Presented by Doloris Duval to the Calgary Women’s Literary Club
October 8, 2019
RICHARD WAGAMESE 1955 – 2017
“In sharing stories…we see each other…we recognize our kinship…we change the world…one story at a time”
This year’s theme, Cultural Awareness Through Literature, was an invitation for me to explore how indigenous culture has been portrayed through story. Today, more than ever before, these stories are being told by a wide variety of talented indigenous voices, so this made choosing only one author to discuss extremely difficult. But when I came upon the work of Richard Wagamese, who articulated that his goal in writing was “to work honestly to fill in the gaps of understanding, layer by layer until those gaps ceased to exist,” I knew that he was the author I had been looking for, because in him I felt I had found an author who understood the fundamental role that storytelling can play in building bridges of cultural understanding. But I wondered if he would still be a relevant voice that reflected today’s evolving indigenous perspective.
I decided to begin my reading with the first of his published works, Keeper ‘n Me (1994) and wondered if it would pass the test of time. It is in this first book that Wagamese establishes the theme that lies at the center of all his work and that is his life-long search for a sense of identity and belonging. Keeper ‘n Me takes the reader back to the place where Richard’s story began – to the White Dog reserve near Minaki, Ontario and to a reunion with what remained of a family he had not seen for 22 years.
Through simple sentence structure articulated through an uneducated, unsophisticated yet unthreatening personae, Wagamese immediately establishes a clear sense of voice. One encouraging the reader to relax into the text. He makes use of his own particular sense of humor, one that catches the reader unprepared for the punch in the punchline. His work can easily be mistaken as intended for a “young adult” audience; however, there is deceptively complex and far more purposeful intent that lies just below the surface.For example, upon arriving by taxi, not bus as intended, and much later than expected due to a week-long drinking bender in Toronto, Richard arrives at the White Dog Reserve wearing platform shoes, a yellow balloon-sleeved shirt, and sporting an afro. He explains to his relatives and the gathering, curious crowd that “well, he had tried passing as Chinese, Hawaiian, Mexican and then Polynesian but for the past 5 years he’d been living ‘black’”. He further explains that after having being raised in a “white” foster home, all he knew about Indians he’d learned on tv or from movies and so he really had no idea how to act “Indian,”clearly giving words and shape to the reality of the many indigenous children that have been placed for adoption through well-meaning intervention.
And later in The Path To Healing, he once again provides a vivid picture of his own parents who were survivors of Residential School saying that “each had returned home from an institution that had tried to scrape Indian out of their insides, and they came back to the bush raw, sore and aching. Once they realized that alcohol could numb their deep hurt and isolation, we ceased to be a family.” Indian Horse, his novel and later a movie, was the story that grew from Richard’s interpretation of what that experience might have looked like.
Wagamese continued to pursue his self-stated goal of “writing honestly to close the gaps of understanding.” Courageously sharing his own experiences with substance abuse, homelessness, violence and deep emotional loss, each of these is of course inevitably filtered through his own particular take on an indigenous reality... And it is precisely that simplicity, honesty and humility evident, always evident in his work, that has allowed Wagamese to tackle these delicate subject areas, ones that can easily spark controversy. At times these experiences were quite difficult for me to read but his delicate, thoughtful delivery left me feeling almost protected knowing that my experience was being carefully filtered by what and how much of this hard reality Wagamese decided to share. And of course, in For Joshua and again in Ragged Company, with our club’s affiliation to all libraries I was touched by the pivotal role that the library played in Richard’s self-realization. Reminding us of the power in quiet support and of the significant ramifications that might have in addition to making us startlingly aware of the considerable depth of this writer’s own self-acquired literacy.
And there is a second, but equally vital aspect to Richard’s bridge of understanding. As he begins to discover meaning and identity in his Ojibway culture, he shares this wisdom and knowledge with his readers, peppering his stories with the playful sounds of the words and their translations. We, the uninitiated, begin to appreciate the depth and meaning that lies within this poignant language. I paused to appreciate the innovation and the subtlety of employing this particular avenue toward cultural bridging. I also paused to reflect on the flexibility and fluidity of the author, because here we encounter a second and quite different voice and personae. It is the voice of the elder, the voice of wisdom and experience as he guides us through the deep spiritual growth that occurs through a successful sweat lodge experience. That peace is found in rediscovering and then embracing his rightful place in the physical world or by correcting the long-standing misinterpretation of Sitting Bull’s famous quote, “It’s a good day to die.” I was inspired by Richard’s far-thinking wisdom when reflecting on what our ongoing relationship might become. So, in response to my initial question about Wagamese’s relevance in today’s evolving culture, I must assure any prospective reader that this collection of stories is guaranteed to elevate your appreciation of Cultural Awareness Through Literature.
1994 Keeper ‘n Me
1996 The Terrible Summer
1997 A Quality of Light
2002 For Joshua: An Ojibway Father Teaches His Son
2006 Dream Wheels
2008 Ragged Company
2008 One Native Life
2011 One Story, One Song
2011 The Next Sure Thing
2011 Runaway Dreams
2012 Indian Horse
2013 Him Standing
2014 Medicine Walk
2016 Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations
2019 One Drum: Stories and Ceremonies for a Planet
1991 National Newspaper Award
1995 Writers’ Guild of Alberta Georges Bugnet Award for Novel
2007 Canadian Authors Association Award
2010 Honorary Doctor of Letters degree, Thompson Rivers University
2010 Harvey Stevenson Southam Lecturer in Journalism, University of Victoria
2011 George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature
2012 National Aboriginal Achievement Award (now Indspire Award)
2015 Writers’ Trust of Canada – Matt Cohen Award for the body of his work
2015 Canada’s Super Channel funded a film adaptation of INDIAN HORSE. Directed by Stephen Campanelli. Written by Dennis Foon. PREMIERED THEATRICALLY IN 2017 AT TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
2017 Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations (his daily Facebook posts) – Nominated for a BC Book Award