Skip to content

The forest not the trees

In the mountains, just before sunrise, the world is an ashen place. Even the green tends to a murky grey and the trees loom in the near distance like…

In the mountains, just before sunrise, the world is an ashen place. Even the green tends to a murky grey and the trees loom in the near distance like phantom sentinels hovered over the gateway to dawn.

There are bears about. The berry bushes are bent and torn by their feeding and here and there the careless have their garbage strewn about their yards. It’s a bear’s world now — all shadow and quiet and solitude.

In this vapid light things lose all definition. Everything is blurred together and only the road jutting through it allows the bush perspective, so that looking at it now there’s a sense of the depth of it, the roll of it thick and tangled, undisturbed, unvanquished and dominant.

You used to fear the bush. That’s a hard thing to say when you’re Indian, native, Ojibway. But there was a time when the forest at night or in the gloom of pre-dawn was a terrifying place for you.

There were things in it you could not define, vague terrors that hunkered in the stillness. It took years to understand why.

In 1955 the Indian world was a different place. My family had all returned from the residential schools to try to reclaim and relearn themselves as cultural people.

In those schools they’d been made to feel ashamed of their heritage, the right and the might of the white God pressed down upon them relentlessly. They were broken inside and they returned unhealed.

When I was born, my family all lived together on the land. We had a traditional territory we’d trapped and fished and hunted for generations.

Like the old Ojibway life, we moved seasonally following the food and our home was mostly a canvas army tent held up by spruce poles and the floors were lined with the boughs. To all intents and purposes it was a traditional life.

I was born and swaddled in a cradleboard with moss and cedar. My siblings watched over me when the adults were away. My protectors were my oldest sister, Jane, and my eldest brother, Jack. Charles was only two years older and a toddler himself.

Our grandmother was around but she was busy taking care of the camp or chasing after the older kids of our uncles and aunts. So we were a unit, the four of us.

It should have been idyllic. But it wasn’t.

My family was filled with bitterness from their residential school experience. That unhealed energy erupted often in drunkenness and violence.

My sister tells me how she carried me and the four of us would hide in the bush at night while the adults raged and drank and fought at the nearby fire. In the mornings we’d creep out of the bush and return to the camp to eat and drink.

But there was more. My father was an outsider. He was an Ojibway from Pine Falls, Manitoba, and because he was perceived to be alien he was hated by my mother’s family.

They beat him up when he came around, chased him off and we four kids were tarred with the same brush. We were terrorized.

We spent many nights huddled together in the bush, hungry and thirsty and cold. My oldest brother Jack fought back as best he could but he was just a boy.

Jane, the eldest, watched over Charles and me, sneaking us out of camp whenever it looked like things were about to boil over again. But she couldn’t protect us all the time.

My aunt Elizabeth broke my left arm and shoulder by jumping on me as I swung in a moosehide harness between two trees. When I was a little older she took me out into the bush alone.

Jane followed her and she watched in helpless horror from the bush as my aunt tied me down and whipped me with tree branches until I was raw.

 My uncle Charlie tried to drown Charles and me. He held us by the throats and held our heads under water time after time, bringing us up gasping and crying before ducking us down again.

He was holding us down hard when another Ojibway man who happened to be passing by knocked him down and stopped him.

There were other horrors to be endured but these two marked me for life. My left arm is still damaged and I still can’t swim with my head submersed.

Eventually we’d be freed of that campaign of terror but when we were in it I was stamped with a fear of the bush. I was fine in the daytime and my later boyhood was marked by profound times alone in the bush.

But when night fell and the stark darkness reigned, the terrors returned and I was small, helpless, beaten and afraid.

It’s 2007 now. I’m 52 years old and I’m no longer afraid of the bush at night or in this eerie half-light of morning. There were therapists and counsellors who talked me through those terrors and the lingering trauma they left behind.

But my family still suffers. They never talk about those days. They choose to live in the belief that sufficient time passing makes crimes irrelevant. But it doesn’t.

I live with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the events of those days and things still trigger me. I still wrestle with childlike reactions to certain things, perceived threats, sudden changes or the feel of unsafe territory.

I still need to work to overcome them, to heal myself, to embrace the forgiveness that allows that to happen.

See, I forgave my family a while back. I understand that they were not to blame for the institution and the institutional pain that was inflicted on them.

I understand that they are not to blame for the effects of history just as I understand that none of us are.

In the light of this new day we are given justice in equal measure to dispense at our will and its root is forgiveness. In the light of this new day all things are in balance. Harmony comes when you can see the forest, not the trees.

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