant to the Dawes Act, which converted the Native American system of communal land ownership into a private property system, the US government came to the Anishinaabeg across Michigan, including to my family in the Upper Peninsula. They offered a deal: My family could stay on the land that had been theirs for at least the past 5,000 years, but they had to stop communal farming and parcel out the land in individual 160-acre allotments for each nuclear family. If they wanted to stay, they would have to forget who they were and start living like white people. After each family got their 160 acres, the remaining land was taken by the government and made available for purchase by white settlers. While it had been US policy since the time of George Washington to “assimilate” and “civilize” Native peoples by forcing them to give up collective life and farming, this attempted to enforce it once and for all.

My family took the deal. Because of that difficult choice, my great-great-grandparents, great-grandparents, grandparents, father, aunts, uncles, cousins, and their children lived on and continue to live on the land. Their allotments have been bought, sold, and traded over the last century, and our ideas of culture, identity, and self have been both destroyed and rebuilt over that same period. Yet we are still fishing the same lakes and streams, still hunting in the same woods, still sitting around fires telling stories long into the night. You can even hear Anishinaabemowin spoken, though it’s often learned far later in life. My father didn’t learn to speak it until he was in his 60s.

White people bought the land that remained after it was parceled out, farmed it, paved over it, built landfills and factories and power plants, and hollowed out what was inside with pipelines and mines, belching smog and carbon and CFCs into the sky. The same thing was done to the Odawaa, the Haudenosaunee, the Neshnabé, the Hocągara, the Diné, the Myaamia, the Mamaceqtaw, the Maskoutench, the Meshkwahkihaki, the Othâkîwa, the Giiwigaabaw, the Shawanwaki, the Wyandot, the Lakota, and the more than 500 other nations living on land now under US jurisdiction.

This has happened on a wide scale — Native perseverance and reinvention alongside ongoing colonialism that threatens to swallow up what we have left. Native Americans have integrated into settler colonial society, too. We obtain college degrees, work in offices and hospitals and government and retail shops, fly in airplanes, drive cars, write novels, direct movies and television, talk on cellphones, paint portraits and landscapes, compete in the Olympics, and walk in space. I’m a lawyer and a published author, and I’m also Native. As a percentage of both professions, the share of Native Americans rounds to zero. This means that, statistically speaking, I don’t exist, yet obviously I do.

Perhaps it’s colonial society’s drive to destroy and replace that makes it inclined to see today’s global challenges as apocalyptic. For us, though, extinction was never an option. Because Native people maintained and continue to fight for self-determination, we still have a future.

Indigenous futurism re-creates a Native-centered world

I’m often asked how, in the world of The Peacekeeper, colonization was avoided; it’s never directly addressed in the book. To my mind, so many things had to go wrong for it to happen that any number of small differences in the course of history could have led to vastly different outcomes, and therefore any and all theories can be true. Thinking through these contingencies is important, but I find it more valuable to see the alternatives that could’ve existed. Colonialism wasn’t inevitable. The horrors of the past 500 years did not have to happen. The potential calamities of the next 500 years can likewise be avoided.

Indigenous futurism is a movement in art and literature, particularly through speculative and science fiction, that explores the present and future through an Indigenous-centered lens. This is what I aimed to do in creating Shikaakwa, considering what Indigenous communities might look like today if the historical fact of colonialism had gone differently, the benefits and limits of a Native restorative justice system, and how our relationship to the earth would drive urban development.

Some Indigenous futurist literature explicitly responds to the idea of apocalypse, and of Indigenous people having lived through one. I wanted to write a story in which the apocalypse was more or less inconceivable, where Indigenous people engage with one another and with their own value systems rather than with colonial invaders. Creating the world in The Peacekeeper was an act of re-creation like in the medicine wheel; it imagines a world radically unlike our own; at the same time, it’s a re-creation of what still might be.

Earth is a resilient planet that knows how to re-create out of destruction. Over 4 billion years ago, it collided with the planet Theia and created the moon. Volcanic eruptions eventually yield flower-covered meadows. We humans are a clever species; we eventually walked on that same moon born of destruction. One day we, with all of our conflicts here on earth, will be gone, too.

Viewing the universe through cycles of creation, destruction, and re-creation gives a wider, more expansive sense of time in which an individual life is a tiny part of a greater whole. Even human existence is just one blip in this greater scheme. Rather than viewing this as something tragic, there is some comfort in being able to see our impermanence and insignificance in the history of the world.

There’s no way of knowing where we are on the turn of the wheel; it’s too big for us to see at any given moment. But it will turn again — and we have the power, and the obligation, to give the best options to humanity and to all creation.

B.L. Blanchard is an author, lawyer, and enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. Her debut novel, The Peacekeeper, was named a 2023 Michigan Notable Book.

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