Gwich’in author Matt Gilbert aims for the universe, and beyond
An Indigenous Alaskan author is hoping to breakthrough into popular fiction. Matt Gilbert already has a pair of significant nonfiction books under his belt, but he wouldn’t mind crossing over into film work or novels set in a galaxy far, far away – in a genre that might be known one day as Gwich’in Sci-Fi.
Matt Gilbert has written the serious stuff. The 2005 graduate of the University of Alaska in English Literature just published The Gwich’in Climate Report (University of Colorado Press, 2023), a compilation of his interviews with Athabaskan community members, hunters, and trappers on regional adaptation to climate change. An earlier book, Sitting at Their Feet, a memoir of his coming-of-age during a time of cultural transition, was published in 2021 by the Epicenter Press.
Gilbert was featured in this 2008 report on Arctic climate change from National Public Radio.
Listening to elders is something we all should spend more time doing, but for Gilbert – even growing up in Arctic Village – there was something else.
“I was a big, big, big, huge sci-fi nerd,” said Gilbert. “Totally, a Star Wars fan all the way, a Star Trek fan all the way. Lord of the Rings fan, Willow fan, and as a kid, I would grow up and love these movies. But I always wondered: What about us?”
Star Trek is still celebrated for bringing racial and ethnic diversity to space. For Gilbert, it wasn’t necessarily about the racial makeup of the actors, but their worldviews. He was raised in a culture of storytelling that just wasn’t making its way into contemporary science fiction of any kind.
“As a kid, I was really disappointed, you know, really disappointed,” he said. “A little kid in front of the TV and a bookworm early on. Where’s our stories? You know, where’s the modern native stories, with sci-fi or fantasy, or with anything? And I waited. And so when I was 15 years old, I was in high school and still nobody – no Native American person wrote anything like it and I got tired of waiting. I was like, ‘Okay, if no Native writers can write the stories I want to hear, I’ll write them, and that’s what I did.”
He did, but not as Matthew Gilbert. You can find his first trilogy under the name Wolf Golan. “Wolf” for his first dog, and “Golan” a tribute to his grandmother’s family name. The series is called Chandera, and Gilbert began writing it in high school. It’s set 300 years in the future, and its protagonist is Maxwell Wilkes, a Gwich’in Athabaskan.
For the novels to work, Gilbert had to project not only the future of civilization as a whole, but the future of his culture. He was pleased to learn that many of his peers believed that people will still identify as Gwich’in three centuries from now.
“When I was writing it, I spoke to Native American people, even to young people like 20-year olds,” he said. “And I asked them, “In 300 years, how do you think we’d be? And they’d be like, ‘Oh, we’d be heavily westernized, our old culture would be gone. Yes, we’d have probably still have a connection, but it would be distant,’ and so I put that in there. They’re still trying to be Gwich’in, but it’s been so long since they were connected to the real culture 300 or 400 years ago.”
Gilbert says he’s been criticized for creating a character who tips too far into western standards of heroism, but he argues that the differences are subtle: In the first book of the Chandera series, for example, Max Wilkes rides into battle quietly, in contrast to Luke Skywalker and Hans Solo and other “Western guys… yelling stuff.” In another nod both cultural and autobiographical, Gilbert says his hero sleeps late.
Since Gilbert first started creating the world of the Chandera trilogy as a high school student, he’s pleased that Native American science fiction is seeing a renaissance, through the works of authors like Rebecca Roanhorse, and scholars like Grace Dillon, a professor at Portland State University whom he considers a mentor. And there are new characters, too, who are pushing the Native American worldview into space. A favorite of Gilbert’s is Camina Drummer, a pivotal figure in the huge sci-fi hit The Expanse.
Gilbert self-published the Chandera series, but he’s hoping a publisher might take the trilogy to the next level, into the world of trade fiction. In the meantime to pay the bills, he and a colleague run a management company, and he works occasionally in construction.
He vividly remembers finishing his English Literature degree, and looking around the university at friends studying to become engineers and other professionals. Eighteen years on, he’s still content with his choice to pursue writing.
“If I could go back and do it all over again, I don’t think I would change anything,” Gilbert said. “I I like being a writer. I like telling stories, you know. But I do actually want to do different things from this time onward.”
Gilbert is hoping to expand his creative range, and possibly move into music. Whatever is ahead, it’s unlikely to be a “normal” job. “I tried to get a normal job and be normal,” he said, “it (writing) just wouldn’t leave me alone.”
Matt Gilbert (Gwich’in) is from Arctic Village and grew up living with his grandparents.
Gilbert was always very driven, even at a younger age attending schools in the Native Village of Fort Nelson. But one thing that really stuck with him, and that he realized early on is that he wanted to be a writer.
“Since I was seven years old I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I think I got it from my great grandmother Maggie, she was the last Gwich’n story teller
Gilbert would graduate in 2005 from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks majoring in English Literature.
It was at that time his first opportunity struck when the University of Arizona came out with an ad for Native Authors.
“I responded, and I wrote out the elder stories.”
Those stories would be testimonies from the elders in his community talking about climate change.
He named his memoir The Gwich’in Climate Report and says there were things he learned from his elders that he hadn’t learned in all years he attended college.
“They gave such brilliant interesting knowledge about meteorology, ecology, all the subtle changes the climate is doing to the earth. Stuff you don’t hear in the climate change movement.”
After he published his non-fiction book, Gilbert said it got him excited about returning back to a sci-fi trilogy Chandera he created in high school.
“It’s basically Lord of the Rings with a brown Native man in the lead. He’s Gwich’in. They’re coming back from a mining planet, interstellar age where the milky age is colonized by humans and lived on. It’s like the expanse. They get attacked and they get warped somewhere into another galaxy.”
Gilbert is spending a majority of his time these days working on the sci-fi trilogy.