By Richard Wagamese
There’s a mountain to the south and east of us that humps up like a buffalo. From the Paul Lake road heading west from Pinantan it sits there with a bald rock face and a carpet of fir slumped around it so that it looks exactly like a resting bison.
In rain shadow, from the deck of the cabin, it sits solemnly and the roll of it feels like it sits on the land looking outward beyond us. There is an air of safety, of calm, of being watched over, protected like my people say comes from the presence of a Spirit Helper.
There is strength in any mountain but this one is definitely special. Ceremonial, almost, regal, stoic, as though it holds itself in, the stories within it rich and compelling and spoken in the whisper of the wind off its crest and plummet. Standing in the hushed quiet of morning watching the sun ease across its broad back it’s easy to believe we have a sentinel.
Such thinking was strange to me for a long time. I was raised in a concrete Protestant reality, one that said ‘only what’s real is real’. The limits of reality stretched only as far as television or movies. There was no room for imagination, flights of fancy or even the pull of everyday magic like moon shadow or rainbows. There was certainly no place for mystical thinking.
Instead, faith sat in our home like a yardstick, a measuring device I always seemed to fall short of. Second Timothy, where it says something about ‘study to show thyself approved’ was big, so was the whole ‘blood of the Lamb’ righteousness ethic. It meant that to be a Gilkinson, as my name became, I always needed to qualify, to measure up, to prove my worthiness.
I became a Wagamese in 1978. That was the year I reconnected with my native family. To me the name seemed easier to bear, less restrictive and rolling like the Ojibway language I heard around me. There was no Rock of Ages that guided the expression of it, only the spirit of the granite spine of the Canadian Shield that sat underneath our traditional territory.
I heard stories of a life on the land. I heard recollections based on a certain rapids say, or a back country lake, animals, hunts, paddles to far-off fishing lakes and seasons of incredible hardship or plenty. Underneath it all was a feeling of awe, wonder, and the acceptance of magic as a property of living and because of that, a palpable air of humility and gratitude
My reconnection led me to other things. I found ceremony and ritual and through them became more able to see myself as part of the great creative wheel of spiritual energy that I learned exists all around us. Being a Wagamese was all about belonging, fitting, and the name was a relief and a haven, a symbol of my ongoing worthiness.
But there was more.
My people have a grand tradition of naming. A person can carry many names through the course of a lifetime and each time one is bestowed is an honor time. Elders grant them, the carriers of our traditional and spiritual knowledge. You come to them in humility with an offering of tobacco, cloth and a personal gift and ask for the honor of a name. They pray and meditate for four days and then offer you the name that comes to them from the Spirit World.
The man I went to see sat and talked to me many times over the course of a month. We talked about my disconnectedness, about being taken away as a child, about returning and about the feeling I always carried of the presence of magic in life. When I made my offering and asked for a name he accepted the duty.
He called me Mushkotay Beezheekee Anakwat. It means Buffalo Cloud. It’s a storyteller’s name, he said and he told me that my role in this reality was to be just that, a teller of stories, a communicator, a writer, a keeper of the great oral tradition of my people.
That name changed my life. I became what he instructed. I sought out stories and storytellers. I sat with them and asked questions and learned about the role of storytellers in our tradition and about the principles that guide that role. I learned about the importance of perpetuating the tradition of storytelling into a new time with new tools with new and powerful ways. Then I began to write.
I’ve been a newspaper columnist, radio and television news writer, documentary writer and producer, and a writer of books through the years. I’ve brought the story of my people forward and I’ve been proud and humbled to have the opportunity to do that.
And these days, looking out across the wide expanse of mountain valley that holds the lake and the uplift of mountain that becomes a buffalo in the near distance, I realize how much resides within the names we carry. There’s history there, philosophy, tradition and the ability to recognize and rediscover ourselves in tough times and celebrate ourselves in days of joy.
I am not a Gilkinson. I was never meant to be, was never created to be. I was created to be a male, Ojibway human being. That’s what Creator intended. These days, I am that. These days the expression of my being lives within the context of Creator’s plan and I feel valid, real, honourable.
I stand against the grandeur of this country and say my name to the cosmos as I have been taught to do. Mushkotay Beezheekee Anakwat. Buffalo Cloud. I reintroduce myself to the universe in the traditional way of the Ojibway and this small ceremony is a joining to it all. I’ve come to believe that just as I’ve come to believe that our prayers are always heard, accepted into the flow of the healing, creative energy that flows through all of us. Kitchee Manitou. Great Spirit. Great.