I was created to be Anishanabe-niini Indian Man. Thus, I was born Ojibway. I emerged onto Mother Earth as a human being gifted with this identity male Ojibway human being. Since 1955, learning to be who I was created to be has been my journey, my trial, my ongoing process of creation.
This thing we call Native, Indian, First Nations, Aboriginal, Indigenous, or Original Peoples cannot be found in any one place. It is a cosmology, a belief, a way of being, unconstrained by geography, politics or even time itself. It is too immense to be contained in one simple definition. Only with the utmost simplification can one say, “This is what it means to be Indian.”
The lives of Native people in Canada are ones of endless toil, frustration and heartache. This they have borne with great good humour, grace, and dignity. To say that I am one of them is my greatest pride.
But I am only one and this is but the story of one Native life, as experienced against the flux and flow of Canada over forty-six years. If it teaches, that is grace. If it evokes empathy, that is blessing. Should it enable one person, Native or not, to step forward towards who they were created to be, that would be reward enough for one Native life.
Once there was a lonely little boy. He had no idea where he belonged in the world. The boy had no knowledge about where his family was or where he’d come from. So he began to dream. He imagined a glorious life with a mother and father, sisters and brothers, grandfathers and grandmothers. He put his dreams down on paper and filled the pages with drawings, stories, poems, and songs of the people he missed so much but could not remember. But he always awoke, the stories and poems always ended, and the songs faded off into the night.
As he grew, the boy carried this emptiness around inside him. Everywhere he went, it was his constant companion. Many people took turns caring for the boy, and many people tried to fill that hole, but no one ever could. Through all the homes he drifted the boy began to realize that all that ever really changed about him were his clothes.
One day, the people around him said that he was old enough to go and find there. It was a magical place, this place called there, because everyone got to choose where there would be for them.
But finding there was difficult. The boy took many roads, many turns, many long lonely journeys trying to find it. He grew older. He lived in many places and with many different people. But inside himself he was still a lonely little boy who could only ever dream dreams, create stories and poems and songs about the kingdom of there.
Then one day he met a kind, gentle old man on one of the twisted, narrow roads he was travelling. This old man had been everywhere and seen many things. He was wise and liked the young man very much. As they sat together by the side of that long, narrow road, the old man began to tell him stories about all of his travels, and especially about how good it felt to return from those journeys.
“What is return?” the young man asked.
“Why, it’s to get back to where you started, where you belong,” the old man said.
“What does it mean to belong?”
The old man smiled kindly and said, “To belong is to feel right. It’s a place where everything fits.”
“How do you get there?” the young man asked.
“Well, getting anywhere means you have to make a journey. But on this journey, to find where you belong, you really only have to travel one direction,” the old man said.
“What direction is that?”
“The toughest direction of all,” the old man said. “You have to travel inside yourself, not down long, narrow roads like this one.”
“Does it hurt?” the young man asked.
“Sometimes. But anyone who makes that journey finds out that no matter how hard the journey is, getting there is the biggest comfort of all.”
The young man thought about the old man’s words. They were mysterious and strange. In fact, they weren’t answers to his questions at all, just more and more questions lined up one behind the other as far as he allowed his mind to wander. But there was something in the gentle way the old man had of talking that made him feel safe a trust that everything he said was true. Even if he couldn’t understand it all.
“Can I get there from here?” he asked finally.
The old man smiled at him and patted him on the shoulder. “Here is the only place you can start from.”
I was that lonely little boy, Joshua, and I was the lonely young man who tried so hard to belong. Like him, I have travelled a lot of hard roads searching for the one thing that would allow me to feel safe, secure, and welcome. Some of them led to prison, poverty, drunkenness, drugs, depression, isolation, and thoughts of suicide. But many were glorious roads to travel the ones that led to sobriety, friendship, music, writing, and the empowering traditional ways of the Ojibway people to whom you and I belong.
There were many teachers on those roads. Always there was someone somewhere who offered things meant to teach me how to see the world and my place in it. But like most of us, I only ever trusted my mind and my mind always needed proof. The sad thing is that when you spend all your time in a search for proof, you miss the magic of the journey, and I was on those roads a long, long time before I learned the most important lesson of all: that the journey is the teaching, and the proof of the truthfulness of all things comes secretly, mysteriously, when you find yourself smiling when you used to cry, and staying staunchly in place when you used to run away.
I spent many years afraid of the questions. I was afraid of the questions because I was afraid of the answers, and that fear kept me on narrow, twisted roads deep into my life. My greatest fear was that after the search, after the most arduous of journeys, I would discover, at the end, a me I didn’t like, the me that I was always convinced I was: an unlovable, inadequate, weak, unworthy human being. And at that point of discovery I would be alone. Alone with myself. Alone with my fears. Alone with the one person I had spent so much time and energy trying to run away from.