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Review:
Richard Wagamese, Keeper’n Me

by Agnes Grant
Education and Native Studies, Brandon University

Manitoba History, Number 30, Autumn 1995

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Richard Wagamese, Keeper’n Me. Toronto: Doubleday Canada Ltd., 1994. 214 pp. Cover illustration by Ken Monkman. ISBN 0-358-25452-0.

Richard Wagamese has become known to Canadian readers through his popular columns in the Calgary Herald. This first novel is a welcome addition to the field of Native literature; readers familiar with Wagamese’s columns are not disappointed. Those who are unfamiliar with his writing will enjoy this exposure to a new and promising Canadian novelist.

The story “bears some resemblance” (book cover) to Wagamese’s life; it presents the experiences of many Native people whose families were separated by the “baby-snatching” of mainstream social services which followed the residential school debacle. It is the story of Garnet Raven who was taken from his home when he was three. Forced to relocate due to hydro development, his parents moved to town. Garnet explains,

It was natural in my parents’ eyes to leave us with the old lady [his 65 year old granny] while they were out trying to make a living. But the Ontario Children’s Aid Society—all they seen was a bunch of rowdy little Indian kids terrorizing a bent-up old lady. Now anybody who knows anything about Indians knows that if there was any terrorizin’ being done at all it was done by the old lady (10).

The children were lured into the social workers’ car with chocolates while the granny was in the back yard. It was not until noon the next day that the frantic family found out what had happened to their children.

The children were kept together for a year and then Garnet was separated from his siblings. His life story is a familiar one—a series of foster homes, escape and aimless searching, surviving as best he could and eventually becoming adept at street life. In Toronto he met a black family and learned for the first time the strength and support a family can provide. However, he also learned the drug trade and by age twenty he was in jail.

His family located him in jail and the book is about his quest as he searches for his Indian identity. He rejoins his family and learns how to be an Ojibway. Keeper’n Me is basically a warm, happy story showing that family and elders are waiting to teach and heal those who have been denied knowledge of their heritage. The most significant person in Garnet’s life, except for his mother, is Keeper, a one-time protege of Garnet’s grandfather. Keeper, too, is seeking healing since he did not avail himself of the teaching offered him in his younger years. He is given a second chance when he helps his mentor’s grandson.

This book is a significant contribution to Canadian literature as it presents a segment of Canadian society which historically has been largely ignored, unduly romanticized, or appropriated by non-Native writers. Maria Campbell has stated that writers from outside the culture come from only “half a place.” [1] Wagamese comes from the “whole” place as he fictionalizes a common experience and presents Ojibway culture from the point of view of someone who is trying to regain his rightful place within the culture.

As a stranger to reserve life, Garnet Raven had much to learn. The story of his orientation to the culture is told with great integrity and humour. As might be expected, Garnet laughs at himself and his own foibles. When he arrives at the reserve he is out to impress the country yokels with his city smarts. When he arrives people are “gawking like crazy” (31). This should come as no surprise since he is wearing mirrored shades, an Afro “all picked about three feet around my head,” a balloon-sleeved yellow silk shirt, lime green baggy pants with little cuffs, hippy platform shoes with silver spangles, and three gold chains around his neck. He says,

I was giving off the odour of fifty-dollar perfume and hopping up and down like there was a Chicago blues band in my head. I just figured they couldn’t help themselves. Couldn’t keep their eyes off me (31).

One relative wonders if he had been adopted by Liberace, another comments that he smells so strongly fruit flies should be buzzing around his head, and a third warns against the danger of playing with electricity. Keeper concludes,

Guess if he could survive walking around lookin’ and smellin’ like that, learning to live and learn off the land was gonna be simple (39).

Customs and practices of reserve life are woven into the story artfully. The most significant teachings come from Keeper. This book is unique in that one of the recurring themes is that of gender balance, both within the culture and within each human being. Garnet first hears of the spiritual, mental, emotional and philosophical equality that characterized his parent’s union. Later, Keeper elaborates on the term Soo-wanee-quay, meaning “power of the woman.” He says,

See, when we get sent out into the world we come here carryin’ two sets of gifts. The gifts of the father an’ gifts of the mother ... We come here carryin’ those two sets of gifts, each one equal to the other. But sometimes the world gets hold of us and makes us see diff rent way. We get told as men that we gotta be strong, gotta be fearless. Lotta us kinda start ignoring the gifts of our mother. Go through life just usin’ the gifts of the father. Bein’ tough, makin’ our own plans. Livin’ in the head. But if you do that you can’t be whole on accounta you gotta use both of them equal setsa gifts to live right, to fill out the circle of your own life. Be complete. Gotta use the mother’s gifts too. Like gentleness an’ nurturin’, livin’ in the heart. That’s where the female power comes from. Livin’ in the heart. Them that’s tryin’ to chase the female outta themselves an’ their world are chasing out half of who they are. Busy bein’ incomplete. That’s not our way (115).

This book is an invaluable source for those seeking to understand and rectify the devastating consequences of a patriarchal society run amok. Because of Christianity, residential schools and the Indian Act, Indian men have been coerced into functioning in ways which violate their traditional teachings. The power given the men by the invading culture created disharmony and loss. Regaining the balance which once made Native cultures the most egalitarian in history is a slow and painful process. Among his many teachings about respect, honour, sharing, kindness and love, Keeper emphasizes the importance of this balance. It is obviously important to Wagamese, the writer, as it recurs in various forms in the novel.

Five years after his return to the reserve, Garnet Raven reflects on his life.

There’s always this feeling coming up inside me ... somewhere, sometime I heard it all before. Like it’s not so much being taught to me as reawakened. Rekindled ... We do carry the embers of those old fires within us (214).

Garnet is prepared to take his rightful place in the culture as he recognizes his role as a teller of stories about both traditional values and contemporary life.

You gather [at the seventh fire] with all the travellers who made the journey too and you are alone no more. There’s feasting and celebration. Great stories are told and you learn that you gotta keep the fire going on account there’s more to come. There’s always more to come (213).

In this respect, the story also bears resemblance to Wagamese’s life. Readers are privileged to read his story; hopefully there are many more to come.

1. Harmut Lutz, Contemporary Challenges: Conversations with Canadian Native Authors (Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1991), p. 30.

Page revised: 26 September 2012

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