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Richard Wagamese

Richard Wagamese was a Canadian novelist and journalist best known for his book, Indian Horse (2013).

He was born in 1955 in north western Ontario into an Ojibway community of the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations. He and his three siblings were abandoned as children near Kenora, Ontario. They were found by a policeman and taken away by the Children’s Aid Society to be raised in foster homes. Richard was adopted at age nine by a family that would not allow him contact with First Nations people.  The beatings and abuse her suffered led him to leave home at age 16 and he lived on the street in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he used drugs and became addicted to alcohol. He also spent time in prison on several occasions. One winter day seeking shelter from the cold he found  himself in a library and became interested in books with the help of a friendly librarian. He returned there many times reading widely and slowly educating himself.
This led to his first job as a journalist in 1979 with the First Nations magazine, New Breed in Regina.  Wagamese later wrote columns for the Calgary Herald which led to him winning a National Newspaper Award in 1991, the first indigenous writer to get such recognition.
When he was reunited with his family at age 23, a tribal elder told him that his role in life was to tell stories.

Wagamese published his first novel, Keeper ‘n Me in 1994.  In the story, the main character, Garnet Raven  returns home to his reserve after twenty years and forms a relationship with Keeper, an elder who teaches him about the traditions of his people. We can see the autobiographical elements in this narrative. This book was followed by The Terrible Summer (1996) a collection of articles from his journalistic writing. His second novel, The Quality of Light (1997) is about the relationship of two boys, one an Ojibway and the other white. Their friendship and their love of baseball involves a search for identity and growing into adults.

Wagamese had been estranged from his son, Joshua. To address this he published a memoire, For Joshua: An Ojibway Father Teaches His Son (2003), in which he recreated the Ojibway tradition of the father introducing this son to the world. In frank prose the author explains his own troubled life and the many mistakes he made in the hope that his son might avoid such errors in his own life.  He also wrote two other books of memoires: One Native Life (2008) and One Story, One Song (2011). And he also wrote for the TV series North of 60.

His novel, Indian Horse (2012) won the Burt Award for First Nations, Metis and Inuit Literature.  The story of Saul Indian Horse captures the excitement of a hockey hero and the sad legacy of residential schools. Wagamese’s  central argument here is that if we are to heal we need to hear our own stories and maybe doing so can lead to redemption. In his final novel, Medicine Walk (2014), the author journeys across the land with a father and a son to reclaim a lost history. It is fitting that Wagamese’s last book is  Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations (2016).  At age 61 he passed away on March 10, 2017 in Kamloops, B.C.

Richard Wagamese  won several awards for his writing including the Writers Guild of Alberta novel prize for Keeper ‘n Me, the George Ryga Award, the Canadian Authors Association Award for Fiction, and the CBC Canada Reads competition with Indian Horse.  He was awarded two Honorary Doctorates. On the website, Speaking My Truth, Wagamese talks about struggles and redemption in his own life in the essay, “Return to Harmony.”
(Bio by J. Pivato)

Updated April 03 2017 by Student & Academic Services

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