Astro-Colonialism: Conversation with Willi Lempert

In this episode, Dr. Willi Lempert discusses anthropology of outer space, focusing on historical and ongoing forms of colonialism on and off of Earth, as well as indigenous futurisms and alternative imaginations of outer space.


Atalay, Sonya, William Lempert, David Delgado Shorter, and Kim TallBear. 2021. “Indigenous Studies Working Group Statement.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 45, no. 1: 9–18.

Dillon, Grace L., ed. 2012. Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.

Gaiman, Neil. 2008. The Graveyard Book. New York: HarperCollins.

Lempert, William. 2023. “Phrenology in Space: Legacies of Scientific Racism in Classifying Extraterrestrial Intelligence.” In Reclaiming Space: Progressive and Multicultural Visions of Space Exploration, edited by James S.J. Schwartz, Linda Billings, and Erika Nesvold, 71–88. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lempert, William. 2021. “From Interstellar Imperialism to Celestial Wayfinding: Prime Directives and Colonial Time-Knots in SETI.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 45, no. 1: 45–70.

Lempert, William. 2018. “Planeterra Nullius: Science Fiction Writing and the Ethnographic Imagination.” Theorizing the Contemporary, Fieldsights, December 18.

Messeri, Lisa. 2016. Placing Outer Space: An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. 1993. Moving the Center: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms. Oxford: James Currey.

Schwartz, James S.J., Linda Billings, and Erika Nesvold, eds. 2023. Reclaiming Space: Progressive and Multicultural Visions of Space Exploration. New York: Oxford University Press.

Smiles, Deondre. 2020. “The Settler Logics of (Outer) Space.” Essay, Society and Space, October 26.

Film References

Jackson, Lisa, director. 2009. “The Visit.” National Film Board of Canada. 3 minutes.

Becker, Nanobah, director. 2012. “The 6th World.” ITVS FUTURESTATES. 15 minutes.


[00:00 Intro Music]

Hae-Seo Kim (HK) [00:01]: Hi, welcome to Anthropod. My name is Hae-Seo, and I’m a Contributing Editor with AnthroPod and with the Society for Cultural Anthropology. Today I’m excited to be here with Dr. Willi Lempert to talk about outer space, colonialism, SETI [non-profit research organization seeking to understand the origins and prevalence of life and intelligence in the world], Star Trek, and Indigenous futurisms. Dr. Lempert is an assistant professor in the department of anthropology at Bowdoin College. Dr. Lempert’s work spans critical studies of Indigenous film, media, and science fiction. So welcome, Dr. Lempert, thank you for joining us today.

Dr. William Lempert (WL) [00:33]: Thank you for having me. I’m really excited to chat with you today.

HK [00:37]: Thank you. I’d love to start with a basic background question, Dr. Lempert. How did you come to be interested in the anthropology of outer space?

WL [00:45]: Absolutely. So maybe I can give a relatively brief overview which connects to how I came into this in a sort of unconventional way through work around Indigenous futurisms. Because for me, I never planned to do anthropology of outer space or engage in these topics. It was a sort of organic process that led me here. My own work on outer space began when I read Grace Dillon's wonderful 2012 book, Walking the Clouds, on Indigenous science fiction. And here she develops Indigenous futurisms, explicitly plural, in imaginative and grounded ways. And her scholarship was really foundational in me thinking about the emerging short science fiction films that were coming out at the time. And the way in which they were imagining Indigenous futures and in a diversity of very interesting, assertive, sovereign ways that often engaged outer space and aliens in ways that kind of subverted the mainstream science fiction genres.

HK [01:56]: Thank you. You're a special guest because you were on the AnthroPod team and worked on the Outer Space trilogy podcast. Could you tell us a bit about how you came up with the idea for the podcast trilogy, and how it impacted your academic trajectory?

WL [02:10]: So as mentioned, I love AnthroPod as a listener and now chatting with you, but also I joined the editorial contributor team for CulAnth [website for the Society for Cultural Anthropology] many years ago, and I was a producer for podcasts working with a lot of great folks. And I ended up, as you mentioned, making a trilogy of outer space podcast with David Valentine, Deborah Battaglia, and Valerie Olson. And I remember because I was recording them from Australia in the middle of the night and just based on time zones. So I have a real fond memory of that process. And I somehow got connected with David Valentine, and I was thinking about his work at the intersection of Indigenous science fiction short films. It seemed to me that there was such a rich connection between people like David Valentine who were really developing this outer space anthropology world and what Indigenous futurist scholars and filmmakers had to offer. And a lot of it bloomed out of that.

HK [03:23]: Since you mention Indigenous futurisms as a main inspiration for your work, how, do you think, is the colonialism in outer space similar to, or different from, historical and ongoing forms of colonialism?

WL [03:39]: What I think would be useful is to explain how I got to these sorts of answers because I think that's important. So several years ago, I participated in a working group for SETI around Indigenous studies, where we were asked to write a working paper for SETI on what they might be missing in their approach and framework, in addition to several other working groups and a variety of scholars and a conference. And so I worked with Kim Talbert, David Shorter, and Sonya Atalay on this. And, out of this experience, that's where I started writing on historical analogs about recontextualizing past, present, and future outer space popular imaginaries. And this sort of, again, like many things, one thing led to another. This led to a panel and that led to a special issue in settler science in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal, or AICRJ. In one of these articles that I wrote, “From Interstellar Imperialism to Celestial Wayfinding, Prime Directives and Colonial Time Knots in SETI,” here's where I started thinking deeply about this exact question: the way in which space projects represent unbroken continuations of the logic and processes around resource and settler colonialism, as well as perhaps alternative ways in which outer spaces and beings might be imagined. Discussing Polynesian wayfinding as one framework for frontier exploration and navigation that is highly technological and exploratory. Yet it does not rely on the logic and practices of imperialism.

[05:12] To your question, I wasn't sure how deep of a parallel to make about historical, current, and perhaps future colonization in outer space. So the way that I tried to get into this is I went into the history of James Cook's 1768 Endeavor voyage, where he was going to measure the transit of Venus, and tried to contrast what similarities or not are there between the current SETI and other sort of outer space project approaches. And while they're separated by vast time and space, both are united by their appeal to a celestial frontier science in the service of all humanity, ostensibly. But what I came to think about was the way that they both contain discrepancies between their ethical approaches and probable outcomes. In the case of SETI, the outcomes of how it wouldn't just stop with listening.

[06:09] And so I tried to think through this idea drawing on Dipesh Chakrabarty’s time knot concept, as well as the prime directive from Star Trek as this sort of idea that's in the zeitgeist, and firsthand knowledge working with them. The time knot was what I thought was a really productive way for thinking about these two ages of discovery, historical and space, as not simply analogous but part of a continuous lineage of imperial conquest. Throughout the process of this and other projects, I found that the historical and ongoing in outer space, colonial projects are a lot more interlinked than I even imagined going in, not just in their sort of language, but also in their minutiae and details. I go back to the Royal Society who sent James Cook to Tahiti to measure the transit of Venus, but the crown had given him an envelope to literally open after he measured the transit of Venus. And that's a whole story where they were relatively successful, and they found the solar distance. But he opens this envelope and finds that the, and there's a lot more to it, but basically he's meant to try to find this supercontinent that they imagine is there and work towards the aims of colonization for the crown. I started thinking through this idea of the prime directive, which in Star Trek, it's imagined as this thing that kind of is violated all the time for anyone who loves Star Trek, but it's sort of morally purifies their frontier voyages. And so when I looked at the sort of prime directives involved in Cook and other voyages, I mean they had very similar directives.

[07:58] The Royal Society was incredibly clear that it could not be colonial in any way. And some of the similar things in Star Trek. And one of the things I went on to argue is that actually a central purpose of such prime directives in Star Trek, but more importantly in past, present, and future colonial endeavors, is that the prime directives are not really there to protect the vulnerable or protect people or other beings that one might contact. But they actually serve to morally legitimize colonial enterprises, and so the directives that claim to protect Indigenous people and land have often conspired to make colonization possible while cloaking it in the guise of virtue. It was those prime directives that made the colonization of Australia possible, for example. And the one other thing, perhaps, I'll mention that really solidified for me, and we can come back to the language of colonization that's utilized, but the discussion of treaties and the history of treaties and land-claiming and the logic of what land and spaces are, this for me was the most profoundly important way of directly connecting past, present, and future colonization. Perhaps I'll just briefly go through this, which really clarified a lot of things for me: That there's a really clear continuous logic from colonial British systems, which were based in the logic of Roman law through current outer space treaties. The British system was based on foundational concepts of terra nullius or nobody's land, basically property ownership and its lack thereof were determined based on meaningful land use. So terra nullius and then res communis, or common areas that can't be claimed by anyone because they're considered too important for everyone involved.

[09:50] And so not only was the logic of terra nullius asserted to annex Australia, but it was also the basis for Britain's claim to many areas around the world. And because the British were the arbiters of what was constituted as meaningful land use based on individualism and capitalism, et cetera, they got to define based on their shifting in colonial ambitions what was essentially used or not used. And so places that were desired became classified as terra nullius, and places that were more important for free movement in the project of colonization were defined as res communis. And so there's a clear logic between this and the 1800s. It informs the making and breaking of treaties within Indigenous nations in and beyond North America. It justifies the General or the Dass General Allotment Act of 1887, with the goal of fragmenting Native American nations by imposing individual land ownership. And then from Native American treaties to the New Zealand Treaty to the lack of treaties in Australia and elsewhere, there's this continuity that goes to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. And then that directly informs the 1967 Outer Space treaty, which then informs the 1979 Moon Treaty. And really importantly, the final thing I'll say on this is that the same things happen and are happening in space that happened throughout this process of colonization, as the desire to keep things communal until there's the moment of the desire for settlement and resource extraction in which things become nullius and therefore claimable. And so there's the shift from the logic of res communis towards terra nullius. That's exactly what Cook's Expedition did, as did many colonial voyages. And this is what the U.S. has done over the last decade and is doing. So, in 2015 was the commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, and that unilaterally asserted the rights of private firms to own and sell natural resources in space. And this followed with, Donald Trump signed in 2020, this encouraging international support for the recovery and use of space resources, which basically sanctioned asteroid mining and basically aimed to increasingly delegitimize the 1979 Moon Treaty.

[12:16] And then in late 2020, NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] began requiring any nation wanting to participate in the ongoing and upcoming Artemis Lunar and Martian programs to sign what they call the Artemis Accords. This is basically a bilateral agreement outside of the United Nations that implicitly affirms commercial space mining rights on the specific terms of the United States. I say all that to say that for me, it was very much not just a process of assuming that colonization has these parallels, but trying to trace the details, whether it was through historical analogs or the particularities of the logic and details of how treaties are made and broken strategically through these particular logics that really haven't changed since ancient Rome in some ways.

HK [13:06]: I really enjoyed the article you recently published on dissecting the logics behind SETI’s search for extraterrestrial life. Could you tell us about how the article came about and more about your work on SETI?

WL [13:20]: Yeah, that would be wonderful. In fact, it just came out. It's in a collection of many other chapters that are all wonderful. We also, in that AICRJ special issue collectively with Kim Tallbear, David Shorter, and Sonya Atalay, we wrote a collective working document that was republished there with some more discussion. And this was a statement that we wrote for SETI, for that working group and also expanded upon it in the context of critical native studies. But it boiled down to us thinking through the importance of a statement of intent that declares why contact is important. And the why sort of goes without saying, which is one of the points we were thinking through. But the importance of why contact was important fundamentally and to begin with, as well as an ethical protocol that takes into account the likelihood of intelligence radically different from our own, including a clear right of refusal of contact.

That's often not the way that folks at SETI or elsewhere imagine things. It's not their framework, but to their great credit, they invited us in and were open to thinking about these things, to think about what they might be missing. And from the perspective of anthropology or critical native studies, these are the most fundamental kinds of questions.

HK [14:49]: In your chapter, “Phrenology in Space: Legacies of Scientific Racism in Classifying Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” in the edited volume Reclaiming Space: Progressive and Multicultural Visions of Space Exploration, you talk about the legacies of scientific racism that affect how intelligence is imagined and measured. What are the four mainstream typologies on extraterrestrial intelligence, and how do you analyze them to show the legacy of scientific racism?

WL [15:19]: So these are four fundamental sort of axioms that people think with around potential extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI). And I'm coming out of this sort of this SETI discussion with those other collaborators on the other projects. So the first is Fermi's paradox, which boils down to: Where is everybody? The second is the Drake equation, which has to do with: How can we calculate the probability of their existence? The third is the Great Filter, which is essentially: What prevents their existence? And the fourth is the Kardashev scale, which is: How can we classify them?

And so as far as Fermi's paradox, there's dozens and dozens of theories for why we don't have obvious alien contact today. In Fermi’s paradox, there’s dozens and dozens of proposed solutions that they are or were here; they exist, but we have yet to see or hear from them; or they don't exist. But what I went into is engaging Fermi’s paradox, posing a straightforward though really uncommon question within these debates: Why do we assume that ETIs would be compelled to expand ever outward from their home? And so basically these debates on Fermi's paradox take for granted a Western behavior that's exceedingly rare in the history of our own species: the impulse to endlessly colonize. And so with that one slight change, I come up with a different, very speculative potential idea that I call, sort of polemically, “civilizational cancer.” There likely are many, many intelligent species throughout the universe, but that “civilizational cancer” as a sort of metaphorical way to describe the expansionist behavior that results in the self-destruction due to the colonial impulse itself. Through this framework, we would expect there to be lots and lots of intelligent civilization societies throughout the universe, and we would expect not to be in contact with any of them because the ones that have the colonial impulse would extinguish themselves relatively quickly in cosmological terms. And so we'd expect them to exist and them to not be reaching out endlessly for contact and expansion.

[17:47] I also looked at the Drake equation, which had to do with how to calculate their existence. And within the Drake equation are all these sort of assumptions that come down to being bipedal primates. And for folks who are really into biological anthropology and human evolution, a lot of it is baked into assumptions about our physiology. And throughout I'm thinking about phrenology. And phrenology was created by what we would now think of, or at the time, as progressive individuals who wanted to level the playing field and had this idea that anyone could, if we could understand aspects of the human mind, we could democratize the world and improve individuals. And that's not how it turned out. And they filled entire books with what appeared to be rigorous, empirical science, lots of tables and charts, yet were never able to provide verifiable or precise answers because it was, in that case, it was very wrong, and it bolstered up all sorts of horrific theories of scientific racism. And it was really the opposite of their intent, which is one of the things that I've tried to emphasize, not the moralizing argument about intentions, but actually, whether it's in the Royal Society or early Phenologist, the road to Hell is often paved in good intentions. And what matters is not the intentions or the judgment or defense of those folks, but the way in which the foundational assumptions embedded within these projects and ways of thinking lead to certain types of answers that lead to certain types of colonial treatments into the future.

[19:37] So very briefly, the Great Filter, the idea that Robin Hanson has engaged this, this idea that essentially only a very small number of species and intelligences that develop will make it through this “Great Filter,” which is essentially the Elon Musk model of breaking through Earth, becoming multiplanetary, solving the problem of energy. And then this goes directly into the Kardashev scale, which is developed by an astrophysicist, and it imagines this sort of typology of Type I [one], Type II [two], Type III [three] civilizations that are increasingly like planetary, stellar, galactic, et cetera. And one of the things that I point out in this is that not only would every non-human intelligence not even reach Type 0 [zero] in this scale, but every non-Western, every Indigenous society that exists, that ever has existed would be below the bottom of this scale. And going back to this sort of Fermi’s paradox resolution that I suggest around civilizational cancer is that these things are all interconnected in that the logic of endless expansion and endless appetite, it animates this way of thinking, however complex and nuanced.

[21:02] And by going down that road, the logic of the way that a lot of these folks think is that if you can get to Type I and beyond, a society becomes immortal and spreads throughout the entire universe. What I talk about is not only are there fundamental problems around civilizational cancer and collapse and the way in which this is improbable, but it also implicitly justifies the treatment of any society and species on earth. It justifies almost any sort of treatment for the promise of civilizational immortality. And there's a lot of these discussions going around in the futurist world of AI [Artificial Intelligence] and there's the billionaire class and the Silicon Valley class have a series of philosophies that really align with this. And I think just by asking really fundamental, straightforward questions that you would get in sort of Critical Native Studies 101, all these things start to look very different.

HK [22:02]: Thank you for a great summary. And this chapter just came out?

WL [22:07]: Yeah, this was part of a really wonderful volume that was edited by James Schwartz, Linda Billings, and Erika Nesvold titled Reclaiming Space: Progressive and Multicultural Visions of Space Exploration with a lot of really great pieces that similarly are interested in moving the center and re-imagining the fundamental frameworks for outer space colonization and exploration.

HK [22:32]: What was SETI’s response to the Indigenous Working Group’s statement on SETI? Did they have a response?

WL [22:50]: Yeah, great question. I'll say, it's easy to criticize, especially science projects that are expansionist and imagining things in ways that anthropologists might go to, in a way easy critiques. But what I will say for them is that they welcomed this opening discussion, which was very rich. And I think often what happens is it can be hard when people are coming from different frameworks. So coming from the framework of SETI, where in a way they've been underdogs over the past decades around funding, and doing something that they believe and perhaps will lead to the benefit of all humanity. That on the one hand, to folks whose framework is in focusing on the histories and ongoing colonial processes that have been incredibly violent, that overlap in a lot of the same ways of thinking. I think often it's a process of digesting on both sides because the frameworks that folks are coming from are so radically different. And so, I think it's one of those things where there's a digestion and a consideration that is ongoing, and I think that's really what they express more than anything, that appreciation for bringing this approach and something that they're going to think on, rather than come to a quick conclusion on.

HK [24:09]: You mentioned Grace Dillon’s work on Indigenous science fiction as inspiring your work on outer space. What is important about Indigenous futurisms, and how does it contribute to different imaginations of outer space?

WL [24:23]: Absolutely. And so Grace Dillon, she was bringing together a lot of sort of selections from Indigenous authors, a novelist, and thinking through the sort of thematic elements that connect some of that work. And so some of it had to do with contact. So there's a series of stories that she discusses around contact. It was one of those moments where I thought, “Oh, she's really right.” She says something along the lines of virtually all Western stories of extraterrestrial contact, they recreate settler colonial narratives in which either there is a sort of violent encounter or there's the specter of it, even in sort of buddy alien films like TED or E.T. or even Arrival, as interesting as it is, there's a backdrop of escalation of violence that is on a hair trigger. And so they’re settler colonial cosplaying in a way, and that a lot of the Indigenous contact science fiction stories and films were doing something else.

So for example, there's a wonderful short called “The Visit” by Lisa Jackson, where a UFO [unidentified flying object] essentially, it arrives in a First Nations Canadian community, and a policeman doesn't really understand what to do with it. And then they have this interaction that is not only nonviolent but is embedded within constellations and cosmologies, and through sort of drumming and singing, they have an interaction that's again not alien and outer, but is about what Western frameworks might think of as “the alien,” through the stereotypical kind of “flying saucer view.” And then a Diné filmmaker, Nanobah Becker, has a wonderful short sci-fi film, “The Sixth World,” which imagines going to Mars in relation to a Diné prophecy for the Navajo Nation for the next world. And it plays with sort of John Ford backgrounds of the Navajo Nation and whose knowledge will be more durable in advance and sophisticated for actually expanding beyond Earth.

[26:33] There’s a Keyword article that I wrote that's going to come out in, I think, a couple months, if not sooner. And this is really about the ways in which Western cosmologies, again very broadly defined, tend to imagine outer space as cold emptiness, separating material objects. And what I really emphasize is that this is an outlier cosmological framework in the broader context of the vast majority of human societies, within which a multitude of different ways people relate to celestial domains that are animated by spirit and beings in which they are intimately interconnected with human relationships. And so I just really want to emphasize that as dominant as the sort of frameworks that animate SETI and Fermi’s paradox, all of these things in the sort of context of humanity, they're very sort of unusual outlier frameworks that are dominant largely because of the dominance of colonization, and its effect over time.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o has this wonderful book Moving the Centre, where he talks about the way in which using the language of the First and the Third world kind of inscribes its own logic and gives its strength. And there's actually, a Star Trek episode that sort of relates to that, but there's a way in which I think it's important to continually emphasize that the sort of Western framework around an inanimate outer space and places is very unusual, and it's not disconnected from the history of colonization. And Lisa Messeri has a wonderful book called Placing Outer Space, and she talks about the ways in which humans transform outer spaces into outer places. Though how that happens depends on who is there, what they center, and the limits of their imagination.

HK [28:27]: Why is it important to engage the parallels between the history of colonization on earth and colonial attitudes in outer space?

WL [28:36]: I think it's, there's this idea embedded within all of these things, including the literal language that is almost never used on Earth because of its connotation—around voyage, settlement, colonize, expedition, all of these things—that are used in a very excited, optimistic, unencumbered way off of Earth. And one might say, well, how important is that language? But connected with the history and continuity of outer space treaties and the way that those things are directly connecting off of Earth, and the writings of a lot of folks who argue that an empire in a colonial state, it doesn't just colonize on a frontier—it has to. Its fundamental nature makes it so it has to have a frontier, for ideological reasons, but also material reasons. That it's always living sort of beyond its means and overshooting its environment. It's really important, I think, to engage these things because who's in space and whose imaginations and whose frameworks, world views, ontologies, cosmologies, epistemologies, all these things, who is at the heart of imagining worlds beyond Earth is going to, like in histories of colonization for a long time, set the stage for what does and doesn't happen in outer space and how violent or communal or productive or destructive it ultimately is.

[30:22] There's this quote I really love by Neil Gaiman, he says, “Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.” And just this idea that there's this sort of escapism that is sort of embedded within a lot of these outer space projects. And I'd written another blog about nostalgic amnesia and the logic of MAGA [Make America Great Again] and nostalgia, that the ways in which the billionaire space class yearns for a past which the future's colonial frontier felt like it was expanding, really arguing that nostalgia for the feeling of expansive promise is what is desired is at least as much as the actual expansion. This nostalgic amnesia, Orlando Lee Rodriguez developed this idea that the past, no matter how dysfunctional or painful becomes better than the present, and there's this nostalgia for times in which the promise of expansionist futures was strong. And the nostalgia, like in Trump's MAGA, is for a time in which futures were imagined as endlessly expanding and increasing.

[31:35] And this idea of “wherever you go, you take yourself with you” that Neil Gaiman says, I think there's this almost deep idea that we can escape things on Earth—that there's a redemption that's projected onto innumerable potential sort of second Earths, which are sort of proxies for second chances. And they become these sort of willful mirages that trivialize the importance of our one and only planet. And they draw on that confident logic at the heart of nearly all colonial endeavors: that there’s sort of exoplanets and the alien, the outer space that represents countless possibilities to start over and leave behind failures, exorcise demons, that somehow, we won't make the same mistakes again, that we'll get it right this time, and that paradise lost can be found once again in dark and distant places. My point is that there's a long history of this, and throughout history, whether it's phrenology or the Royal Society, they imagined the past as sort of full of violence and people who weren't smart enough to understand how to move beyond colonization, and that they were in the enlightened moment where they could. Whether it's within the phrenology discussion in the Royal Society or in rooms like SETI or a lot of these SpaceX, whatever it is, I think the same feeling exists that we've moved beyond it. But wherever you go, you take yourself with you and all the sort of cultural and colonial assumptions. And the dangerous part is when people imagine that they've moved beyond them.

And one quote I will mention from the Phrenology piece.

HK [33:24]: Sure.

WL [33:25]: So Jacob Appell, his quote is, “The most dangerous ideas are those so embedded in the status quo, so wrapped in the cloud of inevitability that we forget they are ideas at all.” And that's the thing that I've tried to point to, that this colonial stuff is embedded and baked in, and it's dangerous to imagine that it isn't.

HK [33:45]: It also makes me think that what is also colonial about the narratives of “starting again” or “erasing the mistakes we made on Earth,” is that they erase the already existing relationship between different peoples on Earth and space. Different ways that people across the world have engaged outer space in different ways through myth, religion, folk tales, and how these shape the social and material lives of people are seemingly overshadowed when you view outer space as a “clean slate” to start over in.

WL [34:19]: You’re reminding me of, it's something that I try to come back to, is there's the critique of colonization, but the pushback to some of these discussions is that, “Well, outer space exploration is going to happen, so we're not going to turn it off, so critiques are not meaningful.” And one, I'm not that convinced by that logic, but let's just go with it for one second. I think to your point about other frameworks for imagining outer space that escape the sort of dominance of NASA and U.S., and to some extent Soviet histories, is that it is possible for exploration to not be colonial or violent. There are a lot of precedence for this in a lot of contexts. People who are lawyers are arguing for U.S. policy in outer space, a lot of people look back to this idea that the Ming Dynasty lost their chance of colonizing basically all of the Earth. They just chose not to in a moment that they could. So this is seen as some horrible failure, which is a wild way of thinking about that choice. And there's a lot of great work on that. But something that I have thought through in my writing is thinking about Polynesian wayfinding, which provides a really profound analog of navigation, exploration, and revitalizing moral and sustainable outer space projects. And so I'm not suggesting the appropriation of Polynesian wayfinding into outer space, but rather thinking through that. And there's a great sort of news from the future from Maori TV called Anamata Future News, where at the end, in the year 2499, I think, they both explore into outer space using Maori gestures and a different way of thinking about space but [also] trying to appeal to those currently involved in outer space endeavors to non-defensively confront the colonial assumptions embedded within their projects.

[36:18] And Ojibwe geographer Deondre Smiles, he argues that it's important to heed the call of Indigenous thinkers outside and inside of formal academic structures, validate Indigenous histories, and push to deconstruct the American settler myth to provide a new way of looking at the stars, especially at a crucial moment where the settler state turns its gaze toward the same.

HK [36:41]: Speaking of non-colonial approaches to outer space, what do you think can anthropologists learn from Indigenous science fiction and science fiction more generally?

WL [36:51]: Yeah. So wonderful question. It's funny you asked because for Cultural Anthropology, I wrote in their “Theorizing the Contemporary” series on speculative anthropologies with a lot of wonderful other pieces. I wrote a piece called “Planeterra Nullius: Science Fiction Writing and the Ethnographic Imagination.” And so for the first time, I wrote an actual sci-fi story. And one I'll say it gave me a lot, I already had this, but it gave me even more appreciation for just how hard this is. And so this is a short piece set exactly six hundred years after Captain Cook's landing in Botany Bay, marking the beginning of Aboriginal dispossession. And this drawing on Horace Miners' classic “Nacirema” piece, trying to invert the story of Australian colonization with extraterrestrials invading and settling Earth, engaging parallel events from initial colonial contact through current Indigenous political movements, as well as instances of dehumanization, pandemic disease, and post-apocalyptic hope. And to your point, I mean, I think there is, going back to Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler. Science fiction as a whole, it lends itself towards subversive critique. And at its most socially and inclusive, it is often, if not usually, written by women and people of color. And it's been central to the development of feminist Afro and Indigenous futures. So I think it's absolutely essential. It connects with Grace Dillon’s work on Indigenous futurisms, and it has the radical potential without overstating it, but I believe to expand the limits of the ethnographic imagination. So I think it's really generative for anthropologists to think with and through science fiction, broadly speaking.

[38:36] And the final thing I'll say is often at the AAA [American Anthropological Association], we have a meetup where we all get together and chat. And something that I really appreciate about the outer space anthropology community is that it's so open. There aren't the sort of theoretical commitments to a particular way of thinking. There's just these very rich, good faith open discussions, that I think not only open up the fields of the anthropology of outer space and aliens, but also are sort of refreshing mirror for anthropology itself as a way of reflecting the ideas of cultural anthropology back into a different context off of Earth that helps us reimagine what we're taking for granted within the discipline.

WL [39:36]: If you want to come to our AAA chat, we just meet for lunch and chat about all things space and anthropology. To anyone listening, just email me, you'll find me at Bowdoin College website in the anthropology department.

[39:47 Outro Music Begins. Podington Bear – All the Colors in the World]

HK [39:47]: Thank you so much for being with us today on Anthropod, Dr. Lempert.

WL [39:50]: It was my absolute pleasure. Thank you for inviting me. It was a real pleasure to discuss these things.

HK [39:57]: That was Dr. William Lempert, talking with us about indigenous science fiction, indigenous futurisms, and colonialism, and how it all plays out in our relationship to outer space. You’ve been listening to AnthroPod, from the Society for Cultural Anthropology. AnthroPod is produced by a nonhierarchical collective of Contributing Editors. This episode was produced by me, Hae-Seo Kim, with review provided by Sharon Jacobs and Ximena Malaga Sabogal. Thank you so much for listening.