Review: Indigenous Writes is a Must Read for Every Canadian

Indigenous Writes by Chelsea Vowel

Indigenous Writes coverFormat/Source: Paperback/Own
Published: September 2016
Publisher: Highwater Press
Length: 290 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
★★★★½    Add to Goodreads button

I followed Vowel on Twitter for some time before I picked up her book. If you’re new to learning about Indigenous experiences, her Twitter feed may seem overwhelming. Not so her book Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nation, Inuit, and Métis Issues in Canada. Vowel writes in a casual, conversational tone and doesn’t assume the reader to be familiar with the topics she explores.  Although the cover looks somewhat textbook-y, this book is highly accessible even to the uninformed reader. Of course, this would be an excellent text for classroom use, but I read it on my own and had no trouble digesting the content.

Indigenous Writes is divided into 31 chapters covering five topics: 1) The terminology of relationships, 2) culture and identity, 3) myth-busting, 4) state violence, and 5) land, learning, law and treaties. Throughout the book, Vowel tackles many widely held yet completely inaccurate beliefs about Indigenous peoples in Canada. I learnt about stereotypes I didn’t even know existed, such as the idea that Indigenous people receive free housing or education. Something else I was keen to learn more about was Métis identity (see Chapter 4: “You’re Métis? Which of Your Parents Is an Indian?: Métis Identity”). When I was travelling in New Zealand, I found myself on more than one occasion trying to explain Métis identity, something I really didn’t know much about despite having grown up in Manitoba. I wish I had had this book to recommend back then!

Finally, I often find myself thinking, “I know X idea/belief/concept is wrong, but why is that?” (A basic example: I know wearing clothing that has significance to a culture you don’t belong to is wrong, but how do I explain why?). Even though I considered myself a relatively educated person when it came to the challenges Indigenous people face in this country, I still lacked particular knowledge that allows for a greater understanding of the complex and often fraught history and relationship between Indigenous people and settlers like myself. For me, Vowel addresses that question at the top of the paragraph multiple times over. Here are just a handful of excerpts that helped me understand particular issues and concepts in a clearer light than I had ever before. Vowel offers numerous clear considerations of many issues that people misunderstand, misinterpret, or  misrepresent, out of intentional or unintentional ignorance. Indigenous Writes filled many gaps in my knowledge, making me very grateful for Vowel’s work.

On defining who is Indigenous:

Blood-quantum rules have been called a ‘slow genocide’, and I think this is an apt description. Not mass murder, but extinction via definition. Every time a non-Indigenous person enters the ‘Indian gene pool’, fewer people in the next generation are counted as Indians. I’m sorry, but what are we? A breed? Or peoples with distinct languages, customs and beliefs? (77)

On restricted vs. unrestricted symbols:

If someone unfamiliar with Canadian culture were to decorate herself with a string of fake Victoria Crosses, the reaction would be different than if the same person draped a Canadian flag over her non-Canadian shoulders. (83)

On respectful access:

What access do you think you are owed? Why? How have you earned it? Who could appropriately give it to you? And, most important, what would further access do for the people you claim to admire so much?  (87)

On colonialism and racism:

In other words, there is no history of colonialism and systemic racism that informs the modern view of Indigenous peoples, because that problem was supposedly solved at some point in the past. The ‘real’ racism is in conflating ‘legitimate’ dislike for Indigenous peoples (based not on race or ethnicity, but rather on the ‘bad choices we make’) with historical colonialism/racism ‘which is over.’ In continuing to discuss colonialism and racism as present-day concerns, Indigenous peoples are engaging in so-called ‘reverse-racism and oppressing blameless settlers’. (120)

On treaties:

What bothers me is this: a treaty is an ongoing relationship. That’s how it is in every other situation that does not involved Indigenous peoples. Treaties are nation-to-nation agreements that mediate relationships, and they can and should be revisited as a relationship progresses. Indigenous people know this; this is how we approach treaties and agreements with Canada. However, Canada does not seem to understand this. they want to settle everything and never look back. Patch up the holes in their supposed Crown titles and put the whole thing to bed. (258)

The Bottom Line

A well-written book that should squash any excuses for not educating yourself about First Nation, Inuit and Métis issues in Canada, Indigenous Writes is a much-needed resource that all settlers can learn from.

Further Reading

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