Review by Deborah Locke
The late Richard Wagamese knew that liquor “owned him” and that as a drunk, he was unfit to raise his baby boy. The baby’s mother left with the baby to protect her son from his father’s alcoholic binges. Years passed; Wagamese became sober. He knew it was his responsibility as an Ojibwe father to teach his child traditions such as finding wisdom from within, the importance of humility, and to convey to the boy that the earth and all people upon it were related and valuable.
So when his son was six, Wagamese wrote, “For Joshua: An Ojibwe Father Teaches His Son,” a remarkable memoir about climbing from a self-made hole of fear, substance abuse, homelessness and incarceration. The path to knowing himself and his purpose on earth is dotted with exceptional people who see themselves in Wagamese, and throw life preservers his way.
The story, which unfolds in Canada, is beautifully written: Wagamese was an amazing writer well deserving of the accolades and awards he accrued in his too-short life. The memoir conveys Wagamese’s childhood as a foster son who is ripped from the non-Indian foster family he loves and adopted by a distant non-Indian family who live in a racist community. That cruel separation increases the doubt, fear and despair that follow Wagamese for decades. Finally, a good friend named John brings Wagamese to a hill facing the Rocky Mountains and leaves him there for a four-day Vision Quest. The remainder of the book weaves traditional Ojibwe stories with what Wagamese figured out day by day at the top of the hill.
He figured out a lot, while seated in a small circle drawn by John, with only one blanket and a canteen of water. The bits of wisdom that Wagamese derived from himself, as well as later from the company of a group of non-using Indians, took him from a “Technicolor nightmare” to a “black-and-white reality. A reality that didn’t hurt anymore.” He wrote: “Over time they showed me exactly what John showed me, that I wasn’t bad, deficient, or unworthy – I was just a drunk who needed to stay sober in order to help himself.”
Certain scenes in the book really stand out. Alone and hitchhiking across Canada, Wagamese spent three nights sleeping under a bridge until he heard of a hostel in a small nearby town. He was welcomed there, joining eight travelers from throughout Canada. The group pooled its money, bought groceries and cooked over an open fire.
What made that fire and the people memorable for a lifetime was the way everyone looked out for each other. Then something wonderful happened, Wagamese wrote. The group of strangers returned to their tents and brought back a fiddle, guitar, harmonica, bongo drums, an accordion and a pennywhistle. Simple campfire songs were followed by ballads from Quebec, seafaring melodies from British Columbia, maritime ballads from Nova Scotia, foot-stomping Metis music from northern Alberta, and a Saskatchewan farmer’s songs of harvest, land and small-town dreams.
Folk songs filled the air about endless rail tracks, highways, dance halls and a lonely sundown. Story telling followed, about fields that ran forever and land “so flat you could watch your dog run away for four whole days before he disappeared.” Many years passed before Wagamese realized the deepest lessons he learned from that night – lessons about belonging, unity and a shared love for land.
It takes a long time for truths to unfold in the book, the same way they unfold in a life. Wagamese learns the intricacies of building a sweat lodge and takes his first sweat. He touches his first ceremonial pipe and learns its parts and meaning. He grows to seek peace over conflict. As a child, Wagamese intimately knew the forests and rivers, but did not have a father to show him to be a caretaker of the land and everything on it.
“We didn’t know that simply being Indian by doing an Indian thing like fishing wasn’t enough,” he wrote. “We didn’t know that what made something the Indian thing to do were the teachings that guided the process.”
In a closing chapter made more poignant due to his death at age 61, Wagamese invited Joshua to find him. It won’t be hard, he wrote. “I’ll be on the land somewhere, feeling its heartbeat on the soles of my feet, knowing with each breath that it is home, that I am home, wherever I might be. Until then, my son, I love you.”
“For Joshua: An Ojibwe Father Teaches His Son” was published in 2020 by Milkweed Editions ($24).