Richard Wagamese brings traditional storytelling online

by Morgan O’Neal

A more imaginative understanding of Canadian identity begins by acknowledging whose traditional land self-identified Canadians occupy. One way for them to obtain this understanding is through awareness of the contributions indigenous peoples themselves have made to the construction of Canada. By taking seriously the presence of Aboriginal people, their lands, and the effects of colonial laws (and lawlessness) on their places in these lands, a conception of national identity can be developed that has rally serious educational implications for immigrants and schoolchildren, and indeed for all citizens. A national identity that honestly acknowledges the many mistakes made in the past would force public schools and colleges and universities to become more complex sites of learning, where reasoned discussions of the nature of knowledge and its communication can take place. Established institutions, from government to religions must recognize oral tradition and oral history as legitimate forms of knowledge in Canada’s historical and current contexts.

Award winning Ojibway author Richard Wagamese has just recently launched a website beginning a project to put the above theoretical ideas into practice. He has invited all interested individuals and organizations to join him in an exploration of spontaneous storytelling designed to help people communicate more honestly and effectively by breaking down the barriers that all of us have constructed in our minds and that society has fortified over the years. Wagamese is extremely well-qualified to lead this journey of exploration after having written himself to the very top of Canadian literary recognition and respect. To date his publications include Keeper’n Me – Doubleday Canada 1994; A Quality of Light – Doubleday Canada 1997; For Joshua: An Ojibway Father Teaches His Son – Doubleday Canada 2002; Dream Wheels – Doubleday Canada 2006; Ragged Company – Doubleday Canada August 2008; One Native Life – Douglas & McIntyre Canada September 2008.

The goal of this new project is to pass onto those who wish to participate the secrets of his success. The project is organized to achieve this exchange of knowledge in a variety of ways each designed to appeal to individuals whose time for continuing education is limited by obligations to work and family. First Nations Drum readers will already be familiar with his monthly column “One Native Life” (“a series of reminiscences and recollections from 52 years of living as a Native man in Canada.”) The Drum also did a profile of Wagamese when he was awarded the Canadian Authors Association Award for Fiction in 2007 for his novel Dream Wheels, which the author describes as a “story of Indian cowboys, bull riders, who learn how to stitch rodeo, family and traditional teachings together for a lifestyle that’s spiritual and adventurous.” This description of Dream Wheels might well serve as a general introduction to the new learning project Wagamese is now promoting on his website e-lectronic Indian.

Wagamese’s traditional clan is the Sturgeon Clan and his name is Buffalo Cloud. As he puts it “It’s a storyteller’s name – and that’s what I’ve become. . . . Traditional Ojibway teachers and other shamans and healers, all well versed in Native American spirituality, told me that my role was to be a storyteller. Then they taught me how to do it, starting with spiritual principles and spiritual ceremonies” Wagamese therefore styles himself “a practitioner of Spontaneous Oral Storytelling,” by which he means that he “create[s] stories aloud from word prompts and cues. Improvised tales. On the spot . . . [he] write[s] and sell[s] First Drafts. Of everything.” He goes on to explain in a mixture of modesty and satisfaction how his life has evolved since he left his traditional home north of the Lake of the Woods in Ontario, a settlement formerly called Whitedog and now re-named Wabaseemoong. “This year I will have published four novels and a pair of memoirs with major Canadian publishers. I am the only Native journalist to be honored with Canada’s National Newspaper Award for Column Writing along with a handful of Native American newspaper awards. I’m just a regular guy. How regular? Well, I only have a Grade Nine education for one thing and life kept me so busy that I never had the time for a college or university writing course. I’m under-educated and untrained. But every novel, every script, every award-winning newspaper column and book bearing the name Richard Wagamese, was written in one spontaneous burst because I know how to ‘Defeat Writer’s Block Completely’. . . . On this site I’ll introduce you to the techniques I use to generate ‘Publishable First Draft Manuscripts and Oral Stories’ out of thin air. Your writing and communications will never be the same!!!”

This exciting project includes a number of aspects, which include a Newsletter – Around The Fire about spontaneous oral storytelling and designed to broaden the understanding of storytelling as the prosduct of “vision”. Wagamese views storytelling as the basis of spirituality. “Quite simply, storytelling changed my life,” he writes. “It brought me from a sense of being nowhere to a life of fulfillment, creativity and satisfaction. Storytelling brought me a spirituality that inspires me. It brought me a worldview that drives me. It brought me a philosophy that heals me. And my hope is that you will find the same things for yourself. Because it works the same magic everywhere. It brings about community building, team building in the business and corporate world, and fires the creative imagination of everyone everywhere. . . . Stories touch us. They teach us, inspire us, enlighten us. It’s because of their humanity – the simple, practical magic of one voice talking, telling and other ears listening, hearing, incorporating and ‘sharing’ Stories build community. Period. . . . That’s my vision. I want to encourage people to talk to each other, in their authentic, human voices, telling their authentic human stories.”

Wagamese’s enthusiasm for the word is infectious and his articulation of this excitement is expressed best in his own words: “It used to be that people gathered around a fire and told their stories to each other. Not just Ojibway people but people of all persuasions had the common experience of a fire in the night where stories were told. It’s my hope that this website might lead to us bringing back the fire – into our homes, our schools, our places of business, our communities and our nations. Because stories heal. They are our collective energy. They are our common bond. I come from a powerful oral tradition. In the Ojibway world, creativity and the power of imagination were represented in the magnificent stories and legends told around tribal fires. Those tales were filled with mystery and wonder. When they were told the people were enthralled and traditional teachings were passed on almost without notice. Such is the enduring power of story. The sweep of them, the great, grand clamor of their telling, brings all of us closer to ourselves, our inner lives. Quite simply, that tradition is the collective consciousness of the people as expressed through tale and song and legend. It’s how they view themselves and the world, carried on the breath and shaped into word.”

Not only does Wagamese invite us to participate in the collective work of knowledge exchange through spontaneous storytelling but he includes links which direct us toward other sites of important information such as the Sacred Breath Page, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Cradleboard Project, the research site Native Tech and the educational site of musician and speaker Shannon Thunderbird. As the e-lectronic Indian site grows Wagamese will invite participation in contemporary issues through the technology of “teleseminars, one to one mentoring, and a handful of amazing e-books that will outline the process I use. . . You can create spontaneously because we are all Creators. We were made in the image of the Creator of all things and so, we hold that magical, creative energy within us. We just need to remember, reclaim and energize it. That’s the secret.” Four Seasons, Four Directions: Notecards for a new Millenium: Personal notecards for your friends and family with poems and photos by Richard Wagamese will soon be available online.The poems are built on traditional principles or observations and are unlike anything else available.

As for the present Wagamese already offers a number of services related to native writing and storytelling bin general. In order to draw attention to native writing he has created a Native Writers store where you can get his books and those of other talented native writers.“We look forward to building a community of storytellers. This electronic gathering place is the modern equivalent of tribal fires where stories were told and shared. There, the people who gathered were blessed with the feeling of belonging, shelter and community. It’s my hope that this site can serve in exactly that way. ” Products available now are the e-lectronic Indian monthly newsletter jam packed with Native American spirituality, culture, tradition and philosophy. Subscriptions start Feb. 1, 2008. Free one month trial. Available in PDF. $69.95/yr; From The Oral Tradition To The Printed Page, a comprehensive e-book mini-course that will get you started on the spontaneous generation of stories and ideas. Broken into five days you’ll be amazed at how quickly you harness your creative imagination and free your authentic voice. Follow the program and you can jumpstart your creative process like you never have before. Available in PDF format. $149.95; How To Be The Writer You Always Wanted To Be – “Discovering the Path to Creativity,” a Special Report that tells you simply and directly how to lay the foundation for a career as a professional creative writer. No academic rhteoric or gobbledy-gook, just simple, helpful ways to jumpstart your creative process. Practical and insightful, it’s already helped teachers and is a great tool for beginning writers and storytellers. Available in PDF format. $18.95;

And workshops are now available for schools, corporations, writers’ groups, theater groups, and community organizations and offered in one and three day intensive forums. Obviously, the longer you spend acquiring a skill the more chance it has to enhance work, life and writing so the three day works best for most purposes. And coming soon Writers’ Retreats in five, ten and twenty day formats where you can relax in a country setting, surrounded by woods and mountains, with evening campfires and day long explorations of spontaneous storytelling techniques. And One to One Mentoring is available where you get the private ear and eye of an award-winning author and journalist. Rates and details are available on request. To begin participation right now you can subscribe to a Free Monthly Newsletter, Around the Fire, all about spontaneous oral storytelling, the Ojibway oral tradition and articles pertaining to the development of a storytelling community with tips on how to bring storytelling to children, classrooms, boardrooms and the community. You will receive the newsletter on the 15th of every month. Free.