Indigenous Futurism?

National Geographic Explorer Keolu Fox says the key to harnessing the technology of tomorrow is centering traditions of the past.

With his sculptural work “green star quilt,” visual artist Wally Dion (Canadian and Yellow Quill First Nation/Saulteaux) used recycled computer circuit boards, brass wire, and copper tubing to explore the evolution of Indigenous expression. Inspired by the star quilts from Lakota, Ojibwe, Crow, and other Northern Plains tribal communities, Dion’s work also illuminates the extraction and waste required to maintain our reliance on technology.
Photograph by KT Kanazawichenshot

Water and wealth are constructed from the same word in Hawaiian. These terms—wai and waiwai, respectively—are an indelible part of who I am, and who Native Hawaiians are. They’re reminders that we’ve always valued the abundant natural beauty and life-giving resources of our homelands. There is perhaps no better example of this than ahupua‘a land divisions, a socio-economic and geological system that Hawaiian communities designed more than a thousand years ago to apportion the islands into seasonally responsive slices that ran from the mountains to the sea. These land divisions fed snowmelt along irrigation routes to terraced taro patches. They provided valuable bacteria and phytonutrients to fishponds. Those fish then populated the inner reefs and, once mature, the Pacific Ocean. The system itself was highly organized and politically complex. It supported a huge labor force and provided a sustainable supply of food for the entire population.

Across the world, Indigenous communities have long been incubators of sustainable systems. Pueblo and other Native architects developed ingenious multistory housing uniquely crafted for the deserts of North America. Aboriginal communities in Australia perfected the ecologically enriching land management practice known as cultural burning. These systems, like our land divisions, reflect a union of the local culture and environment, one that keeps the needs of a community and the planet in balance.

As we all strive to imagine the future, the inevitability of extractive capitalism should not be assumed. Rather, it’s important to think deeply about how to build an alternative reality—one where Indigenous perspectives on relationships to land, sea, sky, and cosmos are the guiding force. We should all ask, What would our planet look like in Indigenous hands?

Charting an Indigenous future will require a shift in our consciousness. We can optimize landscapes for exponential growth, profit, and, eventually, failure, or we can optimize for harmony and balance. To quote an ancient Hawaiian chief, “He ali‘i ka ‘āina, the land is a chief; he kauwā ke kanaka, humans are its servants.”

Rather than focus on short-term gains, we must prioritize future generations.

Produced in 2019, Dion’s “caterpillar, egg, cocoon, moth” employs circuit boards to underscore the significant amounts of energy and nutrients that caterpillars require to make their transformations into moths.
Photograph by KT Kanazawich

I once stumbled upon an elder balancing the books of a casino in the Pacific Northwest. I was surprised to find that this gentleman was not using a model based on quarterly, or even annual, returns; his spreadsheet’s financial plan extended 10 generations into the future.

Over the past several decades, Indigenous communities have seen various economic drivers come and go, from natural resource extraction—oil, gas, and coal—to gaming and casinos. It’s clear that data is next. Is there a more valuable resource today on the planet?

To be in control of their assets, Indigenous peoples should build their own data centers—but in such a way that they would be not only sovereign but also sustainable, in harmony and balance with nature. Rather than follow the example of titan chipmaker TSMC, which chose the sweltering expanses of Phoenix for two planned factories, we could situate these critical infrastructures in cool climates abundant in natural water resources and reduce the energy consumption needed to keep them from overheating. Companies and countries too should think beyond tax incentives and weak labor markets when deciding where data centers should be built. Indigenous communities might offer their own examples for the design and implementation of these centers, powered by renewable energy sources that respect the Earth’s rhythms and acknowledge that resources aren’t just resources—they’re ancestors.

To realize a world that revolves around these shared values, all of us must think further into the future.

Imagine Indigenous scientists using the tools of synthetic biology to heal the Earth by genome-editing bacteria to metabolize plastic in the ocean into biofuel. Gaping holes left festering from the violent pursuit of critical minerals, such as lithium, cobalt, and tantalum, are remediated and transformed into pristine freshwater aquifers—poison sucked out like a snakebite. Imagine storing data in the genomes of indigenous photosynthesizing plants, an idea that already is more science than fiction: In 2017 researchers announced that they had used the gene-editing system Crispr to encode a digital movie into the DNA of a population of E. coli bacteria. Imagine the roots of these carbon-negative “data centers” simultaneously encouraging biodiversity, treating soil that has been polluted for centuries, and providing fruits and vegetables for local farmers to sell.

Rather than cities all converging on the same look of Ikea-brochure apartments and placeless, copy-and-paste office towers, our built environment might reflect local innovation, heritage, and culture. Imagine that homes are once again living ancestors: Ancient, local soil is repurposed into bio-concrete infused with genome-editing bacteria that seal cracks by calcifying into new limestone. Imagine building materials with photosynthetic properties that draw energy from the sun, or bioluminescence that might dim our harsh, urban glare and restore the view of the night sky our people once knew. Imagine 3D-printing urban structures into ancient shapes, like the tangled, twisting, living bridges that the Khasi and Jaintia people in India wove from the roots of trees.

One vision of Indigenous futurism is alternative history. A time line where Captain Cook never makes it to Hawai‘i, Cortés never arrives at Tenochtitlan in search of gold, and the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María are still trees planted in the earth. Where would Indigenous peoples be? What would they have become? But there’s another time line we should consider—one that doesn’t require us to change the past, just the future: Land and ancestors returned. Cities and rural landscapes where technology and nature coexist. Community networks thriving on decentralized digital platforms that empower local decision-making and facilitate a barter-based economy rooted in shared resources and knowledge. Matriarchy restored. Education systems that immerse students in Indigenous histories and cultures, fostering a global citizenship that respects and celebrates both the ancient and the futuristic.

Charting this Indigenous future—shifting our consciousness—will mean adopting a shared vision where the wisdom of the past guides us for generations to come. One where technology serves humanity’s deepest values and aspirations. Where the guardianship of the Earth and the equitable distribution of its resources define progress.

A UC San Diego professor and co-founder of the Native BioData Consortium, Keolu Fox is the first Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) to receive a doctorate in genome sciences. He has been an Explorer since 2017.

This story appears in the July 2024 special issue on “Indigenous Futures” of National Geographic magazine.


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