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. Foster homes and adoption into a white middle class family will do that to you.
So that by the time I made it home I had no idea who I was. But 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.
I thought that meant that I needed to know how to do certain things. Like hunting and fishing, how to set a gill net and track a moose. I thought it meant doing warrior things in a warrior world – or at least, what was left of it.
But a woman I met set me straight. 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,” she 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. I still felt useless and unworthy.
But 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 running around. She asked me to imagine how it would feel for them to fill their bellies with meat cooked over the fire I started before the men returned. 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 I learn the biggest thing first when I learn to care for people. In the end, that’s the most warrior like thing you can do – to care for the people around you, to place their needs ahead of your own. I’ve always tried to remember that.