Richard Wagamese: "Did you used to be an Indian?"
In honour of National Aboriginal Day on June 21, we at Canada Writes are presenting our own contribution to the CBC's groundbreaking 8th Fire project: "The Way Forward," an original series by some of the country's leading and emerging Aboriginal writers.
First up, noted author and journalist Richard Wagamese on how identity and semiotics can shift in the eye of the beholder.
This is the question I was asked at my first official adopted family gathering. It came from a younger cousin and garnered a huge round of laughter ranging from titters to grins to outright guffaws.
“Um, yeah,” I said, not aiming for guttural but getting it note perfect nonetheless.
“What kind of Indian were you?”
I didn’t know there were kinds. Fierce, wise and mysterious ran through my head. So did the names of movie Indians; Apache, Cheyenne, Sioux. They were the only ones I’d heard of and if you were going to pressed to be a kind of Indian you might as well be one that everyone had heard of. That was my thinking.
I mumbled something about Ojibway and tried to find the nearest corner to slink into and hide. Fortunately, the adult voices took over and the complexion of the conversation changed and I hid out until it looked safe to emerge.
But he stopped me again on the stairs.“Do you have a reservation?”
Right then and there my only reservation was about the whole adoption process.
“If you did used to be an Indian, what are you now?”
That one had me stumped. A quick surmising led me to the facts that a) I was adopted, b) I now had a entirely different name, c) I had a shake’n bake family I didn’t know, and d) I had absolutely no idea of what I was now, except trapped on a stairwell by a skinny little white kid with glasses thicker than mine.
There was only one thing for me to do. I crossed my arms Indian style across my chest and gave him a look that I hoped was stoic and hoped he’d go away. It wasn’t stoic enough apparently because he hammered me with another query.
“Do you know any swear words in Indian?”
I knew a handful in English by that time but I chose not to favor him with any. Instead, I found another quiet spot in the corner and pondered everything he’d just asked. What kind of Indian was I? What was I now? And, if I couldn’t figure any of that out, which swear word in particular would be best suited? It was one of my life’s first cultural quandaries.
I’ve had a few cultural quandaries since then but at fifty-six years of age now, I can answer that adopted cousin’s questions.
Did I used to be an Indian? You bet. All kinds. I’ve been an urban Indian, a culturally displaced Indian, an adopted Indian, a homeless Indian, a drunk Indian as well as a published Indian and an award-winning Indian.
If I used to be an Indian, what am I now? After everything I’ve gone through in fifty-six years, I’m even more Aboriginal than I was when I first heard the question. Call me a peaceful hunter-gatherer, hunting for bargains and gathering memories.
Every quandary offers an opportunity to learn the truth. That’s true for everybody. You just have to be willing to listen, learn and reorganize information. That’s what I’ve done on this journey to where I am today. There are no more uncomfortable questions. Oh, and by the way, there are no swear words in Indian. We have to rely on English for those.
Richard Wagamese is one of Canada’s foremost native authors and journalists. A former National Newspaper Award-winning columnist, he is the 2012 recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Media & Communications.