About the Author

Richard Wagamese

Richard Wagamese (1955–2017), an Ojibway from the Wabaseemoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario, was recognized as one of Canada's foremost First Nations authors and storytellers. His debut novel, Keeper 'n Me, came out in 1994 and won the Alberta Writers Guild's Best Novel Award. In 1991, he became the first Indigenous writer to win a National Newspaper Award for column writing. He twice won the Native American Press Association Award for his journalism and received the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature for his 2011 memoir One Story, One Song. In 2012, he was honoured with the Aboriginal Achievement Award for Media and Communications, and in 2013 he received the Canada Council for the Arts Molson Prize. In 2015, he won the Matt Cohen Award, a recognition given out by the Writers' Trust of Canada that honours writers who have dedicated their entire professional lives to the pursuit of writing. In total, he authored fifteen books including Indian Horse (2012), the 2013 People's Choice winner in CBC's Canada Reads competition, and his final book, a collection of Ojibway meditations, Embers (2016), received the Bill Duthie Booksellers' Choice Award.

Books by this Author
Dream Wheels
Excerpt

The Old Ones say that fate has a smell, a feel, a presence, a tactile heft in the air. Animals know it. It’s what brings hunter and prey together. They recognize the ancient call and there’s a quickening in the blood that drives the senses into edginess, readiness: the wild spawned in the scent. It’s why a wolf pack will halt their dash across a white tumble of snow to look at a man. Stand there in the sudden timeless quiet and gaze at him, solemn amber eyes dilating, the threat leaned forward before whirling as one dark body to disappear into the trees. They do that to return him to the wild, to make all things even once again: to restore proper knowledge. The Old Ones say animals bless a man with those moments by returning him to the senses he surrendered when he claimed language, knowledge and invention as power.

The great bull sensed it and it shivered. The loose skin draped across its bulk belied the tough muscle and sinew that gave locomotive strength to its movement in the chute. The smell was in the air. The ancient smell. It gave a new and different air to the harsh light and dust of the arena. This was old, this scent, causing something to stir in its Indian and Spanish blood that it had never encountered before. Not death, not threat, not challenge because the bull had faced those many times. No, this was more than that. This was more a bidding than an urge, a call forward, an invitation to spectacle, a beckoning to an edge the bull had never approached before. The bull shifted its eighteen hundred pounds and there wasn’t much room to spare on either side of its ribs. It didn’t like the feel of the wood, the closeness, the thin prick of rough-sawn board along its sides. The rage of others was dribbled into the board against its nose, and the bull shivered again and stamped its heavy cloven feet into the dirt of the arena floor. The noise of the crowd beyond the chutes rose and fell awkwardly against the babble of the cowboys tugging and rubbing and plying leather in preparation amidst the jingle of metal, the snap and rub and crinkle of hard rope and the clomp of booted feet and the whinny and nicker of horses unsettled by the turn of the air, the high, sharp slice of the ancient order that called to them now too. A moment was coming, a confrontation. The bull bellowed once and banged the sides of the chute.

Man feet scraped on the boards at its side, the side facing away from the open ocean of the infield: the man side. Out there, in the packed brown dirt rectangle pressed together by high wooden fencing, was his world, the one the bull controlled, the one they entered with the smell of fear high in the air. The men talked, their voices strained, tight in their throats, and the bull felt the abrasive itch of rope start around its shoulders. Just as the dull clank of cowbell rang beside him the bull caught the flare of action between the boards of the chute as another bull and rider exploded into the arena. The noise of the crowd swelled incredibly and there came the bashing and buckling sounds of leather, rope, bell, skin and bone crashing against each other amplified by roiling clouds of dirt that held it, gave it the shape and tone and snap of electrified energy. It didn’t last long. A long, drawn-out sigh accompanied the rider suddenly slammed into the dirt, the sound rising again as bright-costumed men raced about attracting the bull’s anger, diverting it away from the rider who scrambled to his feet, eyes ablaze with a strange mix of indignation and fear, and leaped for the security of the fencing. The great bull bellowed to its cousin in the infield and shook the sides of the chute in celebration of another display of power. The men around it spoke bravely to each other but the bull felt the anxiety creeping just beneath their words. It enjoyed that and it bellowed again.

The movement around the chute increased. Men in front of it were pulling rope against the gate that would soon fling open and send the bull careening into the light and heat and dirt of the battle. The men over top of its back moved silently, deliberately now, and the bull stamped and rolled back and forth, side to side, front to back in the chute forcing them to agitation, their words harsher to each other. The rope about its shoulders was secured and the clank belt set in place. The heavy clink and rattle of the bell angered the bull. It dangled beneath it heavy as another testicle but irksome, foreign, and as its weight settled the bull smelled the ancient smell again and rolled its eyes in their sockets to look upward at the men, rolling its head while it did so and giving the topmost boards a solid thwack and shiver.

It watched the young man climb the fence. Saw the set of his face, determined, calm and strong beneath the fear and felt the firm slap of his gloved hand on its neck as he leaned over, feet straddled on each side of the chute. The man bore the smell too. The bull shifted in the chute, made a small bit of room to accommodate the legs of this man who smelled so richly of that ancient call. It felt the dull rounded rowel of spur against its flank as the man slid into place and it shivered, the loose skin unsettling the man, feeling him grip with his thighs searching for hold, finding it and relaxing again. The bull snorted and half rose on its hind feet, twisting its head side to side and trumpeting the acceptance of this challenge and hearing the buzz of the crowd rise in time with its huge head over the top of the chute. The men spoke quicker, shorter words snapped at each other, and the bull felt the waxed rope being pulled tighter and tighter about its girth.

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Embers

Embers

One Ojibway's Meditations
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For Joshua

For Joshua

Penguin Modern Classics Edition
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Him Standing

Him Standing

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Indian Horse

Indian Horse

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One Native Life

One Native Life

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One Story, One Song

One Story, One Song

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Ragged Company
Excerpt

Is it you?
Yes.
Where have you been?
Travelling.
Yes. Of course. Where did you get to?
Everywhere. Everywhere I always wanted to go, everywhere I ever heard about.
Did you like it?
I loved it. I never knew the world was so big or that it held so much.
Yes. It’s an incredible thing.
Absolutely.
What did you think about all that time?
Everything. I guess I thought about everything. But I thought about one thing the most.
What was that?
A movie. Actually, a line from a movie.
Really?
Yes. Funny, isn’t it? Out of all the things I could have thought about over and over, I thought about a line from a movie.
Which one?
Casablanca. When Bogie says to Bergman, “The world don’t amount to a hill of beans to two small people like us?” Remember that?
Yes. I remember. Why?
Because that’s what I think it’s all about in the end.
What?
Well, you live, you experience, you become, and sometimes, at the end of things, maybe you feel deprived, like maybe you missed out somehow, like maybe there was more you could have–­should have–­had. You know?
Yes. Yes, I do.
But the thing is, at least you get to finger the beans.
Yes. I like that–­you get to finger the beans.
Do you ever do that?
All the time.
Me too.
Let’s do that now. Let’s hear all of it all over again.
Okay. Do you remember it?
All of it. Everything. Every moment.
Then that’s all we need.
The beans.
Yes. The beans.

Book One
Shelter

One For The ­Dead

It was Irwin that started all the dying. He was my eldest brother, and when I was a little girl he was my hero, the one whose shoulders I was always carried on and whose funny faces made me smile even when I didn’t want to. There were five of us. We lived on an Ojibway reserve called Big River and our family, the One Sky family, went back as far in tribal history as anyone could recall. I was named Amelia, after my grandmother. We were a known ­family–­respected, ­honoured–­and Irwin was our shining hope. I was the only girl, and Irwin made me feel special, like I was his hero. Love is such a simple word, so limited, that I never use it when I think of him, never consider it when I remember what I ­lost.

He was a swimmer. A great one. That’s not surprising when you consider that our tribal clan was the Fish Clan. But Irwin swam like an otter. Like he loved it. Like the water was a second skin. No one ever beat my brother in a race, though there were many who tried. Even grown ­men–­bigger, stronger ­kickers–­would never see anything but the flashing bottoms of my brother’s feet. He was a ­legend.

The cost of a tribal life is high and our family paid in frequent times of hunger. Often the gill net came up empty, the moose wouldn’t move to the marshes, and the snares stayed set. The oldest boys left school for work, to make enough to get us through those times. They hired themselves out to a local farmer to clear bush and break new ground. It was man’s work, really, and Irwin and John were only boys, so the work took its ­toll.

It was hot that day. Hot as it ever got in those summers of my girlhood, and even the farmer couldn’t bear up under the heat. He let my brothers go midway through the afternoon and they walked the three miles back to our place. Tired as they were, all Irwin could think about was a swim in the river. So a big group of us kids headed toward the broad, flat stretch below the rapids where we’d all learned to swim. I was allowed to go because there were so many of ­us.

There was a boy named Ferlin Axe who had challenged my brother to race hundreds of times and had even come close a few of those times. That day, he figured Irwin would be so tired from the heat and the work that he could win in one of two ways. First, he could beat Irwin because he was so tired, or second, Irwin could decline the challenge. Either way was a victory, because no Indian boy ever turned down a ­race.

“One Sky,” Ferlin said when we got to the river, “today’s the day you lose.”

“Axe,” Irwin said, “you’ll never chop me down.”

Now, the thing about ­races–­Indian races, ­anyway–­is that anyone’s allowed to join. So when they stepped to the edge of the river there were six of them. At the count of three they took off, knees pumping high, water splashing up in front of them, and when they dove, they dove as one. No one was surprised when Irwin’s head popped up first and his arms started pulling against the river’s muscle. He swam effortlessly. Watching him go, it seemed like he was riding the water, skimming across the surface while the others clawed their way through it. He reached the other side a good thirty seconds ahead of Ferlin ­Axe.

The rules were that everyone could rest on the other side. There was a long log to sit on, and when each of those boys plopped down beside Irwin he slapped them on the arm. I’ll never forget that sight: six of them, young, vibrant, glistening in the sun and laughing, teasing each other, the sun framing all of them with the metallic glint off the river. But for me, right then, it seemed like the sun shone only on my brother, like he was a holy object, a saint perhaps, blessed by the power of the open water. We all have our sacred moments, those we carry in our spirit always, and my brother, strong and brown and laughing, shining beside that river, is ­mine.

After about five minutes they rose together and moved to the water’s edge, still pushing, shoving, teasing. My brother raised an arm, waved to me, and I could see him counting down. When his arm dropped they all took off. Ferlin Axe surfaced first and we all gasped. But once Irwin’s head broke the surface of the water you could see him gain with every stroke. He was so fast it was startling. When he seemed to glide past the flailing Ferlin Axe, we all knew it was over. Then, about halfway across, at the river’s deepest point where the pull of the current was strongest, his head bobbed under. We all laughed. Everyone thought that Irwin was going to try to beat Ferlin by swimming underwater the rest of the way. But when Ferlin suddenly stopped and stared wildly around before diving under himself, we all stood up. Soon all five boys were diving under and I remember that it seemed like an hour before I realized that Irwin hadn’t come back up. Time after time they dove and we could hear them yelling back and forth to each other, voices high and breathless and ­scared.

The river claimed my brother that day. His body was never found and if you believe as I do, then you know that the river needed his spirit back. But that’s the woman talking. The little girl didn’t know what to make of it. I went to the river every day that summer and fall to sit and wait for my brother. I was sure that it was just a joke, a tease, and he’d emerge laughing from the water, lift me to his shoulders, and carry me home in celebration of another really good one. But there was just the river, broad and flat and deep with secrets. The sun no longer shone on that log across the water, and if I’d known on the day he sat there, when it seemed to shine only on him, that it was really calling him away, I’d have yelled something. I love you, maybe. But more like, I need you. It was only later, when the first chill of winter lent the water a slippery sort of blackness, like a hole into another world, that I allowed the river its triumph and let it be. But it’s become a part of my blood now, my living, the river of my veins, and Irwin courses through me even ­now.

My parents died that winter. Those cheap government houses were dry as tinder, heated by one central stove that threw an ember through the grate one night and burned our house to the ground. Those who saw it say it looked like a flare popping off. I hope so. I hope my parents slept right through it, that there was no terror or desperation for either of them. We kids were with my Uncle Jack and Aunt Elizabeth at a winter powwow that night. Standing beside my uncle’s truck the next day looking at the burnt and bubbled timbers piled atop each other, I felt a coldness start to build inside me. A numbing cold like you feel in the dentist’s chair, the kind you’re powerless to stop. I couldn’t cry. I could feel the tears dammed inside my chest but there was no channel to my ­eyes.

We lived with Uncle Jack for a while but he was a drinker and it wasn’t long before the social workers came and moved us all to the missionary school fifty miles away. I was six and the last sight I ever had of Big River was through the back window of the yellow bus they loaded us into. We moved from a world of bush and rock and river to one of brick and fences and fields. There we were made to speak English, to forget the sacred ways of our people, and to learn to kneel before a cross we were told would save us. It didn’t.

The boys and girls were kept apart except for meals and worship. I never got to speak to my brothers at all except in mouthed whispers, waves, and the occasional letters all the kids learned to sneak across to each other. It was hard. Our world had become strange and foreign and we all suffered. But it was hardest on my brother Harley. He was eight and, out of all of us, had been the one closest to our parents. He’d stayed close to the house while the rest of us tore around the reserve. He’d cooked with our mother and set snares with our father. Quiet, gentle, and thinner even than me, we always treated Harley like a little bird out of its nest, sheltering him, protecting him, warming him. In the tribal way, change is a constant and our ways teach you how to deal with it. But we were torn away from that and nothing we were given in the missionary school offered us any comfort for the ripping away of the fabric of our lives. Harley wept. Constantly. And when he disappeared over the fence one February night, I wasn’t surprised. From across the chapel the next morning, John and Frank nodded solemnly at me. We all knew where he’d gone. I still remember watching from the dormitory window as the men on horses came back that evening, shaking their heads, muttering, cold. If they couldn’t figure out how an ­eight-­year-­old could vanish and elude them, then they forgot that they were chasing an Indian boy whose first steps were taken in the bush and who’d learned to run and hide as his first childhood game. They looked for three days. Uncle Jack found him huddled against the blackened metal of that ­burnt-­out stove in the remains of our house, frozen solid. Dead. All he’d had on was a thin wool coat and ­slippery-­soled white man shoes but he’d made it fifty miles in three days. Uncle Jack told me years later in a downtown bar that Harley’s eyes were frozen shut with tears and large beads of them were strung along the crossed arms he clutched himself with. When I heard that I got ­drunk–­real ­drunk–­for a long ­time.

Life settled into a flatness after we lost Harley. But all three of us rebelled in our own ways. Me, I retreated into silence. The nuns all thought me slow and backward because of my silence but they had no idea how well I was learning their ways and their language. I did everything they asked of me in a slow, methodical way, uncomplaining and silent. I gave them nothing back because all I knew was the vast amount they had taken from me, robbed me of, cheated me out of, all in the name of a God whose son bore the long hair none of us were allowed to wear anymore. The coldness inside me was complete after Harley died, and what I had left of my life, of me, I was unwilling to offer up to anyone.
I drifted through the next four years as silent as a bank of snow. A February ­snow.

John and Frank made up for my absence. They were twelve and ten that first year, and when they refused to sit through classes they were sent to the barns and fields. John rejected everything about that school and his rebellion led to strappings that he took with ­hard-­eyed silence. The coldness in me was a furnace in him and he burned with rage and resentment. Every strapping, every punishment only stoked it higher. He fought everyone. By the time he was sixteen and old enough to leave on his own, the farm work had made him strong and tough. It was common knowledge that John One Sky could outwork any of the men. He threw bales of hay effortlessly onto the highest part of the wagons and he forked manure from the stalls so quickly he’d come out robed in sweat, eyes ablaze and ready for whatever else they wanted to throw at him. It was his eyes that everyone came to fear. They threw the heat in his soul outward at everyone. Except for me. In the chapel, he’d look across at me and his eyes would glow just like Irwin’s used to. He’d raise a hand to make the smallest wave and I would wonder how anyone could fear hands that could move so softly through the air. But they did. When he told them he was leaving there was no argument. And when he told them that he would see me before he left there was no argument ­either.

We met in the front hallway. He was big. Tall and broad and so obviously strong. But the hand he laid against my cheek was tame, loving. “Be strong,” he told me. “I’m going to get you out of here, Amelia. You and Frankie. Just as soon as I can. I promise.” Then he hugged me for a long time, weaving back and forth, and when he looked at me I felt like I was looking into Irwin’s eyes. Then he was ­gone.

Frank tried to be another John. But he wasn’t built of the same stuff, physically or mentally, and he only succeeded in getting himself into trouble. No one ever feared my brother Frank. In those schools you learned to tell the difference between courage and bravado, toughness and a pose, and no one believed in Frank’s imitation of his brother. That knowledge just made him angrier. Made him act out more. Made him separate from all of us. He sulked and his surliness made him even more of a caricature and made him try even harder to live up to what he thought a One Sky man should be. He got mean instead of tough and, watching him through those years, I knew that the river, the fire, and the cold ran through him, drove him, sent him searching for a peg to hang his life on. It was a cold, hard peg he ­chose–­vindictive as a nail through the ­palms.

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Runaway Dreams

Runaway Dreams

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Starlight
Excerpt

Starlight sat back on his heels and watched them run. In the flush of moonlight they appeared as bursts of shadows between the trees. The lope and bend of them. When they hit the glade the leader dropped into a low prowl, the ears of him flat to the skull and his snout pressed close to the ground. The rest of the pack stayed in the clasp of the trees. The big one swayed his head around then raised his muzzle and sniffed at the air and for a moment fixed his gaze on the man on the rocks then dropped his head like a nod and padded out deeper into the open. The other wolves bled out of the shadow and stood around him. Waiting. In the luminescent blue of the moon Starlight could see the huffed clouds of their breathing. They sat back on their haunches, tongues lolling like dogs, and when they flexed their jaws he could hear the smack of their tongues on canines, sharp and feral, and the piercing whine and whimper of wolf talk. The alpha male sat like a stone, staring intently at the rocks. Starlight felt the hot muscles in his thighs but held his pose, staring back at the humped shadow of the wolf in the glade. He breathed through his mouth. The big wolf raised his head and swivelled it to catch the wind and when he was satisfied he stood, and Starlight was impressed at the size of him. The wolf walked slowly across the front of the rocks and the others trailed behind him, and when he broke to a trot they picked up the pace silently. Starlight waited until the last of them was gone and then slid out of the rocks and began to run behind them.
     He ran easily. Like a wolf. He bent closer to the ground and loped, the slide of his feet skimming through the low-lying brush without a sound, and when he found the pace of the pack he angled off through the trees and took a parallel tack to them, keeping them on his right and dodging the pine and spruce easily, his night eyes sharpened by use. He ran with them, the scuttling pace easy after the first three hundred yards.
     They broke up the side of a ridge and he could hear the push of their hind feet loosen the talus and he followed the tumble of it up the hard slant. It was a tough climb but he ran it. When he breached the top he saw them gathered in the trees. The big male looked back over his shoulder. Starlight could see the shimmer of his eyes and he felt pinned by the look. He stopped and stood against the open light of the drop. The empty sky behind him. The moonlight. There was nowhere to move so he stood there and breathed and waited and watched the wolf, who kept his eyes on him and opened his mouth and let his tongue droop and huffed his breath so that for a moment it appeared to Starlight as though he laughed, and then he turned his head and studied the trees on the flat. The others sat patiently. None of them looked back. The leader rose slowly and arched and stretched and the others followed suit. Then they broke. In unison. He marvelled at that, the ability to communicate with thought, the language of them hung and shaped on the power of intention, and when they were twenty yardsgone he broke into the lope again and followed.
     The landscape rolled easily through the coniferous jut and the running was uncompromised by brush. Instead, there were sprinkles of holly and swatches of mountain grass and here and there the plunked forms of fallen trees, decaying trunks he leapt in a single bound while he kept the relaxed prowling pace of the wolves.
     He carried nothing but a small pack on his back. He wore no gloves despite the chill and his clothing was loose and warm. His shoes were stitched together out of moose hide and laced tightly. The soles of them were thick pads of felt and he could feel every poke and thrust of the territory he crossed and the tracks he left were mere outlines. The shoes functioned as wrapping for his feet so that the feeling was of being barefoot but protected. They enabled him to run quietly. His hair was short and cropped close to his head, severe like a military cut. There was nothing to catch or snag, even his trouser legs tucked neatly into the tops of his shoes and the sleeves buttoned tight to his wrists. He ran parallel to the wolves and he made no sound.
     They angled sharply suddenly and propelled themselves in a hard zigzag up a cut of ridge. It was lightly treed and there were hamper-size rocks and boulders strewn about and he found himself having to clutch and grab at saplings to pull himself upward while he ran. He followed their path. His lungs ached and the muscles at his calves protested and his thighs and buttocks burned at the push but he pressed on. The hardscrabble face of the cut was inches from his face and he could smell the lichen on the rocks. Dry. Dusty. Metallic almost. He angled his feet to grab more of the face and strained harder against the gravity he felt upon him like a weight. The wolves crested the ridge and disappeared. He took deeper breaths and forced his muscles to work and he could feel the tension in his neck and shoulders. When he finally stepped quivering onto the lip of the ridge he was spent and leaned forward with his hands on the top of his knees and breathed through his mouth and peered through the top of his eyes to locate the wolves.
     They lay on a sloping boulder that poked out over the far edge. The moon behind them like a giant shining eye. The alpha male was the only one sitting and he faced the shimmering orb of the moon with his head slightly raised, like a child wrapped in wonder. Starlight caught his breath quickly and stood to his full height. The wolf turned his head. They regarded each other and the man felt plumbed, known, seen in his entirety, and there was no fear in him, only calm like the unwavering gaze of the wolf leader. The wolf stood. He swept his gaze back and forth across the star-dappled blanket of the heavens and Starlight followed the look. The universe, deep and eternal, hung above them: solemn and frank as a prayer. 
     The wolf sat again and appeared to study the panorama. Then he raised his snout and yapped a wailing howl at the face of the moon and the stars thrust out around it. It was high and piercing, and it brought the others to their haunches and they all stared at the great silvered orb. Starlight slumped the pack from his back and took out a camera body and a long lens and screwed them together quickly. He sidestepped so that he could see the wolves in profile. They never moved. The dozen of them like acolytes at a shrine. He knelt and focused on the leader and breathed with his finger on the shutter. In the frame he held the pocked face of the moon and the head of the alpha wolf. When the leader raised his muzzle Starlight pulled the focus tight, and when he opened his muzzle to howl he let him yap the first syllables and then pressed the shutter on a rare and personal moment. The wolves turned at the whir of it. They studied him. He caught them in the viewfinder with the full moon behind them and snapped another. They watched him. Then they turned their attention back to the heavens and began to howl. He felt it in his spine. He felt in his belly. He disassembled the unit and tucked it back into the pack and slung the bag on his back then turned and walked to the lip of the ridge again and stepped down without looking back. The howl of them, ancient, powerful. They followed him back down into the night.

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The Next Sure Thing

The Next Sure Thing

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Suddenly I didn't like Hardy much. Beyond the charm and the dazzle was a coldness that worried me. His henchmen were buffoons, but there was a hard ugliness behind their playful natures. Still, the roll of bills felt good in my hand.

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