Douglas & McIntyre
One Story, One Song

Book details:

February 2011
ISBN 978-1-55365-506-0
Hardcover
5 1/2" x 8 1/2"
216 pages
Cultural Studies
Biography & Autobiography
$29.95 CAD

Awards

  • Richard Wagamese's "One Story, One Song" wins the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature

Douglas & McIntyre

One Story, One Song

Excerpt / Additional Content

What We Share

There’s an airy sort of confidence in knowing that you’ve seen your share of ups and downs. Staying on your feet, answering the bell for the next round, is what we mean by maturity. But for many years I found it difficult to see my life as anything but a series of injustices and slights. Being a Native person seemed a prescription for agony. I wrestled with a need to square the deal.

For a long time, my main motivation was payback. Every success, every forward step, was an opportunity for showmanship, for sneering in the face of society. I had a “look what I can do despite you” sort of swagger. Anger creates barriers.

Resentment builds distance. But I didn’t know that then. All I knew was that indifference relayed back to the source was what life asked of me, and I was hell-bent on delivering.

It made things difficult, that constant measuring up. Some good people are no longer in my life because of my relentless cultural and political one-upmanship. I broke hearts and relationships because I couldn’t see any other way of easing the churning in my belly. Then I met Jack Kakakaway.

Jack was an Ojibway man who’d fought in a war, beat the bottle, found his cultural centre and reclaimed a ceremonial, traditional life for himself. He was a teacher, and a good one.

I think he saw a lot of himself in me. He recognized the angst, the feeling of being lost that was masked as protest. Jack Kakakaway understood my heart and spirit far better than I did, and when he began to guide me I think that was his own form of payback, a thanks for the gift of grace in his life. He led me to ritual and the stories of my people. He helped me to see who I was and led me to a vision of who I might become.

Jack and I were talking one day about the challenges I saw to my burgeoning sense of identity. I spouted off about the Canadian mosaic and the displacement I felt as a First Nations person. I felt threatened by the new Multiculturalism Act. I believed it was an assimilationist document that would cause us to lose our identities and our rights as First Peoples.

Jack listened as he always did, with an expression I couldn’t quite read and a half smile at the corner of his lips.

Then he said something I’ll never forget: “All tribal people are the same.” He took his time answering when I asked him what he meant. Elders do that a lot. They force you to sit with your question, so that you understand there are no simple answers in matters of the soul. By making you wait, they help you to develop patience. They guide you to mindfulness and a sharpened ability to listen.

“There are no pure cultures any more,” Jack said finally.

He meant that everyone has to let go of something in order to get something else. As First Nations people, h e s aid, we had to let go of snowshoes and toboggans to get snowmobiles and pickup trucks. We had let go of smoke signals to get telephones. Ultimately, we had let go of our languages to speak English. It was the same for everyone everywhere, he said. The world asks us to sacrifice something in order to be included. What we need to look for in this world, Jack Kakakaway told me, are the things we share. There are as many things that make us the same as there are those that make us different.

The difficulty is seeing them. The things that join us are as basic as breathing, as small as a tear. We all began as people huddled in a band around a fire in the night. We all longed for the comfort of a voice in the darkness. We’ve all sacrificed part of our identity to become a part of the whole. What we’ve lost is what binds us, what makes us the same. Old Jack has been gone more than sixteen years now, but I’ve always remembered his teaching. It changed my life.

I moved a way from my us-and-them mentality and started looking for what makes people a like. That’s what life really asks of us, and it’s the most humble, yet profound, gift we can offer one another.

Harmony

According to the teachings of my people, harmony is the most difficult thing to achieve in life. The Old Ones say that the pursuit of harmony is a lifelong endeavour. Because of the intense struggle along the way, the journey is a spiritual one. There are not many who choose to make it, and it’s easy to see why.

To seek harmony is to seek truth, and truth seekers have always had a rough go of it in this world. Those who see life as something to be solved, put in order and contained are constantly bending truth to their own demands. But my people knew there was one thing that would never change. They knew there was an energy that brought all things together and held them there in balance. A Great Spirit. A great mystery.

They honoured that mystery not by trying to explain it but simply by recognizing and celebrating it.

In the Aboriginal way of seeing the world, everything is alive. Everything exists in a never-ending state of relationship. If there is order to be found, it lies in the all-encompassing faith in this belief.

When the dog and I discovered deer carcasses strewn alongside the timber road where we walked, I was deeply distressed. Hunters had shot the deer and left their bodies behind. One pair, humped together under a sheet of plastic, had been beheaded. Creatures had been visiting the carcasses: coyotes, ravens, eagles, magpies, probably bobcats.

Over the week that followed, Molly and I came across half a dozen dead deer all left in the same condition. Their legs had been cut off and thrown into the trees. Near the creek, a head had been tossed in the grass minus its antlers. Up the road one morning, near a carcass, we saw a juvenile cougar slink off through the trees. The squawking of ravens told me of other bodies nearby.

The first emotion I felt was anger, bitter and churning. This senseless display exhibited disrespect at every level: for the animals, for the land, for the other people who used that road and for the planet itself. Empty coffee containers, beer cans, cigarette packages and bloody rope were strewn everywhere.

The behaviour of these hunters had been careless, thoughtless and crude. I stomped off down the hill to warn my neighbours about the proximity of the young cougar.

The next emotion I experienced was shame. It’s hard to be male when others of your gender mistake manliness for a can of Coors and a rifle. It’s tough to be male when people shrug off such disrespectful behaviour as simply “boys being boys.” It’s shameful being a man when, for some men, wasting and discarding has replaced sharing. What these men had done offended my sense of propriety, dignity and rightness in every way.

Strangely enough, I also felt lonely. I go to the land for the experience of reconnection. I stand there and I feel I belong in a way I don’t wholly comprehend. Once you have been fulfilled in this way, you see everything around you as valuable, necessary and irreplaceable. When a life is severed, the loss of that life force affects everything else. I didn’t miss the deer; I missed the idea of them. I missed their spirit.

In the end, I mostly felt sad. I thought of the multitude of woes that confront us all around the world these days, the planet reeling from the effects of our indifference. Displays like the one I encountered with the deer are at the root of it all. This is why the earth suffers—because the majority of us have forgotten the idea of harmony or never learned it in the first place. We’ve forgotten that our responsibility is to take care of our home, and we’ve allowed dishonour to replace respect. Every bit of trash strewn in pristine places is proof of that. It saddened me that people can’t recognize the larger impact of their actions, or often t he effect of their inaction, either.

We are all energy, cause and effect at the same time. Those hunters found it too inconvenient to haul those deer out and deal with them respectfully. They found it too inconvenient to care. This apathy may be at the heart of the challenge we face as a species today. It is sometimes terribly inconvenient to act in an honourable way. So the earth suffers. Our home becomes sullied, and harmony is fractured at every turn. We are one spirit, one song, and our world will be harmonious only when we make the time to care. For ourselves. For each other. For our home. You don’t need to be a Native person to understand that—just human.

The Real Experts

In the winter of 1974, I lived for a month in a nativity scene. It was outside a church, set back from the sidewalk about nine metres. There was straw in there for extra bedding; the floodlights gave off warmth, and two plywood walls helped cut the wind. For me, it was salvation. I was broke and hungry, and everything I owned I carted about on my back. I was trying to avoid shelters, since it was easier to get robbed or beaten there than on the street. No one ever bothered me in the nativity scene. From the street, I must have looked like a lump of straw. I crept out every morning long before anyone else was around.

I felt a measure of comfort there surrounded by the wise men, t he baby Jesus, his parents, the animals and the huge glittering star at the apex of the roof. Even though the biblical story meant little to me, lying in the midst of such a great promise to the world allowed me to believe that things would change. I prayed for that to happen, actually. Shivering in the cold, sleeping fitfully, I vowed to do whatever it took to get out of those circumstances.

I hit the streets every day, scanned the classifieds, joined a job bank, but it still took forever to find a job. It was tough to do so with no education and no appreciable skills. Finally, I landed a minimum wage job in a hide-tanning factory. I had to clean the hides when they arrived, which meant scraping flesh and removing hair and stretching the hides out to dry. It was stinky, foul, nasty work. Minimum wage in Ontario then was $2 an hour. It took me twelve weeks to save enough for rent and a damage deposit. The only room I could afford was one of twelve in a three-storey rooming house. It was about the size of a jail cell, with a small window looking out over an alley. The floor buckled in the middle, and the only furnishings were a wooden chair, a bed, a lamp and a busted-up armchair. There was a one-burner hot plate and a small sink stained red with rust. The radiators clanked and groaned all night long. In the dark I would often hear something skittering across the floor. Still, it was a home, and I was grateful.

I spent many nights tossing and turning in that room, listening to drunken shouts and radios blaring tinny country music. I can still smell the urine, spilled wine and old cigarette smoke that permeated the halls. I lived on tuna, Kraft Dinner and day-old bread and pastries from the Salvation Army. I washed my few clothes in that rusty sink and spread them on the radiators to dry. Life was hard, but I had a roof over my head, and I had hope.

I thought about all of this recently, when I was asked to give the keynote address at a national conference on homelessness in Calgary. Of the more than six hundred delegates, the majority were academics: researchers, report writers, study instigators and journal editors. The only homeless people there were the street artists selling their work in the lobby. I was the only presenter who had ever lived on the street, which I found odd and unsettling. Instead of delegates hearing the genuine voices of the homeless, they attended workshops and seminars led by people who earned their livings courtesy of other people’s misfortune.

I’m guessing none of those so-called experts knew how concrete smells when you’re lying on it, or how it f eels against your spine. Probably not one of them had ever experienced the sting of a morning frost on their faces or the incredible stiffness that seizes your joints when a winter wind blows over you all night long. Dozens of them were there all-expenses paid, with cash per diems in their pockets.

Every person deserves somewhere safe and comfortable to live. It struck me that homeless people and Native people have a lot in common—we’ve both had industries built up around us. Government departments, social agencies, social workers, police divisions, university departments, hospitals, media and the odd film crew all depend on us. If Native people or homeless people were to disappear, thousands of people would be out of work. But participants deemed the conference a success, and plans were begun for another.

Having been around Native issues for thirty years now, I’ve seen how often we’ve been researched, studied and Royal Commissioned. The end result of all that paperwork has been more paperwork. Only fairly recently, when Native people have begun speaking for ourselves have we gained any ground. It’s a similar situation with the homeless. Folks are so busy concentrating on the issue that they forget about the people. Homeless people should have a voice in any developments that affect them. It’s not enough to study, analyze, survey or count them. Homeless people need to tell their stories, and we need to listen to them. It isn’t sufficient to treat the symptoms. We have to treat the disease, and we can only do that if we get to the bottom of what causes it. During the month I slept in that nativity scene, I didn’t hanker for a professorial voice to speak for me. I would have liked someone to hear me. I wanted someone to know how it felt to have only a burrow in the straw to call home. I needed someone to know what a desperate situation that was, how scary sometimes. To understand how hunger at 3:00 a.m. is different from hunger at noon. How it feels to wear the same clothes for weeks or to have to wear everything you own on your body at all times so no one will steal it from you. I wanted someone to know all that because I knew from my associations at the hostels, missions and soup kitchens that I wasn’t the only one who suffered that way. The spiritual comfort of that nativity scene was memorable because it was so rare, so elusive, so fleeting.

Part of our strategy should be employing homeless people to help end homelessness. They’re t he real experts after all. They’re the ones who know how it feels, and that experience is worth more than all the conjecture, supposition and research dollars in the world.

New Shoes

There are nights I can’t sleep, even up here where only the yipping of coyotes disturbs the quiet. When I get up and gaze out the window, I can see the silver sheen of lake beneath the moon. The cabin creaks. The dog pads across the living room to rub her cold nose a long my shin. I can see the shadowy darts and dips of bats as they hunt above the yard. A furtive house cat prowls the line where mountain grass nudges the cultivated space of lawn. On nights like this I read or write or sit in the rocking chair by the window to lull myself into sleepiness again. I’d rather be sleepless here than anywhere else in the world.

I haven’t always had a haven like this. Once, when I was homeless and in the depths of alcoholism, I woke up without my shoes. They were lined winter shoes, and I’d bought them with the last of the money I had. I’d set them at the foot of my blankets when I lay down to sleep, and in t he morning they were gone. It was November in Ontario. Sleet was falling, and the streets were wet and cold. I made my way to a St. Vincent de Paul store. It wasn’t open that early, but when the man inside saw me standing in the doorway, shivering in my sock feet, he let me in right away. The warm air made me shiver even harder. The man made me a cup of coffee and offered me a blanket to wrap myself in. He fed me a sandwich and a bowl of soup, then led me down the aisles and made sure I found a pair of shoes that fit.

The man let me sit in the store until I had recovered my body warmth. We talked about hockey and some jobs he’d heard about that I could apply for. He was friendly, genuinely interested in me, and when I was ready to go he gave me five dollars and invited me to come back again for coffee and a chat. I left that store with a new warm jacket, dry clothes and a good sturdy pair of shoes. But I also left with a thankful heart and a feeling that I wanted to repay his kindness someday.

Eventually my life changed. I cobbled together some part-time work, and that led to a full-time gig in a warehouse. It wasn’t long before I had a room and had pulled together a small pile of possessions. But I held on to those shoes. I wore them until the soles were thin and the heels canted severely to one side. Even when I could afford a better pair, I kept the old shoes on a mat by the door of my apartment, through several moves. Now and then I’d buff them up and wear them on a day I had errands to run. They were a symbol for me of how the world could be.

Many of the tenants in the rooming house Debra and I run are former street people. It’s a struggle communicating with them sometimes. Most of the people who are there are so direly poor and neglected that they’ve forgotten what they deserve from life. Many have lost the ways of graciousness and gratitude. Their speech is stilted and often uttered in whispers. But hardship can happen to anyone. In these turbulent economic times, a lot of us are just a few bad decisions—or a few pieces of back luck—away from being there, too. Remembering that brings us closer as a human family.

Helping someone else can be as simple as opening a door. It can be as easy as listening in a genuine way. And that’s the way we’ll change the world—one person, one situation, one act of kindness at a time.