Sep 242012
Print Friendly

A library card is still my most prized possession.

by Richard Wagamese

When I think back, the number of books that have affected my life is incredible. The line of volumes snakes back through fifty-five years and touches on virtually everything. Sometimes I feel as though the doorway to a library was where I was always supposed to go.

In fact, the world of books offered me guidance and wisdom that I lost as a toddler, when I was removed from the effective and immediate teachers in my family and culture.

Way back in 1960 when I first learned to read, I was amazed by a visit to the Kenora Public Library.  Entering the kids section through the back door, I found a world of color, dream and image that captivated me. When they told me I could take as many books home as I could carry, I loaded up my arms and school bag. Even just lugging them to my foster home in Rideout was thrilling. I couldn’t wait to get to my room.

As Ojibway, we spoke our books. We talked our teachings.

Not much has changed since then. A library card is still my most prized possession. The stacks of the library are where I feel challenged, engaged, motivated and curious — full of more worlds to explore and inhabit than I have time for. But I’m still on the lookout for something new to fire my imagination or simply aid me in understanding more of what I do know.

As a writer I live in the culture of books. I have for most of my life. When I open a fresh book, there is a whole new world for me to enter and inhabit. I’ve traipsed through a lot of worlds in my time and my real world has been increased by every journey.

I never tire of making those journeys. Maybe it’s the kid in me that still hungers for the lure of a real good yarn, an adventure, a fantastic experience where all I know of this world is forgotten in the spell of a created one.

But I come from a people whose world was ordered without the need of books. The Ojibway had an oral literature, like all native peoples in Canada.

We spoke our books. We talked our teachings. Our storytellers framed the universe for us and we had no need of printed language. Within our stories was all the stuff of great literature; pathos, tragedy, journeys, romance, great battles, heroes, villains, mystery and spiritual secrets.   

They say that at one time in our history we set our stories on the skin of birch trees. We etched them there on the bark with the blunt edge of a burnt stick or pigments formed of earth and rock and plant material that has never faded over time.

These were sacred scrolls holding stories meant to last forever. Books. Unbound but for the leather thong that held them, unprinted but for the hand that shaped the images, unedited but for the protocol of storytelling that guided them.  

I only ever saw a birch bark scroll once. The old man laid it out for me on a plank table top in a cabin tucked far away in the bush and traced the line of history with one arthritic finger, telling it in the Old Talk that I didn’t understand. But I could translate his eyes.

In those ancient symbols was a world where legends were alive, where an entire belief system was represented in teachings built of principles that were built themselves of rock and leaf and tree, of bird and moose and sky, and Trickster spirits nimble as dreams cajoling my people onto the land, toward themselves, toward him, toward me.

Here was an entire world, a cosmology, an enduring set of principles laid down in a time long passed, that promised a learning unsurpassed in my experience. Here was the magic that sustained a people.

This is what I understood from the wet glimmer of his eyes. When he looked up at me with one palm laid gently on the skin of that living scroll, there was pride there, honour, respect and understanding of what I came for, what I needed.

He was telling me that words cannot exist without feeling. That a text is only as useful as the truth its holds. That dreams and reality are the same world. That what I know is less important than what I desire to know.

So inhabit what you read. Allow it to fill you. Let the intent of the spirit of the story take you where it will. Stories and books are tools of understanding on the journey of coming to know. Pick them up. Carry them. This is what I carried away. This is the message I brought to my own storytelling to here, to this page, stark in its blankness, waiting like me to be imagined, to be filled.


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,.

Richard Wagamese, Ojibway Author page on Facebook


© Copyright 2012 Richard Wagamese, All rights Reserved. Written For:

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.