Excerpt: Monique Poirier previews her vision for Native American steampunk

Native Science understands that nature is technology – a compost pile is a massively-tested super-applicable multifaceted waste management system resulting from four billion years of research and development where you put food waste in and get high-yield fertilizer out and the whole process is carbon neutral!

I imagine a Steampunk North America (Turtle Island) in which the buffalo population wasn’t deliberately eradicated for genocidal purposes and which thus still enjoys the resources of vast areas of tall grass prairie (you need buffalo to have prairie as much as you need prairie to have buffalo because many seeds will not germinate correctly or thrive without passing through a buffalo’s digestive system unless human intervention is applied). I imagine a Turtle Island in which deforestation is severely curtailed and vast areas of old-growth forest are deliberatly maintained. I imagine city architecture utilizing rammed-earth walls and green roofs on large communal buildings, and time-tested local building technologies on smaller, private residences. I imagine populous cities designed for walkability and communal pedestrian culture. I imagine a North America in which the Black Hills are not defaced with gigantic carved graffiti of doofy white dudes.

By the 19th century in my alternate timeline, Turtle Island has a thriving, technologically advanced pan-Indian culture, a collective of independent nations with distinct regionalisms that has a UN-like organization to engage with the global community. A group of nations that meets Europe as equals and trades technology and cultural influences as such.

– From “Musing About Native Steampunk”

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  • dersk

    I was thinking on this morning’s commute that it would also be interesting to do something with a Johnny Appleseed (a real guy who you could say spread white culture along the waterways of the Ohio territory) with a Native character doing the same thing – spreading native technology from west to east.  That would give you the ability to show parallel developments in each culture and show how they mix on the borders (maybe on the Mississippi or Ohio River?). Where’s Harry Turtledove when you need him? Although he’s crap at characterization, which would be the really interesting bits of this stuff.

    • Jenny Islander



      This is an apparent Maya colony founded approx. 900 CE in Georgia.

      So: They meet with a horse-borne culture, descended from the Talldog People.  If the horse-tamers are nomads, this is probably not a happy situation at first–horse nomads historically having tended to view cities as large boxes full of portable goodies.  But say they do achieve a peaceful relationship.  When things go bad in the Georgia colony, the Mayans have already identified another site.  Say, to the east.  They are able to take their books and tools along on horseback.  So the Norsemen, and the Basques, and the English, and the Dutch, have to deal with literate engineers who can field armies of horse-archers.  They will be happy to trade items of vulcanized rubber* for nifty iron tools.  Come raiding for slaves and they’ll burn your ship . Or just take it.

      Oh, and if they go west instead: It has been observed that the Mississippi’s nearest analogue is the Yangtze.  Imagine a combination of Coles Creek Mound Builder and Mayan knowledge bases spreading northward along the Mississippi by horse and boat.

      *Tell you how to make it?  Hahahahaaaa no.**  And you can’t steal it either.  It comes from clear around the other side of the Gulf of Mexico.  We have semaphore stations from here to Uxmal, so they’ll know about you in about a week. 

      **Apparently the Maya process required the juice of the morning glory plant, plus heat.  Perhaps a beginning of a distinctively Native science–?  Imagine Maya explorers sent out to every trading post on the fringes of the realm with instructions to make thorough study of the local plants and see what happens when different plants are introduced to one another.  Imagine those Native American horses caparisoned in rayon-like fabric spun from the stems of sunflower plants, or desert farmers inventing drip irrigation a millennium ahead of our timeline because they have access to lightweight, flexible hoses made of rubberized cloth.****

      ****I could burble on about this all night, but I will stop here.  Alternate history is one of my favorite hobbies.

  • Anonymous

    Fixed, thanks.

  • Steve Murgaski

    We definitely need punk novels about that.  I’m so ready for up-to-date, imaginative fiction about a better world than this one.

    I do have to nit-pick about the same line as Dirsk: “Native Science understands that…”  ‘Science,’ ideally at least, is just a particular way of studying things.  A culture can decide what it thinks is important to study, but science is just a particular lens for researchers to look through.  So to me it doesn’t make sense to talk about “native science,” or “marxist science,” or “Chinese science”…  Different cultures focus the scientific lens on different things, so they can see very different pictures.  But the lens itself is just a lens — or it should be, ideally.

    • dersk

      Well, I’m pretty much a materialist, so I’d say science is a method for understanding how things work by making observations, making hypotheses based on those observations, testing the hypotheses based on further observations, and modifying the hypothesis as necessary. It’s that last part that was revolutionary and counter to Aristotle (or Soviet science, in which theory preceded observation). Then technology is the application of knowledge to alter the environment – so in a sense gulls that drop shells from a high altitude to break them, or chimps who use sticky stalks of grass to harvest ants are technologists.

    • Anonymous

      I cannot speak for this excerpt’s author nor the indigenous peoples of anywhere but here in Alaska, but here the term “Native Science”  is a considerably more complicated notion than  a culture deciding what is important to study and then studying it and rather more than a lens in the end. 
      Here’s a peek

    • http://www.facebook.com/monique.poirier Monique Poirier

      ‘Ideally at least’ is the key phrase here. Science, the process, is conducted by people. The questions that are asked, the manner in which data is gathered, and how that data is interpreted is hugely influenced by the cultural presuppositions of the people who are conducting the science. Humans are not ideal, ergo it’s kind of silly to try to speak in ideals about things they do. Because of cultural variance, Native Science and Marxist Science and Chinese Science could very well be given the exact same data and come to very different conclusions with it.  This thread: http://sandwichocracy.tumblr.com/post/11260541479/when-i-was-a-student-at-cambridge-i-remember-an has more examples of  raw data leading to conclusions that aren’t necessarily supported because of the cultural presumptions of the people interpreting the data. To quote:
      “When I was a student at Cambridge I remember an anthropology professor
      holding up a picture of a bone with 28 incisions carved in it. “This is
      often considered to be man’s first attempt at a calendar” she explained.
      She paused as we dutifully wrote this down. ‘My question to you is this
      – what man needs to mark 28 days? I would suggest to you that this is
      woman’s first attempt at a calendar.’ It was a moment that changed my
      life. In that second I stopped to question almost everything I had been
      taught about the past. How often had I overlooked women’s
      contributions?” – Sandi Toksvig
      The raw data was ‘This artifact, a calendar, exists.’ The scientific interpretation was ‘a man made it’ because the scientists who interpreted the data were from  patriarchal culture that presumed Men Make Things.

      • dersk

        My point was just that I don’t there is such a thing as Soviet Science (well, I should say ‘was’) – that the label is a misnomer. In the same way, I don’t think your example of interpreting an artefact is an example of science. It’s sort of like the people who claim that various methods of horoscopes or fortune telling are scientific because they’re highly systematic – two different things, two different ways of looking at the world. In one way it’s just semantic, in another there is a real difference at the root.

        And, by the way, anyone needing to measure time would almost certainly make a 28 day calendar based on the lunar cycle. Toksvig’s (she’s great, by the way) professor was exhibiting just as much bias as the male professor in assuming that a 28 day calendar would necessarily be linked to a menstrual cycle, and that only a woman would care about it. It’s a good story, and I think an even better example of investigating one’s own biases than originally intended.

        • http://www.facebook.com/monique.poirier Monique Poirier

          I urge you to go check out the link to Nativescience.org that 54cranberries posted below.  Thereafter we’re probably just going to have to agree to differ.

  • dersk

    Neat idea – although you might need to find a way to industralize and urbanize the North Americans – giving them their own (different) domesticatable species will also give them their own set of diseases to which Euros won’t have adapted immunity, so you’ve got a way to ensure parallel development for a while. Maybe the Seven Nations confederation becomes the beginning of the analog of the Englightenment?
     I have to disagree with something, though, so I’ll say that ‘nature is technology’ is only true insofar as human beings (and other tool-using animals) are part of nature. To me, technology is the application of knowledge in order to manipulate nature. For example, a compost heap isn’t really ‘natural’ in the same way a leaf pile is; humans have concentrated their waste and managed the pile to a specific purpose. Not sure if this leads anywhere, but perhaps a technology portfolio based somehow more on biomimicry would be a way to take it?

    Sorry to run on at the mouth, but several friends posted their ‘American Indian’ name on Facebook today (ugh) so it’s been on my mind since I saw the post.

    • http://www.facebook.com/monique.poirier Monique Poirier

      All animals are tool-using animals. Many people tend to have a very narrow view of what a tool is, or what ‘natural’ is; humans aren’t the only beings to utilize technology. The nests of Magnetic Termites, for example, are literally millions of years ahead of humans in terms of architectural technology, and yet ‘termites’ are not generally the first animal that springs to mind when one asks someone working from a classical western science mindset to name animals that use tools. Because the tools termites use are endemic to themselves. Wasps use genetic engineering to rewire an oak tree’s instructions to make acorns into instructions to build galls to house their young. Humans are nowhere NEAR that level of genetic manipulation, and wasps can do it with their reproductive organs.

      • dersk

        Some to a greater extent than others – crows, for example, are able to engineer new tools, while the architectural prowess of termites seems to be genetic.

        That’s actually one of the reason I’m vegetarian – the line between homo sapiens and other species gets greyer and greyer with more and more research.

      • Josh Musket

        That would actually be a pretty cool angle to incorporate – instead of utilizing animals as livestock, utilize them as allies with natural abilities to alter our environment, via carefully thought out and applied methods. Taking into account what dersk writes below, I’ve read of ravens leading wolves to prey. Could the same tool-using, prey-leading-to intelligence that corvids exemplify be useful. Perhaps the “Indians can talk to animals” trope and the like such as:  http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MagicalNativeAmerican , could be reclaimed in more scientific ways, such as a deep understanding of animal behavior and communication via an era of study.

        Another interesting angle to explore would be differences in agriculture. One little mentioned technique is something used by a California tribe who cultivated and maintained plants along their semi-nomadic route, somewhat like horticultural forestry. This is a technique that I feel was definitely used outside of their tribe, as many “gathering” semi-nomadic tribes (such as the Aanishinaabe) regularly encamped in various places throughout the year, to harvest specific foods. I have no doubt that while there, they maintained the plants that the harvested from. In GLIFWC interviews with elders, that’s alluded to, actually.

        In regards to cities, I think revisiting mound-builders and the Anasazi might be useful. Another concept I recently ran across was a city being distributed over a larger area, instead of clustered as we have today. That is, a small localized settlement, networked with nearby settlements in effect forms a city.

  • Lyonside

    I’m intrigued, especially as an environmental scientist, and would read an entire series about NDN Steampunk in a HEARTBEAT.