Richard Wagamese’s One Native Life, released by Canadian publisher, Douglas & McIntyre Publishing Group, presents an Ojibway journalist’s reflections on his life and times. The title, perhaps deliberately ambiguous, could refer to Wagamese’s origins in the Wabasseemoong First Nation Reserve of northwestern Ontario. It could also refer to his identity as Canadian or it could pertain to his identity with the beauties of the Canadian landscape.
Throughout the essays, the reader comes to recognize that Wagamese has created a beautiful life for himself from a rocky beginning. His first memory of both physical and emotional pain came at the age of 1, when his Aunt Elizabeth broke his left arm and shoulder by jumping on him as he swung in a moosehide harness between two trees. Later, this same aunt took him into a bush and tied him so she could whip him with tree branches until his skin was raw. Another time, his uncle held his brother and him underwater. He fought their attempts to come up for air until another Ojibway passed by and stopped the abuse.
Mercifully, Wagamese passed from his tribal family to become adopted and raised among strangers. At the age of 5, he first went to live with a Ukrainian family. Joe Tacknyk became a foster father to him. This man, whom he dearly loved, died, a year after his adoption by another family. He became known as Richard Gilkinson. He also moved to Bradford, Ontario and became, once more, a stranger in a strange place. He saved himself from despair by writing.
He wrote, “What saved me was writing. I don’t know how many stories and poems I committed to paper those first months. It was summer, and school was out. Without a circle of friends, I was incredibly lonely and sad. But I had writing.”
At 15, he ran away to Miami Beach where he found work as a bus boy. One day, he decided to treat himself to a piece of lemon meringue pie at a local diner. A big black man sat down beside him and ordered a piece of pie. The waitress asked him if he could have it. He replied: “I’m the champ. I can eat what I want.” Wagamese looked up and found he was sitting next to Muhammad Ali. Ali ordered a another piece of pie and then a slice of cake. Wagamese asked for an autograph. Ali signed his napkin and patted his head before he left.
Throughout his career as a journalist for the Calvary Herald, Wagamese pursued his adulation of pop culture heroes. He sent Johnny Cash a sampling of his newspaper columns and asked to meet him when he was in town. He cried the day after he learned of John Lennon’s death.
To him, “John Lennon always felt like an Indian to me. In the words and music of this white rock ‘n’ roller, I found the essence of the warrior way. That way is not about being bitter or resentful. It’s not about getting what you think you’re due. It’s not about blaming history for the condition of your life. It’s not about pursuing revenge for injustice. It’s about living a principled life despite all the seeming crap, about living with soul, about embracing the flame of your spirit and letting it burn brightly. It’s about embracing the lift of others, too, regardless.
“I didn’t have any native heroes when I was growing up. When they took me from my people and dropped me into the world of foster homes and adoption, I was lost in the cascade of mainstream influences. The baseball players I cheered for, the musicians, poets, novelists, movie stars and artists I embraced as icons were all non-native. But they shaped my world nonetheless, framed my intellect and defined my tastes. They helped me to become the person I am today. Heroes, after all, assume heroic proportions beyond colour, caste or community. They are sublime.”
He learned the craft of writing from reading vociferously in the local libraries. “I learned how to live through adversity in the library. I learned how words and music can empower you, show you the world in a sharper, cleaner, more forgiving way. I became a writer because of what I found in libraries, and I found the song that still reverberates in my chest. I’m a better man, a better human being and a better Indian because of the freedom in words and music.”
Wagamese led the life of a wanderer across Canada for many years. He abused alcohol and drugs and overcame these addictions. He reconnected with his family, studied with Native elders and began to learn the language. His first word: “peendigaen,” “come in, you’re welcome here.” Each of the sections of “One Native Life” begins with an Ojibway word: ahki for earth, ishskwaday for fire, nibi for water, ishpiming for the universe.
In a chapter titled “The Death and Birth of Super Injun,” Wagamese recounts the advice he received from elder, John Rock Thunder; “‘You want to be the ultimate Indian,’ he said. ‘But you have to start from the inside.’ He went on to tell me that I had been created in a specific order. I was created to be first a human being, then a male, then an Ojibway Indian. I needed to learn how to be a good human being. In the process of that, I would learn how to be a good man. And through that process, I would discover I had been graced all along with being a good Indian.”
Wagamese writes lyrically of nature and the Canadian landscape. Certain signs of nature trigger emotional memories. “There are times when something as simple as the rain that freckles slate grey water can take me back to it – that feeling I remember from my boyhood when the ragged line of trees against the sky filled me with a loneliness that had nothing to do with loss. The land sometimes carries an emptiness in you like the breeze.”
Wagamese is the author of four novels: Ragged Company, Keeper’n Me, A Quality of Light and Dream Wheels, for which he won the 2007 Canadian Author’s Association Award for Fiction. He also published another autobiography called “For Joshua.” In 1990, he won a National Newspaper Award for his columns in the Calgary Herald.
Native Americans, students of contemporary Canadian studies, and those who enjoy a heartwarming tale should read this book. His column “One Native Life” runs in Indian Country Today.