Living in a Learning Way

Reviewed by Sylvie Vranckx

Drew Hayden Taylor and Richard Wagamese are Anishnaabe authors and journalists inhabited by different landscapes. In News: Postcards from the Four Directions, Taylor recounts his move from Toronto back to his central Ontario reserve of Curve Lake. A survivor of the Sixties Scoop—about which Taylor has written in his play Someday—Wagamese hails from the Wabaseemoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario and lives close to Kamloops, BC, in Salish territory. In One Story, One Song, the sequel to One Native Life, he returns to his displaced childhood and his recovery journey back to the Ojibway worldview, Enendamowin. Mixing memoir, travelogue, essay, and hints of manifesto, these two authors’ series of vignettes were originally published in newspapers. They are both structured into four parts according to the Four Directions of the Ojibway Medicine Wheel. East stands for the colour red, humility, youth, and the rising sun, while South is yellow, trust, the journey of the sun across the sky, and thus “the direction of exploration and discovery.” West is associated with black, the sunset, introspection, maturity, and responsibility. Finally, North is the colour white, wisdom, and the spiritual processes associated with getting older. While Taylor starts with North—home and medicine— Wagamese conveys a circular motion and a progression to the culmination of the teachings: the understanding “that knowing and not knowing are one” and the renewal of the wheel.

The columns from Taylor’s (typo-riddled) Postcards stay in the spirit of his Funny, You Don’t Look Like One series: a collage of witty, politically incorrect reflections on the life of a “blue-eyed Ojibway” who is a renowned playwright. Several articles are logs of his trips to festivals, conferences, and museums in China, Austria, or the US, with didactic but never preachy passages. One learns that Australian Aborigines are called Kooris and Murris and that they used to be “handled” by the Department of Flora and Fauna. Taylor bonds with Indigenous and disenfranchised peoples throughout the world, from impoverished children in Mexico to the Dalit (“untouchables”) in India. He establishes parallels between the stolen children in Canada and Australia and, more controversially, between the Holocaust and the treatment of North America’s Indigenous peoples. Also noteworthy are his articles about Aboriginal Canadian theatre and identity politics, especially cultural appropriation and who defines Aboriginal artists for whom. He appreciates the irony of finding a West Coast art exhibition in Prague or dreamcatchers in Brisbane and remembers blessing a walking stick by counting to ten in Anishnaabemowin. He makes fun of his detractors, especially those who view him as inauthentic because he identifies as “mixed-blood,” and he often satirizes the “Academics Anonymous”—which might intimidate or estrange literary critics. He comments in tongue-in-cheek fashion that sovereignty is gained one smoke shack at a time as he observes the “colour-challenged people” who buy cigarettes illegally on his reserve. The readers’ laughter might turn hollow when he presents the Starlight Tours as tourism opportunities, but they will appreciate his ability to make the best of situations. (“Starlight Tour” was a nickname for the police practice of abandoning drunken Indigenous men far from town on freezing winter nights.) Taylor takes Aboriginal laughter seriously: he quotes Louise Erdrich as speaking of “survival humour.” He opposes the “B-cubed” (bingo, beer, bannock) and “R-cubed” (rape, residential schools, reserves), and often mentions that his collections Me Funny and Me Sexy resist stereotypes of Aboriginal peoples as dysfunctional. However, ninety articles of his wry voice might be overwhelming, and their lack of publication dates is a weakness.

Wagamese adopts the slice-of-life format. His tone is contemplative and lyrical: One Story is like a philosophical treatise. Whether he writes about improving his mountain home with his wife Debra, living on the street as a teenager, or working with the disenfranchised tenants of his rooming house, he displays tenderness towards people and situations. He remembers childhood friends with nostalgia and nurtures the stories and medicine of his loved ones—teachers at school and sweat lodges, elders, neighbours, foster and birth families. This bond extends to non-human persons, such as the bears and crows who live close to his house or Molly, the Story Dog. As Wagamese argues in Life, animals are the Ojibways’ first teachers. He traces this grounding to the spiritual teachings of the land. His depiction of Beedahbun, the colour “that appears where the sun meets the horizon” at dawn, contains awe and a Zen-like philosophy: this “impossible blue” represents both emptiness and fullness, thus “boundless possibility.” Like the sound of the drum on his wall, this nuance strikes a chord deep within and restores the self-knowledge with which he argues that he was born. He discusses candidly his struggle with alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder as well as the hollow feeling of instability, rage, and self-doubt, the result of his adoption by a Presbyterian white family who depreciated him, the child of residential school survivors. Wagamese gives no formula for resilience, but his gentle writing soothes the soul and shows that “liv[ing] in a learning way” resides in appreciating the magnificence and intricacy of simple things, like a roller coaster ride with Debra or a stroll by the lake. He demonstrates this through the fresh eyes of someone who has let go of anger and is on his way to wisdom—grateful for each experience.

These authors navigate the paradoxes of being Anishnaabe freelance writers in a market-driven world: for Taylor, advertising oneself contradicts the virtues of humility and giving freely. Both books are further textured by popular culture. The writing of Taylor, an avowed “trekkie,” teems with musical allusions that will have younger readers searching in Wikipedia. Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto and the light-skinned actors on the Mexican and Indian television are staples of his writing. Wagamese describes himself as a “technogeek” who listens to the blues, Johnny Cash, and Pink Floyd, and who loves baseball. Both value Canada, thereby striving for reconciliation and a future where the “mosaic” comes true. However, the Taylor who writes “Why Did the Indian Block the Road…?” and two columns about Ipperwash might take issue with Wagamese’s utopian idea that the National Day of Protest should be replaced by a day of communication.

This review “Living in a Learning Way” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 198-200.

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