Heading into another year and it seems like only yesterday that I was young and lean and fleet. Mind you, at fifty six, I’m hanging in there pretty well but there are days when I wish for something of my youth. But those are fleeting wishes. I’m content enough where I am and I’m well beyond the need for daydreams involving all the things that could have been. My life is set and rooted and I like this place of age.
This year I will publish my eleventh book. I’ve been a professional writer since 1979 and if you’re counting that’s 33 years. In that time I’ve traveled across the country and met a lot of terrific folks from all walks of life who have either read me, heard me on the radio or seen me on television. I get a chance to speak about important things and to help effect change. I get to share stories. I get to gather a sense of Canada that’s less culturally myopic and more far-sighted. In short, I like who I’ve become.
That’s important because I had to fight for my identity. I was taken away from my Ojibway people as a toddler and grew up in a non-native world surrounded and influenced by non-native things and people. It took a lot of work to learn to express myself as who I was created to be; a male, Ojibway, human being.
When I made it back to my people I wanted to be the ultimate Indian. I wanted to be so Ojibway there wouldn’t be a doubt in anyone’s head, including my own, of who I was. It didn’t much matter that I had no clue about anything, I was so filled with that desire that nothing else seemed to matter. I wanted to represent. I wanted to stand as an example of the power of people to reclaim their identity. I wanted to be recognized as a traditional person.
So as the New Year begins I’ve been thinking about the whole idea of being a traditional Native person lately. It’s changed a lot since I was a younger man. It’s become more important, valuable and a whole lot more practical than it was back then and I guess that’s expected. When I was young with my cultural pants on fire, I wanted to learn everything as fast as I could. I wanted to talk about it all, share an opinion, be recognized for my full grasp of what I saw as the lifestyle of a traditional person.
I danced, I sang, I drummed, I went to as many ceremonies as possible, I sat in a lot of teaching lodges, grew my hair long, wore a lot of buckskin and a ton of turquoise jewellery. It seemed important to me then to ‘look’ as traditional as I could in order to qualify. Being traditional was crucial. Trying to get my feet under me as a cultural person meant standing on the foundation of everything. The traditional lifestyle was what I wanted and I went to extreme lengths sometimes in order to convince myself and others that I was there.
I wasn’t really. I could eventually do all the cultural things and talk a great traditional game, but I missed the whole concept of what it genuinely means to be a traditional person. I was so busy lining my world with ‘doing’ that I never gave myself the opportunity to just be. I hadn’t grasped the idea that the first word in becoming is ‘be’.
What matters most is the truth you carry on the inside. That’s the trick of it. Living life as a traditional Native person in 2012 means being what you want most to be. It means going inward, reflecting and seeing what is truly in your heart. It means getting up in the morning and making the simple choice to reflect the desire you carry there. Things like caring, sharing, being kind, being truthful, loving and always offering to help.
There’s not a lot of room for dancing in that. But there doesn’t have to be. A wise man once told me that traditional means genuine. When I choose to live my life as genuinely as I can, I become traditional. When I am true to myself I am true to my culture. I never ever did have to qualify. I always was who I was created to be.
So I start every day with a smudge with traditional medicines and a prayer of gratitude. I spend the first part of my days in solemn reflection. Then I move on with the business of my life. Giving thanks is traditional. Moving on and acting grateful is traditional too. Pray and be. That’s what it means to be traditional these days. I can live with that.


About Richard Wagamese

I am a published author with 13 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. View all posts by Richard Wagamese

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