returning to the living room

In our home the television is hardly ever on. There’s something about having the open land a step away that makes it irrelevant somehow.

In our home the television is hardly ever on.

There’s something about having the open land a step away that makes it irrelevant somehow. As though there’s a greater channel available, commercial free and ever changing.

Sure, we watch the news, have our favourite couple programs and I catch all the baseball games I can, but our TV is the picture window that looks over the lake.

We have one of those new-fangled flat LCD sets now. That might seem incongruous but it takes up a lot less room and almost disappears in the far corner. There’s no home theatre, no expensive subwoofers. Instead, it’s an instrument, a tool and we use it judiciously.

There’s a ton of music though. On our shelves we have jazz, country, blues, rock and classical. We listen to everything from John Legend to Kitty Wells to Ravel and Buddy Guy.

There’s always CBC Radio 2 from late afternoon to early evening and we move about our mountain home wrapped in the flow of glorious music.

At night, when our neighbours are glued to their sets, walking down the gravel road you can see them huddled in the ghostly blue glow. We return to the living room to read, talk, and listen to music.

Oh, we try and watch television every now and then but there’s a lot less charm to it. When the lights are low we prefer words and music.

In the winter of 1991, I got to sit down and talk with Johnny Cash. I was an entertainment writer for the Calgary Herald then but the way I got to speak with him wasn’t because of that. It was because I was a native person.

I wrote cultural columns for native papers and I’d sent the record company reps a handful of them and asked to talk to John. He read them and agreed.

See, Johnny Cash had always been concerned with the lives of native people. In 1964 he’d recorded an eight song album called Bitter Tears (The Ballad of the American Indian).

That ballad was a sad one, John had said and the songs reflected that. It contained The Ballad of Ira Hayes, Drums and The Vanished Race, powerful songs aimed at directing the listener to the plight of the red man in contemporary North America.

It never took off. Few people have ever heard those songs except for the Hayes tune. But John was never far from the edges of the lines of support for the cause of native rights.

When he read my pieces he wanted to talk informally, off the record, to meet a native Canadian writer, to learn more about the native experience in this country.

We met in his hotel room. He was passing through on a tour with the Carter Family and though I’d review the concert for the paper, our talk was not to be used.

As it turned out, I couldn’t have done it justice.

It still sits in me like a dream. I’m guided through the door and into the living room of his suite and he walks into the room, tall, angular, the hair still black and combed back, the eyes, obsidian, filled with life, intelligent and soulful.

He shook my hand warmly and said the famous words, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” Then he sat across from me and we began to talk.

I told him about my life, about the displacement I’d been born in, my family’s tragic history and about the intermittent joys and pains of reconnecting to my native identity. I told him about land claims, treaty rights, racism, bigotry, about the ongoing work that’s required for a people to emancipate themselves. He nodded lots and asked pointed, articulate questions.

Eventually, he turned the questions inward. He asked me how I felt about all of those issues. He asked me how it felt to be in my skin every day. He asked me what dreams I had for myself and how hard they might be to realize as a native person in Canada. And he asked me what I would change about myself if I could.

Then we talked about ceremony and spirituality. We talked of sweat lodges, sun dances, sacred pipes and prayer songs. We talked about the land and how allowing it to seep inside you, inhabit you, become you is such a transcendent experience that the spirituality of it is nearly impossible to express.

He was an Indian, Johnny Cash, if not in blood then in sentiment and spirit.

He spoke about the early influence of gospel on his music and his life. He talked about the teachings he’d gleaned from that and how in the end, returning to those was the thing that saved his life. He spoke of love, family, loyalty, communication and forgiveness.

We need to return to the living room, he said. All of us. Red man and white. There needs to be a time in every home when families gather together, to be together, to hear each other, to see each other, to be in community.

There needs to be a time when harmony rules and we come together to fill a room with our collective light.

It used to take a guitar to do it, he said. Then a radio became the gathering place. When television came along we learned how to look at something other than each other, how to hear something other than the voices of the people that made our lives complete.

We began to separate. We began to fracture and it affected every neighbourhood, every community.

We need to return to the living room. We need to make it a family room again. That’s what Johnny Cash said to me that day and I will never forget it. I will never forget him.

In our living room we are joined. We are together. We are seen and we are heard. Sure, there’s only two of us but it affects the way we treat everyone we meet — that connectedness, that harmony. It’s how you change the world, really. My friend John told me that.

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

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