I have a growing library of works by and about Indigenous people. These books have become precious to me, valuable tools for inspiration, for education, for empowerment. Some are old and some are new, but each one has something important to tell me. I will read from them today, on this National Indigenous Peoples Day, dedicating the day to continued learning.
One of my treasured books, perhaps the most treasured, though that is a tough choice, is Embers – One Ojibway’s Meditations, written by Richard Wagamese and published by Douglas & McIntyre in 2016. This lovely book sits on my bedside table, at the ready should I need stillness or gratitude or joy, which are some of the titles of his chapters. I call Richard by his first name because I like to think we are friends, as though we have shared conversations about his writing, about his journey, and about his finding his way home to his Indigenous roots and culture. His writing speaks to me, the kind of writing that speaks to everyone, as if Richard chose the words especially for you, as if he had some way of knowing it was a gift you needed.
Embers is a book of meditations derived from Richard’s morning rituals. He drew his wisdom from the embers of “tribal fires that used to burn in our communities,” he said, a focus that helped him find himself after a difficult childhood, leaving school at sixteen with a Grade Nine education, untrained, unskilled, homeless, and wrestling with the bleak future of poverty. “I reclaim myself each morning,” he wrote, greeting the day before dawn, his lavender tea steeping while he performed his ceremony of smudging. The smoke from the four sacred medicines – sage, sweet grass, tobacco, and cedar – washed over him, bringing him to his centre as he said a simple prayer of gratitude. He then read from inspirational writing that waited for him on his living room table and from that came his thoughts, his guide, and his muse, to write the words for this book. I struggle to find that simple discipline, to be quiet with the day as it begins, to start gently into the world, but I am ever hopeful I can one day achieve such things.
So many lessons fill this small book, so many credits given to those who took his hand, so many thoughts that are perhaps even more relevant today with those who speak of unity while shouting about exclusion. Richard reminds us that knowledge comes more from the questions we ask than from the answers. He used his love of the game of baseball, the analogy of everyone helping each other to make it home. He was wisely told to be a gentleman, meaning to be a gentle man, acting softly and kindly to others. To be hard is to be broken, but to remember the grass that regains its shape after being stepped upon, softness its strength.
In Richard’s journey to wholeness, he looked for what made people alike rather than different, a search that soothed his soul from all the injustices that had stripped him of his truth. He explained the expression All My Relations, words used to remind us we are all related, all connected, all belonging to each other, not just those who have the obvious same-ness, not just people but every creature, every tree, every stone – we all live because of everything else. If we could remember that we could heal each other and heal the planet, he wrote.
Today is a day we set aside to mark and recognize the valued contributions of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis, who are known collectively as Indigenous Peoples, each with their own distinct heritage, language, culture, and spiritual beliefs. In the 2016 Census, 70 Indigenous languages were reported, according to www.statcan.gc.ca and 36 of these languages were spoken by at least 500 persons. The day of summer solstice was chosen to honour Indigenous Peoples as the longest day of the year played a significant role in historic celebrations.
Jack Kakakaway, Richard’s spiritual father, shared some very wise words – “Nothing in the universe ever grew from the outside in.” No truer words have been spoken. The proof is in your garden and is in the child you held to your chest when she was brand new. We can’t pull on a costume of what we hope to be, it must come from within us. On this longest day of light, when the sun is at its highest, Richard reminds me that we find ourselves in the silence.