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Coming to Beedahbun

The moon on the water is a pale eye. Benign, it hangs suspended, unmoving like a dream upon awakening.

The moon on the water is a pale eye. Benign, it hangs suspended, unmoving like a dream upon awakening.

The lake bears it effortlessly and the scrim of trees along the skyline thrust up like fingers to tickle at its belly. You swear you can hear the chuckle of it against the morning adagio of shorebirds.

This early in the day there is nothing to distract you from this delicate and deliberate joining to what is. The mountain across the lake is magnified by the clarity of the air and you almost feel you could touch it with an outstretched hand.

You don’t know what it is, this seamless entwining of energies, only that something in you understands the magic of it all like the wonderment you found when you first discovered love. There’s a blending, a joining, and joy lives in the shrugging off of boundaries, the overlap.

My people call this time of day Beedahbun. It means first light. In traditional times, prior to settlement, Ojibway medicine societies gathered in the vesperal quiet for prayer and ceremony. Those morning rituals were a celebration of energy, a recognition of the harmony we live in so blindly sometimes.

For me it’s meditative time. I feel Ojibway standing at the edge of a mountain lake watching eagles and ospreys soar and dive. There’s an elemental part of me that responds to this, an ember from tribal fires that smoulders in me, fanned by the open sanctity of space, it warms me, pushes me steadfastly into my days.

I discovered the whole Beedahbun thing one glorious week in the autumn of 1985. I was struggling to be a writer then. I was struggling to survive.

My first marriage had ended badly and I found myself sleeping on my mother’s couch in northern Ontario. I drank too much to try and kill the pain of it and it took a while to get my feet under me again.

The world I came to in was the land of my people. Northern Ontario in late summer and early fall is a spectacle. There’s a palpable change happening all around you. When you take the time you can see it in the animals, in the flora and fauna, and on the face of the water.

When I found a job as a marina helper on the Winnipeg River, the land helped to heal me.

I sat every morning watching the sun break over the water. While I drank coffee and waited for the first boatloads of fishermen to arrive, I let myself fall into the lap of those jubilant mornings. Later, in the heat of the day when the fishermen napped, I sat under a huge pine tree at the edge of the bay and tried to write.

The words that formed in me were melancholic, aching words and they assembled themselves as poetry. I’d never considered myself a poet. I’d been a news writer in print and radio and I always felt my strength was the straight-ahead clarity of journalism. The few poems I’d tried up to that point were meandering, overly sentimental and heavy handed.

But something clicked under that pine tree and I wrote steadily every day. After a few weeks, I’d cobbled together a semblance of style and there was indeed, a poetic element running through the words. It heartened me and eased my pain. When the publisher of Wawatay News in Sioux Lookout agreed to print them in their newspaper I was thrilled.

Well, it turns out that someone read that paper. His name was Simon Frog and he worked as a cultural development officer for the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation. Simon was working with Ojibway elders in an attempt to encourage youth to write, to tell the stories of their people, to continue the grand line of storytellers.

He had a workshop set up on Manitoulin Island where native writers could sit with elders, hear their stories and teachings, and use those to create new and important work. The place it was being held was called Beedahbun Lodge and when he read my poetry he wanted me to take part in it. Naturally, I agreed.

There were a handful of us from various parts of northern Ontario. Some were from very remote reservations like Kasabonika Lake and Big Trout Lake. Others, like me, were from the cities. We were guided by a pair of published poets, Paulette Jiles and Robert Bringhurst, and a dozen Ojibway elders from across the Nishnawbe-Aski territory.

Everyday we spoke with the elders and heard amazing traditional stories. Then we went to work. We brainstormed ideas, looking for a mix of the purely traditional and the contemporary, a symbiosis, a blending.

We workshopped a number of pieces and one, a delightful theatre piece where we built a talking human totem pole was greeted with thunderous applause from the elders.

I heard the Beedahbun teaching there and every morning I was up early stepping out of the lodge and walking in the energy of morning.

I looked for the joining, the blending the elders told me of and when I found it, it healed me. I was able to write and create spontaneously for the first time and I walked away from that week-long retreat determined to become a writer.

Others did too. Thomson Highway went on to write the Rez Sisters and other acclaimed plays. Billy Merasty became a successful movie actor. Shirley Cheechoo is a fine film director and me, well, a National Newspaper Award, a Canadian Authors Association Award for Fiction, three novels and a memoir later, I’m a writer with more stories yet to come.

But I still come to Beedahbun. Every morning regardless of season I’m out early walking in silence, opening myself to the mystery one more time. It never gets old, it never gets boring. It’s never the same way twice. The land works a subtle magic and it’s in subtlety where teaching comes.

First light breaking. Shadow eased from the world. Spirit energy, in you, in the land, the universe, joined seamlessly, making everything a ceremony. In this we are all Indians.

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