April 6, 2017
In Indigenous Writes Chelsea Vowel has created an incisive and accessible primer on Indigenous issues in Canada. Insistently, yet generously, Vowel tackles the pervasive settler colonial narratives of the Canadian state, and guides readers towards a clearer understanding of the origins, and ongoing effects of those narratives. But the beauty of this text is not that Vowel makes Indigenous issues easy to bear, or understand, but instead that she reminds us of their complexity and unsettled-ness.
Indigenous Writes is exceptional in its construction and tone. Vowel has written a book that is accessible for beginners to Indigenous issues, but still manages to deepen the understanding of those more familiar with the field. Vowel accomplishes the expansive reach of her book through a conversational tone, thoughtful book layout, and lovingly curated lists of resources at the end of every chapter. Vowel is earnestly trying to communicate with her reader. She is not speaking to some imaginary and uninterested audience, she is talking to me, to you; intimately and patiently, despite the difficulty of the topics. The tone of her writing allows Vowel to direct the reader in ways that are impossible when writers play pretend at invisibility. Throughout Indigenous Writes Vowel anticipates diversion tactics and refuses to waste time on them, and in so doing creates space for her readers to engage more thoughtfully with what she offers. Indeed, in my own teaching practice, I aspire to the generosity, focus, and rigor, that Vowel demonstrates in Indigenous Writes. Vowel is inescapably present in her work, and Indigenous Writes is the better for it.
Indigenous Writes is divided into five sections: terminology, Indigenous cultures and identities, myth busting, state violence including residential schools, and land, treaties, and law. Each section is broken up into a few focussed chapters. In each chapter, Vowel interrupts contemporary settler colonial discourses on the subject at hand and redirects readers to a nuanced and historical analysis of issues like the Sixties Scoop, Indigenous Rights, Treaties, and multiculturalism. An exciting detail about the book’s construction is that Vowel has intentionally written each chapter so that it is able to stand alone, as well as part of the book. Stand-alone chapters are a thoughtful feature of Indigenous Writes, especially when complimented by a the list of carefully selected resources at the end of each chapter that Vowel provides.
The value and symbolism of the inclusion of resources at the end of each chapter of Indigenous Writes cannot be understated. Practically, by including lists of resources, Vowel is doing a lot of work to prepare lessons for the educators who use her book, for which I am grateful. But, of there is a deeper meaning and value to this intellectual labour. Vowel explicitly states that Indigenous Writes is a place to begin, not to end, a discussion on Indigenous issues. In offering a lovingly curated list of resources Vowel is gesturing towards the complex and unfinished nature of the issues she introduces, as well as honouring the significant labour that has already been done in the field. Vowel is also guiding a conversation that extends beyond her book. With the pervasiveness of settler narratives, her guidance is necessary.
As I have already alluded to, I am an educator, and Indigenous Writes is an educators book. Vowel’s text is eminently scalable; it is useful for both formal and informal educational contexts, as well as a wide range of ages. I would love to see Indigenous Writes integrated into initial teacher education programs across Canada. Beyond providing an excellent introduction to Indigenous issues in Canada for a predominantly white settler teaching body, there is much to be learned from Vowel pedagogically. Vowel deftly, and accessibly, guides the reader through the narratives of nation and multiculturalism that are pervasive in educational discourse without simplifying or settling matters. Vowel’s ability to embrace complexity, and navigate through difficult issues with care and grace, is something all educators can learn from, especially amidst the increasing attention on reconciliation, and integrating Indigenous perspectives into the curriculum.
Indigenous Writes is a timely book. Much is being made of reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian state right now. Within educational circles resources for teaching Indigenous issues, and integrating Indigenous perspectives into schooling are proliferating, and some are better than others. Vowel’s book offers a sharp critique of feel-good reconciliation discourse, which, she argues, fundamentally misunderstands the premises of Indigenous-Settler relationships, and at the same time generously engages her readers in conversations that lead to a better understanding of those relationships – her generosity is undeserved.
Indigenous Writes by Chelsea Vowel is, in conclusion, an unflinching and expansive text that expertly tackles the myths Canada uses to erase its indebtedness to Indigenous peoples. While Indigenous Writes is an excellent text for educators, with her thoughtful composition and accessible tone Vowel has written a book that everyone should read - We have so much to learn from her.