Author Archives: Richard Wagamese

About Richard Wagamese

I am a published author with eleven titles published by major Canadian publishers. I am a First Nations person from the Ojibway Nation in Northwestern, Ontario, Canada. As a professional writer since 1979 I have written for newspaper, radio television, magazines and book publishing. I love the culture of books and the people who populate it. 2012 recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Media & Communications.

Cowichan

It’s a calm day on Cowichan Bay. The air is so still that the water is like a mirror. Fishing boats line the wharf and they seem to hover in mid air. The reflection of the island a mile offshore is its perfect twin. The world is glass and there is a feeling here that time does not exist. The smell of salt water, fish, rope, marine oil, and gas transports you to a simpler time. Wayfarers and mariners. Here they still exist.

CowichanBay is a long inlet that sits about the mid way point on Vancouver Island. It’s called CowBay by locals and those who have come and fell in love with the place. The town, or at least the parts I’ve seen of it, strung out along the shoreline, is what you’d imagine John Steinbeck discovered when he wrote Cannery Row.

It’s a fisherman’s world that I know nothing of.  The boats that sit packed tightly around the wharf are mysterious things. They are oddly shaped to my eye: ungainly and seemingly unsuited for days and weeks on the sea. I’ve never been an intertidal person. The sights and smells and look of this place inspire the storyteller in me and I look at it all with a hunger to know it.

I’m here to tell stories at a national conference. What fuels me the most when I do these events are mornings like this one. Mornings when I see the world as though for the very first time. It’s then I realize again that everything around me has a story. Everything around me has a vital energy that fills me, excites me, connects me it all. I feel empowered and curious.

That’s the wonderful thing about the world and about this country. When you think you know something of it, when you think you understand it and heck, can even glean your own special place in it, the world has the power to upset all that. It has the power to re-introduce you to itself and teach you things about yourself you never knew before. It’s always had that power and I hope it always will.

Looking out this window at a world that holds more secrets, I feel those stories all around me. The seabirds, the wharf, the loops and coils of rope, the rugged shore of the nearby island; they all contain stories within themselves. When I close my eyes I can feel them.

There’s no special magic to this. You don’t have to be a storyteller to glean that. Instead, you just have to be open to the world, to want to fill yourself with it, to want the experience of being somewhere lead you to ask questions and be patient enough for the answers to come.

That’s how our traditional storytellers found the motivation to create. They opened themselves to the world and the world gave them story. It still operates the same way. Stories are as close as an open window or a walk through an unknown territory. They wait for you. They want to be told. All that it takes to gather them is the acceptance of the notion that everything exists as story.

As a writer I have come to believe in that. I tend to look at things a lot longer than most people I know. I can study something for hours, intent of discovering what it has to tell me. There’s always something. That something usually finds its way into a story at some time or another. What happens for me is that I remain curious about the world and I retain the power of the innocence that comes from a feeling of wonder.

The stories I tell to the people at the conference will include this vision across Cow Bay. There’s the essence of Canada here. The country revealing another spectacular part of itself to me in images, shapes and sounds foreign to me. The people I spoke to in the museum, on the wharf, in the diner and the quirky shops all add substance to the stories I will tell.

For every story I shape and gather about this country, there is an immense payoff. I become more. The idea of Canada fills me. I can transcend issues. I learn to see the country and my place in it as the articulation of a great story. I am a part of that story. It’s a thrilling prospect each time I revisit it.


Ski Dreams

November is magic time at our house. Sometime in late October I’ve already started watching the weather forecast at our favorite ski hill a forty five minute drive away. It’s one of the first things I do every morning once the leaves fall. The accumulation of snow is vital to my well being because that hill opens around the middle of the month. That event is right up there with baseball’s spring training for me. That’s big.

As the base of snow deepens I get more excited. See, my wife and I just plain love to ski. For five months when those long, plunging mountain runs are open, we’re in seventh heaven. There is nothing in our lives that fills us so much as skiing. We literally live for it. Just the idea of it is exciting. It’s funny because I came to B.C. on 2002 to get away from winter. Now I can’t wait for its arrival.

My wife talked me into trying it in March of 2006. I was fifty one then and far too old for something as seemingly dangerous as that I thought. Besides, it had never seemed like a very Native thing to do. I’d never seen our people represented on national teams or anything. Plus there was the whole outsider’s view of an expensive, trendy, elitist activity meant primarily for cash wealthy white people.  So I’d poo-pooed the act of skiing for a long time.

We went to the hill so I could look things over on a perfect, sunny winter’s day. The first thing I saw was families. Then I saw very young, very small children blasting down the side of a mountain without poles. Then I saw seniors, overweight people, and even a handicapped woman on a ski cycle. It looked like an everyman kind of thing to do and I was keen on trying.

Once I took my first lesson I was hooked. I’d been a hockey player for most of my life so I loved the feeling of speed and careening around at full tilt. So the idea of learning to fly down a hill was wild and outrageous and just plain fun to think about. I learned on the Bunny Hill. That was a small hit to my masculinity. It only lasted a moment though because I was soon sliding down a mountain. Again, the idea of it was wonderful.

After two hours we were set free. My first ride on a lift chair was awe inspiring. Even though we live in the mountains I’d never been carried up the side of one. I was excited and a little scared at the same time. That first run looked incredibly steep and I forgot everything the instructor had told me. I fell a few times but I made it down. I could hardly wait to go back up again.

It took a long time to get graceful or at least, something resembling it. We were into our second season before I got a glimmer of that. Once I could put my skis parallel and get some speed going the thrill was addictive. Developing the muscle memory so I could swing in and out of turns effortlessly took some doing and there was always the feeling of the sheer steepness of the slopes to consider. I came to love steep and fast. I became a skier, maybe not a great one, but certainly enthusiastic

But there was also the feeling of being out on the land, the peace and the quiet when we stopped to catch our breaths. That was as magical as the feeling of shushing down the mountain. I guess, more than anything though, it’s the feeling of having discovered something magical together. That’s where the true grace comes. My wife and I took up the adventure of learning to ski together and it became another entry we made into another part of the world, another magical doorway.

That’s the true joy of skiing for me. For five months my wife and I are bound up in something we both truly love – separately and together. It’s an active thing. It involves the land and the world. It involves ritual – we love the ritual of preparation and the journey to the hill. We love the idea of being wrapped up together in something that fills us both with childhood glee and adult contentment all at the same time.

So my ski dreams start early, way before the snow falls. They involve adventure and thrills. But they also involve the look on Debra’s face when we climb on the lift for the first trip up the hill every year. They involve her laughter. They involve the feeling of chasing something grand and wonderful – together. That’s not just a Native thing, it’s a human one.


Writer’s Retreats

Live-In Writers Retreat with Richard Wagamese

What:

A five-day live-in writing retreat with award-winning and acclaimed Ojibway author and storyteller, Richard Wagamese. All inclusive – accommodation, meals, snacks, hot tub, pool table, satellite television, wireless internet, with access to golf, hiking, swimming and evening storytelling and community building through story.

Where:

Beautiful Howard’s Haven chalet in the stunning Sun Peaks resort in British Columbia.

When:

 Book now for June 20 – 25, July 25-30, August 22-27 2013. Space is limited to ten writers per session. May also be available throughout the year depending on demand and my schedule. Please inquire about availability.

 Who:

For emerging or established writers who want to empower their words through the practice of traditional First Nations oral storytelling, ceremony and spirituality.

 The Program:

Level 1 – June and July only

Over the course of five days you will learn to create spontaneous oral stories. Then you will learn to transfer those skills to the page to write fluidly, freely and uninhibitedly. You will learn the process that Richard uses every day – a process that has enabled him to write and sell eleven titles in seventeen years to major Canadian publishers in one draft,  ranging from novels to memoir to poetry.

Richard will teach you the principles of First Nations oral storytelling. You will be introduced to spiritual ceremonies that will empower the storyteller within you, experience your vital spiritual connection to the land and discover The Channel, the empowering story telling energy within you.

You will guided through exercises that free your mind to create spontaneously. Then you will be guided through specific exercises that take that spontaneous energy and transfer it into writing. You get the rare opportunity for extended one-on-one time with a recognized, award-winning writer and one of Canada’s foremost Native authors and storytellers.

 Cost:  $1750.00 Cdn. A $500.00 non-refundable deposit is required to book. Limited to 10 participants at a time.  Money Order, Visa and Master Card accepted. Travel to and from Sun Peaks not included.

 Level 2 – August

For those who have taken Level 1 and are on the road to creating short stories and novels this is the next step forward. Using the techniques learned in Level 1 as a guide, Richard will introduce you to the exact writing techniques he uses every day to create writing that sells. He will teach you how to craft strong narrative arc, how to work with your ideas, how to create compelling and unique characters, develop an ear for strong dialogue and create sentences that are active, rich and imminently readable.

In Level 2 Richard functions as a mentor/editor and walks through your story with you. Each day has independent writing time and one-on-one time with Richard as well as group work and readings. Writers need to bring a work(s) in progress or an idea they want to develop during the course of Level 2.

 Cost: $1500 Cdn. A $500.00 non-refundable deposit is required to book. Limited to 10 participants at a time. Money Order, Visa and Master Card accepted. Travel to and from Sun Peaks not included.

 What Participants Said:

 Attending Richard’s Writer’s Retreat has been one of the most powerful experiences of my life. The writer’s retreat was a course about writing that I have never experienced in all my years of university writing courses. I used to write set plots and characters but through Richard’s guidance I was able to open a channel which allowed me to unleash truly original ideas. Richard is a patient, kind, generous, and humorous teacher and Richard’s wife Debra is equally engaging and cooked delicious meals every morning, day and night. I was pampered and when I got back to work my coworkers commented how relaxed and rejuvenated I looked. Richard facilitated a sacred process which I will always carry with me and the whole experience I know will make me a better writer.

 Brenda Prince

Middle of the Sky Woman

Vancouver BC (2011)

 

Going to the writers’ retreat with Richard in the lovely, welcoming home he shares with Debra was the best thing I had done for my creativity and writing for a very long time. The opportunity to free my mind and challenge myself to new perspectives, ideas and processes was priceless. The sheer pleasure of spending five days doing nothing but writing and story-telling with two wonderful writers by my side is going to be very hard to beat! It was an exhausting, liberating, exhilarating and joyous literary adventure that I would do all over again in a heartbeat.

Katherine Gordon

Garbriola Island BC (2011)

 

The writer’s retreat was a paradigm-shifter; it took everything I thought I knew about writing and turned it on its head. Richard transformed my process from a painful extraction of slow words emerging onto a blank page into a pure creative torrent of fully-formed storytelling. I arrived at the retreat as a chrysalis of tightly wound creative energy, and departed as a butterfly in full poetic flight.

Whether you are new to writing, or well-entrenched in your own creative process, Richard’s retreat will re-chart the channel to the core of your creativity and allow you to spin stories out of seemingly thin air. He will teach you to astound yourself with your ability to witness the tales hidden within every thing and release them onto the page, where they take flight with imagination. The metamorphosis you will experience is invaluable, and will alter your perception of your self forever.

So go. Astound yourself.

April E. Snowe

Kamloops BC (2011)

 

The Writer’s Retreat was easily the most innovative workshop I have ever been to.  There were many instances that felt very surreal, where I would take a step back in my mind and think to myself, “wow – am I really here, doing this?!”  The activities were designed to get us writing “without thinking” and I was surprised at the creativity and stories that were within me.

At Richard and Debra’s home in Paul Lake I felt like I was in a peaceful haven, and the daily hikes connected me with nature in a way that I do not experience living in the city.  The setting was beautiful, calm, and serene and this helped to clear my mind for the writing experiences.  I felt cared for, valued, and respected the whole time I was there.

I know that this experience will improve the way that I teach Indigenous literature and writing to both my high school and college-prep students.  This experience has also opened the door to possibilities for me as I look forward to doing more with my own writing.

Anne Tenning

Victoria BC (2011)

 

Stories help us understand who we are and where we come from.  Yet often our stories are held back, locked down by stones we don’t know how to move.  Storywalk is about a return to spirit.  This is that creative intuition that knows no obstacles, that frees the story to slip past stones like water, powerful with life.

Alannah d’Ailly

Waterloo ON (2012)

 

Richard has a gift of personalizing his stories allowing them to captivate and move us beyond our worlds.  He connects us with humanity; no judgment no ridicule only kindness and love. He reminds us of our abilities through his gentle humble nature.  The writers retreat in July renewed my spirit giving me the confidence I needed to go out and brighten the world with my own stories. The experience is magical. There are no words to describe the energy and love; you must participate to fully appreciate it.

Jean Bota

Red Deer AB (2012)

 

Storywalk offers participants simple steps and processes to move towards greater and deeper expression. The Storywalk journey is about removing the  limitations of language. The retreat helped me find the magic in words again! Life changing! Pure Magic!

Carol Anne Hilton

Victoria BC


The Kid in the Picture

There are things that come to you in life that you don’t expect. Sometimes the sudden surprises are difficult and demand the most of you in order to navigate your way to peace with them. Other times all they ask you is reflection. All they ask of you is a commitment to time in order to flesh out your insides with the definitive impact of their arrival. As I get older I’ve become better at both but much prefer the latter.

            There’s a picture that occupies a special place on my desk. It’s within easy reach. I take it down now and then and look at it. It’s an old black and white photo obviously taken with am early 1960s model Kodak camera. It’s grainy and faded. But there’s a quality of light in it that makes it magical. It’s a picture of a small boy and girl with their arms around each other.   

The boy in the picture wears a half smile. He’s standing in a fenced backyard squinting at the camera as though it’s something alien and he’s unsure of what to expect. He’s wearing pants rolled up four inches at the hem, suspenders and a nondescript shirt. His runners are worn and old looking. He’s small with a severe brush cut. 

            The girl beside him is the same height. She’s dressed in saddle shoes with white socks, cowboy style jeans rolled up mid calf. Her hair is cut in a tomboy style with long bangs and she’s smiling at the camera like a thing she’s used to.

            It’s 1963. The girl is my foster sister. I am the kid with the rolled up jeans and suspenders. I am a foster kid and nearly I’m seven years old. That means the photograph is nearly fifty years old and it’s the first time I have ever seen it. The kid in the picture has been a stranger until now. When I look at him there are pangs of regret, of loss and of a time in my life that I never really fully occupied.

            Oh, I know who he was. Years of therapy have allowed me to see him in my mind’s eyes. I’ve held him, comforted him. I’ve told him that everything would be all right, that he was safe and that he wasn’t going anywhere alone anymore. I talked to him about dark and lonely nights. I spoke to him about how light when it comes can chase the darker things away. I spoke to him about permanence and home, belonging and security. Through all of that, I know him and he knows me.

            But I had never seen him. I had never seen the squint, the rough home hair cut, the outsized jeans and the face unfamiliar with smiles or the idea that something could be captured forever. He had only ever been a sea of feelings I carried from all those years. They were feelings of losses I couldn’t understand, of an emptiness at the core of me I had carried all my life but had never found the words for.  

            He sits squarely in my palm like a treasured thing now. I have the photograph. It’s mine to keep. I never knew that it was possible for someone to give you years. I never knew it was possible for someone to transport you through time and space. Yet they did and the boy in the picture lives in every line and squint and half smile of the man I am at fifty six.

            See, I was a foster kid. I was a small Ojibway kid cut off from everything that was supposed to be mine. I was lonely and filled with pain. You can tell that by the eyes. No one knew that about me then. I was just a kid. I existed in files; files that no one shared with my foster family, me, school teachers or anyone who had anything to do with me. No one, not even the kid in the picture himself, knew his history.

            No one knew about my night terrors. No one knew about pain I carried in my body. No one knew how damaged I had been by tings I was defenseless against as a toddler and an infant. The terms, Children’s Aid and care, didn’t seem to apply much to me or thousands of other foster kids, then or now. As long as they exist only in files that will never change.            

The boy in the picture lives in me. He just doesn’t carry the pain anymore. I comfort him very day. I heal him and he heals me. Together we give ourselves a new past by creating a better day today. I belong somewhere. I’m loved. I smile at cameras. The child is father to the man


Gathering

Becoming a professional writer is a process. I’ve been at it a long time now and I’m still learning, still working to grasp and use new tools, new approaches. This month will mark the thirty-second year that I’ve collected a pay check for writing. In that time I’ve moved from newspaper to radio to television to novels, memoirs and poetry. Along the way I’ve learned incredible amounts of things about the world, life, philosophy, and myself. I wouldn’t trade this life for anything.

 Back when I first started there were no personal computers. We still used typewriters and carbon paper. There was no email and even a fax machine was considered unbelievable technology. We used to glue newspaper pages together. Research was done through books in libraries, archives and museums. To become the writer I am at fifty-five meant learning to negotiate one heck of a lot of changes in a short time.

Becoming a human being is a process too. It takes a lot of work to create a personal history. There’s far more to it than just showing up for life every day. There are choices, both profound and banal, that need to be made. There are things to consider. There are numerous directions to take at a moment’s notice and there are literally a multitude of people willing to offer opinion, advice, suggestion and judgment.

    Just when you think you know life comes along to show you that you really don’t. For instance, when I made it back to my people when I was twenty four, there wasn’t anything I wanted to be more than I wanted to be regarded as a genuine Ojibway. See, I’d been lost for a long time and had no real idea of who I was. Foster homes and adoption into a white middle class family will do that to you.

            So that by the time I made it home all I wanted to do was fit in and represent myself as the best Ojibway possible. The people I saw around me at gatherings and powwows and ceremonies made me proud – and I really wanted to reflect that pride. I set out to be the most native person I could be. But I was terrified of failure.

            I thought that being a genuine Ojibway meant that I needed to know how to do certain things. Like hunting and fishing, how to set a gill net, track a moose, to speak my language and conduct ceremony. I thought it meant doing warrior things in a warrior world – or at least, what was left of it. As a man I thought that I needed to learn manly things expressed, of course, in an Ojibway motif.

            But a woman I met set me straight. I was at a traditional camp north of Temiskaming. It was called a cultural survival camp and I took it at its word. I wanted to survive as a cultural person. One morning when the men set out to do some hunting for the evening meal, I asked to go. The oldest men looked at me and refused to take me. I was crushed. I felt defeated and unworthy.

            “Come with me,” the woman said and led me into the bush. For an hour she sent me hacking through the timber for dry branches I could snap off with my hands or feet. I gathered armloads and trundled them back to camp. It was hot, sweaty work but I still felt useless and unworthy.

But when we got back to camp she told me to look at the old people. She told me to imagine how much they would appreciate a good, blazing fire in the evening’s chill. She asked me to imagine how safe it would make them feel. Then, she told me to look at the children. She asked me to imagine how it would feel for them to fill their bellies with meat cooked over the fire I started. She asked me to imagine how happy they would feel.

            She told me that gathering wood and lighting a fire was very important work. She said that through it I would learn the biggest thing first. I would learn to care for people. In the end, that’s the most warrior-like thing you can do, she told me; to care for the people around you, to place their needs ahead of your own. I’ve always tried to remember that.

            I’m not finished the process of becoming a writer, nor am I finished becoming a human being. There is always so much more to learn and incorporate into the process of living each day. Staying open to that and being willing to find the big lessons in the smallest of things is what gets you home, really. I’ve always tried to remember that too.


Scrolls

When I think back to the number of books that have affected my life, I’m incredulous. The line snakes back through fifty-five years and touches on virtually everything. Sometimes I feel as though the doorway to a library was where I was always supposed to go. In fact, the absence of effective and immediate teachers from my family and culture was removed from me as a toddler and the world of books offered me guidance and wisdom.

When I visited the Kenora Public Library way back in 1960 when I first learned to read, I was amazed. Through the back door where the kids section was, existed a world of color, dream and image that captivated me. When they told me I could take as many home as I could carry, I did. Lugging them back passed the mill into Rideout where my foster home sat was thrilling. I couldn’t wait to get to my room.

Not much has changed since then. A library card is still my most prized possession. The stacks of the library are where I feel challenged, engaged, motivated and curious. Three are always more worlds to explore and inhabit than I have time for. But I’m still on the lookout for something new to fire my imagination or simply aid me in understanding more of what I do know.

As a writer I live in the culture of books. I have for most of my life. When I open another book there is a whole new world for me to enter and inhabit. I’ve traipsed through a lot of worlds in my time and my real world has been increased by every journey. I never tire of making those journeys. Maybe it’s the kid in me that still hungers for the lure of a real good yarn, an adventure, a fantastic experience where all I know of this world is forgotten in the spell of a created one.

            But I come from a people whose world was ordered without the need of books. The Ojibway, like all native peoples in Canada, had a literature that was oral. We spoke our books. We talked our teachings. Our storytellers framed the universe for us and we had no need of printed language. Within our stories was all the stuff of great literature; pathos, tragedy, journeys, romance, great battles, heroes, villains, mystery and spiritual secrets.   

They say that at one time in our history we set our stories on the skin of birch trees. We etched them there on the bark with the blunt edge of a burnt stick or pigments formed of earth and rock and plant material that has never faded over time. Sacred scrolls holding stories meant to last forever. Books. Unbound but for the leather thong that held them, unprinted but for the hand that shaped the images, unedited but for the protocol of storytelling that guided them.  

I only ever saw a birch bark scroll once. The old man laid it out for me on a plank table top in a cabin tucked far away in the bush and traced the line of history with one arthritic finger, telling it in the Old Talk that I didn’t understand. But I could translate his eyes.

In those ancient symbols was a world where legends were alive, where an entire belief system was represented in teachings built of principles that were built themselves of rock and leaf and tree, of bird and moose and sky, and Trickster spirits nimble as dreams cajoling my people onto the land, toward themselves, toward him, toward me. Here was an entire world, a cosmology, an enduring set of principles laid down in a time long passed that promised a learning unsurpassed in my experience. Here was the magic that sustained a people.

This is what I understood from the wet glimmer of his eyes. When he looked up at me with one palm laid gently on the skin of that living scroll, there was pride there, honor, respect and understanding of what I came for, what I needed. He was telling me that words cannot exist without feeling. That a text is only as useful as the truth its holds. That dreams and reality are the same world. That what I know is less important than what I desire to know.

So inhabit what you read. Allow it to fill you. Let the intent of the spirit of the story take you where it will. Stories and books are tools of understanding on the journey of coming to know. Pick them up. Carry them. This is what I carried away. This is the message I brought to my own storytelling to here, to this page, stark in its blankness, waiting like me to be imagined, to be filled.


Skin

I’m brown. It’s the second or third thing I notice about myself every morning. The others are that I’m alive and that I have things to get done by the end of the day. Depending on the state of my bladder, the second thing is sometimes shuffled. In any case, but by the time I make it to the bathroom and walk by the mirror, the fact that I am brown works its way into my consciousness. Brown. Rich, deep and luxurious. A brown man engaged with the process of living once more time.

I like that. At fifty six I’ve grown comfortable in my own skin. It’s taken some work but I am definitely at ease being who I am. I thought about this as I lazed on the deck letting the blazing spring sun fall all over me. I wasn’t tanning. When you’re brown a tan is something that’s just redundant. I was simply laying there letting the feeling of rest wash over me. My skin was hot to the touch. I loved the feeling.

 Skin is the largest organ in our bodies. Most of us never think of it that way. To us, our skin is the thing we work hard at darkening in the summer, soften with moisturizers in the winter and take care to cover with adequate layers when the cold descends. It’s the thing we wash with the most discipline and it’s also the thing we recognize when we touch each other. .

            Strangely, it’s also the first thing we recognize when we see each other. I know there are a lot of people around who say, “I never notice the color of his skin.” But the fact that they even have to make that statement is proof that they do. People of color understand perfectly the notion that all of us enter a room skin first. We can’t help it. It is our most obvious attribute. 

            When I think of skin I think of chasing flyballs on a baseball diamond. I think of how wonderful the sun felt on my arms and face – the skin of them. I think of how alive I felt, and how even in my fifties the sun on my skin energizes me. I think of the elastic feel of it when I was younger and how elegant the line3s and wrinkles make me look nowadays.

            I think of love when I think about skin. I think about late nights and rolling over and feeling the warm skin of my wife’s body against me in our bed. I think how grateful I am. I think how nothing else in the world measures up to that feeling. I think about the way I want to remember that connection – skin first, all of me wrapped around her. I t5hink about how her skin leaves a lingering presence on my own. Skin, I suppose, has a memory.

             I think about elders when I think about skin. I think about the wonderful roadmap of experience and story and teaching that resides in each wrinkle and line on their faces. I think about things like pride and spirituality and cultural strength. I think about their wisdom. I think about the tremendous resource that they are, the free and open university of their experience with a tuition based on the cost of a question.

            I think about babies when I think about skin. I think about the smell of them, all soapy and clean and how warmth has a smell too when you concentrate. I think about innocence and immense possibility. When you hold a baby close to you, that’s the promise its skin holds. They bless you when you feel their skin. They are the closest beings to Creator and they give you that proximity when you hold them.

            I think about touching when I think about skin. I think about the fact that our first physical act when we’re born is reaching out – the desire to touch someone. I think how powerful that is. I think about what Creator gave us with that first instinct. Our primal instinct is to reach out, to belong, to be accepted, to be where love exists.

            So I think about unity when I think about skin. I think how important it is that we all share that first deliberate act of reaching out. We reach out in innocence, without fear or judgement, to touch another because it’s our strongest desire. How great it would be if we could remember that everyday.


Wood Ducks

There are birds on the water. There are red wing blackbirds, and bluish swallows that dart and wheel crazily in the hard slice of the sun between mountains. Against the treed rim of the far shore, loons offer their wobbly cries. In the reeds there’s a thin gray poke of heron, mute and patient, and a pair of Canada Geese behind him.

It’s spring now, the turn of it out of winter slow and lazy, like the land is a bear, sluggish from sleep and unconvinced about motion. There’s a peacefulness to it that fills me. There’s something in this ballet of motion that kindles in me a fire that first burned a long, long time ago. A tribal fire, even though at first, I didn’t recognize it as that.

I was 11. I’d moved three times in the two years I’d been with my adopted family. I’d been in three schools, lived in three houses, learned to form friendships and lose them three separate times. We were settled in a rented farmhouse on three hundred acres in Bruce County in southwestern Ontario. I ached for permanence.

That first fall and winter I discovered the maple bush in the back forty. I went there to watch the colors change, to sit in the high branches of a big, old maple and see the gold, scarlet and orange emerge against the hard punch of blue through the branches.

When spring came the land was sogged with mud. I waited eagerly so I could get away and wander. I’d found a peacefulness there that filled me and I craved the solitude and the feel of the land around me. Being on the land had eased my fears and it was only there that I felt truly alive and free.

Finally, I was out. I saw woodchuck and fox kits, fawns, calves, and in the trees, the nesting activities of birds. I extended my range to the marsh that reached back from the old dam near the highway and flooded a low lying section of bush.

The water was about a foot and a half deep. With my gumboots on I could wander anywhere in that bayou-like stillness. There were muskrats there, water snakes and swimming creatures of all varieties crossing the marsh on their rounds. I learned to walk without disturbing the water, to sneak through the shadow silently, and that’s how I discovered the wood ducks.

They were the most beautiful creatures I had ever seen. The male was all green and purple, deep red, yellow and black. The female was a demure gray with white at her throat and bluish wings. When I first saw them they were sitting on a half submerged log and I stopped and stood stock still in the water. They swam within feet of me and I marveled at them.

They had a nest in the crotch of a rotted tree stump three feet off the water. I climbed a tree about ten yards away and looked down into it. There were eight eggs there and they were as beautiful as the parents, all tan and cream and quiet, and as I stood in that tree watching them I almost felt I could see them move, breathe in that opaque stillness.

I went back to that tree every day to watch those eggs and wait for them to hatch. They knew I was there but I was quiet and non-threatening and they came to accept me. I sat in that neighboring tree and kept vigil over those eggs.

Something happened to me there. Braced in a tree above a flooded bush, peering through shadow and hardly breathing, I came to fully occupy the space I was in for the very first time in my life. There was no need for things and stuff, no need of other people, no need for anything but that nest of eggs, the boggy smell of that place and the feeling that I only know today as perfection.

I watched those eight wood duck chicks hatch. They emerged one day in the late afternoon and I saw all of it. Days later I saw them drop the three feet to the water and begin to swim with their parents, as pure and natural as breathing. When I left them for the last time I didn’t feel the sense of departure I’d learned so well in my life. Instead, I felt joined to them.

Some things in life remain. Some things transcend the losses and leavings of our living. I found the essence of my tribal self in that tree above the nest and it never left me. When the time was right and I was ready, I emerged as a tribal person, as pure and natural as breathing.


Making Bannock

In the Ojibway world there’s two ways of doing things. One is the slow methodical Ojibway method and the other is the slow non-methodical Ojibway method. Either way works, it all boils down to the amount of anxiety you want to build into the process.

I learned this elemental science soon after I reconnected with my native family in 1978. I was gone for over 20 years. I had disappeared into the vortex of the foster care/adoption system and when I emerged I was citified, broken down some by the subtle racism of Canada and unprepared for life as an Ojibway man of 24. But Ojibway science reached out to save me.

See, my mother is the best bannock baker going. When her bread comes out of the oven every Indian in the bush comes running. It rises elegantly and the texture of it is spongy and soft and tastes golden like the colour of the crust. With jam or a thick smear of lard even and washed down with strong black tea, there’s nothing like it in the world.

She gave me some on my first visit home and I fell in love with it.

Anyway, I wanted to learn to bake it just like she did. She laughed when I told her. To my mother’s thinking, the thinking of a bush-raised woman, men didn’t bake but I was insistent and she undertook to teach me.

I’d been raised with the western science that called for precise measurements and a decisive experimental process. But what my mother taught me that day had nothing to do with grams and ounces, teaspoons or cups.

Instead she told me to take a couple handfuls of flour, a splat of lard, a splotch of baking powder, and a nip of salt. Then, swash it with milk or water, pat it about until it felt all warm and soft and bake it until it looks good. Then, once it was out of the oven you gave it an earnest slap to settle it all and left it on the counter to cool.

The whole splotch, splat, nip, slap process was odd — but it worked.

That first bannock was glorious. I watched it rise like a little boy with my face pressed to the glass. When it cooled enough to cut I sheared off enough for the two of us and sat down at the table and stared at it on my plate. It was the first Indian thing I’d ever done. It was the first event in my life that I could consciously remember that involved actual Indian teaching to get done.

It was the first time I had physically expressed myself as an Indian person and it was unforgettable.

When I tasted it I smiled. With marmalade and butter melted into it, my bannock was a rip roaring success and we shared it with my step-father and uncles who waited patiently in the living room. Standing there, watching the men of my lost family enjoy a tribal thing that I had created was as poignant a moment as I’ve ever had.

I still bake my bannock the same way after all these years. Friends marvel at my apparent non-methodical manner at the stove. I laugh and tell them its native science — and it is. My mother told me.

When I bake bannock these days I feel Ojibway. There’s something about the science of it, its apparent randomness, that evokes images of a bush life and an open fire and a lump of dough on a stick and a circle of people gathered about in community to share the fresh bread. There’s something about knowing that I hold an Ojibway skill, a part of our science, and that I can pass it on, that instills pride in me.

The process of baking bannock, whether it’s on the open fire or in the oven, is a reconnection experience every time. It’s a vital thing because it shows me that our culture is vital and alive. It’s enormous in its significance. And when the plate is passed around and there’s the usual lip-smacking-finger-licking compliments from non-native friends, I smile to think that our Indian science is still being shared. Unawares perhaps like it always has been, but shared nonetheless.

Oh sure, it’s an easy thing, something a child could do, but if it’s all you’ve got its huge. That’s what matters in the end. Passing it forward. Our cultural survival depends on passing on what we know no matter how small or how huge that might be. There’s always going to be someone, somewhere seeking to know themselves, seeking their identity in the sure small ways we do things.

That’s true for everybody, Indian or not. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure that out.


Stripping It Down

In the corner of our yard nearest the gravel road is an old wringer washer. It sits beneath a fir tree with its barrel filled with earth and dirt and sprouting flowers over the rim. Further back, near the front door, an old wagon wheel leans against a pine tree. Both of them hearken back to a simpler time. Rustic, some might say, but for me merely elegant and uncomplicated.

 When we came here we had to disassemble everything, strip away the clutter of life. A painting that seemed relevant in a city context suddenly became unnecessary here. Books that marked the footsteps in a cosmopolitan journey were rendered irrelevant by the presence of bears.

 It surprised us both, this abrupt introduction to the nature of stuff. It sits on our shelves, rests in our closets, nestles in our corners singing it histories. We come to need that voice. We come to believe that it defines us, gives us definition, offers scope to our living, our being here. But in the end, when you strip it away, it’s just stuff.

 Oh, there’s the usual accepted arrangement of things still. Along with the woodstove in the living room is a television, stereo, computers, furniture and we’ve held on to the art that retains its original frankness.

 It reminds me of my journey back to reclaiming my culture. In the beginning I thought that I needed a conglomeration of stuff to make me an Indian. I thought I had to live my life within an Indian motif, with native art, native books, native music and native fashion. So I collected roomfuls of stuff.

 But when I began to attend ceremony and was introduced to genuine traditional teachers I confronted a simplicity that astounded me. Everything in my world needed to be reflective of my identity. The teachers I found were nothing like that. Sometimes it was only the braids in their hair that bore any sense of the stamp of Indian-ness.

 I wondered about that. I wondered how you could be authentic without the signature. I wondered how you could be at peace with who you are without the trappings, the statements of being. So I asked.

 What I was told changed the way I live my life. I was told to gather a yard of cotton cloth, some ribbon, scissors and a can of tobacco. I was told to make this gathering my mission for one day. Then I was to find a quiet place, somewhere, perhaps, where I felt safe, secure, at peace. I was to go there with my gathered articles and sit.

 I was to ask myself why my question was important, why it was necessary that I move to knowledge, and more importantly, how it felt to not carry the answer. Once I’d discerned that, I was to cut a small square of cloth with the scissors, then take a pinch of the tobacco, place it in the cloth and tie it with ribbon.

 This small tobacco tie would symbolize my question and my emotional and spiritual need. With it I was to return to my teacher and offer the tobacco and ask for a teaching. Once the tobacco was accepted I could ask my question. It seemed odd, quaint, charming in a folksy kind of way. But I did it.

 All true learning requires sacrifice. That’s what the tobacco offering taught me in the end. That was the intent of the ritual. That’s why elders ask that you make that tobacco offering.

 In order to accomplish my quest for understanding I had to sacrifice my time and my money. I had to sacrifice my pride by confronting the truth of my unknowing. In the end I had to sacrifice my humility by asking.

 That ceremony stripped away all of the stuff that blocked me from myself. In the end it didn’t matter how I looked or what I wore. All that mattered was the nature of my question. All that mattered was how I felt about the answer. All that mattered was that I learned that it’s the stuff you carry within you that gives you definition, not what you own, collect or cling to.

 There is stuff that sings its histories in our lives. It sits in the corners of our being adding resonance to our living. It’s the stuff of our passages, our time here, the assembled chorus of our spirit. It’s the important stuff, the life altering, life affirming stuff.

 You have to learn to strip it down in order to hear it, to sacrifice. When you do you come to learn that what you need is far less than what you have, even what you desire and it frees you. I wouldn’t be less Indian by not knowing that – only less human.


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