Becoming Indian

My grandfather’s name was John Wagamese. Our family name, Wagamese, comes from an Ojibway phrase meaning ‘man walking by the crooked water.’ It was shortened by the treaty registrar because Wagamese was all he could pronounce, but it came from the trapline my great-great-grandfather established along the Winnipeg River. The same one my grandfather walked all his life.

He was a bush man, John Wagamese. The land was as much a part of him as his skin, and he wore it proudly, humbly, and with much honor. In our patch of northern Ontario, he was a legend. He carried a moose carcass 10 miles out of the bush; he hauled 120 pounds of blueberries a day’s walk to the Northern store for sale. His life was the last truly traditional one in my family history. He never learned to speak English, never learned to read or write, never had a driver’s license, but he knew the land like an old hymn and it sang through him, all wild and exuberant and free.

I met him for the first time when I was 25. I’d been taken away in the Sixties Sweep when the Canadian government hauled off Indian kids and dumped them into families far away from their traditional territories, and I hadn’t seen my family for more than 20 years. I’d never known I had a grandfather, just as I’d never known I had a history or a culture vibrant, compelling, and alive. But both were there for me if I would have them.

Arthritis had confined John to a nursing home. He couldn’t speak English and I had no facility with Ojibway. But when I entered the room, he looked at me with that toothless smile and held his hand out about the height of a small child, nodded, and welcomed me home.

There’s a picture of us in my mother’s photo album. I’m young with long hair, trying as hard as I can to look the part of the Indian. My grandfather is on a bed in light-blue pajamas, eyes sparkling from the fists of cheekbone beneath his wind-wrinkled skin, hair cropped severely into a brush cut and bush man’s hands clasped almost shyly in his lap. For me there was never a question about who the real Indian in that photo is.

We sat and talked through an interpreter and I asked my grandfather questions about our history, about life as a traditional Ojibway. It was like the land came alive for him again and in his mind’s eye he became the young man of local legend, striding through the bush filled with the power of intention and purpose. I went to see him whenever I could. Now and then I’d sneak him a beer or two and he’d sip them and talk about the old days.

When my grandfather spoke I felt my Ojibwayness come alive. I lived in the city, worked jobs he’d never done, surrounded with things he’d never craved. My world was foreign to him, and sitting there, hearing the talk of times when simplicity was a virtue and dependence meant always mending your own net, I learned how foreign that life was to me. But it was mine, accorded to me by history, by family, and by the recollections of an old man bent by time, wearied, perhaps, by the trail, and eager to pass them on.

I became an Indian at 25 because of John Wagamese. Oh, sure, I had the long hair, the beaded vest, the moccasins, the turquoise rings, and all the Hollywood trappings that I’d learned in my city life, but I craved the Indian look I saw in that photo of my grandfather. The look that said ‘All that I am is here.’

Through the past 27 years, sometimes I’ve been fortunate enough to feel it on my face, but it’s been fleeting–like learning to become always is. It’s been there in ceremony, in talk sometimes, in healing, but it remains a search, a journey. Still, my grandfather lit the light of tradition within me, and in the soft roll of the old talk I found and reclaimed myself.

He died in his sleep when I was 32. When I heard, I lay in my bed and stared at the sky outside my window for a long time. I wasn’t sad for him. His life was a celebration. I wasn’t in grief for a loss. What he had given me I could never lose.

All I knew, for absolute certain, was that to honor my grandfather I had to take a walk out on the land. Looking out across the broad sweep of the country he loved, I realized that what I felt for him was everything, love and joy and grief and loss, and that it had an Ojibway name and I hadn’t found the language for it yet.

Richard Wagamese received the 2007 Canadian Author’s Association Award for his third novel, Dream Wheels (St. Martin’s, 2006); www.richardwagamese.com. Reprinted from Canadian Dimension (May/June 2007). Subscriptions: Outside Canada, Canadian $39.99/yr. (6 issues), in Canada $29.99 from 2E-91 Albert St., Winnipeg, MB R3B 1G5, Canada; www.canadiandimension.com.

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