Sep 102012
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I learned that my people, the Ojibway, tease each other out of affection.

by Richard Wagamese

I’ve come a long way in my understanding of Ojibway things. When I first returned to my people in 1978 I’d been lost in foster care and adoption for 24 years.

I knew nothing about my people or myself. But I desperately wanted to know and I asked questions all the time. When something huge is lost to you, getting a chance to reclaim it, to learn and comprehend it, becomes as vital as breathing.

I was a child of The Sixties Scoop. I was one of thousands of Native kids across Canada who were literally scooped up and out of their lives and transplanted in foreign environments hundreds and thousands of miles away.

They did it without asking. They did it without consideration of what they were doing. Literally a whole generation of Native kids was lost to outside foster care and adoption.

I was one of the lucky ones who made it back. But coming into your own culture with no idea of how to behave in it is a daunting thing. It took everything I had not to just run away. But I knew at 24 that there was nowhere for me to run. So I stuck it out and tried as desperately as I could to learn how to be the human being I was created to be.

I was embarrassed a lot of the time. I was awkward. I was frightened. I wanted so badly to fit in with my people that I existed on the keen edge of desperation for the first handful of years. But my people’s humour saved me. Their gentle way of teaching you to laugh at yourself, even in the most desperate of times, was my saving grace.

I wanted so badly to fit in with my people that I existed on the keen edge of desperation for the first handful of years.

People laughed at me because I was so eager. They loved the exuberance and the hunger to learn that I had. It wasn’t long before they began to tease me about it. When my people come to love you they come to tease you.

One day I was sitting with a handful of old men. They started to talk about making a bear snare. They said that it was a lost art and sad that none of the young people were doing it anymore.

“I’ll do it,” I said. “Just tell me how.” One of my friends pulled his chair close to me and stared right into my eyes.

“It’s a dangerous thing to do,” he said. “Are you sure you can handle it?” I told him that I was ready for anything.

While the others listened he gave me instructions. I was to find a log as heavy as I could lift, along with a forked tree limb, some rope and to find a tree with a thin branch about seven feet off the ground. Then I was to get some meat and let it ripen for a day or so.

When I had all that together I was to use the rope to pull the heavy log up to lean on the thin branch. Then I would raise the other end of the log and set it in the fork of the tree limb.

When it was all carefully balanced, I was to use the rope to hang the ripe meat from the heavy log.

When it was all carefully balanced, I was to use the rope to hang the ripe meat from the heavy log. The idea was that the bear would come along, smell the meat, reach up to pull it down and the log would slam down on his head and knock him out. Once he was out, I could race in and finish him off.

I listened intently. I wanted to get everything right. I followed directions to the letter but when I tried to tie the meat to the heavy log it fell and almost knocked me out. I heard them laughing from the trees.

Of course, there’s no such thing as a bear snare. But the old men had liked me enough to tease me and they admired the way I tried so hard to learn. They admired the way I had followed directions without question. They admired my desire.

In the end, I learned less about the age-old art of trapping and snaring than I did about myself and my people.

I learned that no one can give you a history. You have to reach out and uncover it for yourself. I found out that a rich, soft wanting counts for more than speedy answers and quick fixes. I learned that coming home is a process that you can’t snare – you have to grow into it.

About Richard Wagamese

Richard Wagamese is the author of seven titles with major Canadian publishers. He is also a Native American or, as we say in Canada, a First Nations person from the Ojibwa nation. His home territory is a place called Wabaseemoong in northwest Ontario, near the Manitoba border. He has been writing professionally since 1979 in newspapers, radio, television and books. Look for these books by Richard Wagamese One Story, One Song and the new novel Indian Horse both from from Douglas & McIntyre,.

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