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.

Just Posted

John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file
Catherine Elliott, Yukon acting Chief Medical Officer of Health, has announced two new COVID-19 cases in the Yukon.
Two new COVID-19 cases confirmed, Porter Creek Secondary prom cancelled

Graduating students are encouraged to self-isolate and monitor for symptoms

Jim Elliot/Yukon News
Ross and Cindy Smith are finding more reason to smile as the floodwaters that almost reached their farm house were beginning to recede on June 8.
Farms on South Klondike Highway experience severe flooding

The nearest body of water is a lake almost three kilometres away


Wyatt’s World for June 11, 2021.… Continue reading

Whitehorse courthouse interior on April 6, 2018. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
CYFN launches pilot program for community impact statements

First Nations will receive support developing statements after major crimes

Israr Ahmed speaks at a vigil at the Whitehorse Mosque to honour the Muslim family killed in London, Ont. on June 10. (John Tonin/Yukon News)
Yukoners gather to honour Muslim family killed in London

Like many communities across the country, Yukoners came together to honour the Muslim family murdered in London Ontario

The RCMP Critical Incident Program will be training in Watson Lake from June 14-16. Mike Thomas/Yukon News
RCMP will conduct three days of training in Watson Lake

Lakeview Apartment in Watson Lake will be used for RCMP training

John Tonin/Yukon News Squash players duke it out during Yukon Open tournament action at Better Bodies on June 5.
Four division titles earned at squash Yukon Open

The territory’s squash talent was on full display at the 2021 Yukon Open

Runners leave the start line of the 2014 Klondike Trail of ‘98 International Road Relay Skagway. The 2021 race will start at checkpoint six and remain in the Yukon only. (Tom Patrick/Yukon News)
Klondike Road Relay returns to in-person after a virtual year

A modified, in-person Klondike Road Relay will be open to Yukoners

John Tonin/Yukon News Rang Pillai speaks at the Great Yukon Summer press conference on May 27.
‘The sooner the better’: Operators react to Great Yukon Summer campaign

The Great Yukon Summer campaign was announced May 27 and begins June 4

Mayor Dan Curtis stands in front of Minister Richard Mostyn and MP Larry Bagnell during an infastructure announcement made outside Jack Hulland Elementary School in Whitehorse on June 2. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Safety improvements planned for Whitehorse school zones

Enhanced pedestrian crosses are planned to make walking to school safer

2020 Haines Junction graduates line up for a photo on May 27, 2020 as part of a celebration parade through the village. While the St. Elias Community School is able to host an outdoor grad ceremony for 2021 grads this year, it will also host a parade and group photo as it did last year. (Marty Samis/Submitted)
Ceremonies and parades all part of 2021 grad

2021 sees old traditions return with some 2020 events adopted

A rendering of the proposed new city hall/services building and transit hub. (City of Whitehorse/submitted)
New city hall could cost $24.7 million

Council will be presented with latest plans June 7

Most Read