wind is the carrier of song

There’s a hard push from the west that sends stark cumulous banks over the top of the mountain and in the thrust of it through the trees…

There’s a hard push from the west that sends stark cumulous banks over the top of the mountain and in the thrust of it through the trees there’s the plunge and roll of surf 800 kilometres off.

The reeds and grasses sing a higher register. It’s the whistle of river valleys and the descant sweep of air across the delta.

Days when it blows from the north, there’s the whistling pitch of the barren lands and the basso rumble of thunder in peaks where even the wind is lonely.

Easterly flows bring the sharp slicing soprano born in the unfinished aria of plain and prairie. And the south is a contralto, warm, luxuriant, rising off distant beaches.

My people say the wind is Mother Earth brushing her hair. Against the dance of branch and stalk and foliage, it’s an apt image — the tresses of her, alive with motion, singing with spirit.

They also say the wind is eternal. Within it are borne the sighs and whispers of ancestors. Within it is the breath, the exhalation, with which Creator blew life into the universe.

To take it into us, to fill our lungs with it, is to hold time as a breath and every living thing is joined in this way. We breathe each other. We are song.

When I was growing up I was without these teachings. I lived the early portion of my life depending on what was given me by outside influences for the context with which I framed my world.

What I knew of the Indian was minimal but now, at 52, when I feel the wind on my face, I feel time and story and song.

In 1955, when I was born, Indians were still not allowed to vote in Canada even though we’d volunteered by the thousands to fight for her in two world wars. See, we were exempt from conscription but we went anyway. Our soldiers returned as decorated heroes to a country that still did not recognize them as citizens.

In the legislation that directed our lives, the Indian Act, it used to state that a person would be defined as anyone other than an Indian.

We were not people. Our humanity was dismissed. We needed to get permission to do things that our non-native neighbours took for granted.

It used to be that we were not allowed to gather in public. We were not allowed to hire a lawyer, organize politically or leave the reservation without permission.

The houses we lived in were not ours. They were owned by the government as was the land they sat on. We were paid, dutifully, the $5 annually that was ours by treaty. We were supposed to get ammunition too but that never happened.

Things changed after 1960. We were finally able to vote, given the right to free assembly, given permission to organize political groups and became able to travel to and fro without restriction. We’d become citizens.

All of this happened without my knowledge. I was like any other Canadian, oblivious to the events that were shaping the lives of my native neighbours.

Where I lived, in my adopted white home, they did not see the need for me to mingle with my own people or learn my own history. Instead, like everyone, I was given the accepted version of Canada.

In 1969 a future prime minister penned the White Paper on Indian Policy. Jean Chretien wanted to scuttle anything that allowed us to identify ourselves as valid nations of people — repeal the Indian Act, dismantle the bureaucracy that maintained it, abrogate the treaties, pat us all on the head and send us out into the mainstream. It’s called assimilation. He called it forward thinking.

I was 13, almost 14, worried about girls, fitting in, girls, belonging, girls and wearing what was cool.

No one told me what was proposed. No one told me what it meant. No one told me how it might affect me. No one offered anything but a resolute marching on behind the flutter of the flag.

The White Paper changed everything. Instead of going away my people became more present. Soon we began showing up at universities and colleges in greater numbers.

It wasn’t long before we had doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists and politicians. Our political organizations gained strength and vision. We became a force for change in our own country.

By 1973 I was on the road. I was busy trying to survive. The first episodes of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from my childhood abuses and their continuation in my adopted home were rising and I struggled.

Life was about the search for security, meaning and definition. Like everyone else I concentrated on myself and my needs.

So I missed the marvelous changes my people undertook through the 1970s. Only when I reconnected with my native family in 1978 did I open my eyes.

What I saw were people empowered and forward thinking. I saw people dedicated to showing government that self-government was not something to be granted; it was something we were all born with. I saw pride and focus and healing.

I saw how much history I’d missed. My people’s and Canada’s. The two were intertwined and I undertook to learn it, unravel it to see each strand clearly.

I understood how blind my self-centeredness and self-concern had made me, how little I understood of the real story. In this, I was just like everyone else.

What I learned made me proud of native people, made me proud to be a part of the great, grand story that is my people’s history with Canada.

What I learned, in the end, made me proud to be Canadian. Because we’ve endured it all together, all of us, and we’ve become stronger because of it even if we don’t readily see that.

The wind is the carrier of song. When it blows across this mountain lake, it bears the essence of the land and its people. The essence of time shared. Time past, time present, time future. It is our breath. Everyone’s. Ahow.

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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