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Author pens an explanation


Windspeaker Staff







Page 19 For Joshua: An Ojibway Father Teaches His Son By Richard Wagamese Doubleday Canada 228 pages (hc) $32.95 Novelist and former Windspeaker columnist Richard Wagamese was born Ojibway, but only recently became a "real Indian." "A real Indian is a person who lives by their feelings," Wagamese writes in his new book, For Joshua: An Ojibway Father Teaches His Son (published by Doubleday Canada). A real Indian is someone who uses the teachings to travel deep inside his soul, and "having made that sacred journey, discovers their own truth-their self." For most of his life, Wagamese did not know himself. He was unspeakably lonely, in and out of jail, living in poverty, trapped by addictions, suffering from depression, and troubled by thoughts of suicide. He felt unwanted, unlovable, and he did not think he was good enough. He didn't know where he belonged. He got his first insights during a four-day fast, around which Wagamese has structured the book. For Joshua follows the author on each of the four days that he sat on a hill facing the Rocky Mountains with only a blanket, a canteen of water, some cloth, and some tobacco. These four main chapters-which recall the four sections of a medicine wheel, or the four stages of life-describe his life story, and also contain Ojibway stories that illustrate and illuminate the various concepts and teachings the author had to understand on his journey toward a whole self. Wagamese's self began in Minaki, Ont., where he was born into an extended family that lived on the land. He was taken into the custody of the Children's Aid Society as a toddler and placed in a Kenora foster home. When he was adopted at age nine, he moved to the flat farm country of southern Ontario, which was radically different from the rocky North. "I felt like I'd landed on Mars," he writes in the book. Growing up, he tried different identities: smart kid, sports hero, tough guy. He knew nothing about his culture, so he became a caricature, grunting in an invented language for his non-Native classmates, trying to gain their approval. As a young adult, he became a super-Indian with an AIM-style militancy. He associated only with other Natives. "I became racist in my thinking," Wagamese writes. "It was easy to blame the white man . . . for my struggles." During this period, Wagamese learned about the injustices of colonialism. Later, he learned another lesson: that "understanding is not healing." He still carried the old feelings of shame and worthlessness. So he drank to kill those feelings. By the time Wagamese won a National Newspaper Award for his Calgary Herald column, he had become what he calls "an Indian of convenience." He had the hair, the feathers, and the rhetoric, but he was afraid to really explore his soul, because he was afraid he might not like the person he found there. He ran away from relationships when people got too close, and he ran across Canada trying to find a place he might fit. Then he made a discovery, which he relates in the book: "To find where you belong, you really only have to travel in one direction. . . . You have to travel inside yourself." "Blame is only a step toward healing," Wagamese said in an e-mail interview. "Blame does not empower anyone and healing is about empowerment. Blame is the ego's way of saying, 'I'm afraid to look deeper.' It's only through the process of looking deeper within ourselves that we move on to the next step in healing-letting go." Once he let go, he became responsible for his own happiness. He grew up. He lived by his feelings, instead of drowning them in alcohol. That binge drinking-which he has beaten with the help of a detox program and AA-has cost him his relationship with his now six-year-old son, Joshua. As the title implies, Wagamese wrote this book for his son, to teach him the life lessons every Aboriginal man is responsible for teaching his children. He also wrote it to explain. "When my son picks up this book at any point n his life," Wagamese said, "he will know that his father loved him enough to write it. He will know that his father was, at one time in his life, honest and courageous enough to tell him the story. He will see his father as human, as prone to failure as anyone else. "Joshua will know that his father fell, and fell often, but never gave up the fight; [that I] always struggled to [my] feet and wanted more than anything to spare him the agony of the same tumble," Wagamese said. Wagamese did his fast with the assistance of a true healer, someone who helped him develop an ability to understand the teachings and apply them to his life. "My choices are very deliberate," Wagamese said. "'Does this move me closer to the best and fullest possible expression of who I was created to be, or does it move me farther away?' That is the question I pose before making any kind of move. It's vastly different from the way I used to live, when I existed only for the esteem of others." Making decisions that are good for him doesn't mean he's abandoned other people, though. The author is currently living in Vancouver and working on a new novel about homeless people. There are plenty of single-parent households in Indian Country, households with absentee fathers. Does Wagamese have hope for these children, and for their parents? "Hope to me is a byproduct of having the courage to rigorously examine my life for its truth," he said. "When I can do that, and I'm honest enough to admit where I failed, and when I can see that living in a spiritual manner will save me, then I have hope that I can live differently. So yes, I have hope. Hope that we will listen to the callings of our spirit, and that each of us will make the sacred journey inside and discover the truth of who we were created to be." Article by Suzanne Methot