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We flail in life until we understand basic truths [column]


By Richard Wagamese, Windspeaker Columnist







Wolf Songs & Fire Chats

We inflated frogs. We were eight years old. We were Ojibway kids trying to navigate the world of foster homes, a white neighborhood, white school, and the callous disregard of us by the 1960s mill town.

The world was cold then. Empty. We spent our days longing for things we vaguely remembered, and the rivers and the bush were the only places we felt like ourselves–or, at least, who we thought we should be.

So we inflated frogs. A milkshake straw or a lopped-off reed worked fine. We’d puff them up into large green balloons and throw them into the water. They would kick and flail and try to dive, the panic of them drawing the pike to take them so we’d know where to fish. We caught a lot of fish that way.

But we didn’t know then that all life is sacred. We didn’t know that everything deserved our respect and honor, our stewardship and protection. We didn’t know that we are all one body moving through time together. We didn’t know that the dishonor of one thing is the dishonor of all.

We didn’t know that all things are part of us. We didn’t know that every act, regardless of how seemingly small and insignificant, affects something else. All we knew was that we were doing something Indian, or at least as close to it as we could get. When I look back at those days I feel bad about my ignorance, but I had no one to teach me and I did not understand.

Years later I recall the fat kid in school, as shy and awkward and scared of being who he was as I was terrified of being me. Both of us were set apart because difference was everything; left alone because when you befriend the outcasts you become an outcast too, and no one wanted that. So I did the only thing I knew how to do. I teased the fat kid.

I teased him, belittled him so they wouldn’t see how scared I was to be brown, different, shy, and so Ojibway with nothing to say about it. One day I pushed him into a mud puddle and everyone laughed and slapped me on the back and told me how hip and slick and cool I was, how welcome. And I ate it up. I pulled it deep into me like the feast I had been starving for; the sustenance of sameness.

And the fat kid walked home alone, desolate, terrified and lost. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I teased him so I could survive, never knowing the Ojibway truth of things that we are all related, that we are all one creation and we need each other. I never knew that, because I had no one to teach me and I did not understand.

Many years went by and I did a lot of things to not be different. I wore a lot of masks that never really fit. I became what I thought people or circumstance needed me to be, and the idea of frogs and fat kids and masks that didn’t fit, haunted me and drove me down to where the darkness lays, waiting for all of us who never bother to try to see the truth of ourselves. I lived there a long, long time.

It took me a long time to learn that wounds run the deepest when you inflict them on yourself. I never knew the Ojibway truth of things that your first task is to learn to be a good human being. When you do that you learn how to be a good man in the process. And when you learn to be a good man, you become a good Ojibway all on its own accord. I never knew that. Never knew that that’s the spiritual way of things, and it can’t be done in any other order.

I never understood that I am always three sacred truths–a human being, a man, Ojibway. Three sacred truths that only Creator can change, and she’s not likely to. Not yet. And it’s the same for all of us no matter who we are. I never knew that, because I had no one to teach me and I did not understand.

So it seems to me that what we need to do is share.
Teach each other who we are. Hear each other. Feel each other. Remember the teachings we are given to carry, because if there comes a time on this planet when there’s only one child left, the saddest thing I can imagine is for them to look at themselves and the ruins of the earth in shame and sorrow and say ‘I had no one to teach me and I did not understand.’