In Buffalo is the New Buffalo, Chelsea Vowel challenges sci-fi tropes and explores Métis futurism
This interview originally aired on April 16, 2022.
Chelsea Vowel is a Métis writer and educator whose work focuses on language, gender identity and cultural resurgence. She is the author of Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada, which addresses stereotypes and assumptions about Indigenous issues and offers insight into the relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canada.
Vowel loves science fiction. She loves to read it, talk about it, and now she writes it. Her first book of speculative fiction is called Buffalo is the New Buffalo, and it teases, upends and reshapes familiar sci-fi tropes through a Métis worldview.
From a rougarou (shapeshifter) in the 19th century trying to solve a murder in her community, to a Métis man who's gored by a radioactive bison and gains super strength, these stories seek to remove the psychological baggage of colonization and recover ancestral traditions.
Chelsea Vowel spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing Buffalo is the New Buffalo.
The new buffalo
"Buffalo is the New Buffalo came to me because I had heard the phrase 'pipelines are the new buffalo' and I just had to gag. That was terrible. And I thought, 'You know, what if buffalo were the new buffalo? What if instead of having to shift everything, we could recapture it, regain our life ways, bring back the bison, because actually there's great effort being made right now to the rematriation of bison to the plains. It's an international movement across Indigenous nations, and I think a lot of people aren't even aware of it.
I wanted something pithy that would make people stop and think about what that could possibly mean.
"So the fact that so many Indigenous peoples are actually turning to our traditions and trying to revitalize and pass them on to new generations is a movement that isn't captured by 'education is the new buffalo.' I wanted something pithy that would make people stop and think about what that could possibly mean."
Falling in love with sci-fi
"I first came to speculative fiction by watching Star Trek The Next Generation on TV with my family. And my parents had this thing where — anybody who's older, you'll recognize exactly what this is. So you saw a movie when you were a kid and it blew you away. Logan's Run or The Omega Man, stuff like that for my parents. And they were very excited to show these films to us.
"They were like, 'Oh, my gosh, this is going to blow you away.' And we watched it. They were so cheesy — great — but they're just so dated. And even they were like, 'Oh, it's not as good as I remember.' But the ideas were exciting, even if the sets were really tacky.
I didn't like sci-fi at first because I thought it was too cerebral, too difficult.
"Oddly enough, I was way more into fantasy when I was younger. I read a lot of Mercedes Lackey, a lot of Canadian author Tanya Huff. So I was deeply into fantasy. I didn't like sci-fi at first because I thought it was too cerebral, too difficult. I don't want a physics lesson in the middle of my book — except I do now. I love it now. So it's something I came to slowly. I think my intro into sci-fi — where I really started to be into it — was Aliens with Sigourney Weaver.
"I was just like, 'Oh, my gosh. She is everything that a sword and sandals heroine should be — but in space.'"
"In the story Buffalo Bird, Angelique is a two-spirit rebellious girl growing up in Lac Ste. Anne. She inherited from her mother an ability to shapeshift. So the thing with rougarou in Métis cosmology is that quite often shapeshifters are depicted in various stories as being evil. There's a lot of Christian theology brought into it. The ability to transform is something that I think is at the foundation of a lot of Indigenous worldviews. That transformation is not all that interesting or odd. It's just a regular everyday thing. Everything is in transformation all the time.
The ability to transform is something that I think is at the foundation of a lot of Indigenous worldviews.
"The fact that she has this additional power to actually change her own form is something that has precedents within Métis and Nehiyaw worldviews. It's something that the community understands, accepts and is a little wary about. But she's not being persecuted, and I think that shows a shift from the Christian dynamic of these people being seen as beholden to the devil and evil and cast out."
Imagining a new future
"I do explain in the book about how Indigenous futurisms are really indebted to Afrofuturism. I tried to carve out a little space for nation specificity because I think it's something that we're seeing now in Indigenous literature. There's so much coming out and we are able to be nation and geographically specific. So Métis futurisms — I say it's plural because there is space there for many different Métis perspectives.
"The concept of imagining otherwise — I love the way that Daniel Heath Justice has talked about this. The way that I'm using it here is to provide a bit of space to think about the kind of world that we want to live in. Because the problem with everything that goes on in life — there's always new stresses, there's always new emergencies and things to deal with. And people are just trying to survive day to day. When you're in that mode of just survival, you don't have an opportunity to think about where you could be. And if everything were wonderful, what would the world look like?
When you're in that mode of just survival, you don't have an opportunity to think about where you could be.
"And imagining otherwise provides us with that space, that little bit of time that we can carve out of our everyday stresses to think about how we could act now to bring about a world that we want to pass on to our descendants."
Chelsea Vowel's comments have been edited for length and clarity.