Richard Wagamese completed his life journey last week, leaving behind the only thing any of us leave: his story.
It is a brilliant, inspiring story. A homeless street kid fights alcoholism and the torments of being born Indian to become one of Canada’s most important writers.
Wagamese, 61, died Friday, March 11 at his home in Kamloops where he had lived for the past 10 years. He was born at Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) First Nation near Kenora, Ont. but was taken from his parents by the Childrens’ Aid Society and raised in foster homes.
Wabaseemong is one of the two Ojibwe aboriginal communities ravaged by health and social ills created by mercury poisoning from a pulp and paper mill.
His parents were residential school survivors deemed incapable of looking after him. When he was a teenager he took to the streets and at age 16 stumbled into a library in St. Catharines where he developed a passion for reading and began teaching himself to write.
He returned to his reserve roots at age 24 and became a journalist, landing a spot at a native newspaper in Saskatchewan. He became a columnist for the Calgary Herald, winning a National Newspaper Award in 1991.
Wagamese began writing books, achieving wide acclaim for his two most recent novels, Indian Horse and Medicine Walk. Indian Horse, the story of a residential school boy who finds hope in hockey but despair in racism, is in production as a movie.
How a tormented street kid with a Grade 9 education could teach himself to write with such powerful simplicity is both mysterious and inspirational.
Here is an example taken from Indian Horse:
“We were hockey gypsies, heading down another gravel road every weekend, plowing into the heart of that magnificent northern landscape. We never gave a thought to being deprived as we travelled, to being shut out of the regular league system. We never gave a thought to being Indian. Different. We only thought of the game and the brotherhood that bound us together . . . . We were a league of nomads, mad for the game, mad for the road, mad for ice and snow, an Arctic wind on our faces and a frozen puck on the blade of our sticks.”
No big, showy words. No sledgehammer sentences designed to pound a judgment into readers’ heads. Just simple words evoking powerful thought. Writing that is clean and humble. Exquisite.
Wagamese was believed to have suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from his childhood, and fought alcoholism on and off throughout his life. In 2011 he pleaded guilty to three impaired driving charges, which court was told occurred during a two-week binge. He was sentenced to house arrest and banned from driving for 10 years.
The best advice he said he ever received was from Norval Morrisseau, the Ojibwe ‘Picasso of the North,’ who told him to “work for the story’s sake.”
“When I work for the story’s sake I leave my ego at the door and the energy of the story emerges without my interference,” Wagamese once said. “. . . because me and my ego are not in the way of the story pouring outward.”
For me, the best words Wagamese ever wrote were not in one of his novels. I found them on his former website some years back, wrote them down and still keep them at my desk:
“All that we are is story. From the moment we are born to the time we continue on our spirit journey, we are involved in the creation of the story of our time here. It is what we arrive with. It is all we leave behind. We are not the things we accumulate. We are not the things we deem important. We are story. All of us. What comes to matter then is the creation of the best possible story we can while we’re here; you, me, us, together. When we can do that and we take the time to share those stories with each other, we get bigger inside, we see each other, we recognize our kinship – we change the world, one story at a time…”
Richard Wagamese is gone, but his story is here forever.