Exclusive Interview: “Buffalo Is The New Buffalo” Author Chelsea Vowel


In another reality, Chelsea Vowel wrote her Master’s thesis on Métis identity, and left her thoughts about how non-Indigenous people justify claiming their and her identity to academia. But in the following email interview, she explains why the version of her in our reality instead decided to do in the genre of speculative fiction, and in the form of the short story collection called Buffalo Is The New Buffalo (paperback, Kindle).

Chelsea Vowel Buffalo Is The New Buffalo

Photo Credit: Zachary Ayotte

To start, is there a theme to Buffalo Is The New Buffalo?

My community, the land, and our relationships to humans and non-human kin is the unifying theme. Specifically, how we can continue to exist into the future in ways that maintain our otipêyimisow-itâpisiniwin, our Métis worldview. This is a geographically and culturally situated collection, and I want the reader to emerge with a fuller understanding of who the Métis are. This was my intent from the beginning, as a way to push back against the widespread ignorance of Métis as an Indigenous People. I think that story-telling is a powerful way to get this message across, much more so than a lecture or a history textbook can be, and I wanted to do it in a really fun way, as a huge fan of sci-fi myself.

Where did you get the idea for this theme and why did it seem like a good one around which to center a collection of your short stories?

Originally, I was going to do my Master’s thesis on Métis identity, in a much more academic way, but it felt like a very toxic undertaking. I was going to have to delve into the ways that non-Indigenous people justify claiming our identity, and I felt like that was a drain on my time and energy. So instead, I wanted to do something more generative and imagine otherwise — imagine a world where Métis simply exist and move through the world in a way that makes sense to us. It’s an opportunity to step back from the day to day work of just surviving, and to think about how we could act now to bring about a better world. I was lucky to be able to switch my thesis to writing short stories, and I expanded on that work to create this collection.

Aside from fitting the theme, what other parameters did the stories in Buffalo Is The New Buffalo have to fit? Like, are they all of a certain length, were they all newly written for this book…?

As a collection of Métis futurist stories, it was important to me to ensure these stories span the past, present, and future. Every story is centered around a question. For example, in “Buffalo Bird,” I started with the question, “What if the buffalo hadn’t been nearly wiped out? What if Canada never managed to expand west?” Then I explored how that might have come about — and though I do not explore the outcome much in the story itself, I want people to imagine what our present would look like if the events in that story had come to pass. Four of the stories were originally written for my Master’s thesis, and four others were added, all based on late-night musings of “what if” and “how would Métis navigate this what if?”

You mentioned being a “huge fan of sci-fi.” But are there other genres represented in Buffalo Is The New Buffalo?

All of these stories are examples of what I call Métis futurism: imagining potential futures, or alternative worlds in any time, that accept Métis cosmology and relationships as true, to offer alternatives to prescribed colonial roles. I wanted to include a variety of genres informed by this unifying principle: historic fiction, a superhero narrative based in the golden age of comic books, a dreaming story (a Métis literary genre), fantasy, and science fiction.

While Buffalo Is The New Buffalo is your first book of fiction, you’ve written other stuff, including a collection of essays called Indigenous Writes: A Guide To First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues In Canada. Are there any writers, or specific stories by other people, who you see as having a particularly big influence on either specific stories in Buffalo or on this collection as a whole, but are things that did not influence your previous work?

So many writers and works have influenced these stories — I try as best I can to cite them and explore those big influences in the book itself, in the chapters that follow each story. I call those chapters “explorations,” and it gives readers a behind-the-scenes look.

One of the collections that really influenced me to take this work on was Ted Chiang’s Stories Of Your Life And Others. In that book, he does things like imagining that heaven and hell are real, and that all humans know this for certain — and he asks how that would change the way we live our lives. Or he applies biblical physics as science fact — and has his characters, who are building the Tower Of Babel, begin to tunnel through the sky itself. It is a brilliant collection that includes contact with aliens, and a procedure that prevents a person from seeing physical beauty. It made me excited to ask my own “what if” questions and answer them from a Métis perspective.

How about non-literary influences; are any of the stories in Buffalo Is The New Buffalo influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?

In my thesis I have a long list of non-literary influences, a section that did not quite make it into this book. Indigenous futurisms broadly speaking includes a variety of culture production. Suquamish / Duwamish artist Jeffrey Veregge, for example, reimagines iconic book and movie characters using his People’s form-line art style — Indigenizing Bat Man, or the Millennium Falcon for example. Kwakwaka’wakw artist Sonny Assu does similar things, including his series of interventions on Star Trek. Crow multimedia artist Wendy Red Star has an incredible Thunder Up Above series that features traditionally-influence space glam fashion on alien planets. Indigenous directors like Karahkwenhawi Zoe Hopkins (Kanienʼkehá꞉ka), Danis Goulet (Cree-Métis), Helen Haig-Brown (Tŝilhqot’in), Jeff Barnaby (Mi’kmaq), and others have all produced incredible speculative fiction films and shorts that fill me with joy. All of this and so much more has blasted me with ideas and responses that definitely influenced the shape of my work. At my core, I’m a sci-fi nerd who loves Star Trek and cheesy old movies like Logan’s Run.

Speaking of movies, Hollywood loves turning short stories into movies. Do you think any of the stories in Buffalo Is The New Buffalo could work as a movie?

I have spent way too much time thinking about this.

Yes, I think these stories would work really well, being adapted to the screen. I think “Buffalo Bird” could work as a full-length historical fiction film. For the others, I imagine them as shorts, or episodes using a variety of film genres and styles — for example, I would love to see an animated version of “Michif Man.” In an ideal world, where I had unlimited funds and I could get anyone I wanted to do this work? I’d pair each story with a specific Indigenous director — I’d want [Blood Quantum writer / director] Jeff Barnaby to do “Unsettled” for example. I think he could add layers of horror to that story that would deepen the anxiety I want it to explore. I think [Night Raiders writer / director] Danis Goulet would do amazing things with “A Lodge Within Her Mind” or “I, Bison,” both because she does sci-fi really well, and because she has already so wonderfully integrated the Cree language into her films — I’d rewrite those whole chapters into Cree just for her.

I’d also want Métis people in the main roles — because that talent exists in our communities, and so rarely do our people get those opportunities. Inuk director Zacharias Kunuk [Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner] has had incredible success casting local Inuit in his Inuktitut-language films, it could absolutely work.

As we’ve been discussing, the stories in Buffalo Is The New Buffalo are strongly connected to your roots as an Indigenous person of Canada. You touched on this earlier, but what do you think someone like me — an old, white, male American of European descent — will get out of reading Buffalo, or, more importantly, what do you hope I’ll get out of it?

Despite being organized around Métis worldview, these stories deal with universal themes, and ask questions that anyone, from any background, will be interested in. It’s also a low-stakes opportunity to learn more about a specific Indigenous culture. My hope is that people will read these stories, and that a certain aspect will tickle their brain for a while, and perhaps emerge as a story, a song, a painting, an organizing principle. How can each of us be better ancestors? What kind of world could we each play a part in creating, now?

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Buffalo Is The New Buffalo?

I think the most important thing to know, not specific to my book, is that Indigenous writers are exploring every genre imaginable right now — from young adult mysteries á la the Hardy Boys, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, thrillers, westerns — and I encourage you to go out and find those works. You will not be disappointed.

Chelsea Vowel Buffalo Is The New Buffalo

Finally, if someone enjoys Buffalo Is The New Buffalo, what novel, novella, or short story collection of someone else’s, someone Métis, would you suggest they check out next?

While Buffalo Is The New Buffalo is speculative fiction, it’s also Métis worldview storytelling, highly locally situated, about the centrality of relations. I’d suggest in that vein that folks read Marilyn Dumont’s poetry, Jas Morgan’s essays and memoir Nîtisânak, Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed and all of her other writing, the late Herb Belcourt’s Walk In The Woods: A Métis Journey, Elmer Ghostkeeper’s Spirit Gifting, Jesse Thistle’s From The Ashes, and Katherena Vermette’s books and graphic novels.

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