One Native Life, by Richard Wagamese
Douglas & McIntyre
257 pgs, $29.95
2008 was a significant year for the First Nations people of Canada — it was just this summer, after all, that Prime Minister Stephen Harper finally issued a statement of apology on behalf of Canada to the children of residential schools. It was with this news item in mind that I picked up One Native Life.
The author, Richard Wagamese, is an Ojibway from the Wabasseemoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario. Wagamese has authored four novels, Keeper’n Me, A Quality of Light, Ragged Company, and Dream Wheels, and one other autobiographical book, For Joshua.
This latest work is yet another autobiography, which tells Wagamese’s personal story as a First Nations person growing up in a white world, with no concept of his own culture. You see, Wagamese’s mother attended a residential school, subsequently struggled with alcoholism and gave up her children because she was unable to care for them. Richard ended up in foster care, moving from home to home. Never truly accepted into the white world, and with little to no knowledge of his culture, Wagamese is trapped between two worlds, and is effectively abandoned.
One Native Life is full of reflection — some happy, some sad, but all valuable — as he recalls poignant experiences growing up with such a lack of identity. Some of the childhood stories Wagamese tells are simply heartbreaking, as he recalls struggling to fit in.
“They had Dick and Jane and Bobbsey twins kinds of lives. My life was far from that. I existed on the fringes.”
As a seven-year-old, Wagamese impulsively decided to kiss his crush — Wilhelmina “Billie” Draper — who promptly screamed and ran away.
Moving from foster home to foster home, and place-to-place, certainly didn’t help Wagamese develop a sense of identity, either.
“I was weird, exotic and more than a little uncomfortable. In the class photo from that year, I stuck out in the sea of white faces like a fencepost in a field of snow. I was lonely, but there was no one to tell.”
But he also includes the odd person from his childhood that really made an impact — whether it be the Ukrainian Canadian who taught him how to connect with the land, or the stranger who introduced him to the mysteries of the night sky and stars, Wagamese remembers both the good and the bad.
In terms of structure, Wagamese actually works backwards, from present day, starting One Native Life with an introduction to his current life. Today, he has found a sense of peace and solace in a quiet life at Paul Lake in Kelowna, B.C., but he still recognizes that there is a disconnect between the First Nations people of this land and its non-Native occupants.
“As I got to know our neighbours at Paul Lake, I realized how little they understood me. Our homes are built on leased land. Our landlords are Aboriginal people, even though the ministry of Indian Affairs holds the actual title. Despite that, my new friends knew very little about the realities of life for Native people.”
Aside from the sad stories he occasionally includes in the book, the overall message certainly is far from negative. Somewhat surprisingly, Wagamese seems to have been able to let go of any anger he holds towards society, and has emerged from a lifetime of these experiences with a true sense of identity and acceptance. Instead, he chooses to focus on the positive, reflecting a hope that broken spirits, like his former self, can be healed.
Whether it be fiction or non-fiction work, Wagamese’s background as a news reporter and broadcaster, with his short, simple and catchy style, truly shines through in this book. It’s easy to read, engaging, and full of hope.