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Anishinaabemowin advocate and journalist Wab Kinew’s engaging new autobiography The Reason You Walk (Viking Press, $32) is a finely crafted journey of reconciliation, cultural revival and a touching story about a father and his son.
To call it an autobiography is a tad misleading, as the story is as much about the man who Kinew learned from, emulated for good or bad, and eventually said goodbye to after a protracted battle with cancer, his ndede (father) Tobasonakwut.
“Ningosha anishaa wenji-bimoseyan (I am the reason you walk),” opens the book that centres on the two men striving to promote and protect their identity while maneuvering through the challenges and roadblocks familiar to many Onkwehón:we men across Turtle Island.
The first section of the book “Oshkaadizid” (Youth) is the strongest.
Kinew tells his ndede’s story of residential school trauma, alcoholism, fights, marital stress and, later, redemption.
Tobasonakwut is a fascinating man, and the guide for his son to many Anishinaabe cultural traditions such as the Sundance ceremonies that feature throughout the book.
The descriptions of the Sundance ceremonies are particularly engaging. Through Kinew’s writing, the reader gains an understanding of the ceremony, while also appreciating the importance of ceremonies to the Anishinaabe people.
His journey is not an easy one.
Kinew, like many, faced struggle in his youth while trying to discover how to reconcile his urban and Indigenous identity.
“Growing up, I had been raised to see myself as a warrior, and to prove myself as one,” he writes. “Yet I was also an angry young man, imitating the male role model I had grown up with.
“Now I was caught up in the party lifestyle that goes hand in hand with the music scene… I had inherited the grammar of the proud noble indigenous person, but adopted the vocabulary of the angry, self-centred city dweller.”
Much of the anger and abuse is a legacy of his father’s residential school experience that affected the Kinew family. That anger, however, gives way to understanding and reconciliation as both men grow in their tradition and adopt an attitude of reaching out to others, even those whose organization facilitated the residential school policy.
Tobasonakwut fought for the 2008 apology from then prime minister Stephen Harper, and visited with Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 and gave him an eagle feather.
“This moment does not excuse the sins or abuses of the past,” writes Kinew. “Nor does it fix policies and views held by the church, which are still harmful.
“It is a sign, however, that the institution can change. If reconciliation is to be possible, both sides need to move, and Indigenous people have already come a very long way.”
The book gives a great account of how to actually reconcile with those of opposing views. Tobasonakwut’s friendship and eventual adoption of archbishop James Weisgerber is a powerful example of the man’s ability to see beyond himself to find reconciliation.
“Through a lengthy, topsy-turvy journey, they had found and embraced each other as brothers,” writes Kinew. “Reconciliation in action. Reconciliation is not something realized on a grand level, something that happens when a prime minister and a national chief shake hands. It takes place at a much more individual level.
“Reconciliation is realized when two people come together and understand that what they share unites them and that what is different about them needs to be respected. Reconciliation happens when the archbishop and the sundancer become brothers.”
In addition to littering the book with traditions, visions and other cultural aspects of the Anishinaabe, Kinew makes heavy use of the Anishinaabemowin language throughout the book.
Entire passages are retold in the language, giving unfamiliar readers the opportunity to see a vibrant and reviving language.
At the ripe age of 33, Kinew has achieved much professionally and fought a fair number of battles personally. The Reason You Walk proves he has the ability to write it down. It’s a relevant book particularly for residential school survivors and their children. It is instructive without being preachy, and critical without being judgmental.