When I was in my late 30s, I travelled to the Temagami area of Northern Ontario.
There was a retreat there for native men who had experienced cultural dislocation — who’d been displaced from themselves and their identity.
Because I’d been a product of foster homes and non-native adoption I went to spend 10 days reconnecting to traditional ways and teachings.
We were guided by a team of elders and healers. For the most part those of us who travelled there were city dwellers, more used to the pace of urban life than the bush or reservation.
Most of us did not speak our language. The majority had never had any link to the bush ways of their people or the traditional teachings that guided them. None of us had ever directly faced the issues of our displacement.
As soon as we arrived we were paired up in tents. My tent mate’s name was Paul and he was a 39-year-old half-Cree man from Northern Quebec.
He lived in Montreal, worked as a pastry chef and had never been beyond the city in his life. Like me, he had been taken away from his people as a toddler. Unlike me, he had been in more than 20 foster homes by the time he was 16. He’d come to the camp to begin the journey back to tribal identity.
The first day of sessions, we were asked to choose an animal to use as our name for the length of our stay. We were to tell the group why we had chosen the animal we had.
I called myself Wandering Bear. I said that I admired the bear for his ability to live alone for great lengths of time yet still crave family and togetherness.
When it was Paul’s turn, he said that he was a skunk. He sat with his head down staring at the ground, clasping and unclasping his fingers. He said he chose a skunk because they’re scavengers, rooting around for whatever they can find.
“What’s lower than a skunk?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” one of the guides replied. “Two?”
From that day on he was Two Skunks.
We travelled a great journey in those ten days. We learned to build fires without paper and matches. We learned to set gill nets, clean fish, shoot rapids in a canoe, snare rabbits, read animal tracks and build a bow and arrows in the traditional manner.
We spent a night alone in the bush, building lean-tos from spruce boughs. But we also learned about the spiritual way that guided all of those practices.
There were sweat-lodge ceremonies, prayer and smudging circles, tobacco offerings, drumming circles and a lot of talk.
Each of us spoke about growing up without the benefit of our native identity. Each of us shared stories of displacement, awkwardness, the struggle to fit in, to belong. We talked of where our trails had taken us and how we felt about where we’d been.
Two Skunks spoke so quietly we had to strain to hear him. Over the course of days, he shared stories about the sexual abuse he’d suffered at the hands of a foster father.
He’d never spent a whole year in any one home. When he was 16 and old enough to be on his own, he went to the streets of Montreal.
He sold himself there. To men. He drank and drugged. He stole and went to prison where he sold himself again just to survive.
He talked of hating his skin. He spoke of wanting sometimes to just scrape it off. How he felt betrayed by it and how no one had ever given him any answers about where he came from, who his people were and who he was supposed to be.
He spoke of never feeling honest or deserving or worthy. He spoke of the hole at the centre of his being.
But the elders took him in their hands. They had healing ceremonies for him and we all got to attend. They gave him permission to cry about it all and he did. In the sweat lodge he cried for himself and prayed hard for the ability to forgive himself.
Then he prayed for the forgiveness of the ones who hurt him. At nights we talked quietly in our tent and he spoke of the incredible feeling of light that was beginning to shine in him.
Then one day, he asked me to come along with him and an elder. We walked deep into the bush and Two Skunks made tobacco offerings and gave thanks for everything that had ever happened in his life. He thanked the universe for the gifts of those teachings. Then he put those offerings in the ground, returned them to earth and sang a prayer song. I felt honored.
When the retreat was over we hugged and went our separate ways. He wrote me sporadically through the years. He joined a drum group in Montreal, started to learn his language and attended talking circles and sweat lodges every week.
He wrote about feeling happy, about being connected, about finally feeling Indian. But like all things time and distance become time and distance — he never wrote again.
Then, one day, a letter arrived. It was written by a woman who said she was Paul’s wife. She was a Cree woman and they’d been married four years and had a young daughter named Rain.
Two Skunks had died of complications from diabetes. He was 44. But he’d become a traditional dancer and singer. He helped guide a traditional camp in her community and he spoke his language fluently. When he died, he was buried in the traditional way.
I sat with that letter in my hands for a long time. Then I went deep into the bush, returned it to earth and gave thanks for the teaching.
We heal each other by sharing the stories of our time here. We heal each other through love. And love, in the Indian way, means you leading me back to who I am. There’s no bigger gift and all it takes is listening and hearing. Ahow.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.