By Morgan O’Neal
Richard Wagamese, a 51 year-old Ojibway writer from the Wabasseemoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario now living outside Kamloops, has been recognized once again for his clean clear prose and storytelling skill. He has received the Canadian Author’s Association Award for Fiction for 2007 for his most recent novel, Dream Wheels. This is a huge honor, and as Wagamese himself put it, “interestingly, the 2nd year in a row the award has been won by a First Nations writer.” Last year the award was given to Joseph Boyden for his novel Three Day Road.
Wagamese earlier had a distinguished journalism career as ‘Native Life’ columnist for the Calgary Herald during which he was also recognized for his talent. He became the first Native Canadian to win the National Newspaper Award for Column Writing. The award-winning result of his move to fiction was his first novel, the bestseller Keeper’n Me published in 1994 by Doubleday Canada Ltd. By turns funny, poignant and mystical, Keeper’n Me presents a positive view of Native community and philosophy–as well as casting fresh light on the redemptive power of tradition. “A fascinating read.” Tantoo Cardinal.said of the novel. “I loved the revelations of a child taken away from the love of his family and put out to where his spirit was lost. Wagamese’s book is about healing the lost soul”
The fact that the issue of Aboriginal Foster Children remains in the news, and is an increasingly alienating fact of life for so many Native adults makes this novel an important and informative book. It also proves that Richard Wagamese was ahead of his time in treating this issue in fiction. When the main character of the novel, Garnet Raven was three years old, he was taken from his home on an Ojibway Indian reserve and placed in a series of foster homes. Having reached his mid-teens, he escapes at the first available opportunity, only to find himself cast adrift on the streets of the big city. Skirting the urban underbelly once too often by age 20, he finds himself thrown in jail.
While there, he gets a surprise letter from his long-forgotten native family. The sudden communication from his past spurs him to return to the reserve following his release from jail. Deciding to stay awhile, his life is changed completely as he comes to discover his sense of place, and of self. While on the reserve, Garnet is initiated into the ways of the Ojibway–both ancient and modern–by Keeper, a friend of his grandfather, and last fount of history about his people’s ways.
Understood in the context of recent statements by Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine about the disastrous consequences of the Foster System, the novel will contnue to be extremely relevant until the problem is dealt with properly. Only recently British Columbia’s new representative for Children and Youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, pledged to dismantle or at least substantially alter a decrepit piece of federal legislation that is clearly responsible for the staggeringly high number of native children at present in government care.
Because the issue is under federal jurisdiction her statements have relevance for Native communities across the country, as does Wagamese’s novel. But Turpel-Lafond’s criticism of the law may in fact be the first time a provincial official has been so blatant in blaming the bureaucracy for what is indeed a national disgrace. She went so far as to explicitly describe the guilty federal Directive 20.1 as “perverse.” The directive in question stipulates that federal government money will be made available to look after troubled aboriginal kids “only if they are taken away from their families and placed in government care.” This is the language of kidnap and ransom. Wagamese’s first novel should be required reading.
In offering an alternative to the perversity of the present situation, Turpel-Lafond emphasized that native kids and their communities would obviously be better served “by strengthening their family and cultural ties” in order to help families deal with such issues as addiction and domestic violence and all the other negative effects that characterize the national scourge of the “residential school syndrome.” There are at present approximately 9,500 children in the care of the B.C. government, and more than half of these are of aboriginal ancestry. Compare this number to the fact that First Nations people make up less than four percent of the provincial population. Richard Wagamese ‘s Keeper’n Me is a socially relevant book that tells the truth about an issue people are still having difficulty being honest about.
This first book of fiction was followed two years later by an anthology of his award-winning newspaper columns The Terrible Summer (Warwick Press, 1996). (Wagamese continues to write quality columns in the clean clear prose tradition of the oral tale. Check out, for instance, the last few issues of the First Nations Drum, itself! His second novel, A Quality of Light, was released in 1997 by Doubleday. A memoir entitled For Joshua: an Ojibway Father Teaches His Son arrived in October 2002. His third novel, Dream Wheels, was published by Doubleday in 2006, and a fourth, Ragged Company to be published later this year (2007) is eagerly awaited by loyal readers. It is Dreamw Wheels that earned him the Canadian Author’s Association Award for Fiction for 2007.
Wagamese is now listed in Canada’s Who’s Who. He has been a lecturer in Creative Writing with the University of Regina’s Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, a writer for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, a faculty advisor on Journalism for Grant MacEwen Community College and the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) and a scriptwriter for the CBC-Alliance production North of 60. Recognized for his free flowing style, Richard has been a book, film and music reviewer, general reporter and feature writer for numerous newspapers and journals across Canada. He has also worked extensively in both radio and television news and documentary. He now lives outside Kamloops, British Columbia.
In his latest novel, Dream Wheels, published by Doubleday (a division of Random House Canada), Wagamese tackles the concept of finding your way home from a number of different characters’ perspectives. Coming home has been a common theme since the beginning of literary culture. And home is not just the physical place you were born or where your family lives, it also involves a psychological and spiritual journey to find that place inside that allows you to be comfortable in your skin. Although each of the character’s in the novel has their own journey to make, their destination is the same.
In Dream Wheels, the destination is the Wolfchild ranch, home to three generations of rodeo Indian/cowboys. Now an Indian cowboy might sound like an oxymoron to some people who get locked into stereotypes, but in the 20th century anybody who can ride well and has a way with animals is appreciated on a ranch. It’s only logical then that some of those people are going to be people of native descent, and some of them are going to get involved on the rodeo circuit. But the Indian Cowboy is also a powerfully symbolic strategic way for Wagamese to invite readefrs to think about the cultural contradiction s that result.
The Wolfchilds have sent three generations of men into the rings to fight the broncos, hogtie the calves, and most dangerously ride the bulls. It’s a bull that’s caused the youngest of the Wolfchilds, Joe Willie, – the one who was considered the sure thing – to have to make his long trip home from inside the prison of the hurt and pain of being injured too badly to ever ride again. By contrast, Claire Hartley and her 15-year-old son Aiden have never had a home. Claire was the daughter of a junkie who died when she was young, and hasn’t found a place for herself in the world yet. She travels from man to man, looking for a home in the false promises of support they give her, until she feels like she is trapped with no way out.
When a friend of Aiden’s botches a robbery and takes Aiden down with him, Claire knows she has to do something to save her son. With the aid of the lead detective on Aiden’s case, it is set up for them to travel to the Wolfchild ranch to see if the work and the life will help them both.Wagamese enters the dangerous territory here of cliché. The angry urban black youth meets the angry rural Indian cowboy; after confrontation they find common ground and end up helping each other recover through their respective knowledge. What saves this relationship, and the dynamic involved, is the authenticity Wagamese is able to bring to each of his characters and the unsentimental manner in which he treats them.
These fictional characters become real people in this author’s hands, and everything they do or say is justified in terms of how he has had them thinking from the beginning. The plot turns make sense; for instance when Joe Willie and Aiden are able to help each other because both of them come from the same place emotionally whether they know it or not they are both looking to find a way to fit into the world. Wagamese has written on these themes before; it is a theme indigenous to indigenous people by nature of the colonial past, But this time he has shown how easy it is for anyone to become lost, even if they have the solid backing of family and tradition. You still have to choose to be a part of it, because no one can force you to join in.
One of the truly amazing aspects of this book is the way in which Wagamese takes us inside the head of the people who are still cowboys, who ride the bulls. He is able to maintain the romance that most of us associate with the way of life, while at the same time making it real. We come to know and respect these people and their attitudes towards life and each other, not just because they are cowboys but because they are complete human beings.
Dream Wheels is a great story about finding your way in an increasingly difficult world. While family and tradition are sure to help you, they can only offer you what you choose to accept. The toughest ride any of us can take is the ride along the path to self-awareness. Wagamese dispels the myths of there being any magic tricks or easy way of doing this, but at the same time he shows us what a liberating experience it can be.
Richard Wagamese will continue to write novels of universal appeal although his perspective is that of an authentic indigenous person. And his writing will no doubt continue to be socially relevant because he has lived a socially relevant life. A fourth novel, Ragged Company, is promised for publication later this year (2007), and eagerly awaited. by loyal readers.