Dirty Wings

Short Story by Chelsea Vowel
By Chelsea Vowel
Buffalo Is the New Buffalo by Chelsea Vowel (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2022)
Reprinted with permission from Buffalo Is the New Buffalo by Chelsea Vowel (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2022).

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They are a bit grey around the puckered leather seams that attach the vamps to the soles, ôhi maskasina, these moccasins. I don't remember seeing them before, but they fit my feet in the way only well-used moccasins can. nimaskisina cî ôhi?

I usually wear slipper moccasins in the Dene style, trimmed with beaver fur, with fully beaded vamps. Works of art for everyday use. My last few moccasins were made by Tłı̨chǫ women, glittering flowers on white backgrounds and golden smoked moose hide that overpowered the nostrils, filled the entire house with the smell of the bush for weeks until I broke them in.

I had to pay a fine in a hotel room once after a rainy urban powwow. nimaskisina made it smell like we'd set up camp on the two king-size beds, an indoor/outdoor reclamation of a place built without free, prior, and informed consent on Odawa lands. I had the windows open all night and the four of us shivered in the cold, but the wet moose hide permeated every molecule of air, infused itself into our skin and hair, into the walls, even. I slept poorly, imagining the smell was visible golden light pouring out the windows, and every neechie who looked up would know exactly what it was. I love the smell, but even I grew tired of tasting it.

During checkout they made us wait until someone could look at the room; the hotel was full of Indians and I guess they were worried we drank up the mini bar. I remember the look of confusion on the concierge's face when housekeeping called him back, trying in vain to describe a smell that seemed foreign, but belonged more than the damn hotel did. He caught a whiff off me a moment later, and his face twisted.

They charged me the way they'd charge someone who smoked in the nonsmoking rooms.

I've been waiting years for nikâwiy to make me moccasins; you're not supposed to buy them, that's what môniyâwak do. But no one taught nikâwiy, and every couple of years she and my aunties would try a new pattern, something from a book or described to them by a friend, giving up before finishing the pair. She's got a bunch of left-foot moccasins in different styles crammed into her craft drawers. None of them "felt right," she'd laugh when I pulled them out and asked why she didn't finish them.

So I bought my moccasins, and felt a little ashamed about it because they didn't say anything about me or nikâwiy or nikâwisa or nohkom. And I bought my kids some because I'm better with words than with sewing needles; I guess I will speak when omaskisina cannot.

These ones on my feet, where did they come from? Feel like moosehide, but there's no smell, and the reinforced soles are worn, stretched to fit me perfectly. Instead of heavy-duty felt vamps, it's more leather with a boring geometric design, like something you'd see on made-in-China factory-manufactured moccasins—but these were clearly handmade. Short leather wraparounds, too, like a high-top sneaker, reaching just barely above the ankle—what's the point? Leather moccasin strings replaced by black-nylon combat boot laces.

I'm sitting on a couch in a common living/kitchen area. Four kookums are on high stools around the kitchen island, resting their rubber boots on a metal bar attached to the island. They wear thin windbreakers and long skirts. They're drinking tea and patting their floral kerchiefs, talking about food. I pull off my moccasins and start spreading mashed avocado inside them with my fingers. It's time consuming work—I have to do it right.

I'm living in an Indigenous dorm at the University of amiskwacîwâskahikan. I'm in a program with a small cohort, and the kookums are talking about the young men. We only have a certain amount of money each month for food, and the Elders decided to give it to the men. The kookums are laughing about what aniki nâpêwak have been buying with that money: fancy breads from artisanal bakeries and aged cold cuts. They laugh uproariously about the spring water in glass bottles in the fridge.

I wonder why we don't just eat ramen noodles like every other student. I know how to stretch it out, make "soup bombs" you can throw in when the noodles are cooked, pieces of meat and lots of vegetables you freeze in small batches for when you need them—it's basically a full meal. I can teach them, I think to myself. We can sew soup bombs into cleaned buffalo intestines.

My fingers stay busy. The kookums are pulling on their short pipes now, little puffs of tobacco drifting like cotton candy, sticking to the ceiling, becoming clouds. The men will be out of money soon, far too soon into the month, and that means we'll all go hungry. I'm not hungry yet, but the suggestion makes my stomach clench. Lasting lessons are hard on everyone.

The men are back, braids but no faces, laying loaves of bread on the kitchen island, proud of themselves. They kiss the hands of the kookums, and I'm not angry anymore. It will be okay. I slide the moccasins back on, tie them tight.

We are sitting in a circle outside in the quad. The sun is so bright and so high, we are sitting on our own shadows. A môniyâw, a white man, stands outside our circle, and when his mouth moves I hear wings flapping. Not eagle wings, mind you, not even raven wings. Dirty pigeon wings, and I feel ashamed I don't honour the pigeon. It didn't build the cities, it just adapted. Maybe even better than we did.

Or maybe exactly how we did.

We are pulling spruce root up through the grass, laying it in front of us in coils. Dirty wings, dirty wings. Somehow I understand he is mocking us, saying our program is just "underwater basketweaving." We don't do that, but I think it might be fun. That one, môniyâw ana, in his nineteenth-century hipster beard, he just wants us to know he thinks what we do is useless. Arts and crafts at best. I bet he studies poli sci.

The four kookums wrestle themselves to their feet. It's hard for them, knees creaking like abandoned gates blowing in the wind. They stretch out their arms in front of them, then bend them so their hands are touching their own shoulders. Their elbows are sharp, and I'm confused; the kookums aren't blind. They push that one, ana môniyâw, poking him with their elbows when he seems reluctant to move.

We all stand and follow the kookums. We are in a building with a large pool. The water lies in shadows, a shade of green like spruce boughs. There are cattails obscuring its size, and in a few places you can see all the way to the bottom. We usually bring our canoes here, but not today.

The kookums elbow that môniyâw into the pool. He falls and drags all the cattails down with him like pulling on a tablecloth, until the pool is clear and blue and you can see him just sitting there on the bottom, looking up in confusion. The kookums throw him coils of spruce root and tell him he can come out when he has woven a basket.

He doesn't even try. He swells up a little, his skin is becoming puffy, and flecks of his clothes start floating to the top of the water. We watch his skin come off in patches. Soon the whole surface of the pool is covered in soggy leaves.

The men take their woven spruce root baskets and skim the leaves out of the water. The men are silent but the rest of us are singing. The kookums are sitting, puffing on their pipes again, but these are the longer pipes, the women's pipes.

I gather the waterlogged leaves up in my hands. There are so many, they keep falling, and I have to pick them up again. I am outside and it is deadly cold, the earth hushed and blanketed. I have to take these leaves and spread them under the trees in the university quad. I cannot see the sky; it is getting dark and snow is falling, thick, wet and heavy, all around me.

I risk freezing to death, but my feet are warm. I am glad I took the time to spread the avocado inside; my feet are coated as though with bear grease. I find a patch of waskwayak and I remember how once they were whipped by Elder Brother. It is winter, why can't I remember their name? I lay those leaves down, no more flapping wings. I hear wîsahkêcâhk laughing.

I am ready for the coming fast.

"Dirty Wings" Exploration

I have always been taught that dreams are significant in Métis/nêhiyaw culture, as they are for many other Indigenous peoples. Dreams represent an epistemological diversity, along with visions, prophecy, specific ceremonies, and interactions with nonhuman and nonliving kin. Some dreams are prophetic, and some dreams teach new ceremonies and medicine, like the jingle dance or syllabics (Casale 2019; Stevenson 2000). Others are just dreams and don’t mean anything. I have always remembered most of my dreams upon waking, and am pretty confident that the bulk of the dreaming I do is of the meaningless sort. This dream felt different.

As nêhiyaw scholar Michael Hart explains in conversation with Margaret Kovach (2009, 70), dreaming as an Indigenous methodology is not merely having a dream, nor even interpreting a dream, but rather "what you do with that dream, how you put it into reality." This explanation dovetails perfectly with my conception of Métis futurisms as a whole: that imagining potential futures or alternative worlds in any time is not enough; what we do with these imaginings is what creates new realities.

I hesitate to call this story a pawâmêwâcimowin (a spiritual dreaming story), because I feel that I do not have the necessary level of cultural competency to make that call. However, I began writing this book because of the dream. Sharing the dream that caused me to undertake this work is important to me because it was part of the process, and making space for narrative styles rooted in dreams and dreaming feels appropriate.

A great deal of this story seems to focus on shoes, the strangeness of the moccasins I find myself in and memories of how authentic smoked moose-hide moccasins have branded me as transgressive outside of the safety of the powwow arbour (Vowel 2016). The hotel scene actually happened, and I added in these details after I had the dream. However, the focus on moccasins is really about cultural transmission and the fraught question of operating within a capitalistic framework to access culture when transmission has been actively severed.

The story begins with me spreading mashed avocado into the strange moccasins. Later, when I woke, it occurred to me that I was working with the materials I have the most access to, that I would have preferred bear grease to protect and warm my skin. Avocados are much more plentiful now in these lands than bear grease is. Who knows what our descendants may end up using, no matter how strange it may seem to us now.

Many of the references in the story aren’t necessarily legible to the "outsider," and that is deliberate. The symbolism and allusions were there in my dream because I know them best. I chose not to translate them within the story because I want non-Indigenous people to engage with our stories, symbols, language, and history on our terms. Just as I have had to research the sources of literary allusions unfamiliar to me in order to access deeper meanings within Western European literature, I expect this work to be done by non-Indigenous peoples, especially those on our lands. For a while, that might look like annotated versions of our stories, just as I was only able to understand classic European works that made constant allusions to other European works.

Not all Indigenous people will have the insider knowledge required to understand symbols and allusions used in Indigenous literature, either because we are from outside the specific cultural perspective (for example, I would not be able to interpret Diné symbolism!), or because as members of a specific culture, these things haven’t been learned. This reality has softened my approach somewhat to the idea of annotating, or making legible, some of my work.

This story was published during the process of writing my MA thesis (Vowel 2018). It has changed slightly since publication, but it was reviewed twice by two white men, at least one of them English. I am sharing their reviews to highlight the illegibility of this particular work to the "outsider." First, from Jeff McGregor:

The protagonist spends much of these four pages, which are not "speculative" as much as "surreal," talking about shoes. The story includes many undefined regional words and untranslated non-English phrases and may be about pre-Europeans struggling with assimilation (2018).

The second review was done by Geoff Houghton:

"Dirty Wings" by Chelsea Vowel is a flow of consciousness from a Native American living on the edge of mainstream Canadian society. The author is plainly familiar with this Native culture and uses many Native words, although their approximate meaning can usually be deduced from the context.

This is speculative fiction rather than SF. The writing style is idiosyncratic and there is no conventional plot. Instead the reader leaves behind common or garden Western World certainties and is drawn into an alternative way to view our Universe. If you believe that reality is reality is reality and what we see is what we get, then pass this story by. If you are less certain in your metaphysics, then you may wish to enter this alternative way of seeing the world through eyes not automatically attuned to Western Capitalist and Materialist values (McGregor and Houghton, 2018).

I find these reviews absolutely fascinating! I suppose I am reviewing their reviews. The term "pre-Europeans" really jumps out at me; I have heard us referred to as pre-Columbian, and even primitive, but never pre-European! The way the reviewer unconsciously prioritizes European presence and homogenizes all those that "came before" provides interesting insight into how he read this story. The hesitance with which the reviewer proclaims the plot of the story is also telling, and in the absence of more context familiar to him, he falls upon a familiar trope of "struggling with assimilation."

I am happy that the second reviewer was able to figure out the nêhiyawêwin words I used, untranslated, throughout the story, though he does not know which specific language I am using and refers to Indigenous cultures in the singular.

I refuse to always translate, because I want non-Indigenous people to learn these words, as they have learned French, Spanish, German, and Japanese phrases which are peppered throughout English. I also appreciate that this reviewer grasps that this story does not exist within the exact same metaphysical framework of conventional speculative fiction.

This story takes place in an urban setting, but clearly the land plays an important role. Asserting that all cities exist on Indigenous land is vital, particularly since the majority of Indigenous peoples now live in urban areas, but also to highlight the artificial nature of the rural/urban divide (Statistics Canada 2017, Simpson 2014a).1In 2016, 51.8 percent of the Indigenous population of Canada lived in a metropolitan area of at least 30,000 people. When we exhort one another to "go back to the land," we seem to always mean "leave the city," but this is not possible or even necessarily desirable for everyone. As Leanne Simpson often points out, we should be encouraging Indigenous people to make connection with the land wherever they are, even if it is a city park.

When I talk about honouring the pigeon, I gesture to clans among nêhiyaw and Anishinaabe kin, referring to a longstanding in-joke with friends about the way white people seem to always claim certain animals as their "spirit animals." Animals like the bear or the eagle, but never the rat or the pigeon. Being pigeon clan might be viewed as ignoble, but as I point out, it is not just human beings who have adapted to drastic changes in the landscape. Our animal kin have also experienced severances and fractures in their own cultural transmissions, as well as having to innovate for survival.

The kookums are central to the story. It is they who decided to let the young men make decisions that the kookums know will have consequences for all of us, because they need those men to learn that responsibility extends beyond the self. They smoke pipes twice, once socially, once in ceremony, each kind of offering of tobacco with its own purpose. The kookums teach us how to connect with the land, even in the city, and they are the ones to teach that môniyâw a lesson about mocking skills he himself cannot master.

When the kookums have sharp elbows, I am referring to an âtayohkêwin (a sacred story) about a Métis/Cree cultural hero called ayâs in my territory, as told to me by Eeyou (Eastern James Bay Cree) storyteller Elma Moses. In that story ayâs outwits blind witches with sharp bones jutting out of their elbows, sent by his father to kill him. ayâs is responsible for the world fire and the rebirth of the world. One could see the world fire as an apocalypse, but rather than heralding an ending, it ushered in a new beginning. All of the stories I offer in this work reject the apocalypse as an end that must be feared for its finality. In this story, the môniyâw does not outwit the witches. He does not usher in a new beginning, but rather seems to be in the way of one, and his ending is not their doing, but rather, his own.

The kookums give me a task I don’t understand, but I do it even though it is difficult, because I trust they have a reason for it. I recall another âtayohkêwin as told by the late Freda Ahenakew (1988) about how birch trees got their stripes from the cultural hero wîsahkêcâhk. In this story, Elder Brother enlists the aid of birch trees to help themself exercise self-control, but when things don’t go their way, the birch trees are punished with a whipping.

I am using they/them pronouns for Elder Brother for two reasons. For one, in the âtayohkêwina, Elder Brother is not just one gender; they are not always even human. They transform constantly. The other reason is that nêhiyawêwin, the Cree language, lacks gendered pronouns, and "they" is a more faithful translation of "wiya" than "he" or "she" can be.

In Métis/nêhiyaw culture, there is a cultural taboo against using Elder Brother’s name outside of the winter months. This restriction extends to many other beings and animals as well. This creates a bit of a problem for storytelling in forms other than oral, because we cannot always be certain that our stories will be taken up in the proper season.

Métis filmmaker Danis Goulet provides an interesting solution to this restriction in her short film Wakening (2013), in which "In the near future, the environment has been destroyed and society suffocates under a brutal military occupation. A lone Cree wanderer, Wesakechak, searches an urban war zone to find the ancient and dangerous Weetigo to help fight against the occupiers" (Wakening n.d.).

In the film, snow falls, signalling that the film exists within the proper season, and so even when viewing this film in a different season, it is perhaps permissible to hear or speak the names. This compromise might not be acceptable to everyone, but it at least signals a desire to observe cultural protocol.

In the dream, there is snow on the ground, but I cannot remember Elder Brother’s name. What could be preventing me from remembering their name? What is wrong, or out of balance? Silencing the racist and patronizing voice of the môniyâw restores something, and Elder Brother’s name is legible to me again.

At the end of the story, I am ready for a fast. Fasting is an important practice for Métis, Cree, and Anishinaabe peoples and can hold many meanings (Simpson 2014b).


  1. In 2016, 51.8 percent of the Indigenous population of Canada lived in a metropolitan area of at least 30,000 people.
Chelsea Vowel
Chelsea Vowel is a writer, educator, podcaster, and co-founder of the Métis in Space Land Trust..
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
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