The Need for Indigenous and Interdisciplinary Perspectives in SETI and Space Science


Figure 1: The cover AICRJ Volume 45 Number 1, with illustrations by Dr. Joanne Barker

Title: Settler science, extraterrestrial contact and intelligence searches

Publishers: David Delgado Shorter, Kim Tall Bear

Authors: David Delgado Shorter, Kim TallBear, Sonya Atalay, William Lempert, Rebecca Charbonneau, David Uahikeaikalei’ohu Maile, Fantasia Painter, Suzanne Kite

Status: Published in the AICRJ (closed access)

Astronomers have long sought to answer the question “Are we alone?” But, how can we effectively and ethically search for extraterrestrial life, when contact between “intelligent” groups and species on Earth has such a disastrous history? the Journal of American Indian Culture and Research (AICRJ) published a special volume in December 2021 focusing on astronomy and space science, in particular the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Many authors have also participated in a Zoom Webinar in February 2022 to discuss their work. The volume draws on the experience of four of the authors as a working group on native studies within the Revolutionary Listening (BL), a major SETI collaboration. BL posed the question, “What would you most want SETI scientists to know about the potential handshake?” [with extraterrestrial life]?”

Indigenous Studies Task Force Statement

In May 2018, Sonya Atalay, Guillaume Lempert, David Shorterand Kim TallBear shared their answer to this question. All four are involved in scholarly work involving Indigenous studies, while only Atalay and TallBear are themselves members of Indigenous communities. Focus on BLs self-description and website, the working group analyzed the ethics of ongoing SETI research. They expressed concern about BL’s lack of discussion of ethics and contact protocols. They also note the complexity of terms often used in SETI, such as “advanced civilizations” and “intelligence”, which are both highly contextual and subjective concepts. Ultimately, the working group recommended the creation of a statement of goals and best practices for SETI/contact. Such a statement would include:

  • a focus on technology rather than intelligence
  • why contact is important
  • contact methods used and their possible risks to extraterrestrial life (ET)
  • a recognition that life elsewhere can be very different from life on Earth
  • a recognition that intelligence and advancement cannot be objectively measured
  • whether ET life has the right to refuse contact

Atalay also stressed that intent is not synonymous with impact and that avoiding harm must be a priority, and Lempert discussed the history of violence in “contact” scenarios on Earth that resulted to violence and violence. colonialism.

“Most of what can be developed in the name of science can also be used in the name of militarization.” –David Shorter

Complex connotations

Shorter’s Piece On the frontier of redefining “intelligent life” in settler science discussed the language of SETI, in the context of the history of the terms in colonialist efforts. from NASA High resolution microwave sounding, a major SETI observation program that was canceled only a year after its launch, intentionally launched on the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in America in 1592, signifying the colonialist motivations behind space exploration. The constant use of terms like frontier, pioneer, and even manifest destiny in these areas points to a violent past. By using these terms in the context of positive progress, SETI is implying that this colonialism is a good thing and a goal to aspire to in space. Ultimately, SETI scientists must look beyond our anthropocentric and Eurocentric notions of “intelligence”, “advancement” and even “life” in order to realistically and ethically search for extraterrestrial life. Intelligence can be measured in different ways, none of which are objective, and advancement on one axis does not mean advancement in all aspects of society.

“By directly addressing the history of colonialism and building good relationships with home communities and nations on our planet, we can ethically explore space and perhaps contact life on other planets. ” –David Shorter

Scientific imperialism

by Lempert From interstellar imperialism to celestial orientation: main directives and colonial temporal nodes in SETI taken from the historic HMS Effort tailor-made trip Transit of Venus in 1769as a vivid example of how imperialism is often related to science. The voyage was praised for its scientific success, but the captain, James Cook, was under secret orders from the British monarchy to annex as much land in the Pacific as possible. This article points out that scientific missions, intentionally or not, often contribute to imperialist conquest. Referencing Star Trek’s “primary directive” and the many times the crew broke this rule, Lempert explores SETI’s “primary directive” to “just listen.” For now, we are just listening, but if/when extraterrestrial life is discovered, we cannot control how humanity might respond/react.

“This is not to say that science is inherently harmful, but rather that it is and remains deeply tied to imperial power.” – Guillaume Lempert

The complicated history of SETI

Rebecca Charbonneauit’s Imaginative Cosmos: The Impact of Colonial Legacy on Radio Astronomy and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence addressed the complicated history of SETI and its relationship to colonialism. Alongside the colonialist language of SETI, the history of radio astronomy is peppered with telescopes built with military ties and on stolen land (e.g. Arecibo Observatory). Some SETI scientists, such as Carl Sagan, have made efforts to incorporate interdisciplinary viewpoints, but much more work needs to be done in this area. Charbonneau also studies SETI as a reflection of humanity and how practitioners view themselves and their species.

“Astronomers’ simultaneous embrace of this historical projection and unease with its implications illustrates the unstable nature of the physical, social, and disciplinary underpinnings still implicit in their research” – Rebecca Charbonneau

The Green Bank 100m Telescope in daylight, pointed to the side of the image and slightly up

Figure 2: The 100m Green Bank Telescope (image by Macy Huston)

Technoscientific conquest in Hawaii

David Mailepiece of Being Late: Mauna Kea Cruise and Hawai’i’s Disturbing Technoscientific Conquest comes from his personal experience as a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) scholar and activist. Maile is a proponent of “rewriting the earth” or using academic work to support direct action. The building of the Thirty meter telescope has been planned for Mauna Kea, the most sacred mountain for Native Hawaiians, since 2009. View this Astrobite and the Astrobite sequel for more information on this conflict. Maile explores the colonialist history of astronomy in Hawai’i and the Kanaka Maoli resistance to settler science, focusing on the backwardness. The protests on Mauna Kea were considered “late” because some telescopes already exist on the mountain, unlike how the Hawaiians managed to impose delays and additional costs on the construction of the TMT.

“It’s okay to be late for wrestling.” – David Maile

What jurisdiction do foreigners come under?

Fantasy Painter explored the role of government in ET contacts and jurisdictional considerations in G-Men, Green Men, and Red Land: Alien Miscreants, Federal Jurisdiction, and Exceptional Space. Who decides how to proceed if extraterrestrial life arrives on Earth? the FBI Files of cow mutilation (which many attribute to extraterrestrials/UFOs) that occurred across the country in the 1970s show the struggle for federal jurisdiction, as the FBI initially avoided the issue and local police forces did most of the investigation. The office eventually decided that it would only investigate events on reservation land. This leads to some interesting considerations regarding jurisdiction in the case of extraterrestrial life landing on Earth. Colonial conquests in America have been highly bureaucratic and legal, while extraterrestrial imaginations paint a very different picture of a swift and chaotic colonial takeover. Painter points out that both contact and colonization are long-term processes, not instantaneous events.

“What happens the day after the apocalypse? – Fantasy Painter

Native Attitudes Against Settlers About the Unknown

In the commentary section of the volume, Suzanne Kite contributed “What is on the earth is in the stars; and what is in the stars is on the earth”: Lakota relations with the stars and American relations with the Apocalypse. Kite explores how the fear of the unknown, which many American colonists harbor, leads to conspiracy theories, highlighting the links between nuclear war and ufology. Taking advantage of these fears of extraterrestrials and supernatural beings, the colonizers are able to idealize themselves as the colonized, in a “movement towards innocence”. These attitudes contrast sharply with the Lakota’s respect for the unknown. Respect rather than fear of the unknown is central to ethical interaction with potential extraterrestrial life.

“A new alien invasion will not absolve the colonists or render irrelevant that the continent remains occupied” – Fantasia Painter

Place of Indigenous Perspectives in SETI

Kim TallBear concluded the volume with a creative piece of non-fiction, Close encounters of the colonial genre, which depicted the tenuous relationship between native scholarship and settler-based fields.

“He believes in two things simultaneously, that a signaling civilization is advanced, but not fully alive. Aliens are also his noble savages. – Kim Big Bear

The AICRJ issue introduces some very important ideas regarding contact with potential extraterrestrial life, and SETI researchers and other space scientists need to thoroughly examine Indigenous perspectives in order to move forward in our fields. Ultimately, answering the question “are we alone?” ethically and accurately requires a deeper examination of who “we” even are.

Edited by Pratik Gandhi, Briley Lewis, Huei Sears

Cover Image Source: Cover of AIRCJ Volume 45, Joanne Barker

About Macy Huston

I am a fourth year graduate student at Penn State University studying astronomy and astrophysics. My current work focuses on technosignatures, also called Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). I am generally interested in research on exoplanets and adjacent exoplanets. In the past I have researched planetary microlensing and the formation of low mass stars and brown dwarfs.


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