By Sue Tiffin
Hundreds of people registered to hear Waubgeshig Rice speak at the 13th Annual Indigenous Education Evening held virtually by the Trillium Lakelands District School Board on June 15.
Rice, an award-winning author and journalist, is originally from Wasauksing First Nation.
“I grew up at a time in the 1980s when our community was really making concerted efforts to reclaim Anishinaabe culture and customs and reconnect with our history that had been taken from us,” he said. “I feel myself and my wider generation and the younger ones are major beneficiaries of that widespread effort to reconnect.”
Rice said that was what empowered him to learn “about our culture and our stories and to apply that knowledge and those practices to my educational and professional career in hopes of amplifying Indigenous voices, but also learning about being Indigenous myself.”
At that time, Rice said there were no drums in the community, as they had been destroyed, hidden and never found or taken by the Indian agents at the time who upheld the Indian Act, which in part forbade cultural gatherings and ceremonies. The first drum he learned on was a “big bass drum from a pawn shop,” purchased by some of the elders from the community. He learned to sing and drum using sticks fashioned out of tent poles and fishing poles with foam tied around the ends.
“I always say that was a real punk rock kind of way to get back into the old songs, because it was a very do-it-yourself kind of initiative,” said Rice.
Prior to Rice attending school, kids would attend kindergarten in the community at what was then called Ryerson Indian Day School, and then head to Parry Sound for the remainder of their schooling. But when the movement to reclaim culture happened, he said the older generation – including his parents, their peers and the elders of the community – lobbied to expand the school on the reserve by advocating for funding and control of educational administration. As a result, Rice was one of the first kids to graduate from Grade 8 at the school, which was renamed as Wasauksing Kinomaugewgamik, or Wasauksing School.
“Part of that autonomy and sovereignty was ensuring we had time for cultural learning,” said Rice. “So that meant bringing in elders specifically to tell us stories or teach us about our culture. But also it was very informal at the same time, in that if an elder just happened to be walking down the road and they wanted to come in and hang out with the kids, they would make time for that too.”
Rice said that if he was in math class, and an elder suddenly knocked on the door and entered, the students put away their math books and instead were able to engage in story time with the elder.
“I learned early on just how crucial that storytelling element was in terms of preserving our culture and ensuring that we were aware of who we were as Anishinabek,” he said.
Rice said even as a very young child, he recognized the stories were important and tried to remember them so that he could pass them along to future generations.
“That storytelling foundation was laid at a pretty early age for me,” he said.
After graduating from Grade 8, Rice attended high school in Parry Sound. While he loved reading and English class, he said the approach to storytelling was different in that engaging with stories was more formal – head down, reading a book, having a “solitary, even isolating experience,” and interpreting the stories independently as opposed to having a communal or collective experience.
“We would sit on the floor and look up at an elder and engage with the story together, we would laugh together, cry together, and so on,” he said. “But going into the more formal education system of secondary, it was just all by yourself … OK, it’s just a different way of doing things.”
He also noticed that reading lists were only books by “white authors, usually white men, and they’re usually dead, these dudes who are long gone.”
“The way the curriculum sets it up, is that the book is the pinnacle of storytelling expression,” said Rice. “That is the highest form of storytelling you can get, that’s how the system presents it to you. And because we’d only read these books by white men, I thought, well, OK, that is not a realm for me. I did not read any Indigenous experiences written by Indigenous authors so I thought the stories I heard growing up aren’t part of this. I just accepted it.”
In Grade 11, an auntie who was also one of his first teachers at Wasauksing Kinomaugewgamik asked him, at a family function, how school was doing.
“She always took a keen interest in our education after we graduated from Grade 8, she always checked in with us pretty regularly,” said Rice.
When he told her he enjoyed school, and in particular English class, she asked him what authors he was reading to which he replied: Shakespeare, J.D. Salinger, W.O. Mitchell, and so on.
“After that, she started giving me books by Indigenous authors, for my birthday and for Christmas and even just randomly,” said Rice. “Books by Thomas King and Richard Wagamese, Lee Maracle, Louise Erdrich, Maria Campbell. All of these authors who are already out there, writing important works of Indigenous literature and really blazing that trail that I eventually ended up on.”
Rice said these books are how he learned about the Sixties Scoop (Keeper’n Me, Richard Wagamese), where he saw the “humour of our stories really expertly portrayed” (Green Grass, Running Water, Thomas King) and the “brutalities of the colonial existence” (Ravensong, Lee Maracle and Tracks, Louise Erdrich).
“I just wasn’t familiar with them at all through the education system,” he said. “It totally blew me away. It opened my eyes to this entirely different way of telling stories and what I saw were not just my own experiences as Anishinaabe person reflected back to me from the page. I saw these universal elements of the realities of Indigenous people that could bring people together just by writing them down and sharing them en masse.”
Rice knew then that one day he would be a published author.
“It was just totally empowering for me to know that that was a viable outlet for me, for my storytelling,” he said. “And it was not something I learned in the classroom. Not at all. I didn’t have teachers showing me that back when I was a teenager in the 1990s, in the formal Ontario education system.”
Rice credits his aunt for introducing him to a more diverse reading list.
“Nowadays when I look back, I was very fortunate to have this aunt who showed me that way,” he said. “But I had accepted that that wasn’t a place for me. I had never entertained the idea of pursuing that as an artistic expression for myself until I had an aunt show me that. I think about all of my peers and just Indigenous people or Black people or other artists of colour who grew up in the same time who never had that opportunity, who didn’t fortunately have an aunt to show them what really could be. I think as a result Canada has missed out, and we’re really only starting to catch up now to what some of the actual diverse experiences of living in this country really are.”
While Rice said that both fiction and non-fiction books are a great resource to learn about history and everyday experiences, he also said it’s important to form relationships with people, including people who “make time to share and tell our stories.”
“I’m encouraged and empowered nowadays to see kids at the high school level learning about Indigenous authors and other authors from so-called marginalized communities, because that is how we will get to a place of understanding what Canada really is, and what it really has been because we have not – none of us – have been shown the reality of Canada whatsoever.”
For more information about Indigenous Education at TLDSB visit https://www.tldsb.ca/indigenous-education. Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice is available at Master’s Book Store at 195 Highland Street or through the Haliburton County Public Library.