Reading Indigenous Writes by Chelsea Vowel (book review)

This is the first in a series of book reviews written by FAUW’s Indigenization Working Group.indigenous_writes_web

Vowel, Chelsea. Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada. Highwater Press, 2016, 240 pages.

—Katy Fulfer, Philosophy/Women’s Studies

I have good intentions when it comes to Indigenizing the university and decolonizing my teaching. I have resources available to help with the latter, but the former leaves me feeling overwhelmed. However, dwelling in a space of inaction is irresponsible. ‘Having good intentions’ won’t address structural injustice (and can perpetuate it).

Thankfully, educator and lawyer Chelsea Vowel wrote a primer for people like me who know that I ought to—and need to—know more than I do about Indigenous issues in Canada. I was attracted to this book because I’m a mega-fan of the Métis in Space podcast, in which Vowel and co-host Molly Swain provide a smart, sarcastic look at representations of indigeneity in science fiction film and television. Vowel brings the same sense of humour to Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada.

Indigenization working group book reviews: Indigenous Writes by Chelsea Vowel. There is a map of traditional territories in Canada in the background.

A guide to Vowel’s guide

I’m part of a group of FAUW members who are thinking and working together on how FAUW might support the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action and UWaterloo’s Indigenization Strategy. This blog post is part of our book review series. But how does a person (who, I admit, lacks Vowel’s talent for wit) provide a concise summary of an already accessible book that covers as much ground as this one does?

Generous tone

I recommend reading Indigenous Writes with a box of Timbits in front of you. Imagine you are sharing the Timbits with Vowel. She reaches across the table out of respect and friendship, knowing that you (a non-Indigenous person) and she (a Métis woman from manitow-sâkahikan territory, or Lac Ste. Anne, near Edmonton) might not always agree, but can come to understand one another better. Given the privilege that settler ways of approaching the world have in our society, this strikes me as a generous position for an author to take. Vowel’s generosity is part of what makes her book accessible.

That being said, Indigenous Writes is not always a comfortable read. Vowel takes systemic injustices to task, including people who actively or passively maintain those injustices. She emphasizes the importance of understanding contemporary issues in the context of histories of assimilation tactics. Regardless of whether you agree with her political stances while you munch your Timbits, you’ll leave this book having learned more about historical and ongoing colonialism in Canada. Share your leftover Timbits with someone else while you tell them about what you learned from Indigenous Writes.

Ready-at-hand resources

The book has 31 chapters and is divided into five parts. Each chapter is suitable to be read by itself, so you could jump around the book (or read a chapter a day, with a donut obviously, over the course of a month).

Part 1 examines complexities around the language used to describe Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, and what choices Vowel makes for Indigenous Writes.

Part 2 looks at culture and identity, including an examination of differences between First Nations peoples (registered, status, and non-status), Métis, and the Inuit. Some of these chapters discuss structural issues, like the Indian Act; others focus on ways in which indigenous cultures are threatened with erasure by settler cultures.

Part 3 debunks common myths and stereotypes, both contemporary (e.g., the myth that Indigenous people are genetically prone to alcohol abuse) and historical (e.g., the myth that Indigenous people were wandering nomads).

Part 4 confronts systemic state violence (residential schools, the sixties and millenial scoops, inuit relocation, Indigenous farming in the prairies, and a lack of access to clean water) and how Canada has documented this violence (e.g., the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples).

Finally, Part 5 looks at other structural issues: land claims, treaty-making, and education.

Vowel’s thorough research is well-documented. There aren’t so many footnotes that you feel as if they interrupt the narrative, but enough to ensure you can follow up on her research if you desire. When she thinks there is a resource that might be helpful, she explicitly tells you how to find it. Readers of the e-book version will benefit from being able to click links directly. Further, chapters such as the one on the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples provide a concise summary and help you identify which sections of these large documents you might want to read in more detail.

Speaking with, not speaking for

I appreciate how Vowel situates herself as an authority. This book is written from an indigenous perspective for settlers, but Vowel doesn’t speak for indigenous peoples as a group. Nor does she collapse Indigenous perspectives into a singular framework. Throughout the book, Vowel is attentive to differences between and among indigenous groups. She even recalls having to educate herself—for example, about Inuit in northern Quebec when she moved from Alberta to Montreal. As another example, as someone who is not a residential school survivor, she’s careful to emphasize the importance of seeking out those narratives. Her chapter on residential schools is more precisely an accessible introduction to the TRC Report.

What I learned: Indigenous people are both hypervisible and facing erasure

Across the sections of the book, it became clear to me how Indigenous persons are made hypervisible, while at the same time facing systemic erasure through law, government policy, and cultural appropriation. In the remainder of this post, I would like to share some of what I learned about one instance of this general pattern: that Indigenous persons are acceptable (to settlers, to Canadian multiculturalism) when their experiences can be translated into experiences that are structured by settler ways of knowing or being in the world.

Palatable indigeneity and multiculturalism

In chapter 7, Vowel examines how what is deemed to be “culturally appropriate” forms of Indigeneity (by White Canada) are ones that can easily be commodified: food, music, clothing/costumes. (Vowel discusses cultural appropriation in chapter 9, where she distinguishes appropriation from ways that settlers can respectfully engage in indigenous cultural practices or use objects connected with Indigenous cultures).

Consider the story of Christina David, an Inuk woman originally from Kangiqsujuaq, Kuujjuaq (in Northern Quebec). David’s aunt had given her
a ptarmigan (a kind of grouse gamebird), and David had begun plucking the carcass on a Montreal subway. News headlines reported that a woman was eating a raw bird on the subway, which expresses one kind of stereotype about indigenous peoples. (In case it was unclear: David was not eating the bird on the subway.)

More interesting, perhaps, is the reaction settlers had once the facts were clarified. Interviewers asked David where they might buy a ptarmigan. I imagine that interviewers had good intentions, were interested in David’s Inuit culture, and were motivated by a desire for cross-cultural understanding. But the question didn’t make sense to David. Ptarmigan were hunted and shared.

Vowel remarks, “I was struck by the leap to commodification here, as in, if a settler wants something, it must be available for purchase, or at least defined by its monetary value. Christina had to once again explain this is not how things work when you’re discussing country food.” (Excuse my lack of page number citations; I read the Kindle edition).

Vowel’s reflection on the hype around David’s ptarmigan preparation highlighted for me the pervasiveness of how settler perspectives structure our world. Settler ways of approaching the world can inform well-meant intentions to reach across cultural differences to promote multiculturalism. As an example of multicultural exchange, this example is rather thin, as the settler perspective failed to grasp the importance of relationship, community, and land represented by the ptarmigan.

“Palatable” indigeneity comes up throughout the book. For example, in chapter 30, Vowel traces attempts to make reserves into private property, akin to how private property works elsewhere in Canada. Reserves are already private property of sorts, but they’re owned by the Crown, not individuals. A 1969 White Paper, presented under Jean Chrétien’s tenure as Minister of Indian Affairs, proposed making reserves private property under a fee-simple model, which would mean that tribes or individuals could sell reserve land back to the government. The government didn’t follow through with this White Paper because it garnered much criticism from Indigenous peoples.

The proposal to make reserves private property re-emerged in 2009 with legislation entitled First Nations Property Ownership Act, drafted by Chief Commissioner of the First Nations Tax Commission, Manny Jules. Both of these documents made their arguments within a framework of Western liberal human rights; private property ownership was a way to advance the human rights and dignity of Indigenous persons.

What’s more palatable than human rights? We love human rights! But “human dignity” can be co-opted for colonialist ends. The problem is that arguing in favour of property rights as human rights imposes a Settler conceptualization of land as a resource that we own, which doesn’t necessarily align with Indigenous ways of thinking about land and settlers making a claim to it.

Indigenous conceptions of land are, I admit, difficult for me to grasp. The work of academics such as Glen Coulthard, of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, have helped me understand Indigenous conceptions of the land as a framework for relationships, not only among humans but also among humans, non-human animals, and the environment. Using a human rights framework to argue that Indigenous peoples need private property rights enables a person like me to feel as if they are promoting justice, when in actuality we’re failing to engage with Indigenous peoples’ ways of knowing.

Indigenous Writes is a guide to get you started

Vowel’s book has been making me think: How do I approach Indigenous cultures from a standpoint of consumption? How might I be supporting colonialism or assimilation through an unreflective reliance on a human rights framework? Indigenous Writes has provided me with knowledge and conversation-starters that I can use as I continue the journey of decolonizing my professional work. It’s not a guide to everything you need to know. Rather, it’s a guide of important things to know and understand, and what to read next, so you can get started on this journey, too. Why did I buy the Kindle version? Otherwise, I could have given you my copy, with a box of Timbits.

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