On being plagiarized: spoiler alert, it sucks!

noun: plagiarism; plural noun: plagiarisms
  1. the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.

I don’t get to do a lot of writing these days, but the reason is a happy one! We have a new baby in the house, and she’s keeping me on my toes…literally! She sort of only sleeps when she’s in a sling and I’m carrying her around. I’m clocking some serious Fitbit steps, lemme tell ya! I do miss writing but I know from experience that things will even out eventually and I’ll have the time again.

Another happy side-effect of not really having time to write is that I have more time to read, so baby and I have been making many trips to the bookstore together. I haunt the Native Studies section, trying to find the next awesome book to devour, and just possibly (and mischievously) removing all the works by Flanagan and refiling them elsewhere.

I was on just such a trip the other day when I stumbled across a book I hadn’t noticed before. I flipped it open at random and started reading…and I got the strangest feeling. The words, the tone, the content were SO. FAMILIAR. It took me a few moments to place the familiarity. All of a sudden it hit me like a blast of cold air. It felt like I was reading my own words.

I had a pretty intense reaction. My heart began racing, and my skin went hot, then cold, then back again. I felt like I’d just had a dozen shots of espresso. Just reading this had triggered my fight or flight response, and there I was in a bookstore, with a sleeping baby strapped to me. I had no way to let out the emotions (and adrenalin) I was feeling. I desperately wanted to jump on the internet, navigate to my site and confirm whether what I was reading was a verbatim copy or not, but alas! I was making some damn point about staying offline and having quality time with books. So I grabbed the book and read it more thoroughly. And angrily, if that’s something you can imagine someone doing.

The first thing I did was check the acknowledgments in the back of the book. Surely this person was going to list me as a source at least! They must have contacted me and I just forgot about it, because it happens a lot. Sometimes people don’t contact me first, but I end up as a footnote or endnote in their books or papers, which is pretty fun to come across, and has actually introduced me to some interesting written works! I told myself to cool my jets and not jump to conclusions. I was definitely going to be in the section on sources.

Except I’m not. Not at all.

So I’d like to introduce you to the book that I found on that day. It is called “Peace Pipe Dreams: The Truth About Lies About Indians”, by Darrell Dennis, published in 2014 by Douglas & McIntyre. Apparently it has won and been short-listed for awards, like the PMC Aboriginal Literature Award, which comes with a pretty sweet amount of $5000.

The first section I happened to flip to was one on Native Housing, starting on page 182. It’s only two and a half pages, and it is sort of a weird coincidence that I ended up opening it to that exact spot on that day, because it is this section that most strongly triggered my “huh, I swear I’ve read this before” response. Other sections of the book simply seem as though they could have been influenced by other pieces I’ve written and compiled in my Indigenous Issues 101 section of this website, like “The stereotype of the drunken Indian” which Dennis tackles in pages 84-100. In that section, it is as if Dennis merely availed himself of exactly the hyperlinked sources I provided in my article, and followed the same general order of my arguments, which wouldn’t really be plagiarism, if true. It would just be the use of someone else’s labour and research, without crediting them for either. This seems like it happens a lot throughout the book, in ways which could strike a person as ceasing to be coincidence when the sources used follow in exactly the same order as those I provide in my articles. Unless great minds really do think eerily, exactly, specifically alike. I’m sure that’s it.

Most of the book seems to be original work, and even in the sections that are hauntingly familiar to me, Dennis tends to fill those sections out with more information and witty repartee than are present in my original pieces. He also writes about topics I have never covered on this blog. (Someone today pointed me to his CBC show, ReVision Quest where many of his pieces likely come from.) It is simply that oddly enough, certain conclusions are drawn in exactly the way I drew them in pieces here, sources are used in exactly the way I present them here, and certain sentences or paragraphs are almost exactly like ones I have written…save for the changing, omission or addition of certain words. Again, a joyful coincidence no doubt!

Back to that section I came across first. My original article on Native Housing was published in August of 2012. This is Dennis’ 2014 section on Native Housing. Read them side by side, and you may start to see what had my blood running cold, then very, very hot that day in the bookstore. Or you might not see any similarity at all.

There is most definitely NOT any copyright infringement here. For that to be the case, my exact words would have to be used in large enough chunks to make it actionable at which point I’d be filing a court action. It’s not even really plagiarism in the sense one thinks of it in an academic setting…where people are often encouraged to go ahead and use previous works as long as you change the words enough to make it ‘your own’. Academia does sort of expect that you’ll provide sources for your work, and a few are cited by Dennis in the section “A Note on Sources”. But this isn’t an academic work, and I am definitely, absolutely, completely not mentioned at all as a source, so hey, I must be imaging things!

I guess I should clarify that the title of this piece is misleading…I don’t actually know what it is like to be plagiarized. What I am experiencing is the strange, and totally unactionable feeling of encountering someone who could potentially be a fan of my blog but maybe isn’t, and seems to have been following my writing for a while but maybe hasn’t been, who through sheer coincidence has written a book that sounds almost exactly the way I sound when I write, who has stumbled upon exactly the same research as I did, who by complete happenstance often makes arguments in exactly the way I did back in 2012 and 2013, and in at least one instance, had ideas so similar to my own that when I read that section I felt like someone had handed me a copy of my own article.

Of course if ANY of that were actually true, I am certain that Darrell Dennis would have contacted me for permission to use my work, or at the very least would have included me as a source for some of his writing in some way. Otherwise, it would mean that he used my blog, all those years of UNPAID time and effort, to help him write a book he has profited from and even won awards for, without having the decency to even admit he did so; not even through a simple link to my blog and a “kinanâskomitin” in his “A Note on Sources”. But na! What kind of a person would do that?

What kind of person indeed.

UPDATE, SEPT. 5, 2015:

The publisher has reached out to me with the following:

Dear Ms. Vowel:

I am Darrell Dennis’s publisher and have been made aware of your concerns about similarities between some of your blog entries and certain passages in his book, Peace Pipe Dreams. You are right, among the many books, articles and posts Darrell researched, he did come across several of your posts and they may have influenced him, even though his humorous style of writing is very distinct from yours. Darrell is a leader in the effort to change the conversation about First Nations in mainstream Canada and is used to engaging in a free exchange of ideas and information with others involved in the work. Darrell himself is never happier than when he sees others repeating his words and spreading the message. Still, as Darrell’s publisher I accept responsibility for not listing your excellent blog among the sources he referenced in writing Peace Pipe Dreams and I apologize to you. As you correctly noted, it is not an academic work and we chose not to include a definitive bibliography. We meant no offense by this but now that you have brought it to our attention, we will make sure to include a credit to you in any reprints or new editions.

Howard White, Publisher
Douglas & McIntyre

First, I very much appreciate the apology from Darrell Dennis’ publisher. Receiving an admission that my work was used, and having my work cited as a source in future editions is basically all I was asking for, since we cannot turn back the clock and have Darrell contacting me directly beforehand.

I do want to note, however, that the “free exchange of ideas and information” touches on issues of consent. Darrell and I have never interacted. Before I found this book, I did not even know who he was. A free exchange should not mean “your ideas are free for the taking and I offer you nothing in exchange, not even notice that I’ve done this”. I was given no opportunity to consent (or not consent) to my work being used, and in this case I am referring specifically to the Native Housing section, which is entirely too close to my own work to be coincidence. I accept that by publishing my work on this blog, people will use what I write as a source for their own work. I never expected though that someone would simply rewrite a piece of mine almost entirely and put their name on it. I would not have consented to that.

Many people use my blog, and contact me to ask if that is okay, or simply to let me know they are doing so either via my contact page, or by linking directly. I really appreciate that; such contact often exposes me to the work of others who are passionate about the topics I discuss. It reassures me that I am not wasting my time and energy here. I send a bit of that energy out with every piece I write, and when it resonates with someone, and they let me know, a bit of that energy comes back to me. Honestly, that’s really all I’m asking for, and I do not think this is a burdensome request. If you are going to use my work, please let me know, and credit me. Do not alter my words in order to lift my pieces wholesale; that is a very unprofessional way to take other people’s work but still avoid copyright infringement.  Particularly when you are getting PAID (and winning thousands of dollars in awards) and I am not. Already I am hearing a lot of feedback from authors who find this entire situation unacceptable, and this apology lacking.

This admission and apology are more than I expected (which was no response), but I think the concepts of “free ideas and information” being used to elide the issue of people’s time, effort and work is a bit disingenuous. However, that’s the way things work in publishing, under colonial law. I suppose that is why I feel a bit more betrayed than I might have had this been done by a Settler.


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