One Native Life
Review By Sean Carleton
November 4, 2013
BC Studies no. 162 Summer 2009 | p. 208-9
For much of his life, Richard Wagamese has searched for a sense of belonging and struggled to find his identity as an indigenous person living in Canada. In One Native Life, Wagamese shares an intimate collection of personal short stories documenting his journey: a life of abuse, abandonment, displacement, and eventual reconnection to his indigenous roots and to the power of the land. Wagamese makes clear, though, that his stories “are positive,” “embrace healing,” and are inspired by the powerful lessons that have shaped his being in the world (4). One Native Life is an important book because it offers hope that the deep wounds caused by centuries of colonial exploitation in Canada may one day be healed. It also attests to the fact that these wounds are still experienced on a daily, personal level by many indigenous peoples. Storytelling, as a form of cross-cultural communication, is suggested as one possible method of creating healthy and happy social relationships among the different peoples of Canada. In the words of Wagamese, “Everyone has a story … We become better people, a better species, when we take time to hear them. That’s how you change the world, really. One story, one voice at a time” (203).
One Native Life contains sixty-five stories that are divided into four books: Ahki (Earth), Ishskwaday (Fire), Nibi (Water), and Ishpiming (Universe). From this diverse selection emerge accounts not only of disappointment and racial discrimination but also of the transformative power of love and caring. As Wagamese reminds us, “Sometimes life turns us upside down and backwards. It’s caring that gets us back on our feet again and pointed in the right direction” (33). In this regard, two amazing stories stick out. The first story took place when, as a teenager, Wagamese ran away from his foster home and ended up moving in with some hippies in Miami Beach. One day, when he was feeling blue, he entered a diner and ordered a slice of lemon meringue pie. A few minutes later, heavy-weight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who was training in the area, sat down next to him, imparted valuable advice on how to stay mentally strong in the face of adversity, and even bought him a slice of pie and a chocolate milkshake. According to Wagamese, meeting Ali gave him “the strength to carry on” (76).
The second inspirational story occurred many years later when, after stints of living in poverty and on the streets, Wagamese reconnected with his indigenous birth family and began the long process of relearning the Ojibway culture and language. During that time, while working as an entertainment writer, he had the opportunity to interview folk legend Johnny Cash. Cash had just released an album entitled Bitter Tears (Ballads of the American Indian), which addressed many of the issues facing indigenous peoples in North America in the 1970s. Wagamese remembers having a moving conversation with Cash about this record and about land claims, treaty rights, and the ongoing work that is required for decolonization. He recalls that Cash spoke of “love, family, communication and forgiveness” (184). Like Ali, Cash took the time to listen to Wagamese and inspire him to be strong by exchanging personal stories. Such profound moments contributed significantly to Wagamese’s healing process.
One Native Life sheds light on indigenous peoples’ struggle for belonging in a colonial society and, at the same time, reminds us of the power of love, caring, and community. Wagamese’s stories, however, represent only one voice, one perspective. It is my hope that books like One Native Life can spark much needed conversations among indigenous and non-indigenous peoples about how to forge new strategies of healing and political struggle in the twenty-first century. In this sense, Wagamese’s point is important, that “we heal each other by sharing stories of our time here. We heal each other through love … There’s no bigger gift, and all it takes is listening and hearing” (181). While the legacies of colonialism and the forces of capitalism continue to shape our daily lives, we must recognize that, by listening to, organizing with, and simply loving each other, we are all capable of changing the world.