One Native Life: My heros are women

By Richard Wagamese
News From Indian Country 7-08

In 1955 the Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series, Elvis had us all shook up, William Faulkner won the Pulitzer Prize, Grace Kelly walked away with the Best Actress Oscar and I was born in a small northern Ontario town called Minaki. Much has changed since then. The Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, rock’n roll lost its King, Faulkner died an alcoholic death and Grace Kelly kept on walking into the arms of a prince from Monaco. Me? Well, in the words of the Grateful Dead, “what a long strange trip it’s been.”

I turned fifty-two recently and as the day approached I took a long look back at the five decades I’ve lived through. Not all that much has changed, really. I still love baseball, movies, books and music – and I still have heroes. Perhaps it’s the poet in me that continues to kneel at the shrine of accomplishment and example despite the jading that comes with a writer’s life of politics, causes and observation. But life is designed for heroes. Our existence is brightened by the amber glow of the lanterns they carry – the light of example they throw beyond the darkest corners of our world, illuminating us, quelling our fears and making us, collectively, bigger somehow.

Nowadays, when I consider heroes it’s generally women that I come up with. That’s a huge statement from a guy who religiously follows men playing a boy’s game and admires the muscular prose cast from the arms of hardened giants. But the few things that I have done with this life have been empowered by the hearts and spirits of women who have touched it. People like Maria Campbell, Tantoo Cardinal, Tina Keeper, Buffy Sainte-Marie. And more anonymous ones who carry names like Morningstar Mercredi, Maggie Black Kettle, Helene Kakakaway, Vera Martin, Millie MacDonald and Catherine Wagamese, my wife. They are genuine heroes and I am, irrevocably, changed and altered by their influence.

So many times we Native men proclaim our honor of women, how they are the backbone of our communities, the heartbeat of our nations, the bearers of our future and yet there are a plethora of women’s issues begging our attention and resolution. We busy ourselves in settling disputes stemming from treaty, constitutional, human and Aboriginal rights and somehow become blinded to the issues affecting the ones who stand beside us. Heroes, I suppose, are as difficult to recognize as angels.

I remember Darlene who had her first baby at fourteen and was a grandmother at thirty. Walking down the street I recall Velma who lived a hooker’s life before she found recovery and became a writer. Autumn never fails to remind me of Ernestine, a single mother, walking onto a university campus for the first time after working three years at two jobs to feed her family and complete here academic upgrading. Or Gina who struggled through the pain and falsehoods of non-Native adoption to reclaim her Cree heritage and become a pipe carrier for her people. And settled into my recliner at home immersing myself in the comfort of family, I remember how ALL of them learned to heal and to forgive and go on to form successful families themselves.

Heroes? Most assuredly.
It is, I believe, the most serious flaw in our upward growth as Native nations that women’s issues are not accorded the full strength of our attention. Obviously, if life begins within the woman’s body and the first flickering of spirit is ignited by the warmth of hers, then our future, as individuals, communities and nations, stem directly from protecting, securing and nurturing the rights of our women.

Heroic strength is life strength. We do not have to look far beyond our own doorways to see examples of this, whether those doorways are in our homes, offices, universities or boardrooms. The Grandmother Spirit looms large everywhere and if we are as traditionally minded as we ballyhoo ourselves to be, our staunch male leadership must raise women’s issues to the level of all others. Heroism, after all, is the care and concern of others above yourself and MANdate is a grievous misnomer in the face of women’s issues.

It’s been a long strange trip from ‘55 to here and but for heroes all might have been lost a number of times along the way. For all the women warriors who have guided and strengthened me by their example, a heartfelt, Meegwetch.