By Richard Wagamese
Soon I will be fifty-five years old. That means a lot to me. There times in my younger life living through desperate times that were largely self-inflicted, that I doubted that I would ever see thirty. So a full quarter century beyond that speculation is a nice place to be. This age feels good. I can look back and see the experience of living with the framework of six decades on this planet. It doesn’t make me feel old. Just experienced.
The comforting thing about a niche in time like this is clarity. I can see where I’ve been, who I’ve been and what I’ve accomplished or failed to do with equal sharp-sightedness.
For instance, when I first met my people I was twenty-four. I’d been taken away as a toddler and placed in foster care and later, when I was nine, I was adopted by a white family who lived a thousand miles away from where I was born. I moved from the bush to the pavement of a Toronto suburb and it was a colossal change.
But in that home and the schools I went to I learned nothing about who I was as a Native person. Instead, I was made to behave and act and walk and talk as though I were white. I wasn’t, of course, but great effort was made to allow me to become a reasonable brown facsimile. As I’ve said before, it’s not the pounding in of the round peg in the square hole that hurts so much; it’s the scraping away that occurs.
So when I made it home there was little of the Ojibway left on me except for my skin. Coming home was traumatic because I knew nothing of who I was. It’s a hard thing to exist as a tribal person by the skin only. In felt great shame over not knowing my language, history or culture and just like in that adopted home, I felt like a fake, a fraud, an actor. I believed that if my own people didn’t accept me, I would be truly lost.
That didn’t happen. Instead, I was welcomed and introduced gently to an Ojibway life and I took to it like a duck takes to water. I found a language a culture, a tradition, a history and a stretch of territory in northern Ontario that was my home. It felt wonderful to be reconnected even if the feelings of doubt and insecurity still lingered at times.
Like all truly healing things, what you need most seems to pop up suddenly like a friend at your door. I discovered ceremony. A friend introduced me to elders and traditional teachers and when I began to learn the heart of my culture I felt awake and aware for the first time in my life. My insides were filled; even the dark corners where self-doubt sat mumbling at me. So I became a regular at ceremonies and gatherings. There was nothing I did not want to experience.
But my people had been wounded. Their way had been outlawed, their spiritual lives forced to go underground, generations taken away from them and their culture nearly left for dead by churches and governments. They brought the hurt from those experiences into the burgeoning reclamation of themselves and their ceremonial lives and were very protective of it. When I came along with my awkward white way of doing things and my enthusiasm some of them called me a Born Again Indian.
It was an insult and meant to say that I wasn’t genuine, that I didn’t really fit, that I was a dancing, singing, praying fraud and it hurt me greatly. I began to stay away and slink off into my isolation again. But elders took me aside and told me that in our way everyone was equal and that as long as I came to ceremony with an open heart, an earnest desire and in honesty, I was worthy.
They told me that if I approached my culture in this way, with humility as my guide, that I would be connected to it – and every time I would be “borne again” to its spiritual center. They said that this was the true definition of a born again Indian, to be borne again into the heart of ceremony. It saved me. I celebrate my traditions proudly these days even if my hair is no longer braided or my home filled with cultural artifacts and art. In every ceremony I am borne again to my identity.
I bear the truth of my identity and my being on the inside. It can’t be scraped away. It can’t be extinguished or altered. It exists as a truth – that I was born to be a male, Ojibway human being and that I always will be.