family sitting on green grass field

A Seat at the Table

By Frank White

“Equal access to space is a human right. And the right of tribal people to go into space is a right of self-determination.”

Dan Hawk, Founder, All-Nations Planetary Defense
family sitting on green grass field
Photo by RODNAE Productions

Dan Hawk believes that the space movement will be missing something special without Indigenous wisdom and that tribal people will be missing something important without access to the space environment.

As a member of the Oneida Nation, part of the Iroquois Confederacy, Hawk knows all too well what a colonial mindset can bring forth, because his ancestors experienced it firsthand. He fervently hopes that Indigenous involvement in the space industry will mitigate the harm that would be done by an exploitative approach to the solar ecosystem:

“We are a community of people and that’s what we need to be when we go into outer space. We are not colonizers, and that is not how we go into space; Native Americans will not do that. If you look at our history, 

we can learn from what happened to Native American people, because we have been there, done that.”

Dan Hawk

Hawk’s early career did not point to the stars. In fact, it aimed him in the other direction, as he completed his military service on submarines. Later, while at NASA, he worked on an experiment growing plants on other planets. Before long, he found himself building a rocket with tribal youth as part of a Wisconsin Space Consortium contest. And, the rest is, as they say, history.

Dan Hawk – Principal Scientist, United First Nations Planetary Defense

He is quick to point out that being involved in space exploration is natural for any member of the Iroquois Confederacy, and also a part of history. “Our origin story tells us we came from a place called Sky World, which was above the Earth,” he says. 

Hawk says that he wants his community to “have a seat at the space table,” and he bristles at the thought that they have been prevented from doing so. In fact, the government applied the same regulation, known as ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations),

to the tribes that prevents US cooperation in space exploration with China.

I talked to one company about getting tribal governments into space. And they said, “Well, Dan, we can’t even talk to you. We’re not supposed to talk to you because you’re on the ITAR list.” And I said, “You have got to be kidding me!”

A week later I called back and said, “Would you check into this for me? Will you verify this for me?” And they said, “Yes, you are on ITAR list.” And then I worked with the State Department and the Defense Department to get us off the ITAR list.

Hawk doesn’t want to stop there, though. He thinks there should be a Tribal Office at NASA, and there should be a Space Act Agreement with the tribes:

The Cheyenne River Sioux tribal chairman, Harold Frazier, sent a letter to Jim Bridenstine (former NASA administrator) and said, “We are a tribal government, and we want to support and help NASA.” But the letter went unanswered.

How can tribal people help NASA? Hawk believes that Indigenous thinking can help the space agency and the space industry bring a stronger environmental awareness to the entire enterprise.

Nature has rights and so my question is, who speaks for the Moon, who speaks for Mars? That is an Indigenous perspective. What is important is to understand that when we go to the Moon next time, we treat it respectfully. 

Hawk’s training is as an engineer, and he believes that Indigenous thinking can inform a Western mindset, like that of spacecraft designers. He asserts that we can do engineering with an environmental end goal:

So we put a lander on the Moon. And at the end-of-life, some would say it is a cultural heritage. But it is also going to be debris. However, you can design it so that you pull a pin and all of a sudden it just falls apart. And you’re able to recycle the aluminum, you’re able to recycle all of it. So whatever we’re putting on the Moon, we should ask, “Hey, what are we going to do with it afterwards? 

For Hawk, this approach is not only the ethical way to go but it is also practical. Looking ahead, he suggests that if the space industry is not thoughtful in its approach to other planetary bodies, people on Earth will be marching and demonstrating in the streets to protest the desecration of such an important symbol as our lunar neighbor. So, it is better to get it right the first time!

Hawk’s primary organizational framework today is United First Nations Planetary Defense. The idea for the organization began with a focus on preventing an asteroid strike on Earth, but soon expanded to a larger vision:

An asteroid strike on Earth is the only preventable natural disaster. But you don’t have to blow it up to keep it from hitting the Earth. If you slow it down by 10 minutes, it’ll miss the entire planet. So, if we are able to impact it just a little bit and slow it down just a little, if it’s far enough away, by the time that the Earth goes around its orbit and around the Sun, the asteroid will miss Earth.

Hawk suggests that this minimalist mindset is typical of Indigenous thinking, but is not limited to a simplistic view of the subject:

Asteroids are important to us. That’s planetary defense, but what else is planetary defense? We’re getting back to the point of view of being caretakers, of the Earth, o0f our oceans, and of our orbital space, and that is also planetary defense.

We have expanded away from asteroids to taking care of the Earth and the Moon orbital space around the Earth and the Moon. 

Hawk says he is working with Orbital Assembly because the company’s vision and his vision are similar. For example, he supports OA’s commitment to creating space habitats with some level of gravity because it is good for human physiology, but also opens up new avenues for experiments in space. And his interest in collaboration goes beyond that particular facet of the OA vision:

Native Americans have been left out and we have not been a part of the space equation. I say, “Let’s work together and see if we can be a part of the equation, for mutual benefit. I’m hoping that Orbital Assembly will lift us up and in return that we’ll be able to lift them up. If we have a seat at the table, it will benefit everybody.”

About the Author

Frank White is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard College, a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and a Rhodes Scholar. He earned an M.Phil. in Politics from Oxford University, where he was a member of New College. The fourth edition of Frank’s best-known book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, was published by Multiverse Publishing, a division of Multiverse Media LLC, in 2022. Frank is president of The Human Space Program, Inc., a nonprofit organization based on an idea initially proposed in The Overview Effect.

(c) Copyright Frank White, 2023, All Rights Reserved. Published with permission by Above Space