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Legacy Update

Legacy Cover

With Legacy, Waubgeshig Rice places himself squarely at the forefront of the next wave of Native authors. Bold, envisioned storytelling. A hands down pleasure to read.
-Richard Wagamese

I’m very happy to announce that my new novel Legacy will begin shipping across Canada by the second week of August. Published by Theytus Books and edited by the wonderfully brilliant Adeena Karasick, the story follows four young siblings from an Anishinaabe community as they try to rewrite their family’s legacy of tragedy.

Muskrat Magazine was kind enough to chat with me recently about the novel and published a great preview. Check it out for a better idea of the story and how it came about. I will announce an official launch in Ottawa (and hopefully Toronto) soon, and I’m currently lining up other readings at literary events. Stay tuned for details. Theytus is also working on an electronic version of the book, and hopefully that will be available not long after the hard copy.

This has been my greatest creative endeavour thus far. It’s a real labour of love, and I hope you get the chance to read it. Please take a moment to view the video below for more. Miigwech!

The Greatest Teacher

Elaine Kelly, far right, holding my cousin Marion. I'm in my aunt Lorna Pawis' arms. 1980

Elaine Kelly, far right, holding my cousin Marion. I’m in my aunt Lorna Pawis’ arms. 1980

My aunt Elaine Rose Kelly, also known as Shawishkokeeshigogue (Blue Sky Woman), died suddenly on Wednesday morning at the age of 60. She was in North Bay, getting ready to go teach, when she had a heart attack. It has been a shocking, immeasurable loss for her entire family, but in these days of immense grief we take great pride in all of her accomplishments and everything that she was. She dedicated her life to education and advocated for Anishinaabe children in the classroom. She was also a devoted member of the Midewiwin way of life and extolled the many beautiful virtues of traditional Anishinaabe spirituality. On top of so many other admirable attributes, she epitomized everything about being an extraordinary teacher and a person. Along with so many other young people, she helped make me who I am today, and I will continue to be thankful and honour her for the rest of my life.

Growing up in our community of Wasauksing, Elaine was thrust into a leadership role early in life. Her father (my grandfather) died in a boating accident when she was just seven years old. In the years that followed, she became a role model and family leader to her six younger siblings, including my dad. My grandmother, Aileen Rice, instilled the value of education early in her children, and that set Elaine on her pioneering path as a student and eventually as a teacher. As a high school student in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Parry Sound, she fought to take humanities classes at a time when First Nations students were placed only in the vocational stream. She then went on to the University of Toronto, when First Nations students in post-secondary education in Canada was extremely rare. She eventually got her Master’s degree in education.

A long career teaching in communities across Ontario followed. She returned to Wasauksing in the early 1980s to teach at what was then called Ryerson Indian Day School. That’s where I began my education journey, along with her daughter Marion and many of our cousins and friends. She helped expand it beyond a kindergarten-only school. Prior to that, children were bussed into public school in Parry Sound after finishing their two years at “The Little Red School House.” Thanks to the vision and collective hard work of our community, the school was renamed Wasauksing Kinomaugewgamik, and I was fortunate to graduate from grade eight there.

That’s just one of the many gifts my auntie gave me on this path. Not only did a learn invaluable lessons from her as my aunt, she was also my teacher from grades one through four. She was the person who taught me how to read and write. Today, as an author and a journalist, I make my living thanks to those initial skills and gifts that came from her. It’s incredibly heartwarming and an indescribable honour to be able to carry that with me for the rest of my life.

And Auntie Elaine kept fostering that passion for words and stories within me well beyond our time together in the classroom. She continued to give me books for my birthday – everything from history to anthropology to politics to literature – right up until I turned 34 last month. The subjects of those books were always Indigenous. She wanted to ensure that I knew as much as possible about being Anishinaabe, and she wanted me to be proud of it. So many children, youth, and adults benefited from her enthusiasm and her passion to teach and share the culture.

My auntie had an extremely deep love for the Anishinaabe way of life, especially being Midewiwin. She was a third degree Mide in the Lodge, and enthusiastically supported and shared those beautiful traditional teachings. As such, she was incredibly loved and respected in traditional circles across Anishinaabe land. She truly embodied all of the great virtues extolled in that way of life: love, respect, truth, humility, wisdom, honesty, and bravery. She carried an incredible amount of knowledge with her, but she did so in a very humble way.

Above all, there was unrivalled kindness and strength in her spirit. She exuded love, and being in her presence was enough to heal and learn. She had an unmistakable laugh that will echo in thousands of ears for decades to come. Her bright, wide smile often made her eyes disappear, and that beautiful image is forever imprinted on my mind. Her ultimate legacy, though, is the successful education of all of our young people. She fought so hard to make sure First Nations children had all the same opportunities and achievements as non-Aboriginal students. She would say that each accomplishment in the classroom is a victory for all of us. She saw those victories as important steps forward in living on this land in a beautiful and positive way with everyone else. As such, her important and incomparable work will never die. And for me, her legacy lives on in the words I have written, and in the words that I will write.

G’gaawaabmin miinwaa Zhaawshkogiizhgokwe, g’zaagin.

Why Rage Against the Machine was my favourite band


The presidential election campaign in the United States is chugging along at an obnoxious pace. Now that Republican candidate Mitt Romney has chosen U.S. congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate, media spotlights are predictably overexposing the potential vice president. In a recent sweeping profile, the conservative candidate cited Rage Against the Machine – the notorious left-leaning rap-metal quartet that rose to prominence in the 1990s – as one of his favourite bands.

On the surface it’s an oddly amusing dichotomy. But RATM guitarist Tom Morello was offended enough by the notion of having a fan in Ryan to write a distancing op-ed. In it, Morello briefly outlines the basic social and political ideological differences between the candidate and the band, and points out that Ryan “likes the [band’s] sound and not the lyrics.” This brief and superficial confrontation in the media lends itself to the typical over-simplified conservative/liberal American political discourse. It overshadows the cultural influence of political art and the innovative vehicles that can carry it. In the early 1990s, Rage Against the Machine used popular culture to speak to marginalized peoples with politics and music. As an Anishinaabe youth on the reserve, they became my favourite band.

I was 13 years old when their self-titled debut came out in the fall of 1992. My family lived in a small corner of our community with no access to popular radio or cable television. By that point I had become obsessed with music of all genres thanks to the influence of my parents and friends. But I had no easy pipeline to new music, and could only read about bands that sounded exciting in magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin. I first read about RATM in those magazines, and the “political rap-rock” descriptors I had seen over and over in print intrigued me. Eventually, I convinced myself I had to hear it somehow.

Back then, the Toronto Star had a service called “Starphone”. I read about it in the entertainment section. It was a toll-free number readers could call for various information, including new music previews. Although it was a free call, I wasn’t sure what my parents would think of me listening to music over the phone, so one day I ripped the number out of the paper and went up to the band office to give it a shot on the pay phone there. After punching through the various options on the key pad, I was thrilled to discover Starphone had in fact clips of the first three songs from Rage Against the Machine. All I needed to hear was the first minute of “Bombtrack” and I was sold. It was a riff stronger than anything I’d heard on my mom and dad’s Zeppelin tapes under a mesmerizing and electrifying rap vocal track. Even over the phone, it was the most unique music I had ever heard, so the next time we went to the mall in town I used my allowance to buy the CD.

In the following months I listened to the album almost daily. It was loud, aggressive, and innovative. I never knew that basic guitar, bass, and drums could make riffs, rhythms, and noises that compelling. But at the core, the instruments became just the powerful foundation for influential lyrics that were emblematic of my own experience.

At the time Indigenous peoples in Canada were becoming a more formidable political force than ever. The Oka resistance of 1990 created a broad ripple effect of pride and cultural revival in the years that followed. The original people of the land were fighting for their spot in the political mainstream, all the while turning to the old ways for strength and support. As a young teen, I enthusiastically embraced this renewed spirit that I saw blossoming all around me. And I also saw this movement reflected in the lyrics of RATM frontman Zack de la Rocha. Verses like these became intensely profound:

Holes in our spirit causin’ tears and fears
One-sided stories for years and years and years
I’m inferior? Who’s inferior?
Yeah, we need to check the interior
Of the system that cares about only one culture
And that is why
We gotta take the power back

On top of that, de la Rocha himself has Indigenous roots in Mexico, and up until that point I had never seen anyone Native in a big mainstream rock band. He spoke to me.

Then, the following summer I finally saw their video for “Freedom” at my cousin’s in Barrie (as mentioned, we didn’t have cable TV and Muchmusic on the rez). The clip pays tribute to jailed Lakota/Anishinaabe activist Leonard Peltier, a member of the American Indian Movement who many believe was wrongly convicted of killing two FBI agents at Pine Ridge in South Dakota in 1975. I had only heard stories of Peltier through my father and other activists. Now I was seeing his story broadcast to millions via a pop culture channel. It was surreal, but it solidified RATM as my favourite band in the world.

That admiration continued throughout my teen years. I made my friends turn down the music at a party so we could watch them premiere “Bulls on Parade” on Saturday Night Live prior to the release of Evil Empire. I saw them live for the first time when I was 18, on student exchange in northern Germany at the Go Bang Festival. I got to see them a few more times in the years that followed, notably in front a tumultuous crowd at the Palace of Auburn Hills north of Detroit in the fall of 1999, introduced on-stage by filmmaker Michael Moore. To me, they’re all fun and proud memories that still make my hair stand on end. But most importantly, they taught me to embrace who I was and to be critical of the evolving world around me.

At the same time, the irony of a band making a fortune off of its music and continuing to point fingers at the rich was never lost on me. And when art becomes politicized, it tends to date itself and thus threatens to dilute its own message as the years go on. RATM broke up in 2000, but has since played numerous reunion shows in recent years. When bands go that nostalgic route, I’ve always perceived it as a money-making scheme and have a hard time taking it seriously. I haven’t seen them live since they got back together.

Still, band members have chosen contemporary battles to fight, and as petty as this Ryan/Morello discord is, it’s proven that political art can always be relevant. The music, lyrics, and causes that Rage Against the Machine immortalized back in the 1990s are still easily accessible and just as pertinent today. There are marginalized youth in countries around the world; especially on reserves here in Canada. And if a song like “Township Rebellion” starts the same fire in a kid today as it did in me 20 years ago, the awareness and unity these artistic movements can foster will never die.

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