Richard Wagamese, and an Indigenous literary resurgence
Canadian literary criticism is made up of stories we tell ourselves about the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. The bulk of this writing has traditionally centred around literature that the dominant culture considers valuable, interpreted by voices deemed worthy of the task. Indigenous literatures continue to claim space in this territory, but the realm of critics and tastemakers remains predominantly white. Critics who don’t engage with cultural context may do more harm than good when reviewing outside of their wheelhouse. It’s simply not adequate to measure our writing—inspired and informed by lived experiences—by Northrop Frye’s tidy summaries of the “Canadian” aesthetic. For one thing, the settler literary preoccupation with land as either a mighty adversary or a seductive mystery suggests a desire for domination that is not reflected in our works, except maybe in parody.
In Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, Daniel Justice, a writer and scholar from the Cherokee Nation, points out the all-too-common disparity between the stories Indigenous writers tell about ourselves, and the stories others have told about us. While Justice is speaking primarily about literature (though anthropology takes a few well-earned hits) I’d suggest that this incongruity often extends to how our work is interpreted and presented by literary critics. As Justice says: “Outsiders who approach [Indigenous literatures] as simply a different form of writing are likely to misread them or, worse, misuse them, with often quite negative results.”
Among these negative results is the perpetuation of the narrative of Indigenous deficiency, which many critics perceive in our work and are unable to transcend. As Justice says “Deficit persists as the defining trope for Indigenous peoples in the settler colonial imaginary. In this condition, ‘real’ Indigenous peoples are always Other, always diminished, always the reduced shadow of our former greatness.” Reviews that adhere to this narrative pay little heed to the craft of the writing itself, using words like “heartbreaking” or “devastating” to describe our stories, while skipping over appropriate cultural context. They suggest that our past is the narrative that defines us, and ignore our vibrant present and bright future. The issue is not so much the acknowledgement of past (and current) trauma in Indigenous stories, but in the seeming inability to perceive anything other than that narrative in our works.
To move beyond this narrative, a shift of critical focus is needed to how themes of growth, healing, and resurgence are handled in Indigenous works. Resurgence is a term used by Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer and scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson to describe the rebuilding of our communities from within, rather than through reconciliation with the state. It implies that we already have what we need to move beyond resistance—which is predicated on reactionary behaviour toward an oppressive force—to cultural rebuilding from within, and this ability is rooted in our stories. Simpson says:
In essence, we need to not just figure out who we are; we need to re-establish the processes by which we live [and] who we are within the current context we find ourselves…We need to do this on our own terms, without the sanction…of the state, Western theory, or the opinions of Canadians.
From Simpson’s deeply personal poems and stories to Justice’s genre-exploding speculative fiction, storytellers engage with resurgence in diverse and varied ways.
Richard Wagamese’s writings present the importance of land, knowledge, and kinship as tools of recovery, a journey mapped out through lived experience. When Wagamese, Ojibwa from the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations in northwestern Ontario, died in March 2017, we lost a great man and a great storyteller. Many of his stories are primarily structured around personal healing and, as in the posthumously published Starlight, sharing vital knowledge to promote healing in others.
In Wagamese’s first book, Keeper’n Me, Garnet Raven comes home to his reserve after twenty years. Separated from his family and community as a boy, Garnet escapes foster care only to find himself on the streets, and eventually, in jail. Garnet’s is an evergreen story for many Indigenous youth who choose homelessness over the violence and shame inflicted in foster homes. And the incarceration of Indigenous youth is a growing problem in this country. The Washington Post reported recently that although Indigenous youth make up only 8 percent of Canada’s youth population, they represented 46 percent of all admissions to correctional services in 2016-2017. These numbers show an increase of 25 percent since Wagamese wrote Keeper’n Me, in 2006.
Of course, statistics lack nuance, and storytelling is a vital way to build empathy and understanding in those who see us only as numbers. Stories also offer guidance to youth who are struggling to find hope in a society that is, at best, alienating. In Keeper’n Me, Garnet finds his strength through a relationship with Keeper, a traditional knowledge keeper who teaches him about Ojibwa culture and ceremony. While rooted in ancient tradition, Keeper’s teachings also reflect the dynamic and modern aspects of Indigenous ways of knowing, which allow him to learn how to be a good relative and a good person in the world.
Much of Wagamese’s body of work is at least partially autobiographical; he was removed from his home as a child, he suffered greatly in foster care, and did not reunite with his family until age twenty-three. More than one novel explores re-connection and rebuilding lost relationships.
An exploration of kinship is also at the core of Medicine Walk, Wagamese’s 2014 publication. Frank Starlight, separated from Eldon, his birth father, is given an opportunity to heal this relationship at age sixteen. When he receives the call from his father, Frank is unable to stir any emotion for a man he barely knows:
Eldon Starlight. Franklin Starlight. Four blunt syllables conjuring nothing. When he appeared the kid would watch him and whisper his name under his breath, waiting for a hook to emerge, a nail he could hang context on, but he remained a stranger on the fringes of his life.
The prospect of this reconnection also causes some friction between Frank and his non-Indigenous foster father, Bucky:
The old man shook his head and bent to retrieve the bucket and when he stood again he looked the kid square. “Call him what you like. Just be careful. He lies when he’s sick.”
“Lies when he ain’t.”
The old man nodded. “Me, I wouldn’t go. I’d stick with what I got whether he called for me or not.”
“What I got ain’t no hell.”
The old man looked around at the fusty barn and pursed his lips and squinted. “She’s ripe, she’s ramshackle, but she’s ours. She’s yours when I’m done. That’s more’n he ever give.”
Bucky had taken Frank in as a young boy, and taught him a deep appreciation for the land they live and work on. Despite Bucky’s skepticism, Frank accepts the responsibility presented to him: to fulfil a father’s request to die with dignity out on the land. A Korean War veteran and longtime alcoholic, Eldon is emotionally distant and unreliable. And the years of no contact between the two don’t make anything easier. Yet Frank’s extensive knowledge of the land and its healing properties help both men to acknowledge and accept their roles in each other’s lives, however imperfect. As Justice notes: “sometimes the most transformative relationships we have are the difficult or even painful ones.”
Frank returns in Starlight, Wagamese’s last and unfinished novel, to complete a generational cycle that beautifully illustrates the responsibilities of kinship—be it with blood or chosen relations, or to the land itself. Editors estimate Starlight was about forty pages short of the conclusion, and rather than imposing an ending they have included thoughts from his colleagues and notes about where the novel was heading.
Starlight opens many years after Medicine Walk, immediately after the death of Bucky, referred to only as “the old man.” After a chance encounter at the grocery store, Frank takes in two strangers, Emmy Strong and her daughter Winnie, who are on the run from an abusive relationship. Emmy, who has made some desperate choices in order to keep Winnie and herself alive, has been caught stealing. Frank vouches for her and gives them the opportunity for a new life at his ranch. When a friend questions this decision, Frank’s reasoning is beautifully simple. He says about Emmy: “She’s got a wildness in her, that’s a fact. But she’s strong…And she surely loves that little girl…I think a person could do worse than having a streak of wild runnin’ alongside strength and love.”
While this may sound like the premise of a romance novel, there is work going on here to define the importance of relationality, and how it extends to chosen family. Emmy’s devotion to her daughter wins Frank’s admiration. And when Winnie appears to be having trouble at school, getting into fights with boys, Frank takes his responsibility to this kind of chosen family a step further. Connection to the land has brought him to an understanding of his own humanity, and it now becomes knowledge he can pass on the next generation. “[T]he old man taught me if I can help someone I should,” he tells Emmy. “That land gave me a place to put my feet down. Figure maybe I can give that to her. …You too, if you’ll have it.”
There’s a relationship between people in need and people with something to give, with the land as the anchor between both parties. It is an act of selflessness on Frank’s part, but one that ultimately gives back to him as well.
Belonging, Justice says, “is relational and reciprocal, not unidirectional.” This statement is deceptively vast, but it can be summarized here in this way: Kinship is defined by who we claim as family, those who claim us, and most importantly, the mutual respect between all parties. Stories make us better humans by reminding us of our responsibilities to each other, which is an ideological underpinning of treaty. Justice says:
This embraiding of kinship and accountability has a profound imaginative influence on many Indigenous writers, who are writing and speaking against an oppressive colonial context that displaces, erases, or disfigures the broader narratives about Indigeneity.
“Indigeneity” is, of course, an umbrella term, but Justice is not conflating the cultures of distinct nations and peoples. In fact, he says he is “suspicious of claims of universal values between all Indigenous peoples around the world, as such broad assertions too often gloss over real and meaningful distinctions between communities, regardless of whatever else they may share.”
In Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, four guiding questions—how do we learn to be human, how do we behave as good relatives, how do we become good ancestors, and how do we learn to live together—orbit around an exploration of kinship that Justice calls the “driving impetus behind the vast majority of texts by Indigenous writers.”
Kinship takes many forms, and writers may explore relationships to the land, to ourselves and our communities, and to our histories and futures. Other writers such as Katherena Vermette (Métis) and Tommy Orange (Cheyenne, Arapaho) remind us that relationships to land are not limited to countryside settings. In North End Love Songs and The Break, Vermette explores Indigenous women’s connection to each other and to urban spaces. Orange’s debut novel There There tells the stories of several Native American characters living in Oakland, California, who struggle to define their relationship to colonial history, and how it shapes their lives.
Justice’s questions are somewhat playfully composed in Keeper’n Me. Garnet was human before he returned to his reserve, but he is portrayed by Wagamese as deeply troubled; escaping foster care and ending up in jail before a letter arrives from his estranged family, calling him home. Garnet’s re-connection with ceremony, which is inextricably tied to knowledge of the land, allows him to heal and find his own humanity. This may seem a straightforward narrative, but as Justice points out, restoration of community and ceremony is a powerful act of resistance. He says: “kinship was specifically targeted by colonial authorities in their efforts to destroy Indigenous communities; indeed, kinship was the primary target.” While residential schools are the best known example of this effort, years of child and family services interference with Indigenous families, such as the Sixties Scoop, left (and continue to leave) many children bereft of vital family connection. While the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has made the realities of residential schools more commonly known, a straight-backed defensiveness still dominates the discussion of colonialism’s effect on this country; calls to Indigenous peoples to “let go of the past” are common. But healing intergenerational trauma is far more complex than “letting go.” As Justice says: “If our humanity is defined in large part by the stories we tell, then the storytellers have a vital role to play in bringing us back to healthy relationships with ourselves and with each other.”
On the fourth question he raises for consideration in Why Indigenous Literatures Matter—how we learn to live together—Justice says: “Finding common ground that honours justice, embraces the truths of our shared history, and works for better futures takes courage and imagination—but most of all, it takes love.”
Love, in its various forms, is at the centre of Wagamese’s last literary offering. Love of the land keeps Frank grounded and content, the love between Emmy and Winnie keep them alive through terrible circumstances, and the love for the land they learn from Frank bring them all closer together. Believing in love’s ability to heal may seem sentimental, but it is a fundamental belief that fuels the faith of some of the greatest thinkers of our time, including Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. Justice ends the chapter with Simpson’s words:
She just kept lighting that seventh fire every time it went out.
She just kept making things a little bit better, until they were.
Healing relationships, whether with ourselves, family members, our environment, or the fundamentally broken relationship between Indigenous peoples and settlers, is going to take patience. Stories are an important part of showing us how.
Richard Wagamese spent much of his career articulating his place in the world, and the world’s place in him. His real-life relationships built narratives that touched readers of diverse backgrounds. He was a bridge builder between cultures, as is Daniel Justice. If, as Thomas King said, “The truth about stories is, that’s all we are,” then it’s clear that their generous efforts must be met with reciprocal care by those looking to interpret our stories.
There is not one correct way to read and understand Indigenous literatures, Justice says, and he advocates strongly for spirited debate, constant interrogation, and lifelong learning on the subject. He cites the scholarly work he used in Why Indigenous Literatures Matter in a bibliographic essay, which goes beyond the dry, traditional list of sources, and will, one hopes, encourage potential readers to seek out other voices, or at least, better understand the collaborative nature of this work.
My hope is that Indigenous peoples will continue to step forward and be given space to take on the task of reviewing new books. And that non-Indigenous critics who wish to effectively engage with our writing work to understand and embrace our literary traditions. Fortunately, Justice’s book provides a framework for analysis that guides novice readers—whether their goals are pure enjoyment or deep critique—while offering more experienced audiences a revitalized appreciation for our works.