I can navigate this cabin darkness by feel.
It’s like a second skin to me now and I move through it casually, stepping around the islands of clutter we’ve created, the peninsular poke of our busyness, the archipelago of our living.
In the moonlight by the window I can hear coyotes in the distance and the thrill of that ancient call reminds me of how easily this land seeps inside you when you let it.
A part of that yip and yowl lives within me, within the Indian heart of me and it makes the moonlight a ceremony.
Sitting here listening to the sounds of the land in the darkness and the creaks and shifts of this cabin home, I feel a part of all of it. A part of that creak and shift lives within me, within the human heart of me.
It hasn’t always been that way. It’s taken years, in fact, to become this casual with things, to feel this ease in the sense of time and place.
When I was small, a toddler, I was taken away from the family that brought me into being. Life had changed for them, drastically and fast.
Residential schools had broken the thong of family and culture that bound them and they couldn’t take care of me, protect me, or nurture me the way a child should be cared for. The schools had erased that ability.
After a pair of foster homes, I became one of thousands of native kids who were literally scooped up out of their lives and placed in adoptive homes hundreds of kilometres away.
It was called The Sixties Scoop and there is a generation of us who were displaced and excised from who we were created to be.
We ceased to be Wagamese, Little Chief, or Red Sky. Instead, we became Smith and Jones and Gilkinson.
None of us had any idea how to be this new person.
Some of us were lucky and landed in homes that allowed us to explore our Indian selves. But most of us became square pegs forced into round holes, the essential parts shaved off to make us fit.
I could never became a Gilkinson even though that’s what my legal name became. I couldn’t.
I was nine and had already suffered nine years of dislocation, displacement and disempowerment.
I had spent nine years of not belonging in the places they gave me to call home.
I’d experienced nine years of carrying a loneliness, a yearning, I couldn’t define, place or make sense of.
My life as a Gilkinson was marked by countless vain attempts to make me one of them and it was painful, frightening and lonely.
No one understood back then the trauma that happens with separation.
When you’re suddenly plucked from a way of being, whether it’s from family, culture or community, it tears you, rips you and there’s no mending of that rift, no healing. Instead, you carry the effects of that wounding with you always.
It’s called The Primal Wound and it happens to apprehended kids all the time.
For me it meant I could never attach myself to things or people. I always expected to be removed, rejected, taken away without explanation and it cost me friendship, love and memories.
Being incapable of bonding cost me a normal life with a circle of friends and associates and family. Being torn away meant that alone was far safer, predictable and familiar than being a part of something bigger.
I never felt rooted to anything. Leaving was always easier than staying put because attachment meant I was putting myself at risk of separation again and that primal wound still ached within me and I always left before I could re-feel that pain.
There were a lot of empty highways and a lot of displaced dreams in my life because of that initial wounding.
When I found my people again it got better. Every ceremony, every ritual, every phrase I learned in my language eased that wound and eventually it became easier, more graceful, to walk as an Indian person.
I began to reclaim the history, culture, language, philosophy and way of being that the Sixties Scoop had deprived me of.
When I came back to my people, I found loving, nurturing elders and traditional people to guide me.
They looked beyond the way the city stuck to me, my oddness, my inability to speak my language, my lack of a sense of myself as an Indian person, and began to teach me.
They offered back the shaved-off bits. They scooped me up and carried me home.
Yes, I was lucky. It helps to have strong cultural teachers to help you when you stumble back lost and confused. It helps to have a community rooted in itself and proud.
It helps to have a people, healed themselves, to ease you back to being who you were created to be.
But what helps the most is love. See, it’s being ripped from love that causes the wound in the first place and it’s only love in the end that heals it.
There’s a woman in my life that loves me completely. She knows the people I’ve been and the person I strive to be today.
She loves me and encourages me and understands the nature of the wound because it happened to her too.
When I sit and look out at the primal darkness from our cabin in the mountains, I think about that.
She’s not a native woman. But she doesn’t need to be. Because in the end it’s just the universal act of loving that transcends the wounds of life.
Only the sure, kind hand of understanding that removes the barriers that block you from yourself.
I know that now and I don’t run from it. Home is not an Indian place, it’s a place within that you can navigate by feel, return to always and find welcome.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.