Chelsea Vowel talks ‘In­dige­nous Writes’

Chelsea Vowel talks about her new book In­dige­nous Writes

The McGill Daily - - Contents - Geneva Glea­son Cul­ture Writer

The tweets [Chelsea Vowel re­ceives], un­abashedly anti-in­dige­nous, re­veal brazen cy­ber­bul­ly­ing: a digi­tised form of white supremacy and colo­nial­ism.

Vowel ex­plained that the Colten Boushie ver­dict con­firmed that rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is dead.

The book was born, ac­cord­ing to Vowel, out of ar­gu­ments with peo­ple in the com­ments sec­tions of In­dige­nous re­lated news ar­ti­cles.

It’s 2:05 p.m., and the room is buzzing — Chelsea Vowel’s fame pre­cedes her: a Métis pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual, writer, and ed­u­ca­tor, Vowel is known for writ­ings rang­ing from po­lit­i­cal tweets and drags ( of­ten retweeted by the Mcgill Daily Twit­ter) to her lat­est book, In­dige­nous Writes. Around me, au­di­ence mem­bers chat­ter about the full room, how they re­served their tick­ets online, and what they thought of In­dige­nous Writes, the best­selling subject of the talk.

Hosted by the Mcgill In­sti­tute for the Study of Canada, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Mcgill In­dige­nous Stud­ies Pro­gram, Vowel’s talk is part of a se­ries called “Books That Mat­ter”. And mat­ter they do — Vowel’s In­dige­nous Writes is con­sid­ered es­sen­tial read­ing by many within aca­demic cir­cles and be­yond. One re­viewer, She­lagh Rogers, a broad­cast-jour­nal­ist based in Bri­tish Columbia, was par­tic­u­larly touched by the book, call­ing it “medicine.”

Fol­low­ing an in­tro­duc­tion and land ac­knowl­edg­ment by Pro­fes­sor Gabrielle Doreen, speak­ing first in Cree and then in English, Vowel be­gins by read­ing a se­ries of tweets she re­ceived that morn­ing. The tweets, un­abashedly anti-in­dige­nous, re­veal brazen cy­ber­bul­ly­ing: a digi­tised form of white supremacy and colo­nial­ism.

After de­nounc­ing the ac­quit­tal of Colten Boushie’s mur­derer, Vowel shifts gears to dis­cuss the por­trayal of a shak­ing tent at the Musée des Beaux-arts. Vowel liked that the ex­hi­bi­tion gave no ex­pla­na­tion or trans­la­tion for the sa­cred cer­e­mony or its cul­tural con­text. She notes that it is not a place or ex­pe­ri­ence that is shared openly; but that the artists were able to give the viewer a sense of its feel­ing, its in­ten­sity, with­out telling them what it was. “I felt like you weren’t go­ing to un­der­stand it un­less you al­ready knew some­thing about it, and it felt like some­thing for me,” Vowel ex­plained.

In her trade­mark tongue-incheek style, Vowel dis­cred­its her own book as a best­seller. “It is ridicu­lous, in 2018, that any­thing in that book comes as a sur­prise to any­one,” she de­clares, call­ing it an in­tro­duc­tion to the is­sues fac­ing In­dige­nous peo­ples in Canada — stuff we should al­ready know. “The fact that peo­ple can still open that up and go ‘woah, I didn’t know that,’ means that we have a re­ally, re­ally long way to go.”

Vowel ex­plained that the Colten Boushie ver­dict con­firmed that rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is dead. “I don’t want rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, I want a reck­on­ing,” she clar­i­fies, in­sist­ing that the “truth” in “Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion” is still miss­ing. The Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion (TRC) was es­tab­lished by Canada to ad­dress and ex­pose the hor­rors of res­i­den­tial schools.

The book was born, ac­cord­ing to Vowel, out of ar­gu­ments with peo­ple in the com­ments sec­tions of In­dige­nous- re­lated news ar­ti­cles, start­ing with news cov­er­age of the fed­eral govern­ment’s au­dit of the At­tawapiskat First Na­tion in On­tario. Vowel looked up the num­bers — which, she noted, are pub­licly avail­able to any­body — and proved that the ac­tual funds that landed in the com­mu­nity were in­suf­fi­cient to be­gin with. Yet fel­low com­menters would shift the con­ver­sa­tion from fact to fic­tion quickly, veer­ing away from the con­tent of the ar­ti­cle or Vowel’s re­search to spout an­ti­indige­nous com­ments.

The bat­tles in th­ese com­ments sec­tions, Vowel says, are in­dica­tive of the ev­ery­day ex­pe­ri­ence of many In­dige­nous peo­ple: “You have to an­swer to all of th­ese as­sump­tions and stereo­types that peo­ple have[...] you don’t get to just talk about a shak­ing tent in­stal­la­tion that is so cool.” She adds that in th­ese con­ver­sa­tions, In­dige­nous peo­ples have to prove ev­ery claim they make, whereas non-in­dige­nous peo­ple’s gen­er­al­i­sa­tions are more quickly taken as facts.

Vowel, who is now the mother of six daugh­ters, wrote the book for two hours a day dur­ing her three-month ma­ter­nity leave for her fifth baby. She shares the ideas she had for cov­ers and ti­tles, which were ul­ti­mately re­jected by the pub­lish­ers. The fi­nal ti­tle, In­dige­nous Writes, was ac­tu­ally a snarky sug­ges­tion by Vowel, which the pub­lish­ers loved and is now revered by au­di­ences for its wit.

Nelly Wat | The Mcgill Daily

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