“I fear that if Indigenous people
cannot envision ourselves in
the future, we will not be there.”
For the most part, Native Americans are thought of as having lived in the past and their existence in the present is barely noted. As for the future, Native peoples are generally absent from any concept of that far-off time. While other groups exist in projections of what the future might be, Native Americans do not. In the various Star Wars movies there are no Native American characters and in the numerous iterations of Star Trek, the only Native American is Chakotay, a character who appeared in the seven seasons of Star Trek: Voyager. Oddly, Chakotay was initially given no tribal affiliation. He was, then, designated as Sioux, later as Hopi, and finally as being descended from some unspecified pre-Maya Central American tribe.
Someone who has wholeheartedly embraced the idea of projecting a Native presence into the future is Skawennati, a Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) artist who has been creating art in cyberspace for more than twenty years. I first met Skawennati in 2012. As I was entering the National Museum of the American Indian in Manhattan to attend an event, I commented to the woman walking next to me about a man who had just ridden his bicycle through the museum’s open doors rather than dismounting. We struck up a conversation and decided to sit next to one another. As we talked the woman revealed that her name was Skawennati and that she created art in cyberspace. Intrigued and wanting to learn more about this new way of making art, I asked if we could keep in touch. Thus, a friendship was born.
One of Skawennati’s earliest forays into creating a Native presence in cyberspace was Imagining Indians in the 25th Century, which she produced in 2001. This web-based work allows the viewer to time travel via a timeline of Native history that begins in the year 1490 in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and ends at the Edmonton Olympics in 2490.
Skawennati next produced TimeTraveller™, a machinima series created in Second Life, an online world. A machinima is a relatively new practice of making movies in virtual environments. The word machinima is a merging of machine and cinema while an image from a machinima (called a still in movies) has come to be called a machinimagraph, a word coined by Skawennati, which is a combination of machine and photograph.
TimeTraveller™ is the story of Hunter, a young Mohawk who, though he possesses many of the traditional skills of his ancestors, feels alienated from the overpopulated, super-commercialized world of the 22nd century in which he lives. With the aid of a new technology called TimeTraveller™, Hunter is able to go on a futuristic vision quest, which ostensibly allows him to travel back and forth in time.
She Falls For Ages is one of Skawennati’s more recent projects. Created in 2017, it is a futuristic retelling of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) creation story in the form of a twenty-one-minute machinima.
The Haudenosaunee creation story was handed down from one generation to the next by word of mouth so there are many versions. The basic narrative tells of a time when there was no land, no humans, and all was water. Above was Karonhiá:ke, the Sky World, where a man lived with his pregnant wife, Atsi’tsaká:ion, who came to be known as Sky Woman. In the middle of the Sky World was the Tree of Life. Atsi’tsaká:ion craved a tea that could only be made from the tree’s roots. The man dug a hole around the tree to get at the roots, but it fell over, creating a huge hole. Unable to resist, the woman approached the hole but fell through. As she fell, waterfowl flew beneath her and gently placed her upon a giant turtle, which floated upon the endless Ocean. Various water animals such as the muskrat, the beaver, the otter, and the loon dove deep below the water and brought up mud to place on the turtle’s back, which expanded as the woman walked in a circle. Thus, A’nó:wara Kawè:note, or Turtle Island, what others refer to as North America, was created.
Telepath, a machinimagraph from Skawennati’s She Falls For Ages (2017).
Skawennati’s retelling of the Haudenosaunee creation story sets it in a multicolored, neon futuristic world where the inhabitants have eyes that are totally white and have neither an iris or nor a pupil. Unlike the human shades of Earth, the inhabitants of the Sky World have skin that is either green, pink, blue, yellow, purple, or orange.
She Falls for Ages opens with a voice-over narration that is an allusion to the opening crawl of Star Wars, which begins with the following words, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . . . ” Every numbered film of the Star Wars series opens with this cinematic device.
The Artist in her Studio, a machinimagraph from Skawennati’s She Falls For Ages (2017).
The story begins with a mother talking with her twins, Otsitsakáion (Ancient Flower) and her brother Tehahontsihsonkhwa (He’s Jumping Over the Earth). Each child has special powers, which must be kept secret for the time being. Otsitsakáion is a telepath and artist who creates portraits of people she has never seen and scenes of places she has never visited. Tehahontsihsonkhwa is a telekinetic, with the power to move objects with his mind. The family lives in Sky World, a place inhabited by a peaceful race who have overcome most diseases and hardly know the meaning of death. They have harnessed geothermal, wind, and solar power and are brilliant botanists. Their greatest creation is the Celestial Tree.
Telekinetic, a machinimagraph from Skawennati’s She Falls For Ages (2017).
Rate’serónties (Lightening Bolts), their uncle, arrives one day and agrees that their special powers must be kept secret for a while longer. As the twins reach adulthood, their uncle leaves them through death but tells them he will always be available to them.
Celestial Tree, a machinimagraph from Skawennati’s She Falls For Ages (2017).
One night, Rarón:toté, Guardian of the Celestial Tree, has a dream in which he sees an unknown woman. He, too, has a special power, which is the ability to see into the future.
Becoming Sky Woman, a machinimagraph from Skawennati’s She Falls For Ages (2017).
Developed over thousands of years of careful cultivation, the Celestial Tree’s blossoms emit light, which illuminates the whole of the Sky World. On the 3,000 anniversary of the tree, a great celebration is held. By the time of this event, the twins are almost adults. Rarón:toté and Otsitsakáionmeet, the woman he saw in his dream, meet, are married and, eventually, expect a child. However, Rarón:toté has a prophetic dream that the Sky World is dying. Tentenhawitha announces that he and the other members of the Circle of Elders have decided to create a Ceremony of Renewal to ease the passing of Sky World into a new world.
Renewal, a machinimagraph from Skawennati’s She Falls For Ages (2017).
Otsitsakáion volunteers to be the seed of the new world. She is given a “bundle” containing food, a multitool, and a selection of seeds. The Celestial Tree is elevated and Otsitsakáion jumps into the hole opened beneath it and falls for ages. She is becoming Sky Woman. Eventually, a flock of geese see her, and, fearing that she will be hurt if she hits the water below since there is not yet any land, they cushion her fall. Not knowing what to do with her they ask Turtle if she could rest on his back and they place her there. Turtle summons all of the other water animals. Since the space on his back is small something must be done. First, beaver dives down to the depths, but returns with nothing. Next, the muskrat dives down, but he, too, returns with nothing. Finally, the otter makes an attempt and after a very long time returns with earth from the bottom of the sea. Otsitsakáion places a few of her seeds in this dirt and begins to dance. As she does so the amount of earth grows and grows until it becomes Turtle Island, the place where we live today.
Skawennati has established a Native presence in cyberspace by creating art there and she has succeeded brilliantly. “I have focused on creating projects for the Internet,” she has stated, “which I consider to be an extraordinary art-delivery system.” She Falls for Ages is the first machinima to enter the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
To view She Falls for Ages, click on the link below:
All images are courtesy of Skawennati.
The author would like to express his sincere gratitude to Skawennati for her invaluable help with this article.