Indigenous Writes by Chelsea Vowel

This book is a gift. The more I read, the more I wondered why Chelsea Vowel was giving it to us ignoramus colonizers. We clearly don’t deserve it. We’ve been taught these lessons a million times over the last 150 years and we continue to be racist assholes, and yet Indigenous people continue to patiently explain our shared history (a.k.a settler’s repeated sabotage of Indigenous peoples’ right to exist). This book is like a neighbour teaching you how to make bread; this book is like a passerby helping to change your flat tire; this book is like Snow White taking care of the Seven Dwarves – the only thing in it for Vowel, as far as I can see, is that if she teaches us settlers what we’ve actually done to Indigenous peoples over the years, then maybe we’ll stop being idiots in the future.

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(Photo: Amy Attas)

I ordered this book because I follow Chelsea Vowel on Twitter (@âpihtawikosisân), where she always has fiery, intelligent commentary on Indigenous-settler relations in modern Canada. I was a little nervous before it arrived because I thought it was a university textbook – important, sure, but a little tough for my before-bed reading. But this book is not dry. In one of the most challenging chapters, where Vowel navigates the bureaucratic obstacle-course that is Indian Status, she pauses to write this:

“If this is boring the pants off you, please put them back on if you are reading this in public, and be comforted by the fact that this conversation is going to get more interesting soon. I promise. I just want to make one more point before moving on to more excellent discussions.”

This book is spawned from Vowel’s successful blog, which itself is spawned from Vowel’s discussions in Internet comment sections, where she often wished she could link to prior debunkings of oft-repeated misconceptions. So the tone is conversational, it is pointed and it is playful, and it’s clear she’s writing to be understood, not to show off how smart she is (she’s very smart). She explains the idea of land held in-trust using Batman, with Alfred taking care of things until the orphaned Bruce Wayne comes-of-age (Vowel also co-hosts a podcast called Métis in Space which skewers Indigenous representations in sci-fi TV and film). She tackles perpetuating stereotypes by holding the mirror up to settlers, and imagines both sides of the conversation:

“And if you’re still sticking to the whole, “Nope, you’ve got to do it the way your ancestors did way back when,” then I’d like you to name a specific date after which any technological innovation renders our traditions invalid. Then we can both agree that from now on, all peoples living in Canada will only be allowed to do things the way they did it before that date, and we’ll see how that works, okay?”

I’m trying to imagine Trump on horseback fighting his various wars with muskets. Or May 2-4 with mead and no motorboats. I guess we Europeans wouldn’t be allowed to use canoes or kayaks either, since those are Indigenous inventions.

Many other arguments have stuck with me. It’s often acknowledged that Canada used to be horrible to Indigenous people, but we’re different now. Vowel asks us to point to the moment when “then” switched to “now”. I was stumped. Vowel, who has a law degree, also introduced me to the phrase cui bono – to whose benefit?

“For many years, it has been asserted that virtually every government program designed and enacted by Indian Affairs was “for the benefit of the Indians.” This has been the position for everything from the creation of the Gradual Civilization Act, to the creation of the reserve system, to the institution of residential schools.”

I am now asking myself “cui bono” whenever I hear a white person come up with a “solution” to an Indigenous “problem”. Not to mention that my head is spinning from the fact that the Canadian government once had something called the Gradual Civilization Act.

Indigenous Writes is sprinkled with hope, too. A viral video of a modern Inuit dancing a traditional jig around Iqaluit. A white settler Canadian who did a decent job representing some Indigenous issues in his sci-fi novels. But I found the greatest hope in Canada’s greatest failure – the detailed list of feasible solutions, put forth by various commissions and inquiries, which the Canadian government has consistently ignored. So often bleeding heart settlers hear stories of Indigenous genocide and then throw up their hands saying, “what’s to be done?” Well guess what? The answers are already out there, in places like the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples! Sure, it sucks that the commission is from 1996, and if their 20-year plan had been implemented we’d be doing pretty good right about now, but it still brings me hope to know the plan is there. We just have to fucking do it.

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