WAGAMESE, Richard (1955-2017)

Author Tags: Aboriginal Authors, Alcohol, Fiction

An Ojibway from the Wabasseemoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario, Richard Wagamese was born in Minaki, Ontario, on October 14, 1955 and grew up in fifteen foster homes. According to Wikipedia, "He and his three siblings, abandoned by adults on a binge drinking trip in Kenora, left the bush camp when they had run out of food and sheltered at a railroad depot." He was re-united with birth family members in his early twenties. As a self-described "second-generation survivor of the residential school system" that had adversely affected the lives of his parents and other family members, Wagamese partially overcame alcoholism and PTSD to attain national acclaim.

Also known as Richard Gilkinson, Wagamese had "a criminal history with more than 50 convictions dating back to the 1970s," including numerous alcohol-related driving convictions, according to the Kamloops News. But he persevered and gained widespread acceptance, forming a 25-year friendship with Shelagh Rogers, host of CBC's The Next Chapter, and earning several prestigious awards. With thirteen books under his belt, he was nominated for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize one week prior to his death in Kamloops on March 10, 2017.

A memorial gathering was held at Thompson Rivers University on March 25, 2017. The cause of death was not divulged.

While primarily residing at Paul Lake near Kamloops, Wagamese had already received the George Ryga Prize for Social Awareness in 2011 for One Story, One Dream. In 2012 he was chosen as a recipient of a National Aboriginal Achievement Award (NAAA) for Media & Communications. In 2013 he became the first recipient of the Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature First Prize for Indian Horse as well as the 2013 recipient of the Canada Council on the Arts Molson Prize. Having moved to live in Kamloops, he received the Writers' Trust Matt Cohen Award: In celebration of a Writing Life for a body of work in 2016.

Wagamese began his writing career as a journalist was with the First Nations publication New Breed, then becoming a "native-affairs" columnist at the Calgary Herald where he became the first indigenous journalist to win a National Newspaper Award in 1991. Wagamese’s first novel, Keeper ’n' Me, tied for the Writers’ Guild of Alberta fiction award in 1995. Then he won the 2007 Canadian Authors Association MOSAID Technologies Inc. Award for Fiction for his novel Dream Wheels.

In his non-fiction collection One Story, One Song, characters gain wisdom from wolf tracks, light a fire without matches, and learn about Martin Luther King from a grade five teacher.

One Native Life is his memoir of playing baseball, running away with the circus, attending a sacred bundle ceremony, meeting Pierre Trudeau, alcoholism, drifting from town to town, and being abused and abandoned as a child. It is an anger-free exercise in coming to terms with himself within the larger construct of Canada.

His third novel Dream Wheels is about the healing relationships between a former world champion Ojibway-Sioux rodeo cowboy who is crippled by a bull and a black single mother with a 14-year-old son named Aiden. His other books are two novels -- Keeper 'n Me and A Quality of Light--and an autobiography, For Joshua.

In 2008, Wagamese wrote Ragged Company, the story of four chronically homeless people who, seeking refuge in a movie theatre from severely cold Arctic weather, discover a winning lottery ticket worth millions of dollars.

Indian Horse (D&M 2012) by Richard Wagamese was selected as a finalist for the 2013 CBC Canada Reads competition and won the First Nations Communities Reads Awards, as well as being short-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Casting for a movie production was commenced by Screen Siren Pictures of Vancouver, makers of Hector and the Search for Happiness, with shooting slated for Sudbury, Ontario, Oka and Kamloops in the fall of 2016.

According to publicity materials, "a character named Saul Indian Horse has hit bottom. His last binge almost killed him, and now he's a reluctant resident in a treatment centre for alcoholics, surrounded by people he's sure will never understand him. But Saul wants peace, and he grudgingly comes to see that he'll find it only through telling his story. With him, readers embark on a journey back through the life he's led as a northern Ojibway, with all its joys and sorrows... For Saul, taken forcibly from the land and his family when he's sent to residential school, salvation comes for a while through his incredible gifts as a hockey player. But in the harsh realities of 1960s Canada, he battles obdurate racism and the spirit-destroying effects of cultural alienation and displacement."

In Medicine Walk (2014), we meet 16-year-old Franklin Starlight as he saddles up to ride into town, feeling compelled to rescue his dissolute father, Eldon, someone he doesn't even know very well. Eldon is a drunk, dying of liver cancer in a flophouse. Frank dutifully accedes to his father's request to be taken into the mountains, into the woods, so he can be buried in a traditional Ojibway way. As they ride into the backcountry, Eldon's past comes to light: his poverty-stricken childhood, serving in the Korean War. Frank finally gets to know the father he seldom had.

Richard Wagamese's Embers: One Ojibway's Meditations (D&M) reached the top of the BC Bestsellers List in March of 2017 soon after his death. It's a collection of everyday reflections on activities such sawing and cutting and stacking wood for winter and the indigenous smudge ceremony to bring him closer to the Creator. Without attempts to attain the role of teacher, his meditations as a self-described "spiritual bad-ass" explore grief, joy, recovery, beauty, gratitude, physicality and spirituality.

But literary success did not vanquish his demons. "Alcohol could numb me to all the things that arose in me," he told Provincial Court Judge Stella Frame in 2011."When they arose, I just drank more and more." Wagamese was facing jail time for three offences of drunking driving, having been found driving drunk three different times in as many weeks. His blood-alcohol levels following the arrests were between 0.223 and 0.315, ? above the legal limit of 0.08. Judge Frame gave him an 18-month provisional sentence and a ten-year driving ban.

Richard Wagamese was honored with Honorary Doctor of Letters degrees from Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops in 2010, and from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay in 2014. He was the 2011 Harvey Stevenson Southam Guest Lecturer in Writing at the University of Victoria. Wagamese was predeceased by his father, mother Marjorie, brother Jack, sister Jane, niece Jackie, as well as his spiritual father Jack Kakakaway who gave him the name Mushkotay Beezheekee Anakwat – Buffalo Cloud – and told him his role was to tell stories. Wagamese was married and divorced three times. He is survived by his partner Yvette Lehmann and his sons Jason (Jeneen) and Joshua, as well as ten grandchildren: Dustyn, Jordan, Dee, Zoey, Koda, Chase, Erik, Montana, Torrie and Wyatt, along with their Grandma Deb, his brother Charles (Lori) and many nieces, nephews and extended family.

"He was story. He was love," wrote Shelagh Rogers in a Facebook tribute.


Keeper 'n Me. (Doubleday, 1994). 0385254520 $13.95

A Quality of Light. (Doubleday, 1997). 038525606X $18.95

For Joshua. (Doubleday, 2002). 0385257120 $32.95

Dream Wheels. (Doubleday, 2006). 0-385-66199-1 $34.95

One Native Life. (Douglas & McIntyre, 2008). 978-1-55365-364-6 $29.95

Ragged Company. (Doubleday, 2008). 9780385661560 $29.95

Runaway Dreams (Ronsdale 2011). 978-1-55380-129-0 $15.95

One Story, One Song. (Douglas & McIntyre, 2011) 978-1-55365-506-0 $29.95 / (paperback) (Douglas & McIntyre, 2015) 978-1-77162-080-2 $19.95

The Next Sure Thing (Raven Books 2011) 978-1-55469-900-1 $9.95

Indian Horse (Douglas & McIntyre, 2012 978-1-55365-402-5 $21.95

Him Standing (Orca / Raven Books 2013) 978-1-4598-0176-9

Medicine Walk (M&S 2014) 9780771089183 $29.95

Embers: One Ojibway's Meditations (Douglas & McIntyre 2016) 978-1-77162-133-5 $18.95

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2017]

One Story, One Song wins Ryga Award
Press Release (2011)

Vancouver, B.C., September 21, 2011.

Douglas & McIntyre is delighted to announce that Richard Wagamese's One Story, One Song (Douglas & McIntyre, 978-1-55365-506-0, $29.95) has won the 2011 George Ryga Award. This literary prize is granted to a B.C. writer who has achieved an outstanding degree of social awareness in a new book published in the preceding calendar year. The judge, Andrew Steeves of Gaspereau Press, selected from a shortlist of five titles assembled by a panel of readers. He said the following about One Story, One Song:

"Of all the books which made the shortlist, I found that One Story, One Song best answered the award's criteria for a book that was outstanding both as a literary work and in its presentation of social and cultural issues. Wagamese artfully weaves sixty-some short essays into an unpretentious philosophy of life rooted in personal observations and experiences, transposing an understanding of traditional Ojibway principles (humility, trust, introspection and wisdom) into modern-day life. Though drawing unflinchingly on his experiences as a native man, a child of residential school survivors, a homeless person and an addict, Wagamese writes with honesty and pathos without becoming ensnared in sentimentality. Yet it is not a book focused on hardships, victimhood or survival; rather, One Story, One Song is a frank and frequently mirthful testament to the prospect of a way forward; a reminder of our responsibility to live principled lives. For this reason, I have decided to recommend it for the George Ryga Award."

The four competing titles were A Room in the City by Gabor Gasztonyi (Anvil); Working with Wool: A Coast Salish Legacy and the Cowichan Sweater, by Sylvia Olsen (SonoNis); Invisible Chains, by Benjamin Perrin (Penguin) and The Tiger by John Vaillant (Knopf).

One Story, One Song is a new collection of warm, wise and inspiring stories from the author of the bestselling One Native Life. In this new book, Richard Wagamese again invites readers to accompany him on his travels. This time, his focus is on stories: how they shape us, how they empower us, how they change our lives. Ancient and contemporary, cultural and spiritual, funny and sad, the tales are grouped according to the four Ojibway storytelling principles: balance, harmony, knowledge and intuition.

Runaway Dreams by Richard Wagamese (Ronsdale $15.95)

from Hannah Main-Van-Der-Kamp
Born Ojibway, Richard Wagamese was lost to his roots as a teenager but was reborn to his culture as an adult. Generous in spirit, Runaway Dreams amounts to an autobiography in fifty poem/chapters, not a chronological account but rather a moving back and forth through the journeys, both inner and outer, that Wagamese has taken.
Wagamese is not sentimental about being “Injun” (his term). He is realistic about East Hastings squalor and the challenges faced by First Nations communities. He writes of the scars and wounds that will never be completely erased. But the overwhelming impression is not one of bitterness but of gratitude and awe.

Words such as “love, discovery, shadow, transcend, song, dancing, heartbeat, purify and wound, the circle of wholeness” have been so over-used in writing about the “healing journey” that they are losing their power. Soon these words will turn up in advertisements for spas, chocolate and all-inclusive vacations.

Wagamese gets away with using them because of the particularity of his story and his response. His apparent lack of egoistic “my story” telling includes fetching phrases such as “the sudden spray of heron from a tree,” “streak of an owl flays back the skin of night” and “loon call wobbles.”
At times the repeated use of words like “honour” risk becoming banal but he surmounts that because of his raw honesty, a stance of awe, and his sly humour. His elders’ tales have a subtle rather than a ha-ha, funniness.

Without being self-deprecating, Wagamese tells of his own fumbling efforts to become a “reborn Injun” and the way tribal humour was used to deflate him. He tells on himself as “warrior” now being the one who brings in the firewood and plants annual bedding plants.

There are Trickster stories, grandfather stories and spiritual rhetoric. Some of the poems contain sections that are reminiscent of the teachings of medieval mystics such as Meister Eckhart. It’s a universal language, not limited to medieval Christians or to indigenous spirituality.

“Nothing is truly separate. Every one and every thing carries within it the spark of Creation and exists on the sacred breath of that Creation.”

This is spiritual writing in the best sense of the word: inviting, connecting, gracious about sorrow and sorrowful in the right places. In reference to a Gospel account of “Jesus wept,” Wagamese confesses his gratitude for pain, “and salvation that comes/ with the acceptance of it/ when you learn to hold it/ you can learn to let it go/ it’s how an Indian prays.”

The land is powerfully present. “Geographies become us when we inhabit them enough.” Wagamese now lives near Kamloops in a whitey suburb, and gazes lovingly at the terrain. On the land, “harmony happens on it own.”

“when you open your eyes there’s
nothing before you but the land
and its absolute stillness there’s the sound of wind and water
and as you push to hear it you
discover that you really have to really
want to it doesn’t just come to you
you have to crave it, yearn for it
ache for the luxuriant whisper…”

The poems in Runaway are introspective but not self-absorbed, intimate, nature imbued, respectful and reverent.

Along with love poems to his wife and his geolocale, Wagamese, 55-year-old, speaks with compassion about the confused 17-year-old runaway he was.

Foster care and adoption, residential school, urban squalor and abuse are part of the story and not disavowed.
“My skin is broken territory and my heart went along for the ride.” But now, he values the small ceremonies, like standing at the sink doing dishes. “I am older now and quiet feels better on the bones than noise and the only fight in me is the struggle to maintain it all, to keep it close to my chest … never thought I’d see that.” 978-1-55380-129-0

Poet and birdwatcher, Hannah Main -van der Kamp lives on the Upper Sunshine Coast, attentive to the absolute stillness in the sound of wind and water.

[BCBW 2011]

Richard Wagamese Wins Burt Award
Press Release (2013)

Richard Wagamese Wins Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature First Prize

October 2, 2013

Ottawa, October 2nd, 2013 ?The first winners of a unique literary award that will provide thousands of First Nations, Métis and Inuit youth across Canada with access to culturally-relevant, engaging books were announced on October 2nd.

Shelagh Rogers and Waubgeshig Rice co-hosted the inaugural gala for CODE’s Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature, recognizing outstanding literary works for young adults written by First Nations, Métis and Inuit authors.

Richard Wagamese received the first prize of $12,000 for Indian Horse (published by Douglas and McIntyre), Tara Lee Morin won the second prize of $8,000 for As I Remember It (published by Theytus Books), while the third prize of $5,000 went to James Bartleman for As Long As the Rivers Flow (published by Random House of Canada Ltd.) The winners were selected by a jury composed of Canadian writers administered by the Canada Council for the Arts.

The Award’s book purchase and distribution program will ensure that a minimum of 2,500 copies of each of the three winning titles will be delivered to First Nations, Métis and Inuit youth across Canada through community libraries, schools, Friendship Centres and summer literacy camps.

“It’s really important to us that the winning books actually get in the hands of young people,” said CODE Executive Director Scott Walter. “Thanks to our partners, we can make sure that these three truly amazing works reach First Nations, Métis and Inuit youth, even in remote communities, so they can enjoy stories in which they see their culture and their reality reflected.”

The Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature was established by CODE – a Canadian charitable organization that has been advancing literacy and learning in Canada and around the world for over 50 years – in collaboration with William (Bill) Burt and the Literary Prizes Foundation.

The Award is the result of a close collaboration with the Assembly of First Nations, the Métis National Council, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the National Association of Friendship Centres, Frontier College, GoodMinds, the Association of Canadian Publishers and the Canada Council for the Arts.

“I want to congratulate the winners and everyone who submitted works for the first edition of the Canadian Award,” said William (Bill) Burt, who financially supports the initiative. “It’s my hope that First Nations, Métis and Inuit youth will enjoy them, get inspired to keep learning, and develop a life-long love of reading.”

CODE’s Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature is an annual award. The deadline for submissions of manuscripts or recently-published books for the next edition is May 1st, 2014.

The Burt Literary Awards is a global readership initiative and is also currently established in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania and the Caribbean.