By Richard Wagamese
I got my first writing job in 1979. It was as a reporter for a now defunct newsmagazine called New Breed in Regina, Saskatchewan.
I lied to get it. See, back then I was filled with desperation. I was almost twenty-four and I was directionless. From the time I was sixteen until then my work life had consisted of one low level, mind numbing, unskilled job after another. I craved a sense of permanence, of a skill I could carry throughout the rest of my working life.
When I saw the ad on the job board at the Native Employment Center I wanted it right away. I loved words, loved books and stories and I carried a dream of writing although I did not bear knowledge of how to make that happen. This job could mark an entry into becoming a writer.
It was also working with my people. So I lied. I told the editor, John Cuthand, I had graduated from a two year journalism program in Ontario and that I was on the road searching for a place to settle. It was Wednesday and he was busy so he told me to return on Monday to do a couple rewrites for him.
I was ecstatic and I did what I always did when life confounded me – I went to the library. I asked the librarian for all the books she had on journalism and reporting. For five days, I sat there reading and doing writing exercises from the books she found for me. I learned about journalistic style, ethics and what editors looked for in news copy. From opening to closing I sat in the library and wrote and rewrote trying to capture the essence of style and stoking the fire of desire with every scribbled page.
When Monday came I appeared on time and was ushered into the back with a handful of newspaper stories from mainstream papers. John sat me at a typewriter and asked me to milk them down to a couple hundred words apiece. I couldn’t type. I’d failed typing in high school and so I sat and pecked out one letter at a time. It took me an hour but I finished the assignment.
He hired me on the strength of my writing.
Well, that job introduced me to the volatile world of Native politics of the late 1970s. The Constitutional reform that would entrench our rights was still three years off and governments still regarded us as problems to be solved rather than as citizens to address. There was a lot of unnecessary wrangling over the delivery details of rights and programs most Canadians took for granted.
I saw dire poverty up close and personal. I saw people damaged by the forward thrust of history and fighting to maintain an identity in the thick flow of change around them. I saw young people desperate for a cultural linchpin and elders, stately and graceful, reduced suddenly to merely being old and ignored and forgotten. I saw how cruelly a nation could forget one of its founding peoples.
The stories I wrote for New Breed awakened me politically. I’d been involved in militant protests and actions before but this was my first hands on introduction to the lives of my people. As I grew and learned I found the flames of identity being fanned to life within me. Not only was I becoming a writer but I was becoming an Indian.
But politics does not nurture identity because rhetoric is not teaching. I absorbed all the things I saw and heard around me and because I craved so much to present myself as a Native person I became strident and irritatingly vocal.
I was a quick study and I learned well. It wasn’t long before my questioning grew sharper, more pointed and challenging. Especially to native politicians. One day, at a press conference, I was pressing on an issue, pointing and gesturing, moralizing and well, editorializing. One of the leaders I was attacking shook his head at my appearance and said, “It’s like being attacked by Super Injun.”
They laughed and I was horribly embarrassed. But there was a man there that day named John Rock Thunder. He was an elder and a teacher and when he approached me later he did it so quietly and elegantly that I was surprised to find myself alone with him in a small room off to the side of the conference room.
I had it all wrong, he said. He pointed to my beaded vest, moccasins, long hair and turquoise rings. Then he pointed to my heart.
“You want to be the ultimate Indian,” he said. “But you have to start from the inside.”
He went on to tell me that I was created in a specific order. First, I was created to be a human being, then male, then Ojibway, an Indian. In my life I needed to learn the rules that governed how to be a good human being. In the process of that I would learn how to be a good man. And in that process, that journey, I would discover that I had been graced with becoming a good Indian anyway.
It can’t work any other way he said. By trying to be the ultimate Indian I was missing the most important part of the journey, the human part. Slow down, he said. Be gentle with yourself.
So I gave up trying to be Super Injun. I began to seek out ceremonies and teachings that would nurture my humanity. I struggled with drink and the effects of the deeply buried hurts of my childhood through the years and even though they sometimes took me from the path I never forgot what John Rock Thunder said that day.
Every time I stood up and walked forward again I grabbed for more humanity. I’m a good Indian these days. But that’s because I’ve become a good human being and a good man. Politics could never teach me that.