Journalism and Native Storytelling: Writer Richard Wagamese Bridges the Gap

National Aboriginal Achievement/Indspire Award Winner Richard Wagamese talks about storytelling, his work and the upcoming generation of aboriginal journalists

Ojibwe author, journalist, producer and broadcaster Richard Wagamese has been making waves in the world of media since 1979. Wielding a veritable Midas touch in every genre he has tried, Wagamese can boast an abundance of awards, including the first National Newspaper Award for column writing given to a Native Canadian, the Canadian Authors Association Award for fiction, two Native American Press Association awards, an honorary doctorate of letters from Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops and now … an Indspire (formerly National Aboriginal Achievement) Award in the Media & Communications category. The awards were given out on February 24 at a gala that will be broadcast on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) on April 13.

The author of the recently released novel Indian Horse (Douglas & McIntyre, 2012) took a few moments to discuss with Indian Country Today Media Network his life’s accolades and passions, his work and his hopes for Native youth.

What does your success in the field of media mean to you?

I have always thought that what I do is a valuable thing, and I have always thought that our people need [to have someone keeping] an eye on events and circumstances that affect their day-to-day lives. It needed to be an eye that was educated and trained from our oral storytelling tradition and that honored our storytelling principles and values, as well as being really true to journalism ethics. I have devoted myself to trying to find ways and means to do that with my column writing, radio and television work.

I incorporated those elements into doing what I did, and it became very strong. It moved beyond the ken of regular journalism and became more personal and more insightful, rather than having a strict reliance on fact and the empirical nature of journalism writing. It became more of a powerful reading experience for people because I was unafraid to speak about issues in the way it affected me as a day-by-day living, breathing, Native person. I'm gratified that here in Canada we have a whole new generation of journalists who have followed our path.

You have been working in media for 30 years. How would you compare day one to 2012?

In 1979 we still worked with typewriters and carbon copies, so if you made a mistake in writing your piece, you had to start all over again. One of the major developments at that time was the IBM electric typewriter with a 150-character memory. There was a wonderful little device called a self-correcting ribbon beneath the regular ribbons. If you made a mistake, you could do a strikeover and fix it, and everybody thought that was the height of technology.

Nowadays we have high-speed computers with spell and grammar check, and you can set up your page any way you want. It has become an expedient, faster and easier way to work. Add in the research capabilities of the Internet, and [the fact that] you can reach hundreds of thousands of people with a simple tweet. All these are things we never imagined to be possible 30 years ago.

I think the nature of the game of journalism, particularly for our people, is a lot more immediate, but we also have to remember to rely on the ethics and values of strong journalism. We must remain true to the cultural and spiritual underpinnings of our storytelling tradition. If we can do that we become journalistic storytellers—able to empower, entertain and inform our people in a way that is necessary in this day and age.

What passion has kept you going?

I think of an audience, someone who is just like me. Or just as I was at one point in my life, coming into a reconnection experience with aboriginal identity—I just wanted to know and understand everything, was hungry for the facts so that I could begin to scramble together my sense of my place in the world.

When I worked on a story, I thought, ‘Wow, I remember being in their shoes—what would I really want to hear, and what I would want to understand in the context of this story?’ That became my impetus and my drive. This has carried forward into my career as a published author. It is really important for those of us working as First Nations and Native American journalists to consider where we came from.

We must look at the way that our individual and community histories have been fractured. We have lost a certain percentage of our population through that fragmentation. When they find their way back to us, there has to be somebody around who can provide a comprehensive and concise and empowering overview about the nature of our lives and our lifestyle so that they can weigh into it again and feel comfortable at home and feel empowered by the presence of a voice that can tell them about themselves.

Any advice for Native youth who want to get into media?

You have to learn the skills first so that they become second nature. What that requires more than anything else is to read everything you can get your hands on.

If you want to understand about the issues that affect the lives of your community and your people, you have to read history. If you want to understand the causes and effects of history on your people, you have to read psychology. If you want to understand the way that your people have framed their place on the skin of the planet, you have to read science. You have to read biographies of people, you have to read all kinds of books about the development of art, you have to develop and foster a voracious sense of curiosity about everything that you see.

You can never allow yourself to say, I am not interested in that because that is not a Native thing. We cannot afford that viewpoint anymore. By looking at something and investigating and incorporating into yourself and in some ways expressing that through what you do, it becomes a Native thing.

What does this award mean to you?

I feel honored but I also feel that the most important aspect of this does not rest with me or to a certain degree, my accomplishments. It rests in the ability of First Nations youth and Native American youth to see the telecast or read about it in their newspapers or hear about it on the radio and understand that there are 15 individuals across a broad spectrum of activity and expertise who are being recognized by their own people.

They made a dream come true in a battle against a whole lot of obstacles … and became successful. What this says to Native young people is that if you have the courage to dream big and just continue to work hard and develop the skills that you need, then it is all possible. The longer this carries on, the more powerful the message becomes.