I first encountered Richard Wagamese, the Ojibway writer from Wabaseemoong First Nation in NW Ontario, a couple of years ago when I was handed Indian Horse and told, “You need to read this!” I didn’t know what the novel was about other than it was a novel about surviving a residential school. I didn’t know where it was set nor who the author was. The novel had a huge impact on me.
When I read Indian Horse, I had a very visceral reaction. I grew up in Kenora, ON, and knew many of the places that Richard wrote about in Indian Horse. There was a Presbyterian Church of Canada run residential school in Kenora and growing up in Kenora I was very aware of the deeply embedded racism against 1st Nations people; sadly, this embedded racism still exists in NW Ontario. I left Kenora when the Ojibway People occupied Anishinabe Regional Park; I remember my father later talking about the horrible suggestions many people made about what should be done about the people who had occupied Anishinabe Park. Reading Indian Horse brought back so many memories of the geography of NW Ontario and of the oppression 1st Nations people faced.
I’ve gone on to read much of what Richard has written. Keeper ‘N Me spoke powerfully to me of the way in which the land of NW Ontario speaks words of healing to us. I was deeply touched by the story of the young man who comes home to NW Ontario after serving time in prison; he finds his home with his family and learns the traditions and stories of the Ojibway people. I remember Richard writing about the Anishinabek people in this novel and translating the word to mean “human being.” Keeper ‘N Me was about healing and how we can all find healing in reconnecting to the land.
Medicine Walk was also a powerful novel about a young man taking his father into the wilderness of BC to die; the young man’s father wanted to die in “way of the warrior,” i.e. seated and facing the E. The young man had been abandoned by his father, who had lost himself in alcohol and addiction. It is a gripping story of personal encounter, family, reconciliation and overcoming barriers.
In telling his stories, Richard conveyed something of his experience of what it is to be indigenous in Canada and the lasting impact of residential schools. He also wrote about addictions and living on the street and how to be welcoming and inclusive; in writing about hospitality and inclusivity, we readers had to come to grips with the fact that Canadian society can be very inhospitable and exclusive. There was prophetic challenge in Richard’s works.
In his poetry and two collections of daily reflections, Richard challenges us to be more fully human… to be more Anishinabek. We struggle to find acceptance and a place to be most fully ourselves. We are challenged to see our place in the Creator’s intention for climate justice and all of life. We see our very human tendency to be self-centred; but Richard does not leave us in a place of negativity or cynicism. Richard helps us find a way to be other-centred, love-centred and hope-filled.
I have been deeply touched by Richard’s writings and to hearing him in interviews. I shall miss his creativity and challenge to be more fully human. We shall miss his voice in Canada as an advocate for indigenous people and culture. We shall miss his insightful and humble wisdom.
May the spirit of Richard Wagamese continue to challenge us to be better people and to live as full human beings together. Thank you, Richard!