Richard Wagamese on Anti-Native Racism and Deciding to Fight Back
"I would rebel, and hard."
I was 23 years old. That summer I had taken off again and headed into the west. When I arrived in Regina, Saskatchewan, I stopped to look around for work. The only place I could afford to stay was the Salvation Army, and I hated it there. But I needed to earn money to keep on traveling so I gritted my teeth and held on. But I was never too good at holding on and eventually I went to the bars in search of those things I knew how to deal with. And I found them. It wasn’t long before I was in the company of a group of young Native people who were just like me. They were drinkers, hardcore and remorseless, and they were lost, dispossessed, and angry.
They welcomed me as a brother because of the color of my skin, and if I didn’t know anything about my language, culture, or history it didn’t seem to matter to them. All that mattered was that I was another “skin”—short for redskin—and that I would do as they did. We drank. Lots. There were fights, brutal ones sometimes, that even the women joined in. Fights with baseball bats and knives, broken beer bottles, and even a rifle once. But there was camaraderie, laughter, and a caring that reminded me of the winos I’d hung with years earlier. They helped each other when they were sick with the drink, and nothing was too much to ask if you needed help. I wanted to be a big part of that so I listened and learned.
Many of the young men in our group had grown up under the influence of militant Native groups like the American Indian Movement. They wore their hair long, in braids or long ponytails, and they weren’t ashamed to wear colorful patches bearing one message of solidarity or another. They were pro-Indian and anti-white. There was no middle ground or room for negotiation in that. From them I learned about the genocidal policies of governments in Canada and the U.S. I heard for the first time the story of the residential schools and how generations of our people had been abducted from their homes and sent to learn the white man’s way. I heard how language had been lost, ceremonies outlawed, how Indians had needed a pass from the Indian Agent in order to leave the reserve, how it had been illegal for them to meet in groups, that we hadn’t even been allowed to vote until 1960, and that recent government policy had been directed at making Indians a part of the mainstream, abolishing the Indian Act and the reserves—the heinous “White Paper on Indian Policy.”
I heard all of that and more. It wasn’t long before I had a red headband, the color of AIM, and was reciting the rhetoric I had adopted from my new “brothers in the struggle.” I became racist in my thinking and it was easy to blame the white man and society for my ordeals. In fact, it made more sense than anything I’d thought of or heard before. It had never been me that had caused my troubles—it had been the bigoted hand of the white man that yanked me from my family, tossed me into a foster home, adopted me, tried to make me white, and then threw me into prison when I couldn’t or wouldn’t assume his color or his thinking. My life finally made sense to me and I had a purpose.
Unfortunately, I continued to drown that sense of purpose in alcohol. Trying to fit in with this new group meant that I believed I needed to prove myself. I drank even more to screw up the courage to be outrageous. Somehow, during a blackout, I managed to get hold of a credit card. When I came to, there was a large group of us in a motel room somewhere outside Regina and the party was in full swing. It scared me to think that I’d done something I couldn’t remember and I grew fearful of being arrested. The next morning I left. I used the card to get a plane ticket and fly back to Ontario where I used it to keep on drinking, stay in good hotels, buy clothes, and keep on drinking. Finally, I was arrested, charged with fraud, and jailed for ten months. During the I spent in custody I continued to read pro-Indian material. I devoured Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, God Is Red, and The Indian Manifesto. The only friends I allowed myself to make in jail were other Native men with whom I shared my beliefs in the wrongs of the white man. I came to the belief during that stretch of jail time that being an Indian meant being a warrior, fighting against the power structure, fighting to bring that power down and restore the people to their rightful place as owners of this land. My hair grew longer as my resolve deepened. This, I remember thinking, is what I had been looking for all my life.The anger over the injustice of what had happened to me felt hot and rancid in my throat. I burned with it.
I decided to live without the few privileges jail offered. The white guards and the white warden wouldn’t get me to buy into their cycle of dependency. I went without canteen supplies and saved the incentive allowances we were allowed at that time. When I was released after six and a half months I had a few hundred dollars in my account, and my plan was to head back west where I imagined the heart of the Indian rebellion was centered.
But I’d made a friend while I was inside and he had talked endlessly about the hot rod he was fixing up in his mother’s garage in Toronto. He’d shown me pictures, from the day he’d bought it at a junkyard, right through the restoration process to the point where it was rebuilt, fitted with a new engine, and primed for the paint job he wanted to do once he was out. So I went to visit him and see this car before I caught my bus to western Canada.
We had a great visit. It was good to see a “brother” on the street. I met his family, we drank some beers, and we tinkered with his car. Early that evening I left to catch my bus. As I was leaving he tossed me a black denim jacket. The back was emblazoned with a bright red fist clutching an eagle feather. “Red Power” was written boldly beneath it.
“You’ll need this,” he said, and he smiled. “Thanks,” I replied. “It’s great. You sure?”
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Besides, it looks better on you than on me.”
We hugged and I left him. Walking down the street I felt filled with pride. The emblem and the words on my back gave me strength. I believed that I walked taller and prouder just wearing it. As I passed store windows I looked at my reflection: a tall, lean, long-haired Native man with a headband and a Red Power jacket looked back at me. For the first time in my life I felt fully dressed.
I was lost in the thoughts of what I would do once I got back to Regina and I didn’t notice the police cruiser until it was blocking my path across a laneway. The two officers got out and stood in front of me.
“Where you headin’, Chief?” the one asked. “Bus station,” I said.
“Oh, yeah?” his partner asked. “Where’d you come from?” “I came from Burtch Correctional Centre,” I said. “I just got out this morning. I’m heading home.”
“That right? Well, you won’t mind if we search you then, an upstanding citizen like yourself.”
I had nothing to hide and I’d been honest, so despite the anger I could feel boiling in my chest I leaned against the wall and allowed them to frisk me. I figured I’d be on my way in a few minutes.
“Well, well, what do we have here?” I heard and I was twisted around to face the two of them. In his hands one of the officers had the small screwdriver and two thin wrenches I’d been using in my friend’s garage and forgotten about.
“Tools,” I said. “I was working on a friend’s car and I forgot that I had them. If you want we can go back and ask him.”
“That where you got the three hundred, too?” the first officer asked.
“That’s what I saved during my bit,” I said. “You could check that, too, I guess.”
I was put in the back of the cruiser while they ran my identification on the computer. It came up clean, as I knew it would. No wants or warrants. But it also showed my record. “Seems you’ve been a pretty busy boy. Break and enters, too. You know this area’s been pretty bad for B&E’s lately and here you are with burglary tools in your pocket and a bunch of money,” the second officer said, turning back in his seat and fixing me with a hard glare.
“I told you. I was helping a friend fix a car and that money’s what I earned in Burtch.”
“You been drinking, too, Chief. So I think we’re going to take you in for possession of burglary tools. What do you think of that?”
I was stunned. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing when all that was needed was for them to drive me back to my buddy’s and things could get straightened out. Then I remembered all the things I’d read and learned over the past year. That was my mistake.
“I think you’re both a couple of pigs and if I was Joe White Guy walking down this street you wouldn’t even have bothered. But you see an Indian, you gotta pull a move. Pigs,” I said. “Couple of fuckin’ pigs.”
Twelve hours after I’d been released I was back in lockup. When they closed the door to my cell that night I laughed. It was all so ridiculous that anyone with an ounce of comprehension would see the situation for the charade that it was. My anger boiled over and by morning I’d decided that I would make a mockery of the whole thing. I’d plead guilty and once the facts were revealed, the judge and everyone in that courtroom would see how ridiculous it was. I didn’t need a lawyer. To me, at that instant, a lawyer was just going to be one more white man I didn’t need and this whole thing was silly anyway.
I was sentenced to six months.
For a whole week I spoke to no one. I paced the cell block and I thought. I thought about how I’d been judged on the way I looked, on what I represented. I thought about my place in the world—a place and a world that seemed beyond my control, defined and arranged by an order of others, comprised of anyone who had ever done me harm, that I could think of only as they. I had been tossed away as something unimportant, something inconsequential that their system wanted out of the way. I was an Indian and because I chose to express my identity through long hair and clothing they decided I needed to learn my place. My place apparently was not on the streets of their city. I was a threat to their peace of mind. The anger over the injustice of what had happened to me felt hot and rancid in my throat. I burned with it.
In the end I decided that I wasn’t going to play nice any longer. If they were responsible for the struggles of my life, if they were to blame for everything I’d gone through, for my sense of being lost, for not knowing about myself or my culture and heritage, then they were going to pay. If they could say that I was a criminal and put me where they figured I belonged, then I would prove that they were right. I would rebel, and hard. I would cease to care. I would get out and get all that I could for myself without regard for anyone else.
I needed a symbol of my rebellion. Until then I had never had a tattoo, although “tatties” were considered strong symbols of a rebel heart. My next-door neighbor was a tattoo artist, and he’d rigged up a homemade needle that he’d used to tattoo other men. It cost me a couple bales of tobacco, but one night he drew a marijuana leaf on my right forearm. It hurt. The needle was made out of a thread-wrapped pencil that held a darning needle. The needle was dipped in ink and then jabbed continuously in the desired emblem. It took about an hour, and with each jab I clenched my teeth and allowed my anger to numb the pain. Then it was over. I was going to war. I would be a warrior and screw anyone else, and especially screw them. They could do what they wanted with me. As long as I could know that I was fighting back, tossing it all in their faces, showing them that they had created me, that I was their invention and their punishment.
From For Joshua by Richard Wagamese (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2020). Copyright © 2002 by Richard Wagamese. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions.