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  • Writer's pictureAngela Giacobbo

A Look at One Native Life by Richard Wagamese

By Angela Giacobbo

A picture of Richard Wagamese's book, One Native Life, against a brown background

A new year means new resolutions. Pushing myself to pick up more nonfiction has proved challenging, but my latest read shattered my misconceptions. If you’re looking to expand your nonfiction library, One Native Life by Richard Wagamese is a wonderful place to start!

Richard Wagamese was an Ojibway novelist, journalist, and mentor who received many awards, including the Canada Council for the Arts Molson Prize (2013) and the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Matt Cohen Award (2015) (source: The Canadian Encyclopedia). Some of his novels include Indian Horse, Medicine Walk, and One Story, One Song, but if you find yourself entranced by his words, there are many more titles to read. His work discusses Indigenous identity and culture, as well as contemporary issues affecting Indigenous communities in Canada.

One Native Live follows Wagamese from a young age as he searches for somewhere he belongs. Wagamese is constantly moving and struggles to place roots as a foster child. As he matures into a young adult, his stays across Canada remain transient. He finds connection in what surrounds him: music, fish, fast friends. There’s so much beauty and meaning in the objects, places, and people around us, but we have to stop and notice the bonds.

The book is broken into four books: Ahki (Earth), Ishskwaday (Fire), Nibi (Water), and Ishpiming (Universe). The stories shared within the books are related to a specific theme, but the chapters don’t need the context of previous passages. Each chapter is short—around four pages—and touches on a particular experience tied to identity. The titles are specific and reiterate the importance of each story alone.

My favourite chapter is titled “Making Bannock.” In this passage, Wagamese shares when his mother taught him how to make bannock and how this experience tied him to a culture that saved him. The story is delicately descriptive: you can see and taste the bannock. As with most of the book, Wagamese acknowledges hardships and negative perspectives with ease, correcting stereotypical and racist beliefs by sharing powerful bonds and realizations he experienced.

“The first bannock was glorious. I watched it rise like a little kid would, with my face pressed to the glass. When it cooled enough to cut I sheared off enough for the two of us. It was the first Indian thing I’d ever done” (p. 127).

A picture of the back of Richard Wagamese's book, One Native Life, against a brown background with many coloured tags marking specific pages

My copy of One Native Life is full of colourful tags marking my favourite chapters and lines. Imagery and thought-provoking commentary paint the writing. It isn’t a book to fly through in one sitting, and I’ve enjoyed turning to it each day to read a few chapters.

With references to artwork, music, and places across Canada, you’re reminded this is real life and an authentic experience. The connections Wagamese describes exist in our world. Reading the book is interactive and immersive: I constantly find myself Googling the song or artwork written on the pages.

One Native Life offers connection. It encourages us to look beyond the pages and to reflect and experience our world as active individuals who are willing to learn and listen. As it is a Canadian read, you can find the book at many of your local bookstores, and it is also available for free on Libby (a local public library reading app; download Libby).

“This book is a look back at one native life, at the people, the places and the events that have helped me find my way to peace again, to stand in the sunshine with my beautiful partner, looking out over the lake and the land we love and say—yes” (p. 4).

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