Arts & CultureCultural Affairs

Indigenous womanhood and spirits: Confronting the inaccuracies of Western media

Remy Boudreau, an Edmonton-based writer and storyteller, confronts bad portrayals of Indigenous spirits and womanhood in dark-fiction short-story 'Hunger.'

When calls for submissions opened for the Indigenous dark-fiction anthology, Never Whistle at Night, Remy Boudreau’s friend wanted to submit a story. But, only on one condition — if Boudreau did as well. Over the next few weeks, Boudreau wrote and edited their short story ‘Hunger.’

‘Hunger’ takes inspiration from the Indigenous cultural stories Boudreau heard as a child. As well, it shifts the narrative we often see in Western media about Indigenous female victimhood. Boudreau’s story follows a whetigo — a cannibalistic spirit that enters people to eat them — as it tries to satisfy it’s never-ending hunger.

Eventually, Boudreau’s friend heard back from the publisher, rejecting her story. Boudreau expected a rejection email to make its way to their inbox shortly after. They thought that if their friend wasn’t accepted, there’s no way they would be.

“I didn’t hear and didn’t hear, so I was like, well, I guess it’s not happening.”

Then, in November 2022, Boudreau got an email from the publishers asking if ‘Hunger’ was still available for purchase.

“I opened the email, and I just started screaming,” Boudreau recalled. “They had 1,000 submissions from their open-call, [so] the odds of me getting published were just impossible.”

“I don’t remember a time where I wasn’t telling myself stories,” Boudreau says

This was all new for Boudreau — ‘Hunger’ is their first-published story. But, writing isn’t something new for them. Storytelling has been a constant part of Boudreau’s life — they’ve been writing since they were nine, and telling stories even longer.

“I don’t remember a time where I wasn’t telling myself stories. I was always telling my siblings stories,” Boudreau said.

Their great-grandfather was a well-known champion storyteller, a talent he passed on to Boudreau’s mother.

A lot of the stories Boudreau’s mother told them growing up were cultural stories. Boudreau is Cree, and their mother grew up in Northern Alberta. Although Boudreau grew up in Edmonton, they hold deep-seated spiritual beliefs about many of the spirits their mom told them about.

Through ‘Hunger,’ Boudreau wanted to tackle two ideas they often see reflected in Western media: Indigenous female victimhood, and the portrayal of Indigenous spirits.

So, when the publisher’s call asked for dark-fiction, Boudreau knew they wanted to write about the whetigo, a spirit that often filled their mom’s stories.

Western media portrays the whetigo as evil, but that isn’t the case

Although Western media has told stories about whetigos, the portrayals are often negative and not reflective of what the spirit actually is. This is because Western pop culture is obsessed with the idea of good and evil, which stems from Christian values of morality, Boudreau said. Because the whetigo is seen as a cannibalistic spirit, it “becomes monstrous.”

But, the whetigo is neither good nor evil — it’s just hungry, Boudreau explained.

“Most of the portrayals of this spirit in pop culture [are] that it’s evil because of the nature of what it does. But, I don’t see it that way.”

Boudreau’s version of the whetigo is tied-to and exists on Indigenous peoples’ land. It was a part of Indigenous peoples, and relied on their anchor to their culture to “keep itself fed,” Boudreau explained. But, when colonizers separated Indigenous peoples from their culture, languages, and the stories that kept the whetigo alive, it got hungrier and hungrier.

Because it’s so hungry, the whetigo goes after those it sees as empty in an attempt to fill itself up. Empty people are those who aren’t anchored to a spiritual or cultural belief system, Boudreau said. In ‘Hunger,’ the whetigo enters Chris, a white man with no connection to his culture.

While Boudreau has always been anchored to their culture, there are Indigenous peoples who aren’t. That’s why Chris exists in ‘Hunger’ — he has no anchor, making him empty and easy to enter. When the spirit sees Summer, an Indigenous woman, it assumes she similarly has no anchor, making her an easy target.

“I was never complicit in my own victimhood,” Boudreau says

When Boudreau was a teenager, they went through a phase where they loved spaghetti westerns. In a lot of these movies, terrible things would happen to Indigenous women, but they never fought back. Boudreau identified as a woman for most of their life. But, they never saw themselves in the portrayals of Indigenous women they saw in old westerns. Seeing the way Indigenous womanhood was shown “hurt in a way that’s hard to describe to other people,” Boudreau said.

“I have never just taken anything that has happened to me. I was never complicit in my own victimhood.”

When the whetigo attempts to eat Summer, she fights back using Indigenous knowledge. In fact, that’s what Boudreau wants readers to take away from ‘Hunger’ — Indigenous women are not victims.

“We exist, and we have strength. We have a warrior spirit that Western culture maybe doesn’t want to believe in,” Boudreau said.

The whetigo assumes that Summer won’t recognize it, and won’t be able to defend herself as a result. But, that isn’t the case.

Summer fighting back is a connection to the bigger idea of being anchored to your culture. Colonization tried to disconnect Indigenous peoples from their knowledge and beliefs, but it didn’t work.

“It’s been 600 years, and you couldn’t kill us. We’re still here.”

Katie Teeling

Katie Teeling was the 2023-24 Editor-in-Chief and the 2022-23 Opinion Editor at The Gateway. She’s in her fifth year, studying anthropology and history. She is obsessed with all things horror, Adam Driver, and Lord of the Rings. When she isn’t crying in Tory about human evolution, Katie can be found drinking iced capps and reading romance novels.

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