On Astrobiology, Ontology, and Decoloniality

by Gabriel Mindel David Delgado Shorter

Ethics and Astrobiology is a collaborative project emerging from a reading group that explores astrobiological research on a temporal scale: what life was, what life is, and what life could be across the cosmos. In the gatherings of this reading group, the collaborators leveraged the interdisciplinary friction generated by thinking through such queries together as an occasion to create a space for ethical reflection. What follows in this series is an attempt to capture some of that intellectual magic for a broader audience.

While David Delgado Shorter was in town for the conference “What Is Life? Ancient Answers to Modern Questions,” he joined Ethics and Astrobiology group member Gabriel Mindel in conversation at the UC Santa Cruz Institute for the Arts & Sciences in February 2023. Shorter’s recent articles on settler science and Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) were featured on the Ethics and Astrobiology group’s reading list. Through the lens of Native and Indigenous Studies, Shorter and Mindel explore multiple ways of (un)knowing.

The Politics of Epistemology

Gabriel Mindel: I want to start with the politics of epistemology, asking how it is that epistemological problems that are pervasive in thinking about astrobiology point us in different directions, in terms of the critique of science, the critique of knowledge, the ways in which knowledge produces power, and the ways in which knowledge reproduces our conditions, not the least of which is settler-colonialism in our own context. I see in your work a genuine commitment to thinking through how different epistemological possibilities run parallel, contradict, conflict, and construct the world in ways that actually have meaningful political and material effects. 

David Delgado Shorter: You say that very well. You say that better than I think I did in a single sentence. You saw inside my piece what I was trying to do is weave various threads together and at some point as a writer you think this is not going to happen easily and it’s the struggle from one’s desk, you know, one’s writing space is that: How do I line up that there are ideologies at work in frontier thinking that are about the human desire to explore and learn. And then somehow related to that but perhaps not necessarily right up alongside of it, these other things that are taking place like capitalism and colonialism and where does the knowledge-making that we attempt to be doing in the university in this particular historical moment where we’re trying to reconcile things like decolonizing the academy, where do those put us? That question could only come about after the ontological turn. Particularly inside the social sciences, what does it mean when someone puts a magnifying glass on what you had thought was the best way of knowing? And epistemologically speaking, object-oriented and materialist approaches to knowledge will not jive, or work copacetically, with decolonization because they’re actually part of the problem. 

GM: Thinking back to yesterday’s “What Is Life?” conference, I couldn’t help but notice how many of the presenters, especially those involved in the physical sciences, seemed absolutely committed to a materialist set of questions and possible answers. Those presuppositions weren’t even up for discussion. Then you had this really provocative juxtaposition of classicists and their work exploring ancient ways of thinking through questions of life, of metaphysics, of being. Those presentations suggested that there were other frameworks for thinking and knowing. They put on the table these possibilities for how we might imagine life, in ways that people already have and already do imagine life beyond the material, beyond a materialist ideology. Yet that never seemed to penetrate in terms of the conversations that I was privy to. 

“Cartwheel galaxy composite.” Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; IR (Spitzer): NASA/JPL-Caltech; IR (Webb): NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI.

DDS: And it hasn’t in astrobiology, astrophysics, astrogeology, and the search for exoplanetary life. It hasn’t because, if my supposition is correct, the people who are the leaders of this field may have never had an ethnic studies course, as one example, much less a Native Studies course, much less a feminist theory course. So the whole idea that they’re working out of an ideology of logocentrism is itself never questioned because they never understood the difference between, again just one example, first and second and third wave feminism. So I see what’s taking place now as this sort of opening, perhaps. I don’t want to be too optimistic here, where there are certain segments of the astrobiology field that are recognizing that as they’ve gone through their discipline or their training so far it has been primarily homo sapien centric, human centric; definitely not beyond-the-human thinking. 

GM: It’s interesting for me to think about this in relation to interdisciplinary studies. I know from your article and our conversations that you, like me, are someone who works in interdisciplinary fields, who works across divisions, disciplines, ways of thinking, and are trying to bring these into actual relationship with one another–relationships which can include antagonisms and conflicts. 

DDS: That has to do a bit with my primary disciplinary, if we can call it that, orientation still lies with Native Studies. As I try to think about how I’m going to indigenize the academy, which I think is much more feasible than decolonizing it, I’m trying to think about how in some ways Native Studies was always this anti-disciplinarian or the transdisciplinary field. That’s why I was such a huge fan at the beginning of the Native American Indigenous Studies Association; because its conferences and its publications were all over the place and they were drawing from people who might have a tenure track line or a position in the university inside a certain field or discipline but maybe not; they could actually be independent researchers. They could be working for tribal communities. The conversation that I’m having in astrobiology is a request to move outside solely STEM preparation for the kind of conversation that needs to be had.

GM: I think both of us have the experience of trying to bring into astrobiological conversations critiques that are from outside of the context of STEM, that operate on different sets of values, literatures, histories of knowledge, and traditions of knowledge and knowledge production. And there is, I believe, good faith interest in this sometimes. Many folks that I’ve met who are involved in astronomy at UC Santa Cruz—grad students, certainly undergrads, some faculty and researchers—are interested in bringing to bear some of these critiques from outside, whether they’re feminist critiques, critical race critiques, Indigenous critiques. Yet their aspiration seems to be to continue doing astronomy in the way that they already know. They want these critiques to allow them to continue producing their same research but, somehow, without producing the harms it appears to be producing.

DDS: What you’re seeing is a threshold of just how willing people are to change the way that they think. And in the conversations I’ve had in astrobiology (and I would say they’re not very deep and I don’t have a long history of it) ever since the article came out, I find myself around people who want to actually push themselves. They do want to ask how they can be more broad, how they can expand their lens to conceive of worlds or ontologies different than the ones that they had. But the threshold I’m talking about is that you then are in some ways starting to chip away at what they know to be true about the world. And that is where we get to the positivist or materialist underpinnings of settler science. They are willing to, if we could just use some really strange words here, DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) the conversation. They’re willing to bring various people to the table to have a conversation. They’re even willing to invite these people to share their art, their non-STEM training perspectives to bear. But to actually say your leadership or your ideas of what constitutes knowledge-making need to shift, well then you’re going to get pushback. And I think that that has some deep implications for what a lot of us in the humanities and social sciences have been saying for a long time about the odd imbalance between funding and support for the sciences versus the other ways of knowing. 

Possibilities: Radical Belief Systems

GM: I was struck in some of the presentations during the conference how self-aware, up to a point, a lot of the presenters were about their constraints, the actual constraints that shape what they are willing to think and discuss, and what they’re not willing to think or discuss. Yet most of them didn’t think of it as cultural or ideological, but rather they thought of this in very materialistic terms. “Well, this is what’s practical; this is what is actionable with the resources we have; this is what the National Science Foundation (NSF) is or isn’t willing to fund.” The NSF is not going to fund something that is radically committed to a way of thinking different from this. And I imagine that most of them are also thinking about the ways in which these constraints are tied up in the military industrial complex, or delimited by the value systems of capitalism. Operating within these contexts has seemingly caused them to abandon ambitions to push back on those basic suppositions, the basic frameworks, while at the same time obscuring the ways in which even their belief systems have been shaped by those contingencies. 

DDS: Well, you’re using two keywords here. So the first one is you use the word “radical.” “Radical” is devoid of meaning if it doesn’t mean actually being willing to say that this is not the only way to think about the world. There’s another world that is possible. It wouldn’t count as radical if it wasn’t in some ways disruptive, right? …. And I think the other one that you just used is “belief systems.” You noticed yesterday that there were these incremental, “Okay, we understand that some people might view rocks as people,” which was a sort of, “We’re willing to entertain animistic views.” But that’s not an actual engagement with different ontologies. That’s misrecognizing ontology as people project personalities. There’s no difference in that than religious studies literature from the 1980s: seeing faces in the clouds. That’s not what we’re arguing is taking place in a real epistemological shift to Native worldviews. But they were using terms like, “Oh, I don’t really want to suggest that what we’re doing in STEM is ‘dogmatic.’” There was this fear that perhaps they might be seen as dogmatic as if only believers or people from local communities had dogma, as if science wasn’t dogmatic. Right? So that’s why I think it’s really important to talk about what object-oriented science is so that they can understand the relationship between how their methods keep constructing the results from those research methods. You keep only finding “things” when you’ve only developed methods to find things. And I’m saying the answer to anything that we might call beyond-the-human or beyond settler science is going to be in the no-thing-ness, the non-object-oriented approaches that are there. 

GM: I’m curious about your use of “object-oriented.” I’m wondering to what extent you’re thinking primarily through animism, broadly speaking, to include different Indigenous cosmologies but also different kinds of orientations towards the world that understand non-human beings as having personhood, having desires, having knowledge, having agencies of different kinds. Of course there is also a philosophical movement from the last 15 years or so—object-oriented ontology—that in contrast tries to still maintain a sort of anthropological distance. 

DDS: That’s a great question because people are using the terms interchangeably in a way that, as a person who teaches graduate seminars on ontology, I sort of have to break down between weeks one and two where the ontological term starts in relation to a longer history of animism studies. I think of animism as including those perspectives of Eduardo Viveros de Castro and Stewart Guthrie, the idea that people are projecting personalities or agency into things that do not have agency. And then from that is an offshoot which is the “social life of things,” a type of thinking that “I’m going to look at these stones or these amulets, but I’m going to look at them as a component of social relations.” That’s where you get assemblage theory from, which a lot of graduate students right now are calling an ontological argument. 

Where I’m particularly concerned is the ontological turn as it starts from A. Irving Hallowell and gets picked up by Marilyn Strathern and Nurit Bird-David and Tim Ingold. And I would say Viveros de Castro is more of the animistic sort because he’s looking at perspectivalism. And there is another branch of that offshoot, work like Eduardo Kohn‘s, that’s looking not at how humans are projecting personhood onto non-human persons, but rather recognizing the intent, will, and ability that other-than-human persons establish and act upon. I don’t want to use “perform” because I think that often leads the listener to think I mean it’s fake, something they might dismiss as folklore. No, these are practical and logical! They may not be rational to a person who’s in an object-oriented approach, but they are definitely based on very long-term ways of knowing in particular environments. 

Breaking the Great Chains of Being 

GM: So how are those things—and the answer could be they aren’t—but how are those things measurable? I’m asking because I’m thinking about how one translates an awareness, if not an actual lived experience, of those kinds of relationships with non-human others into a conversation with scientists who are committed to discovering more than human life, extraterrestrial life, the origins of life? 

Image of the nebula L1527, showing invisible near-infrared wavelengths of light that have been translated into visible-light colors. “L1527 and Protostar.” Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI; Joseph DePasquale (STScI), Alyssa Pagan (STScI), Anton M. Koekemoer (STScI).

DDS: You have people who have very long-term relations with particular environments, what we used to call “local knowledges.” Essentially, people who lived in such a way that their negotiations of power with other than human persons enabled them to live lives that had more health, more vitality, more joy, more pleasure, non-things that object-oriented sciences don’t even have on their radars to measure. You have the Cartesian sciences that were developed through a Great Chain of Being that led to the taxonomizing of the academic disciplines: The way that one could know the world was to break it up and separate it from other ways of knowing, which has led us to an irreversible climate collapse. So which one of those sounds like it’s “proven” itself over a long period of time? It sounds to me like one direction has taken us dangerously close, if not irrevocably, to environmental disaster. 

GM: I’m glad that you brought up the great chain of being because I think this is one of those problematic metaphors that still constitute scientific thinking, the pursuit of astrobiology included. This concept which comes from Plato and Aristotle but was taken up in earnest in the Middle Ages, this idea that there is a structured hierarchy to the universe, to the cosmos, that is both a kind of literal justification for social hierarchy, but also a moral and ontological justification, gives shape to the universe and to the world. In conversations about what ought to be done in terms of the pursuit of astrological inquiry, there is still this assumption that humans are somewhere high up in that chain, and the pursuit of an alien-other is inevitably connected to the question of where will they exist in that chain. The presumption among too many scientists is that alien life will be lower down the chain, that the alien-other is going to inevitably be a less-than-human-other. Which means that we will act with the same entitlement that has historically been enacted upon the other-than-human world here on earth, and upon other human beings who have been seen as lower down on this chain.

DDS: My intent was to say there is a type of human hubris to think that we have a right to dismiss living people who are currently on this planet and their political views and their desires and their ways of knowing so that we can build a telescope on their land, destroying their property, and their relations, so that we can literally live in a hypothetical world based on what might be light years away. To me it’s a type of human-centric positionality that Lovejoy was saying fueled philosophy/theology for hundreds of years. And that’s why he essentially takes the time to go through the major philosophers that we would look back at and go, “Wow, I cannot believe from Aristotle to Kant, there is this presupposition that humans are somehow still above plants and rocks and other life forms and that we’re moving towards something called civilization.” That was important to do in the article because I don’t want to just simply disrupt what counts as life. I was trying to argue that what the search for extraterrestrial intelligence does is that it creates a notion that intelligence is something that certain civilizations have, collectively speaking, when in fact intelligence was something that one human individually might say about another human but you would never say a whole entire civilization is intelligent or not. The idea that intelligence is then going to be demarcated by technology and that we would find it through a “signature,” that’s what I was trying to problematize. 

Progress and Scientific Teleologies

GM: I think settler science continues to be caught up in this ideology, in this framework of thinking about the human and the alien-other that, from what I can tell, still shapes the vast majority of astrobiological pursuit. You’ve also been touching on another key ideological framework here, which is the teleological view of scientific development and progress. I was really struck by the ways in which archaic or historic modes of science were being folded into the history of astrobiology by some of the presenters, modes that insist on a radically different set of interpretations but that are currently deemed wrong.

The lesson is, well, let’s be humble and admit that there may be things that we don’t know, but only because it has yet to be discovered. It is not possible that that knowledge we need is actually knowledge we already possess, or that people already have access to, because this would be anachronic. This is another way in which settler science re-instantiates itself, by assuming that what mistakes we’re making now are for lack of knowledge, and that we will gain that knowledge in the future through a paradigm shift, or a unique discovery that radically challenges what we believe to be true in the present. 

DDS: I think you’re on to something and I don’t think anyone said that at the conference. I would agree that there’s a paradigm shift that’s necessary. I would actually call it a meta-paradigm because it’s even further beyond object-oriented ways of knowing. I think that’s an area that we should explore. Look where people go to even historicize their own histories of knowledge making. They go to Rome, they go to Greece, they go to Mesopotamia, they sometimes go to North Africa or Egypt. [pointing outside] We’re on Uypi land! We’re on the land of Indigenous people who have lived in these particular physical geographic areas for a very long time and have a way of knowing in this particular area that’s in relation to where the power is coming from which is right under our feet rather than inside our brain. So how do you move from a way of knowing that thinks that the whole reason that you’ve been successful, scientifically speaking, is because it has come from this primarily Greco-Roman world vs. from the land itself through the people. That’s a type of erasure that happens right there that Native Studies is trying to push back on. 

So then that forces you to reconcile what you’re doing not only as a colonial structure that has erased the Native people from these particular parts, but either continues to be okay with that erasure, or fails to recognize that we should sustain their internal knowledge making practices which might look like the arts, they might look like the crafts, they might look like plant knowledge because then we’ll be smarter about what it means to do work at UC Santa Cruz which is on Uypi land. Does that make sense? 

GM: One hundred percent. 

DDS: So it’s also how we ground the validity and authenticity of our claims. When the conference started yesterday I saw people who were referring to primarily male, European, scholarship. They were drawing their case studies from the centers of Empires, not the peripheries. They were talking about work that was valid because it was published. So all of that to me was a settler science that was asserting itself in this space that was ostensibly looking to think beyond-the-human and think about off-planet; and yet it was completely based in not only an on-planet way of knowing, but a settler science way of knowing.

Telescopes and Observatories on Native Land

GM: In your article on settler science you say “telescopes and observatories remain central to the search for extraterrestrial life, even if they often mean the destruction of life right in their shadows.” When I read this I couldn’t help thinking of telescopes like those on Mauna Kea, or Arecibo in Puerto Rico, and how they cast into the shadows Indigenous knowledge. They do this physically, by quite literally paving over, destroying, desecrating these places, but also by placing into an asymmetrical juxtaposition these two different epistemic methodologies. One that is funded by a massive apparatus of economic, military, and commercial strength, which is the U.S. Imperial project, and the other, which relies on a relationship to place whose possibility is threatened by those same forces. Even when I see sincere attempts by settler science to engage with Traditional Indigenous Knowledge, institutions of knowledge like UC Santa Cruz still cast in shadow the knowledge of Indigenous people, like the Amah Mutsun, a people who are continually working to try and support an understanding of the knowledge that they carry and the relationships to the land that they can enact.

“Selfie” of the James Webb Space Telescope primary mirror. “Webb primary mirror selfie.” Credit: JWST.

DDS: It’s absolutely right. I think that part of the essay was accentuated between our essays as a collection because you have the fourth article about Mauna Kea and so you can’t really think that these are separate conversations. I was talking about, particularly, Arecibo and why these observatories tend to happen in colonized spaces and why their existence and future depends on the maintenance of colonial structures. It has to do of course with environmental pollution. It has to do with what one thinks one can do with land. I mean look at how the creation of a large array of telescopes or a very, very, very large footprint of an observatory or listening station requires the decimation of a particular plant or animal environment already at that moment. You better be in conversation with the Native people of that land to understand how any knowledge made from those spaces is constructed, if not literally then figuratively, by a colonial order. And so I want to say: “what does it mean to do any kind of decolonizing work in the academy?” It means imagining a future that is not a settler future. And that would mean in ways that the university is not going to be willing to move freely, like what counts as knowledge production, what is peer review, what counts as a benchmark publication, are there other ways of sharing knowledge, making knowledge, demonstrating knowledge. That would all have to happen. That is a conversation that is as far away from astronomy right now as distant planets that are habitable. 

At this moment I would pause and say I’m trying to be careful not to create some sort of pan-Indigenous or cross-tribal perspective because everyone would have their own views and histories and stories. But there seems to be some recognition in Indigenous communities that we are not the only life forms. That’s why I think ontologically speaking we have to start entertaining the possibility of non-carbon based life; all these ways that life is constituting itself and showing up whether it be through power or manitou or some notion that there’s an essence that is shared between humans and non-human persons, that in certain intersubjective relations show up and changes you and changes them if there’s the gift of shared presence. And in those moments you recognize we’re not alone. At which point you then have to negotiate whether you’re going to share power and be in community and perhaps, as Native scholars have said in the last five years, make good kin with these other-than-human persons. 

Anomalous Phenomena

GM: What you’re saying makes me think about the intense ambivalence that I experience in the astrobiological community towards unidentified anomalous phenomena (UAP), and the ways in which that ambivalence is shaped by a variety of factors. Of course there’s the phobia of not being taken seriously, the stigmas that were historically applied to SETI and other groups, that even led to defunding, that still lead to unfair mischaracterizations. But I suspect there is also a real strong anxiety about whether or not UAPs force us to think outside of the terms of measurable empirical science. I’m guessing you know the term “unidentified aerial phenomena” was used within the military going back to the 1940s, but in the last year officials have started to refer to UAP as unidentified anomalous phenomena, which is the term that several of the astrobiology researchers brought up as a key feature of their research. “Anomalous” leaves open a range of possible phenomena and possible explanations that threaten to go farther than standard scientific consensus.

DDS: Yeah, I was trying to suggest in my article that these are a very disparate set of points on a spectrum. It’s very similar to when we were expressing that perhaps there’s a STEM approach that doesn’t see itself as dogmatic because it’s science, as if it’s not affected by subjectivities. Then, on the other end, you have people who believe that abduction claims and stories of UFOs are nothing more than urban legends or random people, probably uneducated, expressing some unknowing, and then that unknowing demonstrates their lack of education or awareness of what we know about the world. 

Now for me the reason why I’m able to say that those are points on a very long spectrum is because I was raised by a father who was an engineer working for a government contract group on UFO debris material to reverse engineer it. As a 9-year-old, I had an engineer (so, a STEM-trained) father saying that his job was to take this crash site material and determine whether it was terrestrial or extraterrestrial. Well listen, I know as a 9-year-old that THAT question only exists if you live in a world in which there’s the extraterrestrial possibility. I’m going back to the mid- to late-70s with a type of knowledge that these claims were in fact entertained by segments of the government. His meetings were with five-star generals. I think that the utility in my classroom conversations on aliens is that I can pretty quickly get into first-hand testimony by abductees and line those up with women’s claims of sexual abuse and harassment against current Supreme Court Justice members and listen to the way people are asserting ways of knowing. There’s one way of knowing, that is: I need to see the physical evidence and I need to know that this is just one person telling a story. And I think that alien abductions will always be one of the more fascinating subjects of inquiry because it’s hundreds of thousands of stories from multiple cultures around the globe of something happening that one segment of the scientific community wants to dismiss outright as not even being a feasible way of approaching this conversation.

GM: I think what’s interesting about that is one has to then wonder what really is the concern? What is the anxiety? There’s the social stigma, granted. There’s the possibility of being defunded, which has a historical precedent with SETI. But I think there’s something else, which is that it would force a negotiation with a set of possibilities or questions that don’t accommodate themselves to existing tools or methods. 

DDS: Well there you go. Now you’ve come full circle. What would that [set of possibilities] force a person to know about the world? That there is something there that might not be some ‘thing’ at all. My father would say around 1980: “I don’t necessarily know what it was. But I know because of my conversations with generals and people in the military that no human-made craft can turn that quick and move that fast without making sound and that’s actually based in physics.” He’s not a “believer” by any means. He’s literally saying as an engineer, based on what we have on recordings and on the literal radar screen, there’s nothing that can move that fast or turn that quick and be that quiet that is human made that we know of. And they’re aware of everything. They know what’s going on in terms of the Israeli military and UK military, Brazilian military. They’re literally saying that it is not in the realm of terrestrial engineering. So he’s basing his conversation about physics and physicality. I don’t ever want to be perceived as someone who’s trying to push that off the table. I think it’s valid. It’s sort of like when I use the analogy of traditional Chinese medicine and the notion of winds and channels and chakras. I’m not saying get rid of x-rays and antibiotics. I’m saying that we can’t keep pushing things off the table and then think we’re at the front edge of discovering life on other planets. We’re not even recognizing life on this planet! The alien abduction conversation helps us see the ways that some people understand presence and encounter as having no physical residue or no lasting impression on the instruments that we have to capture and to demonstrate that something actually happened. And that’s what has enabled so much of Indigenous history to be erased because those residues were dismantled, they were destroyed, and then by academics they were disregarded. So of course it doesn’t get to count as history. This is what my book was on, We Will Dance Our Truth, was that histories and notions of civil governance were denied Native people in Mexico because the proof of those histories was either not written down in an objective form or they were destroyed, dismantled, and disallowed by the governments that followed. 


GM: I kept on returning to this concept from military philosophy that Donald Rumsfeld made infamous, that there are known-knowns, there are known-unknowns, and then there are unknown-unknowns. It seemed to me that the scientists in the room were especially invested in the unknown unknowns, thinking this was the leading edge of what it would take to think outside of the limits of science. But to my mind it’s the unknown-knowns that are actually what is critical here, the things we don’t know that we already know. I thought that the classicists were making this point by bringing in examples of ancient Mediterranean knowledge as instances of both synchronicity and divergence from contemporary astrological inquiry. My sense was that everyone in the room could appreciate a kind of “gee whiz, isn’t it interesting that ancient Greeks had certain things right,” but the non-responsiveness to this evidence suggested that people felt it must have just been an accident, a lucky guess, or a clever extrapolation from what was immediately accessible from their empirical senses. It couldn’t possibly have been proper knowledge, knowledge equivalent to what we know, because they had no way of proving it using our contemporary technologies or methods.

DDS: Right, I think you and I both saw it and we [in the conference panels] didn’t even talk about this, which is interesting. I think we both saw a type of reception in the mini-conference that was akin to art appreciation. I don’t think people were seeing that what was being posited was an epistemological option to take this particular moment to enlarge the conversation. I think they were seeing, “oh, there’s some historical precedent to see objects as having an impact on human life.” But a few people in that conference – and I did love the presentations and I learned a lot – a few people (due to whatever reasons) were making the argument that objects may not be objects at all. 

GM: Or exclusively objects. 

Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex, the closest star-forming region to Earth. “Rho Ophiuchi (NIRCam Image).” Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Klaus Pontoppidan (STScI); Alyssa Pagan (STScI).

DDS: Or at all times. It’s really interesting when we look at the primary text of A. Irving Hallowell, who sort of started the ontological turn in many ways. His argument was based in linguistic constructivism. So you would have to get everyone in the room to understand that how they’re perceiving phenomena is made possible by the words that they have and the categories that those words make possible for them conceptually, which is a bit like George Lakoff’s work. Then once you’ve got them to see that, they would perhaps understand that the English language is incredibly representative rather than generative, and it’s incredibly nominal, which means it’s very thingy. It has a lot of subjects and nouns. Whereas Indigenous languages tend to have a lot of verbs and tend not to be representative, though they are capable of representing. So that kind of conversation: when are you going to have that conversation? It’s not going to happen in a twenty-minute presentation. And it’s not going to happen in a one minute and a half answer to a question after a presentation. 

GM: Right, but I mean this is just one more example of the same kinds of constraints that shape what is or isn’t considered possible, constraints that include NSF funding, NASA approval, and permission from the Defense Department. There are all of these constraints that determine research, and this is one of the arguments I make when I’m talking to scientists about Mauna Kea about why the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) shouldn’t be built there. My argument is that all science has to negotiate constraints. Some of those constraints are the instruments themselves, which is why people want TMT. Some of those constraints are funding. Some of those constraints are national sovereignty, and that, likewise, ethical constraints and self-imposed constraints that emerge from critical theory and political debate might also be a reason for not moving forward with this project. 

DDS: That’s absolutely right. I think that you can look around the room and say that when certain scholars are hearing the most structural critiques of what enables us to do research in our particular fields, there’s a type of internal interrogation about: “What am I willing to sacrifice? Well, my position is as a leader of the field, or the editor of a journal, or the chair of a department, or the president of a professional organization. What would people think if I came out against the next observatory on Native land? How would that impact whether I can afford my kids’ college education, or get a third car, or perhaps a condo in an urban center?” These ways of asking yourself what you’re willing to sacrifice, that’s always been the question of “the radical” in any space. I’m not lambasting anyone or saying how horrible this person is or that person is because they don’t understand how they’re benefiting personally from these larger ideologies and structures of colonization. But I have been in several spaces over the last year since the article came out where I’m talking about all of these colonial processes and the next person to take the stage after me designs interior spaces for people who are about ready to do leisure travel to space. They might design what the hotel rooms are going to look like at the International Space Station because it’s now been contracted out. I’m not going to sit there and say to another person to their face, “your personal benefit takes place due to the colonial structure that is space travel,” because I am no different. The whole reason I can pay a mortgage payment is because I receive tenure from higher education structures that are themselves, in the framing of Linda Tuhiwai Smith, one of the pillars of colonialism: education. 

Indigenizing and Healing Astronomy

GM: Maybe one last question that’s on my mind is what would be a next step towards, if not decolonizing astronomy, then Indigenizing astronomy? What is a next step that acknowledges that these are problems for thought that have to be addressed, for ethical reasons, but also in any honest pursuit of knowledge? Not just because it would make us better humans, better beings, better relations to other people, especially people who have been historically and structurally harmed by this particular epistemic methodology, by settler science. What would unsettle settler science in ways that give us meaningfully deeper and more complex access to knowing our world? I see this as being fundamentally about healing, about transforming into different sets of relationships. 

DDS: I mean we need another six hours to address healing. But let’s start with the premise that the question would be considered at all important. I would like to believe we live in a world in which it is an important question to ask how to unsettle/decolonize/Indigenize any particular field in higher education. My first response is that as a settler I shouldn’t be answering the question. This needs to be a collaboration between people who are allies of Native people and people at the forefront of Native sovereignty movements. I think it is impossible, if not unethical, for me as a settler to ventriloquize them. When I hear Indigenous people protest anything at all, I hear someone saying “stop,” and I see colonizers not meeting that very first request right at the outset. And I tend to think of how slow the academic culture is at changing. We are like a street paver that’s this huge metal wheel, but it’s moving so slowly, and it’s almost as if we’ve got somehow in a situation where people are caught under it, are about to get caught, and they’re saying “stop,” and we’re saying “well we can’t stop, that’s impossible.” So I think the first thing is to say we’re going to stop. We’re going to stop making knowledge in spaces that are colonized and taken from Native people until we foster an agreement based on ethics and values that both the Native people of any particular land and the settlers can agree to. I would say right there is a non-starter for a lot of people in higher education and the leaders of STEM fields. They wouldn’t ever say that their research is secondary to someone else’s wishes, particularly people as they would say, who are as “dogmatic,” as political activists or those in Indigenous sovereignty movements. I think it’s really telling that I have one possible answer and already it seems like an impossibility. 

GM: Once again, they’re too high up on that great chain. 

DDS: That’s absolutely right. Why defer to someone lower down the chain? I said last night in my presentation, that “there are people in this room with me who are proponents of this great chain of being.” And I just paused right after and saw a sort of look in my own face come up like, “wow, did I just say that? Where did that come from?” But the truth of the matter is that people aren’t going to recognize when they are based in an ideology or a hegemony that has become a meta-paradigm for them. And we can quote Thomas Kuhn all we want, who was talking about paradigms. I’m talking about meta-paradigms and of course people aren’t going to be like, “oh yeah, that’s me, that’s how I think, I am totally a proponent of this.” They’re going to immediately think that “they can’t be talking about me.” So it feels important to say that if you want to start asking yourself how to Indigenize or unsettle anything like your professional field, ask yourself how you’re benefiting from the colonial structures that made that field possible and that make it continue. 


This essay is part of the Ethics and Astrobiology series, funded by UCHRI’s Recasting the Humanities: Foundry Guest Editorship grant.

This publication was partially funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.