One Native Life by Richard Wagamese

Gina Robertson from Victoria Native Friendship Centre and Indigenous Focus Cohort 1 introduced me to the work of Richard Wagamese, an Ojibway from the Wabaseemoong First Nation in Northwestern Ontario. Gina shared that she had gifted dozens copies of his first novel, Keeper ‘N Me (1994), to Aboriginal men who were incarcerated and trying to make sense of their experience. The book had a transformative effect on many of them. Since then, I have become a devoted Wagamese reader, and have been changed through the discovery of his work. As an author and journalist, he has created an impressive body of work including fiction, non-fiction, poetry and memoir. He is also a person that has been deeply affected by the legacy of residential schools – his survivor parents struggled to parent; he and his siblings were removed, separated and placed in many different foster homes; he was adopted into a white home that was unable to provide the support and care that he needed; and his life was very precarious for many years. However his love of language and great talent as a writer and storyteller sustained him as he rediscovered his Ojibway nature.  

His book, Indian Horse (2012), was the People’s Choice winner in CBC’s Canada Reads 2013. It is a story that sheds light on the “alienating effects of cultural displacement.” I think that it should be required reading for anyone training to work in our field. “Saul Indian Horse is a hockey phenomenon. But he is also victim to the legacy of Canada’s residential schools. This story is about Saul’s reclamation of himself after years of hard drinking and the need for all of us to hear all of our own story if we are to heal. At times, harrowing, brutal and sad but infused with the glory of a game, the light of redemption and forgiveness”

As wonderful as these books are, the one that I am drawn to these days – as I try and understand how to ‘live into reconciliation’ – is his collection of essays, One Native Life (2008). He tells stories about the things he has experienced and learned during his life. I can’t begin to do justice to the breadth of his essays and urge you to read them yourself, however, here are a few excerpts that I think are pertinent to the work of building/rebuilding respect, trust, safety and reconciliation through learning more about ‘the other’ and their stories, experiences and perspectives (italics mine):

On language, cultural connection and permanency:

“I was twenty-four when the first Ojibway word rolled off my tongue. It felt round and rolling, not like the spiky sound of English with all its hard-edged consonants. When I spoke that word aloud, I felt as if I had truly spoken for the first time in my life.

“That first word opened the door to my culture. When I spoke it I stepped over the threshold into a new way of understanding myself and my place in the world. Until then I had been like a guest in my own life, standing around waiting for someone to explain things to me. That one word made me an inhabitant.

“It was peendigaen. Come in. Peendigaen, spoken with and outstretched hand and a rolling of the wrist. A beckoning. Come in. Welcome. This is where you belong….The feeling of Ojibway in my throat was permanence. I stood on unknown territory whose sweep was compelling. Peendigaen. Come in. With that one word, I walked fully into the world of my people” (pp. 137-138).

On working towards justice through communication and understanding:

In reflecting on his first reading of Saul Alinsky’s seminal book, Rules for Radicals, Wagamese says, “His book contained less than what its title suggested, and at first I was disappointed. Then I read it over again and I started to understand that radicalism isn’t necessarily the mechanics of anger. Instead it is the need of the people to invoke justice in a system through a certain generosity of spirit. It is, as Alinsky suggested, a process of communication (p. 220).

On the value of being present for each other and through our differences:

“It is not necessary to bridge gaps between communities. Bridges rust and collapse. If, as a people, we work earnestly to fill those gaps with information, filling it in layer by layer with our truth, the gaps eventually cease to exist” (p. 221).