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The blues and the feeling of belonging of an ojibway writer

Richard Wagamese

Initially a journalist, Richard Wagamese, now devotes himself to literature. He is the author of the novels Keeper’n Me, A Quality of Light, and Dream Wheels, which have earned him a number of literary prizes. Originally from Northern Ontario, he now lives in Alberta.

The story of a man who was driven, simultaneously, from two places where he belonged – from his family and from his nation. A story that resembles and reminds us of the displacement – the “uprooting” – that inspired the blues.

Richard Waganese first recounted how, at the age of 25, he found his grandfather, having been separated from him, and from the rest of the family, when he was sent to a distance education residential school, as required by Canadian law even in the 1960s.

In his article, “Moan that Particular Blues,” which appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of the Utne Reader, Richard Wagamese hit just the right notes in establishing a connection between being uprooted, being a refugee, and the blues.

«I met him when I was 25. I’d been taken away in the Sixties Sweep when the government hauled Indian kids off and dumped them into families far away from their traditional territories, and I hadn’t seen my family for over twenty years. I’d never known I had a grandfather, just as I’d never known I had a history or a culture vibrant, compelling and alive. But both were there for me if I would have them. »1

It is this experience which infuses his ideas about the blues with their deepest meaning.

«The blues was born of a displaced people crashed on the coast of a foreign shore and made to feel unwelcome. It was born of loneliness, of desperation, of hardscrabble fields and little to eat, and of needs and wants and dreams unfulfilled and shriveled like a raisin in the sun. It was a crying for what was taken away and a moaning for the pittance that was offered in return.

When I heard it I wanted to cry. Against the four-four push of it was the continuo of pain, the underlying pulse of hurt and hardship. It reminded me of my isolation, of my lack of a cultural linchpin, of a people disappeared, a history ruptured and a family fractured, split apart and never reassembled. The blues contained all of that, and I embraced it.

Within it I found the purple world of a small boy confounded by forces beyond his control and puzzled by the way “home” was never about belonging. In the blues I returned to the beatings meant to engender discipline, the banishment meant to create cohesion, and the jarring differences never addressed, never mentioned, and never healed. The blues let me see that I was not alone in all of that, and that was healing in itself.
It’s the same with a lot of Native people. The blues gives you permission to shout. It gives you permission to vent everything that life has stoked in you, return it to the air all ragged, rough, and rude, to proclaim the fact that you’re righteously pissed and that you won’t be slave to it anymore.»2


1. Richard Wagamese, One Native Life: Reaching Grandfather,  Canadian Dimension Magazine, May/June 2007 issue

2. Richard Wagamese, Moan-That-Particular-Blues, Utne Reader, juillet-août 2008.




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The editor of L'Encyclopédie de L'Agora and well known newspaper chronicler and philosopher, analyses actuality through the looking glass of Belonging.
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