My grandfather’s name was John Wagamese. Our family name, Wagamese, comes from an Ojibway phrase meaning “man walking by the crooked water.” It was shortened by the treaty registrar because Wagamese was all he could pronounce of it, but it came from the trapline my great-great-grandfather established along the Winnipeg River. The same one my grandfather walked all his life.
He was a bush man, John Wagamese. There was nothing he didn’t know of it, couldn’t comprehend or even predict. The land was as much a part of him as his skin, and he wore it proudly, humbly and with much honour. In our patch of northern Ontario, north of Lake of the Woods, he was a legend. People still talk about how strong he was. He carried a moose carcass ten miles out of the bush one time, and another he fashioned an elaborate harness from the canvas of his tent and hauled 120 pounds of blueberries a day’s walk to the Northern store for sale. He knew every inch of our traditional territory and in my mind I see him walking it a man walking by the crooked water.
My grandfather’s life was the last truly traditional one in my family history. He never learned to speak English, never learned to read or write, never had a driver’s license, but he knew the land like an old hymn and it sang through him, all wild and exuberant and free.
There’s a picture of us in my mother’s photo album. I’m young with long hair, trying as hard as I can to look the part of the Indian, the Ojibway. My grandfather is on a bed in light-blue pajamas, his nose bent from being broken, eyes sparkling from the fists of cheekbone beneath his wind-wrinkled skin, his hair cut severely into a brush cut and the bush man’s hands clasped almost shyly together in his lap. For me there was never a question about who the real Indian in that photo is.
I met him when I was 25. I’d been taken away in the Sixties Sweep when the government hauled Indian kids off and dumped them into families far away from their traditional territories, and I hadn’t seen my family for over twenty years. I’d never known I had a grandfather, just as I’d never known I had a history or a culture vibrant, compelling and alive. But both were there for me if I would have them.
The arthritis had confined John to a nursing home by then, and I went to see him whenever I could. He couldn’t speak English and I had no facility with Ojibway. But when I entered the room that first time, after more than twenty years, he looked at me with that toothless smile and held his hand out about the height of a small child, nodded and welcomed me home. I’ve never forgotten that how strong the language of love can be.
We sat and talked through an interpreter and I asked my grandfather questions about our history, about life as a traditional Ojibway and about the world he knew in the bush. He was generous and loved to talk. It was like the land came alive for him again and in his mind’s eye he became the young man of local legend, striding through the bush filled with the power of intention and purpose. Now and then I’d sneak him in a beer or two and he’d sip them and talk about the old days.
When my grandfather spoke I felt my Ojibwayness come alive in me. I lived in the city, worked jobs far removed from any he’d ever done and surrounded myself with things he’d never found time to crave. My world at the time was foreign to him, and sitting there hearing the talk of times when simplicity was a virtue and dependence meant always mending your own net, I learned how foreign that life was to me. But it was mine, accorded to me by history, by family, by the recollections of an old man bent by time, wearied some, perhaps, by the trail, and eager to pass them on.
I became an Indian at 25 because of John Wagamese. Oh, sure, I still had the long hair, the beaded vest, the moccasins, the turquoise rings and all the Hollywood trappings of the Indian that I’d learned in my city life, but I wanted the Indian look I saw in that photo of my grandfather. The look that said “all that I am is here.” That was the Indian look I craved.
I found it to greater or lesser extents through the last 27 years. Sometimes I’ve been fortunate enough to feel it on my face, but it’s been fleeting like learning to become always is. It’s been there in ceremony, in talk sometimes, in healing, but like all things it remains a search, a journey. Still, my grandfather lit the light of tradition within me, and in the soft roll of the old talk I found and reclaimed myself. These days I know that to look as Indian as my grandfather did is to know the land like an old hymn.
He died in his sleep when I was 32. When I heard I lay in my bed and stared at the sky outside my window for a long time. I wasn’t sad for him. His life was a celebration. I wasn’t in grief for a loss. What he had given me I could never lose. I wasn’t bitter and I wasn’t angry.
All I knew, for absolute certain, was that to honour my grandfather I had to take a walk out on the land. Standing there, looking out across the broad sweep of the country he loved, I came to realize that what I felt for him was everything, love and joy and grief and loss, and that it had an Ojibway name and I hadn’t found the language for it yet.
This article appeared in the May/June 2007 issue of Canadian Dimension .