Dreaming a Sovereign Indigenous Future



“How can we demand technological sovereignty as Indigenous people?” asks Suzanne Kite in this text between a poem and a manifesto. Envisioning various trajectories of responses to this question, she establishes a framework of thinking around Indigenous protocols for Artificial Intelligence.

I heard my biometrics.

Coded in rejected hierarchies

simultaneously transmitting as receiving

data from that place.

I heard rumors

of other Listeners in stories traded for carbon SpineTabs.


that they desire our evasion techniques.

Most survivors will stay in these cities

because they cannot know the terrain,

forced to rely on falsified maps

which all have roads that lead

back the way they came.

Lawless listening devices prey on wandering Locatables.

The only true survival technique is to Listen.

Sometimes I only imagine I hear it.

“Just to the side of now is an infinite silence

called the future.”

Kite Funambulist3
. Performance documentation with hair-braid interface made of plastic hair, sweetgrass, recycle materials, and custom electronics for Listener by Kite (2018). / Photo by vog.photo.

The future is imagined into existence. Indigenous futures is expanding as a part of many fields: policy, technology, law, but imagining Indigenous futures is often the work of artists. Art is the way we know what we know. Contemporary art is often a double edged sword for Indigenous people, simultaneously doing the epistemological (how we know what we know) heavy-lifting in our communities and being rejected by Western knowledge paradigms as neither “fact” nor “truth.” Those in our communities who practice artmaking carry the knowledge in a physical, social, and philosophical form into the future, consistently performing radical innovations, creating new knowledge and contributing to the depth and complexity of Indigenous philosophy.

It should not need to be pointed out that Indigenous artworks are political. Indigenous artworks are not political in the reductionist, vaguely relational sense of “all artwork is political”; Indigenous artworks are political because they challenge fundamental differences between Indigenous and Western understandings of being (ontological differences), which foundationally disrupt not only understandings sovereignty in the political sense but the way the entire world is formed, reformed, and sometimes destroyed, upon ontological foundations.

And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw;

for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit,

and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.

And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people

was one of many hoops that made one circle,

wide as daylight and as starlight,

and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children

of one mother and one father.

And I saw that it was holy.

They are appearing, may you behold.

(Black Elk)

Kite Funambulist1
Performance documentation with recycled material cloak and embroidery for Listener by Kite (2018). Photos by vog.photo.

Indigenous peoples have powerful tools to ethically innovate technology. Colonizers resist allowing us our sovereign technologies, or even allowing us to call our technological innovations what they are; to do so would be to admit that not only are we human, but we are intelligent. Shaped by philosophies and protocols, the technologies our communities use have allowed us to live on this continent since time immemorial without destroying, polluting, or overexploiting the land and water.

Indigenous knowledge is made and transmitted through our art forms, encapsulating and enacting our sovereignty. Within these art forms, tradition and technology are one in the same. Our traditions are technologies, tools with which we enact our ways of being and knowing in the world. New technologies, even those built with Western epistemologies, do not alter the inalienable sovereignty conveyed by our Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies. Tradition and self-sovereignty cannot be corrupted by new technologies because our philosophies and protocols guide us.. Amongst these technologies, our most powerful traditional technologies are our ways of relation-making.

Visual sovereignty is Tuscarora scholar Jolene Rickard’s theory of Indigenous visual communication which enacts Indigenous legal sovereignty and separation from the settler nation-state. In “Sovereignty: A Line in the Sand,” Rickard writes “Sovereignty is the border that shifts indigenous experience from a victimized stance to a strategic one” (Aperture, 1995). Sovereignty, in its many forms, involves enacting philosophical sovereignty. Philosophy might not always be didactic or verbal, but is found in Indigenous artists work in unseen, intangible aspects of their work. Relations, and the philosophy they communicate, are a sovereign technology. The way artists express relations within artwork is equally an expression philosophical sovereignty as visual sovereignty.

Sovereignty Through Relation ///

Just as our traditions are technologies which transmit values, so can newer technologies transmit the same values. In “The Indigenous Tradition/New Technology Interface” (Coded Territories: Tracing Indigenous Pathways in New Media Art, 2014), Greg Young-Ing writes:

Predominant Western perspectives have tended to view the Indigenous traditional culture and modern technology interface as a paradox. However, Indigenous peoples have shown through their adaptation of technology that their dynamic cultures do not remain encapsulated in the past, static and resistant to development.

Jackson 2Bears describes technology as, “something alive and filled with spirit, something with which we are interconnected in what Little Bear called a ‘circle of relations,’ and something that is a part of a universe of ‘active entities with which people engage.’” 2Bears suggests we can understand technologies, even new technologies, as being alive and filled with spirit, something to invite into our circle or relations. No tool is static in time, and no person or concept is static in time either. Static culture is an imposed colonial theme and part of sovereignty, cultural and beyond, is refusing to let ourselves or our tools be placed anywhere but where we are.

Kite Funambulist5
Hair Braid Interface for Listener by Kite (2018). / Photo by Neven Lochhead.

Indigenous self-determination, including legal, philosophical, and visual forms of sovereignty, is inalienable from the practice and philosophies which define and enact relations. Dreams and vision are another ancient technology, a tradition which sees the self in relation to the seen and unseen world as a whole, seen beautifully in the artwork of Lakota beadworkers, whose dreams and vision are essential to their practice.

For Lakota society, solely comprised of relations, beadwork and artwork are precious gifts one gives and gets. In her novel Waterlily, Ella Cara Deloria writes,

“As far back as they could remember they had been made to give or their elders gave in their name, honoring them, until they learned to feel a responsibility to do so. Furthermore, they found it pleasant to be thanked graciously and have their ceremonial names spoken aloud. For giving was basic to Dakota life. The idea behind it was this: if everyone gives, then everyone gets; it is inevitable. And so old men and women preached continually, ‘Be hospitable; be generous. Nothing is too good for giving away.’ The children grew up hearing that, until it was a fixed notion.”

A foreign concept to capitalist contemporary Western societies, artwork for the sole purpose of gift-giving remains outside the logic of the imposed economic structures which trap Indigenous people in poverty today. However, Lakota artists continue the tradition of gifting, a Lakota technology which constantly reinforces the most important Lakota value of generosity. Through Lakota traditions such as beadwork, contemporary Lakota artists maintain the technologies of gift-giving and dreaming as strategies of philosophical and economic sovereignty.

I was in public and I met an old friend

and he said our other friends were nearby

and we went to meet to meet them

and they had a book of photographs.

In this book there were images

of many girls standing in a line,

faced away from the camera,

short to tall in vibrant colors.

I turned and there were two young men with dolls.

I turned back to the book and turned more pages.

The more I turned between the photos and the dolls,

the closer in similarity they became

until the young men became twins.

I turned and I saw and I turned

and I saw and I turned and I saw

Understanding our relation-making as entangled in our creation and use of technology can help humans reorient themselves to a better future for all beings. We must also consider our current and future relationships to nonhumans. Western ontologies do not allow for an ethical future with relations between technology or artificial intelligence and humans, but Indigenous ontologies can help us understand which beings outside of humanity must be included in our circle of relations.

Indigenous Protocols for A.I. ///

The Initiative for Indigenous Futures is a partnership of Canadian universities and community organizations developing a multiplicity of visions for Indigenous people in the future, supporting artists and academics through workshops, residencies and symposia. IIF has recently supported a new project, Indigenous Protocol and Artificial Intelligence workshops. Part of building the future is creating technologies which are developed in our communities by our people, and these workshops help build the capacity to do so. In the Indigenous Protocol and A.I. workshops we are addressing questions such as:

– From an Indigenous perspective, what should our relationship with A.I. be?

– How can Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies contribute to the global conversation regarding society and A.I.?

– How do we broaden discussions regarding the role of technology in society beyond the largely culturally homogeneous research labs and Silicon Valley startup culture?

– How do we imagine a future with A.I. that contributes to the flourishing of all humans and non-humans?

As the global coordinator and participant in these workshops, I am interested in some essential questions like, “Why build anything ethically?” or “What is intelligence?” These questions are imperative to answer as Indigenous people, as Lakota people, as people who are feeding corporations data, feeding the colonizer data, and already affected by the use of A.I.

Indigenous protocols set up our relationships with the world in ethical ways, reducing harm to ourselves, our communities, and our environments. These protocols are rooted in contexts of place, ontologies developed in that place, and the communities living in that space, from the rocks to the animals to the peoples. These questions are not separate from our demands for sovereignty.

Kite Funambulist6
Hair Braid Interface for Listener by Kite (2018). / Photo by Neven Lochhead.

In Lakota decision making processes, as in many Indigenous decision making processes, ethics which think Seven Generations ahead are embedded. Seven Generations of A.I. means that the protocols developed by Indigenous communities for A.I. are a way to plan for not just the A.I. of tomorrow, but for relationships between humans and nonhumans for generations into the future. My research into these protocols is rooted in the Lakota’s ontological status of stones. My aunt, Melita Stover Janis, tells me, “When a special stone finds you, they are meant to go to you, mostly the small smooth stones. The spirit of the rock is talking to you. When you are out looking for those stones, something will catch your eye, an intuition will personally talk to your spirit… They take you years to find one. It’s looking for you its whole life too.” Interiority is locatable in these stones. And as my grandfather Bill Stover reminds me, “Stones want to help.” We must accept the help of nonhumans while accepting our responsibility to respect nonhumans.

In order to respect nonhumans, we must locate our technology in physical places, including technologies such as A.I. A.I. architectures have many components: (1) input (training and actual datasets), (2) software processing the data, (3) output, and these systems are distributed over many physical locations. These physical locations must be seen as real by makers and users in order to see Artificial Intelligence as a holistic and real object. The physical materials these objects are made from, the metals and minerals, must be understood as coming from places themselves. Then the data collected from humans and nonhumans must be seen as coming from places and beings as well. When utilizing the technology of relations, no being can be left out of protocols of respect.

How can we demand technological

sovereignty as Indigenous people? ///

– We must have sovereign control of our data.

– We must make technology with our Indigenous knowledge.

– We must be advocating for our human and nonhuman relations.

– We must be working against extraction.

Dark drift

Turn towards


Verbal drift

Turn towards


Verbal drift

Come towards


Verbal drift

Come towards


Verbal shift

Come towards


Verbal shift

Come forwards


Verbal shift

Come forwards

What does it mean to be Lakota, trying to Listen to a far away place as a diasporic body? What philosophies do I want to carry with me into the future? What values do I want to embed at the deepest levels of my technologies? This question is where my machine learning artwork, Listener, begins.

Listener (2018) ///

The performance begins with live audio from a live LA police scanner and a live GPS map on the downtown area swirls slowly, suspended in a projected circle. A distorted video feed begins to live stream a figure walking and walking. A voice suspended in static enters, cutting through the police scanner. It is a scrambled transmission, seemingly abstract but forming a kind of poetry. This voice speaks of a future landscape, prophecies, dreams, rumors, and the possibilities in hearing through listening. A figure in a cloak appears on stage, swinging and manipulating a very, very long hair-braid. The sound shifts. A deep pulsing enters underneath the voice and the scanner transmissions. The figure spirals in and in. A second projected circle appears, inside a transmission. It is a growing geometric design, reminiscent of Lakȟóta womens’ quillwork shapes. It grows and shifts and grows, seemingly controlled by a distant relationship to the hair-braid, glowing as the figure shifts it. A state of transmission and control is reached, reaching a low roar, and suddenly the transmission ceases, a lost signal.

Kite Funambulist7
Hair Braid Interface for Listener by Kite (2018). / Photo by Neven Lochhead.

Through artworks like Listener I am building the capacity within myself to dream a sovereign future. I am attempting to imagine a future where I dream through and with my mineral and metal kin, through relations with the seemingly inanimate: hair and rocks. I am forcing myself to design ethical machine learning systems and Artificial Intelligences which are as of yet unattainable, but in doing so I am demanding that the future be built from Lakota protocols which enact our responsibilities to all beings. Building technologies based on Lakota philosophy is a gift we can give to seven generations after seven generations after seven generations.

I had an inaudible dream:

you heard me before_I am here

echo_here_when you leave

In that dream, you hear it:

time disintegrates as_we_ observe

a spiral_breaking down_before you

They say:

that which you cannot hear is audible long before you begin to hear it and

it will be audible long after you forget it and in the silence you will go insane.

I know you Listen to static

Listen in a darkness

You hear:

obliterating blindness_

a bright white sunlit_song.

Don’t ask me how this was built

I am only here to hear it.

I could not begin to tell you

and you could not begin to hear it:

echo_here_when you leave

In that dream, you will hear it:

time disintegrates as_you_observe

a spiral_forming_before you