Note: Cross-posted with permission from Moniquilliloquies.
One of the most disheartening aspects I’ve found in American Steampunk alternate histories is the assumption that despite alternate histories that allow for magitek and phlebotinum and aether-powered airships and steam-powered, clockwork everything from cell phones to teleporters to ray guns… there is still an assumption that NDN genocide took place. That European contact can only have occurred in the 15thcentury and that it can only have resulted in colonialism, slavery, resource theft, land theft, and genocide.Come on, people.
We can have clockwork robots but not POC civilizations?
A functional alternate history that has the kind of tech seen in steampunk can’t have just started one day in the 19th century. If you’re going to alter your universe, why stick with our existent timeline right up to the last second?
What if NDN folks had, say, knowledge of vaccination? Or what if we’d had a greater number of domesticable animals and thus developed a wider profile of immunities to the kinds of communicable diseases common to Europeans? What if we’d developed advanced cross-national communications systems for the sharing of technological breakthroughs before European contact happened?
NDN technologies have historically tended to be green and sustainable – not because NDN folks are ~magically spiritually attached to Mother Earth~ but because NDN cultures tend to value foresight and cycles, considering generational consequences of technological adoption and understanding of systems over flat utilization of resources. There’s an existent, historical emphasis on biotech (do you enjoy potatoes, tomatoes, or corn? (YOU ENJOY CORN, DO NOT LIE.) Thank NDN folks for making these plants exist, because without human intervention you’d have nightshade, nightshade, and teosinte.)
I like to imagine technological development of American nations sans European contact or with non-oppressive European contact as following biotech lines and resulting in super-powerful herbal medicines, biomimcry in architecture and materials development, mycoculture and mycoplastics, and use ofsolar steam power. I explore NDN science extensively because I am sick and tired of the myth that prior to European contact NDNs were a stagnant neolithic monoculture. To quote Elizabeth Lameman (speaking here about her film “The Path Without End”):
“We often limit ourselves and discredit our ancestors by thinking they didn’t possibly have the technology to travel when in fact they did have canoes and other forms of ships. To me, this is how we represent ourselves in steampunk, which is otherwise a very colonialist genre that stems from the Victorian mindset. We do and did have technology, but since we use(d) biodegradable materials, and thus “evidence” has faded with nature, we are told by the dominate culture that we were savage with no technology.”
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 andgreen roofs on large communal buildings, and time-tested local building technologies on smaller, private residences. I imagine populous citiesdesigned 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.
How does this universe determine my costuming choices?
That’s the next essay.
Monique Poirier is an author, costumer, maker, and gamer from North Providence, RI. Her short story “Concerning The Ars Mechanica” appears in the anthology Like Clockwork by Circlet Press.