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What it comes to mean

There are mornings here when the quiet comes to fill you. You walk the line of lake cautiously, not wanting to break the spell of it.

There are mornings here when the quiet comes to fill you. You walk the line of lake cautiously, not wanting to break the spell of it.

There’s mist on the water and it drifts upwards off the rock, enveloping you, and the feeling is not of disappearing from this view but of sinking into it.

Within this stillness you swear you can hear the sounds of drums on distant hills. You close your eyes and in the push of breeze there’s the wail and chant of singers and this fusty shoreline holds in it the smell of something ancient, something timeless, eternal, articulate, significant and vast.

You only need to breathe it into you to become it.

There’s nothing in your experience to match this deliberate taking in. You, who have fought so hard to find a place here, for a definition beyond what the skin implies, have never encountered such frank acceptance of being.

Against the push of land, the sweep of it, you fit easily like another shoot of grass and there’s the sense in you that this is what it means to be Indian.

They’ve called you many things in your time here. You’ve been savage, red man, First Person, aboriginal, native, indigenous and an original inhabitant.

You’ve been labeled, tagged, defined, categorized, filed and absorbed.

Many times you’ve been analyzed, probed, studied, examined, inspected and researched.

Never have they called you by your name.

When you were young they called you Itchybum. In those long purple summer evenings the game was Cowboys and Indians, except for them, you were an Itchybum.

An Itchybum was a joke, a cartoon in their minds because that was all they knew of you. And so you ran, hightailed it really, through the backyards of your boyhood pursued by miniature heroes intent on bagging you.

In the schools they sent you to they called you Special Needs.

They treated you as though you assembled the world in fog, and clarity was something forged in the strap and paddle and a rigid discipline meant to bring you into line.

They called you slow, awkward and remedial because the shyness born of displacement wouldn’t let you speak. So they called you Indian.

Later, in the home they placed you in they called you adopted. No one ever translated that for you, never explained the intent of it, the meaning, never let you know that it means, plainly, to be accepted.

Instead, all you came to know of it was that it meant being reassembled, rearranged, remade in an image your skin made impossible.

And once when a new cousin asked you at a gathering, “Did you used to be an Indian?” they laughed and you didn’t know what to say.

In the schools and neighborhoods you found yourself in you became a wagon burner, a squaw hopper, a bush bunny, a dirty teepee creeper and sometimes because they didn’t know what to make of you, a chink.

You didn’t know how to react and shame made you keep them to yourself, to bear them silently, feel the hurt like a bruise and say nothing.

On the streets where you ran to they called you a lazy, shiftless, stupid, drunken, welfare bum. They expected failure of you and when you tried to keep pace and learn, express and grow they called you uppity, confused and immature.

You need to learn your place, they said, but never offered to help you find it.

In the shops, foundries and camps where you went to work they called you jack pine nigger and in the fights and brawls that came of it you learned that scrapping was exactly what they expected. It anchored it, made it valid to them and again you did not know what to say.

You learned that labels have weight, incredible, hard and inescapable. You learned to drink so that you wouldn’t have to hear them, carry them, or feel their implication stuck in you like arrows.

And in your drunken stumble the shutters on their homes snapped closed because you’d become exactly what they expected.

But when you found your people you became Ojibway. You became Anishinabe. You became Sturgeon Clan. You became Wagamese again and in that name a recognition of being that felt like a balm on the rawness where they’d scraped the Indian away.

Ojibway. It resonated in you, a label that held the promise of discovery, of homecoming, of reclamation and rejuvenation.

Oh, you struggled to understand its meaning. The fact of it applied to your life was another weight and the burden was something you trundled through choices meant to allow you to wear it more gracefully.

Everything you chose became Indian.

Everything you allowed into your world was native and when the tag sometimes did not adhere, again, you did not know what to say.

You were created to be three things, the Wise Ones in your circles told you then. You were created to be a male, Ojibway human being.

That is the truth of you, the Creator’s gift to you, never to be erased, eradicated, or taken away. One truth that carries within it many truths.

Since then you’ve learned to look for them wherever they might be — in culture, philosophy, tradition, books, songs, stories, ceremony, ritual and spirituality.

What you learned is what the Wise Ones said; that there is not one overarching truth that defines you or your experience. There are many truths and they frame you, give you breadth, give you being.

So that now, standing in the mist off the water, feeling the land inhabit you, you understand that what it comes to mean, this word Indian, is life.

Life with all its vagaries, wrong turns, poor choices, indecisions, mistakes, sins, sorrows, triumphs and small glories is what becomes you in the end. Accepting it, wearing it loose as an old blanket, is what gives you grace, what grants you identity.

You fit here. You belong. No matter what they call you.

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