Maybe it’s the particular age I am that asks this of me come Christmas time or maybe it’s just the plain fact that deeper nights and colder air make all of us come to grips with what means the most to us. Either way, I find myself staring into the flames of the fire a lot longer lately.
There’s a certain satisfaction, a smugness really, in having lived long enough to count decades with more than the fingers of one hand. There’s an airy sort of confidence in knowing that you’ve seen your share of ups and downs and twists and turns in life. To be still standing, still answering the bell for the next round, is what we refer to when we say ‘maturity’.
But it wasn’t always like that. Not for me at least.
This whole process of becoming, of claiming an identity, of evolving into a being with borders and boundaries, was never an easy one for me. I struggled for a long time with anger and resentment. I wrestled with a need for an evening up, for a squaring of the deal that saw me dislocated and disenfranchised.
See, for a long time I thought that life was about payback. I thought every success, every forward motion, was an opportunity for showmanship, for a sneering in the face of society. A ‘look what I can do despite you’ sort of swagger. As long as I carried that attitude it was me that was responsible for the ‘us and them’ situation I believed existed everywhere.
It made life difficult, that constant measuring up.
Then I met Old Jack.
He was an Ojibway man who’d fought in a war, beat the bottle and reclaimed a ceremonial and traditional life for himself.
He was a teacher — and a good one.
We were talking one day about what I saw as the challenges to my burgeoning sense of identity. I spouted off my latest rant on multiculturalism, the Canadian mosaic and the displacement I felt as a First Nation person. I felt threatened by the new Multiculturalism Act. He listened as he always did, with a curious expression and a half smile at the corner of his lips.
Then he said something that changed my whole life.
“All tribal people are the same.”
When I asked him what he meant he took his time answering.
There are no pure cultures anymore, he said. That’s because the world and society ask all of us for sacrifice. Everyone from every culture surrenders parts of themselves to be included. It wasn’t just the native people who were forced to undergo this separation from themselves. It was the same for everyone.
Everyone lets go of something in order to grasp something else. That’s how he put it.
As First Nations we let go of snowshoes and toboggans in order to grasp snowmobiles and pickups. We let go of smoke signals in order to have telephones. Ultimately, we let go of our languages in order to grasp English. It’s the same for everyone from everywhere. The world and society ask us for sacrifice in order to be included.
That’s what we need to look at in this world, he told me; those things that are the same for all of us instead of those things that make us different. Because, in the end, we are all tribal people. We all began our cultural journeys as bands of people huddled around a fire in the night. It’s only the degree of separation from that experience that creates barriers between us.
If we could accept that we are all tribal people and accept that each culture has sacrificed part of their identity to become a part of the whole, then we would have a starting point, he said. We would have a beginning. We would have a place from which to build a future as a species. We’ve all been forced to abandon parts of our identities and it is in this fracturing that we find togetherness, unity and harmony.
He’s gone now, Old Jack, been gone about 16 years, but I’ve never forgotten his teaching that day. It changed my stance. Where I had erected barriers, created an us-and-them mentality, and put distance between myself and other cultural peoples, I became able to let that go and look at the sameness in people. I became able to mature.
It’s Christmas time. We all ponder, we all reflect, we all embrace the passing of the years. Or at least, those of us old enough to be graced by more than a handful of calendars do. It’s the same everywhere for everybody. Gazing into my fire on these cold mountain mornings I realize that and feel included, united, and whole.
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, arrives in August from Doubleday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org