The debut collection of short stories from Métis writer Chelsea Vowel is a gut renovation of the science-fiction genre that liberates dystopian and post-apocalyptic ideas from tired tropes to explore radical possibilities for Indigenous resilience.
The title comes from the aphorism “education is the new buffalo,” a mantra that directs Indigenous people to give up on their lost traditions and embrace Western modes of survival and prosperity. Across eight stories, arranged roughly chronologically from the middle of the 19th century to the dystopian near-future, Vowel deploys the imaginative possibilities of sci-fi and fantasy to instead imagine how Métis people could revitalize their traditions, languages, and connections to land through kinship and technological innovations.
The collection is inventive in both content and form. Vowel begins with a lengthy introduction and preface that orients the reader to otipêyimisow-itâpisiniwin (the Métis worldview) and Alberta’s Lac Ste. Anne region, where the collection unfolds. Many stories are extensively footnoted, and each is followed by a detailed analysis of its themes, allusions, and cultural concepts. The result is a hybrid work of fiction, academic scholarship, and Métis history.
Vowel’s language is direct and active, most stirring when she is evoking the land. A care package filled with Labrador tea smells “of the soft intimacy of the dark places in a forest.” A beaver’s tail slaps like “the crack of a felled tree, the endless rolling thunder of a prairie storm.” At times, she deliberately confounds reader expectations, such as when the narrator of “Maggie Sue” interrupts himself to explain Cree etymology or offer childhood memories; Vowel is challenging the reader to submit to nonlinear and digressive modes of Indigenous storytelling.
Conventional science fiction often erases the impacts of structural oppression; in Star Trek, racism and sexism have been solved, and post-apocalyptic fiction often depicts a kind of post-racial future where survivors set aside past injustices in the face of a common threat. Vowel rejects this elision, instead exploring how her characters resist colonialism by subverting its technology. In “Michif Man,” a Métis man finds himself with new powers after he’s gored by a radioactive bison, which makes him invisible to non-relatives; this freedom from the white gaze liberates him to help his community through acts of civil disobedience. In “Âniskôhôcikan,” babies are born with nanobots that translate everything into Cree, producing a new generation of fluent speakers after centuries of language loss.
Across the collection, Vowel demonstrates impressive breadth, borrowing from horror, fantasy, magical realism, and even murder mystery in the final story, “Unsettled.” A co-host of the feminist sci-fi podcast Métis in Space, Vowel gleefully deploys the conventions of each genre to tell distinctly Métis tales about kinship. In “A Lodge Within Her Mind,” an isolated woman clicks on a junk email for “whole brain emulation” and finds herself in a virtual world with an avatar of Colonel Sanders and mingles her consciousness with the mind of a beaver: “In one another, they each recognized a being not suited to a solitary life; they understood lack of companionship as a real harm.” Sanders appears again in “I, Bison,” manipulating a tormented young woman into uploading her consciousness to a corporate-owned “virtual reality” where she finds herself reincarnated as one buffalo among a vast herd, “tearing through fences like toilet paper, denuding the land of artificial boundaries, erasing those shallow markers in mere seconds.”
While the stories grapple with loss, trauma, and violence, the collection is profoundly hopeful, offering expansive visions of Métis existence that encompass the complexity of the past and the potential of a technologically limitless future.