Trump observing SpaceX launch, May 20th 2020 (Photo Credit: Doug Mills/New York Times)

“In reaffirming our heritage as a free nation, we must always remember that America has always been a frontier nation. Now we must embrace the next frontier. America’s Manifest Destiny in the stars…The American nation was carved out of the vast frontier by the toughest, strongest, fiercest and most determined men and women ever to walk on the face of the Earth…

Our ancestors braved the unknown, tamed the wilderness, settled the Wild West…This is our glorious and magnificent inheritance. We are Americans. We are pioneers. We are the pathfinders. We settled the New World. We built the modern world.”

-President Donald J. Trump, 2020 State of the Union address


o most scholars, and certainly to the virtual majority of Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island, it is no secret that the country we call the United States of America was built upon the brutal subjugation of Indigenous people and Indigenous lands. Fueled by the American settler myths of terra nullius (no man’s land) and Manifest Destiny, the American settler state proceeded upon a project of cultural and physical genocide, with lasting effects that endure to the present day. The ‘settler myth’ permeates American culture. Words such as ‘pioneer’, the ‘West’, ‘Manifest Destiny’ grab the imagination as connected to the growth of the country in its early history. America sprang forth from a vast open ‘wilderness’. Of course, for Indigenous people, we know differently—these lands had complex cultural frameworks and political entities long before colonization. Words like ‘pioneer’ and ‘Manifest Destiny’, have deep meanings for us too, as they are indicative of the very real damage dealt against our cultures and nations, damage that we have had to work very hard to undo.

Trump’s address raises key insights into the continuing logics of settler colonialism, as well as questions of its future trajectories. Trump’s invocation of ideas such as the ‘frontier’ and ‘taming the wilderness’ draws attention to the brutal violence that accompanied the building of the American state. Scholars such as Greg Grandin (2019) make the case that the frontier is part of what America is—whether it is the ‘Wild West’, or the U.S.-Mexican border, America is always contending with a frontier that must be defined.  Language surrounding ‘frontier’ is troubling because it perpetuates the rationale of why the American settler state even exists—it could make better use of the land than Native people would, after all, they lived in wilderness. This myth tells us that what we know as the modern world was built through the hard work of European settlers; Indigenous people had nothing to offer or contribute. For someone like Mr. Trump, whose misgivings and hostility towards Native people have been historically documented, this myth fits well with his narrative as President—he is building a ‘new’ America, one that will return to its place of power and influence.

The fact that similar language is being used around the potential of American power being extended to space could reasonably be expected, given the economic and military potential that comes from such a move. Space represents yet another ‘unknown’ to be conquered and bent to America’s will. However, such interplanetary conquest does not exist solely in outer space. I wish to situate the very real colonial legacies and violence associated with the desire to explore space, tracing the ways that they are perpetuated and reified through their destructive engagements with Indigenous peoples. I argue that a scientific venture such as space exploration does not exist in a vacuum, but instead draws from settler colonialism and feeds back into it through the prioritization of ‘science’ over Indigenous epistemologies. I begin by exploring the ways that space exploration by the American settler state is situated within questions of hegemony, imperialism, and terra nullius, including a brief synopsis of the controversy surrounding the planned construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. I conclude by exploring Indigenous engagement with ‘space’ in both its Earthbound and beyond-earth forms as it relates to outer space, and what implications this might have for the ways we think about our engagement with space as the American settler state begins to turn its gaze skyward once again. I position this essay alongside a growing body of academic work, as well as journalistic endeavors (Haskins, 2020; Koren, 2020) that demands that the American settler colonial state exercise self-reflexivity as to why it engages with outer space, and who is advantaged and disadvantaged here on Earth as a result of this engagement.

Settler Colonialism and ‘Space’

A brief exploration of what settler colonialism is, and its engagement with ‘space’ here on Earth is necessary to start.

Settler colonialism is commonly understood to be a form of colonialism that is based upon the permanent presence of colonists upon land. This is a distinction from forms of colonialism based upon resource extraction (Wolfe, 2006; Veracini, 2013). What this means is that the settler colony is intimately tied with the space within which it exists—it cannot exist or sustain itself without settler control over land and space. This permanent presence upon land by ‘settlers’ is usually at the expense of the Indigenous, or original people, in a given space or territory. To reiterate: control over space is paramount. As Wolfe states, “Land is life—or at least, land is necessary for life. Thus, contests for land can be—indeed, often are—contests for life” (2006: 387).  Without land, the settler state ‘dies’; conversely, deprivation of land from the indigenous population means that in settler logic, indigeneity dies (Povinelli, 2002; Wolfe, 2006.)

The ultimate aims of settler colonialism is therefore the occupation and remaking of space. As Wolfe (2006) describes, the settler state seeks to make use of land and resources in order to continue on; whether that is through homesteading/residence, farming and agriculture, mining, or any number of activities that settler colonial logic deems necessary to its own survival. These activities are tied to a racist and hubristic logic that only settler society itself possesses the ability to make proper use of land and space (Wolfe, 2006). This is mated with a viewpoint of landscapes prior to European arrival as terra nullius, or empty land that was owned by no one, via European/Western conceptions of land ownership and tenure (Wolfe, 1994).

Because of this overarching goal of space, there is an inherent anxiety in settler colonies about space, and how it can be occupied and subsequently rewritten to remove Indigenous presence. In Anglo settler colonies, this often takes place within a lens of conservation. Scholars such as Banivanua Mar (2010), Lannoy (2012), Wright (2014) and Tristan Ahtone (2019) have written extensively on the ways that settler reinscription of space can be extremely damaging to Indigenous people from a lens of ‘conservation’. However, dispossession of Indigenous space in favor of settler uses can also be tied to some of the most destructive forces of our time. For example, Aboriginal land in the Australian Outback was viewed as ‘empty’ land that was turned into weapons ranges where the British military tested nuclear weapons in the 1950s, which directly led to negative health effects upon Aboriginal communities downwind from the testing sites (Vincent, 2010). Indigenous nations in the United States have struggled with environmental damage related to military-industrial exploitation as well.

Saturn V rocket. (Image credit: NASA)

But, what does this all look like in regard to outer space? In order to really understand the potential (settler) colonial logics of space exploration, we must go back and explore the ways in which space exploration became inextricably tied with questions of state hegemony and geopolitics during the Cold War. US and Soviet space programs were born partially out of military utility, and propaganda value—the ability to send a nuclear warhead across a great distance to strike the enemy via a ICBM and the accompanying geopolitical respect that came with such a capability was something that greatly appealed to the superpowers, and when the Soviets took an early lead in the ‘Space Race’ with Sputnik and their Luna probes, the United States poured money and resources into making up ground (Werth, 2004). The fear of not only falling behind the Soviets militarily as well as a perceived loss of prestige in the court of world opinion spurred the US onto a course of space exploration that led to the Apollo moon landings in the late 1960s and the early 70s (Werth, 2004; Cornish, 2019). I argue that this fits neatly into the American settler creation myth referenced by Trump—after ‘conquering’ a continent and bringing it under American dominion, why would the United States stop solely at ‘space’ on Earth?

To return to Grandin (2019), space represented yet another frontier to be conquered and known by the settler colonial state; if not explicitly for the possibility of further settlement, then for the preservation of its existing spatial extent on Earth. However, scholars such as Alan Marshall (1995) have cautioned that newer logics of space exploration such as potential resource extraction tie in with existing military logics in a way that creates a new way of thinking about the ‘openness’ of outer space to the logics of empire, in what Marshall calls res nullius (1995: 51)[i].

Telescopes on Mauna Kea. (Photo credit: University of Hawaii-Hilo)

But we cannot forget the concept of terra nullius and how our exploration of the stars has real effects on Indigenous landscapes here on Earth. We also cannot forget about forms of space exploration that may not be explicitly tied to military means. Doing so deprives us of another lens through which to view the tensions between settler and Indigenous views of space and to which end is useful. Indeed, even reinscribing of Indigenous space towards ‘peaceful’ settler space exploration have very real consequences for Indigenous sovereignty and Indigenous spaces. Perhaps the most prominent example of the fractures between settler space exploration and Indigenous peoples is the on-going controversy surrounding the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, on the island of Hawaii. While an extremely detailed description of the processes of construction on the TMT and the opposition presented to it by Native Hawai’ians and their allies is beyond the scope of this essay, and in fact is already expertly done by a number of scholars[ii], the controversy surrounding TMT is a prime example of the logics presented towards ‘space’ in both Earth-bound and beyond-Earth contexts by the settler colonial state as well as the violence that these logics place upon Indigenous spaces, such as Mauna Kea, which in particular already plays host to a number of telescopes and observatories (Witze, 2020). In particular, astronomers such as Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Lucianne Walkowicz, and others have taken decisive action to push back against the idea that settler scientific advancement via space exploration should take precedence over Indigenous sovereignty in Earth-space. Prescod-Weinstein and Walkowicz, alongside Sarah Tuttle, Brian Nord and Hilding Neilson (2020) make clear that settler scientific pursuits such as building the TMT are simply new footnotes in a long history of colonial disrespect of Indigenous people and Indigenous spaces in the name of science, and that astronomy is not innocent of this disrespect. In fact, Native Hawai’ian scholars such as Iokepa Casumbal-Salazar strike at the heart of the professed neutrality of sciences like astronomy: 

One scientist told me that astronomy is a “benign science” because it is based on observation, and that it is universally beneficial because it offers “basic human knowledge” that everyone should know “like human anatomy.” Such a statement underscores the cultural bias within conventional notions of what constitutes the “human” and “knowledge.” In the absence of a critical self-reflection on this inherent ethnocentrism, the tacit claim to universal truth reproduces the cultural supremacy of Western science as self-evident. Here, the needs of astronomers for tall peaks in remote locations supplant the needs of Indigenous communities on whose ancestral territories these observatories are built (2017: 8).

As Casumbal-Salazar and other scholars who have written about the TMT and the violence that has been done to Native Hawai’ians (such as police actions designed to dislodge blockades that prevented construction) as well as the potential violence to come such as the construction of the telescope have skillfully said, when it comes to the infringement upon Indigenous space by settler scientific endeavors tied to space exploration, there is no neutrality to be had—dispossession and violence are dispossession and violence, no matter the potential ‘good for humanity’ that might come about through these things.

Such contestations over outer space and ethical engagement with previously unknown spaces will continue to happen. Outer space is not the first ‘final frontier’ (apologies to Gene Roddenberry) that has been discussed in settler logics and academic spaces. In terms of settler colonialism, scholars have written about how Antarctica was initially thought of as the ‘perfect’ settler colony—land that could be had without the messy business of pushing Indigenous people off of it (see Howkins 2010). Of course, we know now that engagement with Antarctica should be constrained by ecological concern—who is to say that these concerns will be heeded in ‘unpopulated’ space? What can be done to push back against these settler logics?

Indigenous Engagement with ‘Space’

"River of Souls" by Carl Gawboy (as published in Indian Country Today, 4/2/16)

I want to now turn our attention towards the possibilities that exist regarding Indigenous engagement with outer space.  After all, the timing could not be more urgent to do so—we are now at a point where after generations and generations of building the myth that America was built out of nothing, we are now ready to resume the project of extending the reach of American military and economic might in space. To be fair, there are plenty of advances that can be made scientifically with a renewed focus on space exploration. However, history shows us that space exploration has been historically tied to military hegemony, and there is nothing in Mr. Trump’s temperament or attitude towards a re-engagement with space that suggest that his push toward the stars will be anything different. A sustained conversation needs to be had—will this exploration be ethical and beneficial to all Americans?

One potential avenue of Indigenous involvement comes through the active involvement of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous perspectives in space exploration, of course. This involvement can be possible through viewing outer space through a ‘decolonial’ lens, for instance. Astronomers such as Prescod-Weinstein and Walkowicz have spoken about the need to avoid replicating colonial frameworks of occupation and use of space when exploring places such as Mars, for example (Mandelbaum, 2018). The rise of logics of resource extraction in outer-space bodies have led to engagements by other academics such as Alice Gorman on the agency and personhood of the Moon. Collaborations between Indigenous people and space agencies such as NASA help provide the Indigenous perspective inside space exploration and the information that is gleaned from it, with implications both in space and on a Earth that is dealing with climate crisis (Bean, 2018; Bartels, 2019).

Another potential avenue of engagement with Indigenous methodologies and epistemologies related to space comes with engaging with Indigenous thinkers who are already deeply immersed into explorations of Indigenous ‘space’ here on Earth—the recent works of Indigenous thinkers such as Waziyatawin (2008) Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (2017), Natchee Blu Barnd (2018) and others provide a unique viewpoint into the ways that Indigenous peoples make and remake space—perhaps this can provide another blueprint for how we might engage with space beyond Earth. And that is just the work that exists within the academic canon. Indigenous people have always been engaged with the worlds beyond the Earth, in ways that often stood counter to accepted ‘settler’ conventions of space exploration (Young, 1987). In one example, when asked about the Moon landings, several Inuit said, "We didn't know this was the first time you white people had been to the moon. Our shamans have been going for years. They go all the time...We do go to visit the moon and moon people all the time. The issue is not whether we go to visit our relatives, but how we treat them and their homeland when we go (Young, 1987: 272).”

In another example, turning to my own people, the Ojibwe, we have long standing cultural connections to the stars that influence storytelling, governance, and religious tenets (CHIN, 2003). This engagement continues through to the present day, and points to a promising future. A new generation of Indigenous artists, filmmakers, and writers are beginning to create works that place the Indigenous individual themselves into narratives of space travel and futurity, unsettling existing settler notions of what our future in space might look like. As Leo Cornum (2015) writes, “Outer space, perhaps because of its appeal to our sense of endless possibility, has become the imaginative site for re-envisioning how black, indigenous and other oppressed people can relate to each other outside of and despite the colonial gaze.”

(Photo Credit: Indigenous Education Institute)

These previous examples should serve as a reminder that the historical underpinnings of our great national myth are built upon shaky intellectual ground—we need to be honest about this. America did not just spring forth out of nothing; it came from the brutal occupation and control of Native lands. Despite the best efforts of the settler state, Native people are still here, we still exist and make vital contributions to both our tribal communities and science. We cannot expect Donald Trump to turn his back on the national myth of what made the United States the United States—in his mind, this is the glorious history of what made America great in the past. And it should serve as no surprise that Trump and others wish to extend this history into outer space. Even when Trump’s days in the White House are over, the settler colonial logics that underpin our engagement with land on Earth will still loom large over the ways that we may potentially engage with outer space. But for those of us who do work in Indigenous geographies and Indigenous studies, it becomes even more vital that we heed the calls of Indigenous thinkers inside and outside formal academic structures, validate Indigenous histories, and push to deconstruct the American settler myth and to provide a new way of looking at the stars, especially at a crucial moment where the settler state turns its gaze towards the same.

[i] While this essay focuses on an American context, I highly recommend reading Alice Gorman’s piece “The cultural landscape of interplanetary space” for some examples outside of the United States, such as the British/Australian Woomera rocket range and its effects upon Aboriginal peoples.

[ii] I highly recommend the following articles as an entry point towards a deeper engagement with the TMT and Indigenous opposition to its construction:

The recent forum on Mauna Kea and TMT by Radical History Review’s ‘The Abusable Past’ section.

Cordova, Anna. 2016. "Scientific Colonialism in Indigenous Spaces: A Case Study in Hawaii." PhD diss., University of Colorado Colorado Springs. Kraemer Family Library.

Hobart, Hi'Ilei Julia. 2019. "At Home on the Mauna: Ecological Violence and Fantasies of Terra Nullius on Maunakea's Summit." Native American and Indigenous Studies (6)2: 30-50.

Maile, David Uahikeaikalei‘ohu. 2016 "On the Violence of the Thirty Meter Telescope and the Dakota Access Pipeline."

Maile, David Uahikeaikaeli'ohu. 2018. "Precarious Performances: The Thirty Meter Telescope and Settler State Policing of Kānaka Maoli."

Maile, David Uahikeaikaleiʻohu. 2019 "Gifts of Sovereignty: Settler Colonial Capitalism and the Kanaka ʻŌiwi Politics of Ea."

Kahanamoku, Sara S., Rosanna Alegado, Katie Leimomi Kamelamela, Aurora Kagawa-Viviani, Edward Halealoha Ayau, Davianna Pomaika'i McGregor, Tracy Ku'ulei Higashi Kanahele, et al.. 2020. “National Academy of Science Astro2020 Decadal Review: Maunakea Perspectives”.

Salazar, Joseph Anthony. 2014 "Multicultural settler colonialism and indigenous struggle in Hawaiʻi: the politics of astronomy on Mauna a Wākea." PhD diss., Honolulu: University of Hawaii at Manoa. 


Ahtone T (2019) "When conservation provides a cover for anti-Indigenous sentiments." High Country News. Accessed 10-30, here.
Banivanua Mar T and Edwards P, eds. (2010) Making Settler Colonial Space--Perspectives on Race, Place and Identity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Barnd NB (2017) Native Space: Geographic Strategies To Unsettle Settler Colonialism. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press.
Bartels M (2019) "NASA and Navajo Nation Partner in Understanding the Universe." Space. Access here.
Bean H (2018) "A bridge between Indigenous knowledge and NASA." University of Waterloo. Access here.
Canadian Heritage Information Network (Chin). 2003. "Indigenous Astronomy: The Anishinabe of Central North America." Acess here.
Casumbal-Salazar I (2017) "A Fictive Kinship: Making “Modernity,” “Ancient Hawaiians,” and the Telescopes on Mauna Kea." Native American and Indigenous Studies 4 (2): 1-30.
Cornish G (2019) "How imperialism shaped the race to the moon." The Washington Post, 2019. Access here.
Cornum L (2015) "The Space NDN’s Star Map." The New Inquiry.
Gorman A (2005) "The cultural landscape of interplanetary space." Journal of Social Archaeology 5 (1): 85-107
Gorman A (2020) "Can the Moon be a person?". Cosmos.
Grandin G (2019) The end of the myth: from the frontier to the border wall in the mind of America. New York: Metropolitan Books.
Haskins C (2020) "The Racist Language of Space Exploration." The Outline. Access here.
Howkins A (2010) “Appropriating Space: Antarctic Imperalism and the Mentality of Settler Colonialism.” In Making Settler Colonial Space--Perspectives on Race, Place and Identity. Edited by Tracey Banivanua Mar and Penelope Edmonds. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Kahanamoku S, Alegado R, Kagawa-Viviani A, Kamelamela K, Kamai B, Walkowicz L, Prescod-Weinstein C, Reyes M & Neilson H (2020). A Native Hawaiian-led summary of the current impact of constructing the Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea.
Koren M (2020) "No One Should ‘Colonize’ Space." The Atlantic. Access here.
Lannoy N (2012) "Wilderness Ideologies in a Settler Colonial Society: A case study of the Everglades National Park." Master of Arts, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles.
Mandelbaum RF (2018) "Decolonizing Mars: Are We Thinking About Space Exploration All Wrong?". Gizmodo. Access here.
Marshall A (1995) "Development and imperialism in space." Space Policy  11 (1): 41-52.
Povinelli E (2002) The Cunning of Recognition. Vol. Book, Whole. Durham: Duke University Press
Prescod-Weinstein C, Walkowicz L, Tuttle S, Nord B and Hilding (2020). Reframing astronomical research through an anticolonial lens -- for TMT and beyond.
Simpson LB (2017) As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Veracini L (2013) "Understanding Colonialism and Settler Colonialism as Distinct Formations." Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 16 (5): 615-633.
Vincent E (2010) “Never Mind Our Country Is the Desert.” In Making Settler Colonial Space--Perspectives on Race, Place and Identity. Edited by Tracey Banivanua Mar and Penelope Edmonds. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Waziyatawin (2008) What Does Justice Look Like? The Struggle for Liberation in Dakota Homeland. St. Paul: Living Justice Press.
Werth K (2004) "A Surrogate for War—The U.S. Space Program in the 1960s  " Amerikastudien/American Studies 49 (4): 563-587.
Witze A (2020) "How the fight over a Hawaii mega-telescope could change astronomy." Nature. Access here.
Wolfe P (1994) Nation and MiscegeNation: Discursive Continuity in the Post-Mabo era. Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice 36, 93-152.
Wolfe P (2006) "Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native." Journal of Genocide Research 8 (4): 387-409.
Wright, EA (2014) "Consuming Indigenous Space, Producing Canadian Place: Mobilizing Nationalism towards Canada’s National Parks " Master of Arts, Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Ottawa. Access here.
Young MJ (1987) " Pity the Indians of Outer Space": Native American Views of the Space Program." Western folklore 46 (4): 269-279.

Deondre Smiles, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral scholar at The Ohio State University. A citizen of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, his ongoing research agenda is situated at the intersection of critical Indigenous geographies and political ecology, centered in the argument that tribal protection of remains, burial grounds, and more-than-human environments represents an effective form of ‘quotidian’ resistance against the settler colonial state.