Dancers and media workers in rehearsal for IN THE RIVER. Photo: Eben Kowler
From Prophecy to Foresight, Reflections on IN THE RIVER
Last month, I wrapped production on a show I was working on called IN THE RIVER. This was a unique project that dealt with themes related to foresight. How do we understand the past? How do we to interpret the present? How do we create pockets of a a desired future in the present?
IN THE RIVER is a public performance by artist Karthik Pandian, commissioned by Midway Contemporary Art for its Off-Site program. Produced in collaboration with Mike Forcia and an ensemble of Twin Cities-based musicians, dancers, media workers, and activists, IN THE RIVER braids Indigenous prophecy, Black music, and stories of survival to challenge the colonial monument’s claim on space and time.
I’m extremely grateful to Midway for connecting me with Karthik, to Karthik for his vision, and to each of the participants for their trust and artistry. I’m very proud of the work we all did together.
Procession departing from the capitol. Video: Unicorn Riot
Something from this process that has stayed with me I only glimpsed during the actual performance. Because I was driving people and gear from the first location at the state capitol to the storefront installation in Lowertown, I only saw the very end of the second section of the piece which was a procession down the streets of downtown St. Paul. As they marched, the audience and performers chanted an adaptation of the Anishinaabe Seven Fires prophecy as told in The Mishomis Book by Edward Benton-Banai.
A (very) short summary of the Seven Fires prophecy:
The prophecy retells the history of the Anishinaabe people’s travels across Turtle Island, as well as their encounters with European settlers. The prophecy ends in the seventh fire with a choice for the light skinned race:
It is this time that the light skinned race will be given a choice between two roads. One road will be green and lush, and very inviting. The other road will be black and charred, and walking it will cut their feet. In the prophecy, the people decide to take neither road, but instead to turn back, to remember and reclaim the wisdom of those who came before them. If they choose the right road, then the Seventh Fire will light the Eighth and final Fire, an eternal fire of peace, love, brotherhood and sisterhood. If the light skinned race makes the wrong choice of the roads, then the destruction which they brought with them in coming to this country will come back at them and cause much suffering and death to all the Earth’s people. (Benton-Banai)
Three months ago, I did not know the Seven Fires prophecy. Now I’ve probably chanted it 5 or 6 times in rehearsal. I felt the power of speaking the words of the prophecy out loud in a group. In the days since, I’ve been thinking about what does the choice of the seventh fire mean to me?
As a futurist, I’m interest in taking seriously prophecy because it can change people’s world views.
To paraphrase from Willard Johnson in his article Contemporary Native American Prophecy in Historical Perspective, the lesson deserves a hearing by futurists because it produced movements from around 1745 to the suppression of the Souix Ghost Dance movement in 1890-91.
Marshall McLuhan wrote: the medium is the message. As a medium for communication, what is prophecy’s message?
A prophecy is a type of story, often with a religious or mystical origin. A prophecy’s narrative form will describe the present and interpret how what happened in the past has led to the present and the subsequent implications for preferred and alternative futures. Through its application, a prophecy aims to align our worldview and actions by connecting our daily lives to a cosmic, mystical, or religious meaning.
In the Seven Fires, the story activates a sense of historical time by beginning generations in the past and recounting history to the present moment. The prophecy concludes with a critical choice between futures. Will the light skinned race join the New People? a sense of our role historical time. And when it presents a critical choice, roots us in the consequences of our choices.
Often prophecies will enforce norms within a community, but they can also apply to outsiders. In the case of some Native American prophecies, one intended audience is Americans alienated by the actions of their government (Johnson). When unprecedented events make old stories and values obsolete, a prophecy can reveal a new paradigm to understand the world.
After nearly a century of suppression, a second age of prophecy began in the 1970s. When Johnson published his article in 1996, he did not believe any movements had been sparked in the contemporary age. 26 years later — with indigenous people fight on the front lines the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, his perspective might be different.
What might this mean for futurists, helping others navigating change?
In Donella Meadows’ list of the nine places to intervene in a system, mindset or paradigm is difficult to influence but highly influential on the behavior of a system. A change in mindset will have cascading effects on behavior, the flow of information, and the rules of a system. What if prophecy is the register to speak to that level of the system?
What would it mean for futurists to offer prophecy as a lens in addition to scenarios or preferred futures? How might we do this ethically, respectfully, and creatively? Even if it seems like a preposterous final deliverable, what could be learned from acting as if it wasn’t?
When I was an undergrad, I went to a workshop led by Krystal Krunch at the Walker Art Center. After a short meditation, participants were guided through giving an intuitive reading to a stranger. I faced my partner. We were sitting on the floor. The lights were dimmed. One person would saw what they saw in their mind – images, colors, sensations, it was very open ended. And the other person would listen, and could then choose to say what the reading meant to them.
What I took away from that experience was an awareness of what artist Susan Hiller calls “the provisional texture of reality.” The boundaries of what is perceived as normative experience are culturally determined and not fixed. There are possibilities for other ways of knowing. We should be careful not to cut ourselves off from the intuitive, mystical, and spiritual parts of the human experience. Working with them, we might be able to tell new stories about our past and the choices we face in the present.
As an emerging futurist, I want to approach these ideas with caution. Will it undermine my credibility later? Will I cause harm unintentionally? What gives me confidence to press post here is a quote my professor John Sweeney has repeated a few times this semester:
“Any useful idea about the future should appear to be ridiculous.” (Jim Dator)
It might be hard to imagine a corporate client convening an off-site to work with a prophecy consultant. But is it impossible? Could it instead be useful?