9 things I learned from Chelsea Vowel’s “Indigenous Writes”

I’ve just finished reading Indigenous Writes by Chelsea Vowel. The book’s subtitle is “A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada,” and it’s an excellent introduction to Indigenous issues in a contemporary context.

I want to tell you about this book and recommend it to you, but I don’t know how to write an actual book review. Instead, here are some of the things I learned from Indigenous Writes, including some things that I thought I knew but I didn’t really know, ya know?

This list is and should be embarrassing, because I should have known this stuff. Maybe you feel a similar embarrassment about your knowledge of Indigenous issues. Good news, that’s why the book exists!

1. I’m a settler

Vowel uses this term as a shorthand for “the non-Indigenous peoples living in Canada* who form the European-descended sociopolitical majority.” She spends a whole chapter discussing the word’s strengths, weaknesses, and alternatives, which I won’t summarize here, except to say that it was useful for me to hear how this is a descriptive term without pejorative intent (even though of course settler colonialism has caused a lot of harm, read on). Before reading this book I would have been less likely to think of “settler” as a key part of my identity, but I’ve now been convinced to start using it as a label for myself.

2. “Indian Status” is “deliberately convoluted and confusing”

It is possible for non-Indigenous people to have “Indian status,” a legal category defined and used by the government, while many actual Indigenous people are ineligible. That is bonkers. One of the reasons is that “for 116 years… Indian women who married non-Indians [lost] their status, while men who married non-Indian women not only kept their status but also passed status on to their non-Indian wives.” In other words, “Indigenous women and their children were specifically targeted for loss of status while non-Native women could become registered Indians!” And that’s just the beginning of the complex web of confusion.

3. Residential schools were horrific

I thought I knew this, but I don’t think I’ll really ever fully internalize it. Vowel starts by citing numbers (“I deal best with numbers… but even broken down into numbers, this hurts”):

150 years of operation
150,000 children who attended
6,000 children (at least) who died while in the system

The explicit objective of the system was cultural genocide. (Note that it’s a mistake to think “the word ‘culture’ somehow signals something was less than real genocide. Instead, scholars are arguing that destroying a group’s culture amounts to genocide plain and simple.”) Vowel encourages people to read the Truth and Reconciliation Report about residential schools, which I’m now finally doing.

4. Children are still being taken away

Even after the last residential school was closed down, though, the government continued to remove Indigenous children from their families at alarming rates. “Some estimate [that] close to 20,000” children were taken between 1960 and 1990, and that “70 to 90 percent of Indigenous children were placed in non-Indigenous homes.” Today there is an “ongoing removal of Indigenous children from their families in numbers that exceed those taken by the residential-school system and the Sixties Scoop combined.” Since this is ostensibly a history blog, I feel compelled to repeat that this is something happening in the present.

5. Nunavut is one of four “Inuit homeland” regions

Map Of Inuit Nunangat (via ITK)

You have heard of Nunavut because it is one of Canada’s territories. You might not know (I didn’t) that it’s one of four regions within “Inuit Nunangat, often translated as ‘the Inuit homeland.'” The other three are Inuvialuit, Nunavik (which is a huge chunk of Quebec), and Nunatsiavut. “Inuit are the majority population” in all of these regions, and “three quarters of Inuit people live in Inuit Nunangat.” I’ll never look at a map of Canada the same way again.

6. Starting in 1941, Inuit were required to wear ID tags

After learning about this from Indigenous Writes I kept reading additional sources and wrote about the “Eskimo Identification” tags at some length here.

7. Around 200 communities are under water advisories

Again, not history, but the result of history: Canada, one of the wealthiest nations in the world, had “138 drinking water advisories in 94 First Nations communities” as of September 2015. That doesn’t even include British Columbia, which is tracked separately, and where 116 First Nations were under drinking water advisories in 2012. These advisories often last for a long time, and at least one has been in place for 10 years.

8. Injustice did not stop at some arbitrary point in the past

Vowel makes this point explicitly and implicitly throughout the book, including through some examples I’ve shared above. She also emphasizes that when you read the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, you should “understand…very clearly: current government policy continues to be wrong. RCAP was quite adamant about this when they released their final report in 1996, and not enough has changed in the 20 years since then.” I was guilty of lazily thinking of injustice towards Indigenous peoples as something that mostly happened in the past. I now think of it very much in the present tense.

9. Vowel reads a lot

The book is heavy on carefully-selected and contextualized endnotes. Vowel “worked as hard on the endnotes as I did on some of the chapters” for a number of reasons, including because “I want you to have a curated list” of further reading. Reading about history always raises more questions than it answers and I wish all books were this helpful and thorough in providing a way to chase after those new questions.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s in this book, and I’ve also focused more on summarizing straightforward facts, which may give you the wrong impression, because Vowel also delves into complex issues and persuasively dismantles some dominant Canadian “myths.” She does so in a conversational tone, and even manages humour, too. Again, I recommend Indigenous Writes for anyone wanting to learn more about Indigenous issues in Canada today.

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*Ok technically I do not currently live in Canada, having moved to New York about three years ago, but I’m still from Canada, and New York is part of the same colonial history, so.

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4 Replies to “9 things I learned from Chelsea Vowel’s “Indigenous Writes””

  1. Outstanding and illuminating. As I said we’re following your writing in my class and they’re going to be so pleased with this post as it echoes some of the learning we’re doing – you should check out Kairos Canada and the work they’re doing, especially the Blanket Exercise which teaches Canadian history not taught to us. The idea that you had a better chance of surviving as a soldier in WWII (1 in 26) than a residential school (1 in 25) is something my students find truly insane about it all.

  2. You say “I don’t know how to write an actual book review.” I say, you just did write an actual book review. Thank you.

  3. Excellent article Chris! I am loving her book- she is brilliant and wickedly funny- dangerous combination😊

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