the system rules for radicals and free at 50

We love to ski. There’s a resort a short drive from the cabin and we head there as often as we can in the winter months.

We love to ski. There’s a resort a short drive from the cabin and we head there as often as we can in the winter months.

As soon as our feet are off the ground on the chair lift both of us feel exhilarated, like being borne out of our lives and into an exciting, challenging world.

We love the view as much as the action.

It’s spectacular at the top. You can see right across the length and breadth of the Rockies and, if you allow it, your imagination can send you soaring over all of it.

The plummet down the runs affords other panoramas when we stop to take it in.

Skiing is about freedom. It’s about being in harmony with gravity and transcending it all at the same time.

It’s about the joy of a headlong rush and the sublime ease of a slow traverse through the trees when everything around you is all shadow, light and the crystal burst of brilliance of fresh powder.

So it was hard one day when the protesters came.

There’s a land claim issue at our favourite resort and a band of camouflaged young native people arrived with drums, pamphlets and megaphones.

They stood at the base of the mountain and harangued the families gathered to enjoy the hill.

They stood about in masks, balaclavas and mirrored sunglasses, unapproachable, aloof and hugely ironic against that fresh, open landscape.

No one listened. No one paid any attention at all except the Mounties, who were paid to make sure there were no confrontations.

There weren’t.

Instead, the dozen or so protesters marched through the resort village singing a drum song, waving flags and being ignored.

Later, as we took off our gear in the parking lot, they marched past in a bedraggled line, and disappeared into a small rusted bus.

It was sad for me.

I understood their cause.

I understood their politics.

I understood their motivation.

I just didn’t agree with the process.

See, when I was in my early 20s I became a militant.

I discovered my people and reconnected with them after disappearing into white foster and adopted homes.

The people I met were angry. It was the early ‘70s and native politics was in a boil.

The American Indian Movement was making big headlines in the United States and that energy filtered into Canada.

There would be occupations of land and buildings, marches and other forms of protest.

Because I was a displaced person I was eager to fit in.

I wanted — needed, to be seen as a native person, as belonging.

So I adopted the politics. I pulled it around me like a cloak. I became red-minded. I grew my hair out, dressed in an Indian motif and began to read the literature that some of the angry young people I met suggested.

Through the course of one spring and summer I read Vine Deloria’s God Is Red, Custer Died For Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto and then Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. After that I read Karl Marx, Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

I studied the writings of Abby Hoffman and Bobby Seale, all in order to educate myself in the politics of struggle.

Back then I believed that if I had the rhetoric in place the passion would follow.

Everyone around me was angry and I believed that in order to qualify as a native person I had to be angry too.

To reflect my identity I was supposed to be angry.

Then I read Saul Alinsky’s Rules For Radicals.

From Alinsky I learned that anger by supposition isn’t anger at all. It’s method acting.

What the book contained was less than what its title suggested and at first I was disappointed.

Then I read it over again.

I came to understand that radicalism wasn’t necessarily the mechanics of anger.

Instead, it was the need of a people to invoke justice in the system through a certain generosity of spirit.

It was, as Alinsky suggested, a process of communication.

I didn’t know what that meant at first.

Then I was sold on the energy of ‘the movement.’

The movement was all about bringing down the system, and the system was to blame for everything my people had suffered for hundreds of years of settlement.

Change had to be brought about abruptly.

Revolution was energy and the movement sought to harness that energy.

My head was filled with the politics of retribution.

Then Alinsky said something marvelous.

He encouraged the younger generation to hang onto laughter. It was the most precious part of youth.

Out of that, he said, we could find together what we’re looking for — laughter, beauty, love and the chance to create.

It resonated with me.

I was angry because I thought I was supposed to be, because it was the Indian thing to do.

But deep within me, where I truly lived, was a wish for peace.

It took some doing, it took some hard work and seeking out and listening to the bona fide teachers in our native circles, but I got in touch with that wish for peace.

See, it’s not necessary to bridge gaps between communities.

Bridges rust, collapse, get swept aside by the hard winds of change.

But if, as a people, you work earnestly to fill in those gaps with information, filling it in layer by layer with your truth, the gap eventually ceases to exist.

Saul Alinsky taught me that.

I’m in my 50s now.

I’ve learned that life, like skiing, is about being in harmony with gravity and transcending it at the same time.

It’s about removing the masks that separate us and allowing people to see me, to hear my pain, learn my stories, feel my truth and hear my laughter.

It’s about being part of the system of humanity and reaching out instead of pushing away.

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.