Midnight Sweatlodge: An aboriginal writer's look at life on the reserve

Waubgeshig Rice, a CBC reporter based in Ottawa, has been writing stories about life on a reserve since he was a teenager, keen to chronicle a way of life that is little understood outside the aboriginal community. Now they are a book: Midnight Sweatlodge.

Q&A with author Waubgeshig Rice

Author and CBC journalist Waubgeshig Rice. (Photo courtesy Jessica Blaine Smith)

Waubgeshig Rice, a CBC reporter based in Ottawa, has been writing stories about life on a reserve since he was a teenager, keen to chronicle a way of life that is little understood outside the aboriginal community.

"I loved hearing stories from the elders in my community when I was a kid," he says. "I tried to capture in words some of the compelling, funny and sometimes tragic things going on around me."

Now, he has now brought all these stories and reflections together in an emotionally charged book entitled Midnight Sweatlodge.

It's a fictional account of young aboriginal people who visit an elder at a sweat lodge and recount their sometimes painful life experiences.

Rice, 32, is from Wasauksing, near Parry Sound, Ont., and is one of several aboriginal filmmakers who are contributing video pieces to a special CBC website entitled, 8th FIRE: Canada, Aboriginal Peoples and the Way Forward, which will be launched later in the fall. The website accompanies a four-part series of documentaries, with the same name, that will be broadcast in January.

CBC producer Jennifer Clibbon, who worked on the series, interviewed Waub Rice about his new book. 

Clibbon: What were you trying to convey in these stories?

I was trying to convey to other aboriginal youth who may be enduring emotional adversity that they're not alone. There are common issues and challenges that many of us deal with in communities right across the country, like isolation, identity crisis, depression and substance abuse.

Each of our situations is unique, but there are shared struggles and I think it's important that we talk about them and share with each other in order to get on that path to healing. 

Secondly, I wanted to expose non-native readers to some of these difficulties that young aboriginal people live with in Canada. We often see negative portrayals of aboriginal youth in the media without any real context.

The legacy of colonialism is ongoing and contributes to a lot of negativity on reserves across Canada. It's important for non-native people to know why native kids are still killing themselves at alarming rates.

This book is by no means a primer on the young aboriginal experience in this country, but it's a representation of some of the issues I saw growing up in my community that much of non-native Canada is still oblivious to. 

CBC: The first story deals with a boy who is enjoying a glorious summer day swimming with friends in Georgian Bay and then is called away to a family emergency and sees his father shot dead in a standoff with police. This is based on a true story, you have said. Tell us about that.

When I was about six years old I got my first taste of resistance in my home community of Wasauksing. My parents took my one brother and me to a sandpit in our community, where trucks hired by CN were removing sand.

It was a peaceful protest and I remember people holding up signs and blocking the trucks and other machines. The CN rail line had been removed from the reserve many years before that and our community didn't believe they had the right to continue removing material from our land. 

That experience is written through the eyes of an anonymous young boy in Midnight Sweatlodge, so I left out a lot of the historical context on purpose. At the core it's about re-establishing that emotional and spiritual connection to land and how that can change a community.

It's really important to point out that this is a highly fictionalized account of that original event — in real life, it ended peacefully and no one was hurt.

One of the more heart-breaking stories is of a young gifted boy, top of his class, who is torn apart with tragic consequences by watching his alcoholic parents fight and his father beat his mother up. What were you exploring as you wrote that particular story?

I wanted to explore the emotional extremes that kids can endure when living in homes that are still contending with the cycles of all kinds of abuse. Although he has a lot going for him, the protagonist is locked in an almost inescapable depression and he contemplates suicide.

He can't seem to control his home life and sees no real resolution to the violence around him. He hints that his parents' abusive lifestyle is a result of the displacement and assimilation of the generations before them.

I was fortunate to have a very positive and loving upbringing, but I saw a lot of my peers live through their parents' domestic violence and alcohol abuse. It takes a huge emotional toll that can last a lifetime. 

Another story explores the doomed love affair between a native man and his white girlfriend. The two worlds connect briefly and then he retreats into his past, unable to escape its pain. This suggests you have thought about the barriers between the two worlds. What are they in this story?  

A lot of young aboriginal people face the dilemma of having to leave the rez for the city for a lot of reasons, whether it's school, work or just for any kind of new beginning.

They are two very different worlds and on the surface it seems nearly impossible to combine them. That physical and social barrier often highlights racial differences.

This story is about a young native man in a relationship with a white woman. The story is called "Bloodlines" because although he's in love, he feels pressure from his family and his community to redirect that love to a native woman to keep the bloodlines strong and the culture alive.

This is a dilemma many young men and women have faced over the past couple of generations, with aboriginal cultures hanging by a thread. 

There is the story of a native man who has an epiphany through experiencing the beauty of nature and then turns his life around. What were you thinking as you wrote this story?

With all the negative themes in the book I wanted to end it with at least a glimmer of hope. Without giving the ending away, I hope readers see in this story that healing and reconciliation are possible, and the keys to that are often right in front of us.

This story is also loosely based on an Anishinaabe legend about judgment and how we need to carry ourselves as people in order restore the Creator's faith in us.

Also, I have seen my own community heal in my lifetime. This story isn't based on my home rez of Wasauksing, but when I was a kid there was a lot of tragedy and abuse there and gradually people turned it around.

I hadn't seen sweat lodges or powwows as a young kid. But by the time I was 10 they were happening regularly. That's because my parents' generation worked hard to restore some of those traditions to help our people cope and try to move forward in a positive way.

In this story, the protagonist David has his own epiphany and actively seeks traditional knowledge for his own healing journey and others.

There are Davids in almost every community, and I wanted to pay homage to them with this story. 

The book is a series of very moving portraits that take the reader into the interior worlds of these people in crisis. Do you think that is its main contribution?

That's a pretty kind and apt way to describe it. One of my goals was to offer some context on what the aboriginal condition in this country can be like, and through that I wanted to paint a bigger and more detailed picture.

There are very intricate and complicated issues that contribute to some of the current tragedies people in communities are enduring. By giving a deeper glimpse into these characters, I hope to give readers some understanding, or at least set them on a path to understanding.

Aboriginal people are becoming a bigger and more important part of Canada's social fabric, but many non-native Canadians still don't know anything about us.

Through whatever means necessary, we have to educate everyone else in order to reconcile our relationship with this country. And it's up to the rest of the country to listen to us.