“a certain solace in writing”: Interview with Shea Vassar, Writer and Film Critic, and Citizen of the Cherokee Nation, in Commemoration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day

I virtually sat down with Shea Vassar to talk a bit about Indigenous Peoples’ Day and what she’s been up to. Shea Vassar is a Cherokee Nation citizen and member of the Native American Journalists Association. She is based on Lenape & Canarsie land (Brooklyn, NY). Her film criticism career started as something to do to pass the time in film school at Hunter College and since has been published at Roger Ebert, High Country News, Film School Rejects, and Zora Magazine among others. Currently, she is working with the Red House Project and is dedicated to bringing authentic Native representation to the screen. Shea is also a Master of Legal Studies student at the University of Oklahoma where she is specifically studying Indigenous Peoples’ Law. When not talking about movies, she co-hosts a podcast called Hardcourt Hunnies which is a bi-weekly show that discusses all things NBA.

Q. What are you working on right now?

A. Pre-planning for a future screenplay, think “Native Lady Bird” but a lot darker. I want to see positive Native characters, like a coming of age, and then I thought, why don’t I write it?

Q. What are some of your favorite Native authors?

A. Louise Erdrich, she writes some messing  women characters which I love. Recently I’ve been raving about Kelli Jo Ford’s  “Crooked Hallelujah.” It came out this year, and my friend actually did an audio book for it, so I would listen and read it. The story is about displaced Native women and inherited trauma, and I think it was so beautifully written. Another one, Tiffany Midge is a really funny writer, she writes a lot of satire, one of my favorites being “Bury My Heart at Chuck E Cheese,” it was like a funny Native woman David Sedaris thing…it talks about some serious issues but it made me laugh. It’s sort of what I want to do with my Native Lady Bird thing.

Q. Of course I have to ask this question, how has writing been for you during quarantine?

A. It’s been a mix, I still think it’s May, I can’t keep up with passing time so keeping up with deadlines has been a struggle, at the same time I have found a certain solace in writing everyday, even if i don’t have any assignments, it’s the only thing that keeps me going.

Q. Do you have any writing rituals?

A. I do and I don’t. I always start planning on paper, and I have to write out a list of key points, for example I just turned in a piece on Indian Burial Ground tropes, so I made a list of all the movies and the dates they came out, and then from there I write short phrases or blobs about what I want to say and then I type it up. So I guess I have to start on paper.

I also prefer writing in the morning.

Q. You mentioned that you write everyday, what do you do when you don’t have an assignment?

A. Usually it’s free writing, I have attempted to write poetry but then I literally throw it away, but I like the idea of writing poetry so I circle around to that. It’s usually whatever I need to purge.

Q. How would you give advice to those struggling to write right now?

A. I’ve been burning cedar with lavender, which helps my anxiety. What I try to tell myself is just to finish that first draft, even if it’s complete shit, I learned that I always feel better once I get to that one point. Once you get to that little finish line I find it easier to find that confidence again. Some people have a hard time beginning but I have a hard time finishing, especially if someone is doing a short story or screenplay I always tell them to just try and finish it. Also, I’ve been telling people lately not to be afraid to touch things, like recently I’ve been afraid of my parents finding my work, which is such a mental block, and I think everyone has that kind of mental block, and I have to remind myself that it’s for me first.

I also recommend making mood boards, I do that for everything I write, I think it helps because it’s the fun side of things.

Q. What do you want people to think about on Indigenous Peoples’ Day?

A. It’s important for people to lift Native people’s voices, but I would hope it’s not just for that day. For Indigenous people, I would just hope that they could use that day to take a break, and celebrate how beautiful and strong we are. A lot of people haven’t been taught in the Indigenous community how to take care of themselves, so I’m trying to remind myself of that: it’s okay to take care of yourself. There’s so much going on, a lot in Canada, just the constant threat of pipelines, like Standing Rock was so big because it had so much attention, but i think people forget that pipelines are still being built. There’s currently even a pipeline being built in North Brooklyn, and it may not be on a reservation, but New York has the largest population of urban Native people, and the part that it’s being built on is primary Black and Brown communities. There’s other pipelines, too, that I’ve been trying to spread the word on, such as the unseated Wet’suwet’en land. A lot of land defenders, mostly women, and then the RCMP will come and tear down their forts and camps, despite them being on their land. There’s also the Tiny House Warriors, who have built tiny houses along the border to protect the Secwepemc territory.

Q. Do you have any parting words for readers, in thinking about Indigenous Peoples’ Day?

A. Right now, I think I would encourage people to read things that challenge their points of view of the world and attempt to educate yourself on a different person’s experience, whether its fiction or nonfiction.

(Side-note, Shea was wearing these incredible “landback” earrings created by Indigenousintentions on etsy or instagram.)

Yrs,

Shannon, poetry reader

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