First Nation, ON
When I was small the world had frightening properties. I was a foster kid and I was terrified of being uprooted. By the time I was five I had lived with three families and life in the last of them offered little in terms of convincing me of permanence. Instead, I was informed of my status as a fringe-dweller from the very start and I never felt quite like my feet were really on the ground.
But there was a quality to my world even then, that allowed me a measure of grace. I had wonder. There isn’t a time that I can remember when the world didn’t offer me something that captivated me. Whether it was a cave in a cliff in the bush or the feeling of sitting beside a rushing river churning itself into rapids, I always found something in the natural world that captured me and lifted me above the vagary of my circumstances.
I suppose it was the Indian in me that responded to those things. But more than that I believe it was the inherent sense of wonder that’s born in all of us when we blink our eyes at the first full flush of light against our senses. We emerge into a world that ensnares us with a richness of experience right from the beginning and our journey here begins with a wide-eyed sense of wonder.
I thought of this as I worked with the adult education class at this remote Ojibway reservation. They were a small group for whom public high school had been a failed experiment and they were struggling to get enough credits to earn their Grade 12. My job was to teach them writing and storytelling techniques that sprang from their own culture.
For me, stories and storytelling have always been infused with wild degrees of mystery and magic. As a writer, I am constantly amazed at the nature of the process – creating something from nothing, bringing people, places and things to life. As a First Nation person my rich oral tradition consistently floors me with its vast literary range.
So I sought to bring that keen thrill to them. I sought to carry an ember from those old tribal fires that burned in our villages and ignite it there in that classroom so we could all draw strength and inspiration from the absolute sense of wonder that lives in that for us. But it was not to be.
Of all the things that a history of displacement causes to wither and die, the sense of wonder, awe, profound amazement at the quality of the world, is the harshest loss of all. When we walked to a small lake and I asked them to sit or stand there, to close their eyes and feel it and then tell the group what they felt, there wasn’t a one of them that could do it. Instead, they engaged in horseplay and they missed the experience of that lake in the morning sun.
Later, when I did my performance storytelling show for community members, only 20 of 700 on-reserve residents showed up. Of those, only a few caught the spirit of those wild, hilarious stories. The others sat squinting, unmoving, unsure of what to make of this strange man cavorting in front of them. It was hard work and when it was over I was saddened.
It was easy to see the disconnectedness. It didn’t lay just with the youth. It was pervasive throughout the entire community. Life for the residents of that reservation had become a plodding drudge that offered no hope for difference, no glinting light at the horizon, no wonder at the magnificent place they called home. When you lose the sense of wonder, you’re incapable of seeing magic and when you lose that, the spark of ingenuity, creativity and imagination that marks us as a species is gone and all that’s left is a dull, onerous monochromatic act of being.
There isn’t a one of us who can’t relate to that to some degree. Our lives contain the germ of a plodding, day-in, day-out routine that slumps us sometimes. We are all prone to grousing on sameness, on boredom, on the lack of something different in our lives. But out here, in the world where all is reachable, it’s possible to contain that malaise to a few hours, perhaps a day or so. Not so for Canada’s First Nation people.
We all need wonder. It’s what fuels us, what causes us to achieve. When native leadership list their peoples’ most pressing issues, the loss of wonder should be foremost. We need to spark imagination. We need to ignite creativity. We need to bring our people back from the inside out. The magic of a lake in the morning sun should be palpable to everyone.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, is out from Doubleday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.