No cause of death was disclosed for the acclaimed Ojibwe storyteller, who died at his home on Saturday March 10, his family told the Canadian Press.
The author of Indian Horse, a novel about intergenerational trauma stemming from the residential schools chapter of Canada’s history, did not live to see the completion of the movie being made about his book.
While Wagamese never went to boarding school himself, a number of his relatives did. Born at the Wabaseemoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario, he was taken into foster care during the Sixties Scoop, the two decades during which indigenous children were removed from their homes and placed with non-Native families. He suffered abuse and ran away from several homes, later using it all as fodder for his rich output of work. But underneath was the pain of orphanhood, alcoholism and recovery.
His most recent book was Medicine Walk, a novel released in 2014 by Milkweed Editions. It earned a spot on CBC’s The 10 Books You Need to Read This Spring that year. The New York Times also lauded that work, calling it an “earnest embrace of legend and myth” that seemed “less written than painstakingly etched into something more permanent than paper.” In May 2016 acclaimed author Louise Erdrich named Wagamese as one of several Native authors she would like to see more widely read, in an interview with The New York Times.
Medicine Walk publisher Milkweed Editions noted that Wagamese wrote more than 15 books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Besides Medicine Walk, there were Dream Wheels, Indian Horse and Keeper ‘n Me, his debut novel, which won the Alberta Writers Guild’s Best Novel Award when it came out in 1994. He was also a journalist, a radio and television broadcaster and a newspaper columnist, the first indigenous writer to win a National Newspaper Award for column writing, Milkweed said. His column One Native Life appeared on ICMN during the 2000s as well. The winner of a 2014 Indspire Award also spoke to ICMN about the parallels between indigenous storytelling and journalism.
Wagamese famously overcame a life of pain and addiction that he attributed to the fallout from the residential school system.
“Wagamese called himself a second-generation survivor of these experiences,” Milkweed said in a statement. “The literary community will mourn the loss of Wagamese’s masterful and deeply felt voice, which brought forth vital stories of tradition, restoration, and humanity.”
Some credited Wagamese and his work with bringing broad attention to the emotional horrors of the boarding school era.
“I think it has persuaded many people that this was a terrible time in our history, that this really was the dark shadow and that its history is still alive,” said CBC host Shelagh Rogers, a close friend of Wagamese, to the Canadian Press. “He taught us about our history. He taught us the emotional truth of our history, as great fiction writers do. And he was one of our greats.”
Writer and Manitoba legislature member Wab Kinew mourned the man he called his mentor, while many remembered his kind and loving spirit.
“I think he was very generous and kind with others,” he told the Canadian Press. “As much as it is sad to see that he left us too soon, it’s also very powerful to see the impact he had on so many people in life.”