First Nations oral art frees writers
By Danielle Pope
Richard Wagamese knows that telling a story isn’t just about the speaking. It’s about adhering to the five principals of traditional Native oral art: telling, listening, hearing, incorporating and sharing.
Those principals, and the idea that there’s no wrong way to create a story, is what Wagamese — an Ojibway from the Wabaseemoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario — is showing students at UVic this term. And on Feb. 16, all Victoria residents will have an opportunity to hear Wagamese speak when he delivers his public lecture on campus. “Everyone carries this desire to tell a story and be heard. That’s why we have Twitter and Facebook. What everyone doesn’t realize is we all have this amazing ability, too,” he says.
Wagamese is the first First Nations instructor to be hired by UVic’s writing department, and to receive the Harvey S. Southam guest lecturer award. His class requires students to shelve their pens and what they know about traditional writing in exchange for a strong pair of vocal chords and spontaneous performances.
“[Storytelling] becomes what you and I do when we haven’t seen each other for a week and I ask you, ‘So what have you been doing?’ The sub-textual message under that is, ‘Tell me a story,’” he says.
To illustrate that simplicity, he asks his students to use word cues to form a story in front of an entire classroom. Terrifying? At first, he says. But once people relax into the form, the stories are astounding. “It’s a natural inclination to hold onto what you know, so trying to let go of those rules about what it takes to be a writer is one of the biggest challenges,” he says.
Wagamese has plenty of stories to tell. He grew up between foster homes and on the streets, and completed only a Grade 9 education. He was taught the art of story telling from his people at age 24, he says, then learned everything else from books. He’s worked as a reporter and columnist for the Calgary Herald, as well as in radio and print. He’s published over 11 books and memoirs, and his first collection of poems is out this month. And, he’s written and sold all his works after only one draft. The key, he says, is to attack everything with passion, and respect your gifts.
“That role [of storyteller] still functions as an honour and a privilege,” Wagamese says. “Creator graced me with this ability to do what I do; freely and without charge . . . that gift only becomes stronger and only becomes respected and honoured, in return, by giving it away.” M
Richard Wagamese will be speaking Feb. 16, 7:30 pm in UVic’s Hickman Building, room 105. The event is free.