Stories to Move Spirits

Reviewed by Melanie Braith

Even though Ojibway storyteller, writer, mentor, and journalist Richard Wagamese passed away in early 2017, his words and stories continue to move his readers’ spirits. The present collection brings together a selection of his social media posts, blog posts, and newspaper columns. Wagamese was a survivor of the Sixties Scoop who grew up separated from his Ojibway family and traditions. Reconnection and the search for identity are themes that are woven into all of his fictional and non-fictional work—and this latest publication is no exception. Ojibway author Drew Hayden Taylor wrote the introduction, which highlights Wagamese’s impact on Indigenous literatures in Canada and emphasizes how Wagamese was a mentor for emerging Indigenous writers. What Comes from Spirit honours Wagamese’s role as mentor. For each copy of the book that is sold, a donation is made to the Ontario Arts Foundation to support the Indigenous Voices Awards, which “were established in 2017 to support and nurture the work of Indigenous writers in lands claimed by Canada” (“About the Awards”).


What Comes from Spirit brings together deeply personal stories about Wagamese’s own life experiences and reflections, but also teachings that he was willing to generously share with a wide audience. The length of these texts ranges from a few lines to a handful of pages, and the editors compile a list of sources that shows where each text was originally published. Wagamese’s storytelling spans many different genres and media, but all of his work is deeply influenced by Anishinaabe oral storytelling principles. As Wagamese writes in One Native Life,  “I sought out stories and storytellers. I sat with them and asked questions and learned about the role of storytellers in our tradition and about the principles that guide that role. I learned about the importance of perpetuating the tradition of storytelling into a new time with powerful new tools. Then I began to write” (123).


One defining feature of oral storytelling is that listeners encounter different versions of the same story over the course of their life. Wagamese’s oeuvre embodies this characteristic, and the reader of What Comes from Spirit will find that many of the excerpts echo stories told in other works by Wagamese (both fictional and non-fictional). One example is the story of a little red truck, a toy Wagamese was gifted as a young boy shortly before he was separated from his siblings through the foster care system. Even though the story is told in a slightly different manner, readers of Wagamese’s work will recognize this truck as the one that also appears in For Joshua and his first novel Keeper ‘n’ Me. Readers of Wagamese’s work will also recognize themes and phrases that echo each other across his different publications, such as the statement that “the land is a feeling” (6), which also appears in Keeper ‘n’ Me and One Story, One Song. It is the encounter with these echoes in What Comes from Spirit that allows avid readers of Wagamese’s work to feel connected to what Drew Hayden Taylor in the introduction calls “a universe he created for us” (x).


What Comes from Spirit is divided into four chapters, with texts in each chapter that loosely respond to the themes of “The Land Is a Feeling,” “The Truth Stays the Same,” “There Are No Strangers,” and “We Are All Story.” The topics of Wagamese’s writing range from personal stories about his childhood in the foster care system and critical reflections on what it means to be Indigenous, to his love for hockey and music and his thoughts on writing and storytelling. In many of these texts, Wagamese thinks about what it means to find peace in one’s life. Maybe before anything else, these stories are about relationships and living in relation to other beings and the land. They are also about processes of reconnection. The reader learns how Wagamese reconnected with his brother through hockey after years of separation—a theme that echoes Wagamese’s celebration of community hockey in Indian Horse as a way to strengthen family bonds. Echoes like this allow readers to see Wagamese’s work in a new light, as they remind them of how traditional oral storytellers put certain stories in relation to each other to illuminate aspects that they consider important to their audience.


Perhaps Richard Wagamese’s own words best summarize What Comes from Spirit: “Spirituality isn’t simply spectacular. It’s spectacularly simple. It means whatever moves your spirit. Not your mind. Your spirit. Your mind is not the seat of you. Your soul is. Your spirit. Finding, approaching and engaging with whatever moves your spirit is being spiritual” (124). What follows from this astute definition is that reading What Comes from Spirit is a deeply spiritual experience. It is certainly possible to read all of the 164 beautifully designed pages in one sitting. However, this might be the kind of book that readers want to take their time with in order to give all of the texts in the collection the attention that they deserve. The brevity of the texts also invites readers to revisit them again and again—just as audiences of oral stories encounter certain stories more than once in their life.


Works Cited

“About the Awards.” Indigenous Voices Awards,

Wagamese, Richard. One Native Life. Douglas & McIntyre, 2008.

—. What Comes from Spirit. Douglas & McIntyre, 2021.

This review “Stories to Move Spirits” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 5 Sep. 2022. Web.

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