One Native Life: Took me a while to find out what being Ojibway meant
- Richard Wagamese | March 11, 2017
For the longest time I wondered what it really meant to be Ojibway. As a child growing up in a non-native world, the word Ojibway was always just a word. I was never allowed to frame a definition for it. Instead, I was expected to become a cardboard cut-out of the person my white adopted family wanted me to be. That image had nothing to do with being Ojibway.
I lived in a strict Presbyterian home where church and discipline were the twin tenets of living. You followed the commandments and you followed the rules and there was no room for any living outside of those lines. I was never offered the chance to connect with any of my own people. Apparently, there was no reason to do so. In that world, adopted meant painted over and forgotten.
I left that home at sixteen and finally rejoined my Ojibway family in 1979 when I was 24. Talk about culture shock. My greatest fear back then was that if I didn't fit in with my own people, if they didn't accept me, then I would be truly lost. . I worried about that. I'd spent my entire life searching for a peg to hang it on and I really wanted it to be a brown one. But I was still unsure of what Ojibway meant because when I disappeared into the adoption vortex my identity was lost to me.
But I was hungry to learn. There seemed to be an enormous amount of things the people around me took for granted. I wanted to know about these things and I searched valiantly everywhere. There were a lot of books. I dove into them with a passion but I always seemed to come out of them feeling even more lost. As much respect as I had for the written word, books didn't seem to be able to contain the spirit or the energy I was looking for.
Later, I would discover that learning to be native from a book is about as effective as learning to dance by climbing trees.
Then there were gatherings. I went to feasts and powwows, tea dances and round dances, hand games and sports tournaments and as much as I was welcomed, enjoyed myself and felt the beginnings of a definite connection, there was still something profound lacking in those joyous occasions. I didn't know what it was but I could sense it. The people had a spirit, a definite, particular energy and I wanted to find it.
Ceremonies brought me closer. When I went to sweat lodges, sun dances, naming ceremonies and spiritual gatherings there was a palpable sense of rightness that I'd ever encountered before. I fasted, did four-day Vision Quest ceremonies, made tobacco offerings and spent time asking questions about ceremony of traditional teachers. Ritual seemed to be the closest link to what I was looking for and I went as often as I could.
I talked to a lot of older people and they had hundreds of stories about the older, more traditional tribal times. I got lost in those. The way they were told made me able to see and get a vivid sense of what it must have been like before everything changed forever. The greater part of my cultural education and reawakening came from the stories people gave to me.
I searched and I searched for the definition of what it meant to be Ojibway. I learned a lot. I was given a tremendous amount of teachings. I was even directed to become a storyteller. In the end it was the people themselves that gave it to me. The more time I spent with them and grew to feel comfortable and accepted and a part of things, the more I opened myself to the experience, the more I saw who I was created to be.
I remember standing on the shore of a river in northern Saskatchewan watching old men smoking, laughing and mending nets. They were comfortable in the work and with each other and their hands moved almost by themselves. They chatted and their fingers twirled and pulled and shaped the nets into workable fashion and it fascinated me. Their hands remembered. The activity lived in their skin. When they looked up and saw me there they smiled, their hands continuing the dance theyve learned by touch.
That's when I finally got it. That's when I knew that what it means to be First Nations, aboriginal, indigenous, Ojibway, or even Scot, Iranian and German, is learning to inhabit what you do. Pulling it into you. Letting it become you. Letting it live in you.
Being Ojibway, being human, is the effortless, almost mindless mending of the nets we cast across the currents of time.