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20 Jahre Nachher/20 Years Later

At Toronto's Pearson International Airport on July 31, 1996

At Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on July 31, 1996

I struggled to put on a brave face and hold back tears in front of passing strangers at Pearson as I hugged my family one last time. We wouldn’t see each other again for a whole year, and I was about to embark on a journey that would change the course of my life. It was 20 years ago today – July 31, 1996 – and I was 17 years old with my world about to blow wide open.

My luggage was checked, my documents were secure in my travel wallet, and prolonging the farewell would only result in awkward crying. There was nothing left to do or say, so I turned to walk towards the international gate, waving one last time and taking a mental snapshot of the quivering smiles on the faces of my loved ones.

Months earlier, I was selected by the Rotary Club of Parry Sound to take part in the Rotary International Youth Exchange Program and spend a year in northern Germany. It was a pretty big deal for an Anishinaabe kid from a small reserve on Georgian Bay. It wasn’t really planned; I literally stumbled upon the opportunity when I saw a poster for the program in the hall at Parry Sound High School, which piqued my interest. It was a crucial time in my life: the waning months of Grade 12 when high school students were supposed to formulate an educational and career path before the now-obsolete OAC year.

But instead of getting ready for my last year of high school, I was now about to board a plane to a European country, not to return until the following summer to prepare for OAC in the fall, and hopefully have a clearer vision of career ambition. I was both nervous and excited about the foreign path ahead of me, but I couldn’t have anticipated just how it would shape the person I was to become. The tears were long buried as I buckled into my seat on the plane.

The months in the lead-up to my exchange were full of Rotary orientations, visits with family and friends, and learning as much about modern-day Germany as possible. I had tapes and books to learn the language, but admittedly, I barely listened to or read any of those (although I did learn German fluently while there). But one conversation I had in those final months in Canada stands out as truly momentous and ominous.

I got a call sometime before I left with a sort of job offer. I don’t remember exactly when it was, because it has been 20 years, and details aren’t as sharp. Either way, it was from the Anishinabek News, the newspaper published by the Union of Ontario Indians (now the Anishinabek Nation) to serve its 40-plus communities across the province. The editor said they had heard about my upcoming trip, and wondered if I’d be interested in writing about my experiences as a ‘Nish teen in a European country for publication every month. And he said they’d pay me for each story.

The notion of being paid to write blew my mind. I had no idea that was possible. Journalism was never presented as a viable career option to me, mostly because I hadn’t been exposed to the few Indigenous journalists at the time who were out there blazing a trail in Canadian media. And the main reason I applied for the exchange program in the first place was that despite being an honours student in high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a living, or what or where I wanted to study for college or university.

At the Berlin Wall in November 1996 with fellow exchange students.

At the Berlin Wall in November 1996 with fellow exchange students Lisa Hill and Jen Ottaway

That’s why, after attending the information session for the Rotary exchange program the day after seeing that poster in the hall, I thought it was a good option to keep those big decisions at bay, and take the opportunity to figure out my path during a year away from home in a far-off place. My parents were supportive, as were the rest of my family and the wider community around me, especially the people in my home of Wasauksing First Nation. I didn’t realize then that I would become an ambassador for Anishinaabe people especially, and not just the country of Canada. That role emerged in the writing I was about to do.

In early August, I began the German equivalent of high school in the town of Brake in the maritime lowlands of the northeast. My host sister Anne drove me to the front door of Gymnasium Brake, and I had never been so nervous in my life. Those nerves were exacerbated by the dozens of students gathered out front. They all stared as I got out of the car, and my gut teetered on fear.

But as I approached, I saw affability and enthusiasm in their eyes, and they welcomed me warmly. I learned later that they gathered there that morning because they heard there was an “Indianer” coming to their school. They wanted to see how I looked. My friend Tim later told me they were disappointed to see me arrive in jeans and a t-shirt with short hair. They were expecting a “real-life” Indian like the ones they read about in the Winnetou tales by Karl May. We laughed, and I wrote about that for one of my first assignments for the Anishinabek News.

It’s a story I tell often nowadays when I explain how I got into journalism and decided to make raising awareness of Indigenous experiences in Canada my life’s mission. Up until that point in my life, I had never encountered such a great degree of enthusiasm and general interest in my Anishinaabe background. Most people I met there valued my heritage and experiences, and wanted to know more. Back then, outside of my own non-Indigenous family, that just didn’t happen to me in Canada.

That made the cultural and social divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians even clearer to me. I was well aware of the racism and general ignorance that existed in my home country because I had lived it first-hand, growing up in the 1980s and 90s. It took going to Germany to really feel celebrated and appreciated outside of my own community, and that was a shocking eyeopener.

The more I thought about it, thousands of kilometres from home, the more I realized Canadians just weren’t learning the proper story of Indigenous peoples and the actual history of how Canada came to be. And it wasn’t the fault of everyday Canadians themselves. It was the education system itself that erased those truths and experiences. While I alone could never fix those problems, I could help raise awareness by writing about them.

"We don't live in a tipi" - article in the Nordwest Zeitung newspaper following my speech (in German) to the Rotary Club of Brake in May 1997.

“We don’t live in a tipi” – article in the Nordwest Zeitung newspaper following my speech (in German) to the Rotary Club of Brake in May 1997

There were more eyeopening experiences like that first day of school. There was the time I was at an anniversary party for my host parents when an elderly German man told me to be proud of who I was as an Anishinaabe person and to ensure that my culture stayed strong. He said because when he was my age, he was forced to salute a man named Hitler and fall in line with all his horrible beliefs. As such, he said he found it hard to feel proud of his German background later in life. I wrote about that interaction, too.

I began getting letters from people back home who read those stories. They thanked me for sharing my experiences, and for representing the Anishinaabeg a world away from our homelands. Feedback like that was heartwarming and motivating. It made me realize that this kind of storytelling could have a real impact. That’s when I decided I wanted to become a journalist.

The year in Germany wrapped up, full of many beautiful, compelling, and enlightening stories. I could write a whole book about how that exchange year unfolded and what it really means to me. But 20 years to the day that I left, I’ll just focus on how it helped define my career and my desire to share the important stories of Indigenous people and the issues that impact them.

I returned to Canada at age 18, had one last year of high school to go, and applied to journalism school. I got into Ryerson, graduated four years later, and have worked in different storytelling capacities since. It’s an honour and a privilege to do this for a living, and I don’t believe I would have found this life without that year in Germany.

I’ve looked back often. I’ve even gone back twice to visit, and I’m long overdue for a return. It will always be like another home to me. It’s where I found my path, which continues to take shape. And for that, I’ll always be grateful.

Danke schoen/chi-miigwech/thank you!

Thanks to the following who made that year possible: my parents and brothers, my friends and family in Wasauksing and Parry Sound and beyond, the Rotary Club of Parry Sound, the Rotary Club of Brake-Unterweser, the Heitzhausen family, the Kordes family, the Doeding family, the Koehlers, the Funks, staff and students of Gymnasium Brake, the lovely people of the Wesermarsch, Dave Dale and Maurice Switzer of the Anishinabek News, and all Rotary exchange students I met. You’ll all have a special place in my heart always.

There I go, turn the page.

I shot this shaky video very quickly on my phone on a Saturday morning recently in Banff, Alberta. I was there for a reading/performance at the Banff Centre as part of Wordfest. As I mention in the vid, it was a fun, enlightening and rewarding experience, but it sadly marked the end of a tremendous journey for me. Wordfest was the last scheduled event on what ended up being a national “tour” in support of my book Midnight Sweatlodge. To wrap it up, I wanted to send out a brief message of thanks before returning home (and show off that beautiful natural backdrop) so I recorded that clip and put it on YouTube. I’d like to extend that thanks and elaborate a bit more here on what this amazing experience has meant to me.

Midnight Sweatlodge was published in June 2011 by Theytus Books. It’s a collection of short stories about some of the unique experiences of First Nations youth in this country, all tied together by a common theme. I wrote most of the stories when I was a teenager growing up on Wasauksing First Nation (“Aasinabe” was for a Grade 12 English assignment and “Dust” came around the same time, shortly after the killing of Dudley George). Creative writing was a fun and challenging artistic outlet for me, and I wrote stories not only to pass the time but to also record some of the compelling, tragic, and funny experiences going on around me. It was a hobby, but I dreamed that one day I would be able to publish some of them in a book. However, I put the stories aside for a long time once I started university, and they stayed in the periphery as my journalism career kicked into gear.

Then in 2004 I decided to revisit some of the stories in hopes of eventually finding avenues for publication. I applied for a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to revise them and tie them together with the theme of healing in the sweatlodge. I got the funding and spent two months finding ways to bring six stories with six very different voices together. I ended up dropping two of them altogether (you can find one of those stories here). The four that ended up in Midnight Sweatlodge were bound by an overarching narrative that attempted to bring the four main voices together. It was a challenge to do, but overall I was pretty satisfied with how it worked. Then I put the whole thing on the shelf again.

Throughout this whole process, I had been sharing some of these stories with friends via email. They were very helpful with feedback and encouragement. After revisiting some of those discussions, I finally decided in 2009 to shop it around. I mailed manuscripts to a few different Canadian publishers. After a couple of rejection letters, I got one later that summer that began this unexpected journey. To my absolute delight, Theytus offered me a publishing contract. The dream I had as a kid on the rez was coming true.

Theytus paired me with editor Jordan Wheeler, which was another unexpected thrill. I read his book Brothers in Arms when I was 16 and it was one of the books that really inspired me to pursue written storytelling. I couldn’t believe I would be working with one of my idols to make my own book a reality. We spent about a year sending it back and forth with recommendations and revisions. Jordan helped me tighten up the stories and overall, he made me a better writer. Finally, the book came out in June of 2011.

I thought I would have one book launch/reading, and that would be it. Everything that’s happened since has far exceeded any expectations I had of what life as an author would be like for me. I’ve had readings and workshops at events across the country over the last year and a half. It’s been a hugely rewarding thrill and I’m extremely thankful, first and foremost to Theytus Books for taking a chance on me and helping make my dream a reality. The entire staff has been a delight to work with, and I have to thank them and Jordan Wheeler for all their invaluable help.

I’d also like to say chi-miigwetch to my family and friends, and the people of Wasauksing who inspired these stories. CBC (my day job) deserves huge credit for letting me take the time off to take these trips, and also for helping promote my book. Thanks to sodiumpump for all the web help and support with the online presence. Thanks to independent and mainstream media across the country for helping spread the word, and thanks to the festivals who have invited me to share my book in places I never thought I’d get to. Another big chi-miigwetch goes to the veteran authors who have guided me on my way since my book saw the light of day. And last but not least, the biggest thanks goes to you, the reader. I humbly appreciate you checking out my book! I’m writing a novel right now that explores one of the themes only slightly explored in Midnight Sweatlodge. Hopefully it will be out someday soon. Chi-miigwetch!

Midnight Sweatlodge

A growing orange fire raged outside a humble sweatlodge. A tall, lanky young man in a heavy dark work coat and jeans stood beside the fire holding a pitchfork and keeping a watchful eye. His much shorter cousin in a similar getup was there to hold the flap open to the lodge’s doorway. It was midnight and glowing embers carried high through the midwinter air as the fire crackled. There were five young men and three young women — ranging in age from late teens to late twenties — standing in a line waiting to get in; towels wrapped around their shivering naked bodies. They wore boots to protect their already trembling and frigid feet from the snowy ground, a thick crust that was broken with each step to reveal a fine white powder underneath. Each held a shaker to keep rhythm with the songs they’d sing inside. The women standing at the front of the line all wore their hair down and so did the young men who had long hair. The blistering orange glow seemed to illuminate their various natural tans — from beige to bronze to almond brown — and the fire danced in their slanted brown eyes. They slowly made their way towards the small dome, about four feet high and twice as long in diameter. An elder sat inside, awaiting them.

I’m pleased to announce that in May Theytus Books will release my fiction debut called Midnight Sweatlodge. It’s about the modern-day Aboriginal experience through the eyes of a group of very different young people that share similar hardships. They take turns telling their stories in a midnight sweatlodge ceremony in the depths of the bush on their reserve, far from their struggles in the contemporary outside world. From depression to drug abuse to identity confusion, each has a battle to overcome, and for most it’s a matter of survival. They wrestle with their own desire to understand their traditional past and reconcile it with their seemingly bleak future. Few realize the first step in that healing is sharing and letting go. For some, it’s already too late.

This project essentially began as a short story collection. Since high school, I’ve enjoyed writing short fiction in my spare time – primarily based on my experiences and those of my friends and relatives growing up on the reserve. There were a few I was particularly proud of, and I decided to pursue getting them published. In 2004, I pitched a collection idea to the Canada Council for the Arts, who generously bestowed a writing grant upon me to develop and refine it. From there, the stories eventually became part of one narrative. After sitting on it for a few years, a few friends implored me to submit it to publishers. In early 2009 I mailed a handful of manuscripts across the country, and Theytus was kind enough to take it on. They paired me with one of my literary idols – the illustrious and immensely talented Jordan Wheeler – to edit and further polish it.

This has been one of my life’s goals and I’m extremely happy that it’s finally coming to fruition. I hope you’ll check it out when it’s in print. Stay tuned for more details. Miigwetch.

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