Skip to content

Walking the Ojibwe Path: A Memoir in Letters to Joshua

in stock, ready to be shipped
Save 0% Save 0%
Original price $18.00
Original price $18.00 - Original price $18.00
Original price $18.00
Current price $17.99
$17.99 - $17.99
Current price $17.99
“We may not relight the fires that used to burn in our villages, but we can carry the embers from those fires in our hearts and learn to light new fires in a new world.”

Ojibwe tradition calls for fathers to walk their children through the world, sharing the ancient understanding “that we are all, animate and inanimate alike, living on the one pure breath with which the Creator gave life to the Universe.” In this new entry in the Seedbank series, an intimate series of letters to the six-year-old son from whom he was estranged, Richard Wagamese fulfills this traditional duty with grace and humility, describing his own path through life—separation from his family as a boy, substance abuse, incarceration, and ultimately the discovery of books and writing—and braiding this extraordinary story with the teachings of his people, in which animals were the teachers of human beings, until greed and a desire to control the more-than-human world led to anger, fear, and, eventually, profound alienation.

At once a deeply moving memoir and a fascinating elucidation of a rich indigenous cosmology, Walking the Ojibwe Path is an unforgettable journey.

ISBN-13: 9781571313942

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Milkweed Editions

Publication Date: 07-18-2023

Pages: 240

Product Dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.00(d)

Series: Seedbank

Richard Wagamese (1955–2017) was one of Canada’s foremost writers, and one of the leading indigenous writers in North America. The author of several acclaimed memoirs and more than a dozen novels, he won numerous awards and honors for his writing.

Read an Excerpt

Once there was a lonely little boy. He had no idea where he belonged in the world. The boy had no knowledge about where his family was or where he’d come from. So he began to dream. He imagined a glorious life with a mother and father, sisters and brothers, grandfathers and grandmothers. He put his dreams down on paper and filled the pages with drawings, stories, poems, and songs of the people he missed so much but could not remember. But he always awoke, the stories and poems always ended, and the songs faded off into the night.

As he grew, the boy carried this emptiness around inside him. Everywhere he went, it was his constant companion. Many people took turns caring for the boy, and many people tried to fill that hole, but no one ever could. Through all the homes he drifted the boy began to realize that all that ever really changed about him were his clothes.

One day, the people around him said that he was old enough to go and find there. It was a magical place, this place called there, because everyone got to choose where there would be for them.

But finding there was difficult. The boy took many roads, many turns, many long lonely journeys trying to find it. He grew older. He lived in many places and with many different people. But inside himself he was still a lonely little boy who could only ever dream dreams, create stories and poems and songs about the kingdom of there.

Then one day he met a kind, gentle old man on one of the twisted, narrow roads he was travelling. This old man had been everywhere and seen many things. He was wise and liked the young man very much. As they sat together by the side of that long, narrow road, the old man began to tell him stories about all of his travels, and especially about how good it felt to return from those journeys.

“What is return?” the young man asked.

“Why, it’s to get back to where you started, where you belong,” the old man said.

“What does it mean to belong?”

The old man smiled kindly and said, “To belong is to feel right. It’s a place where everything fits.”

“How do you get there?” the young man asked.

“Well, getting anywhere means you have to make a journey. But on this journey, to find where you belong, you really only have to travel one direction,” the old man said.

“What direction is that?”

“The toughest direction of all,” the old man said. “You have to travel inside yourself, not down long, narrow roads like this one.”

“Does it hurt?” the young man asked.

“Sometimes. But anyone who makes that journey finds out that no matter how hard the journey is, getting there is the biggest comfort of all.”

The young man thought about the old man’s words. They were mysterious and strange. In fact, they weren’t answers to his questions at all, just more and more questions lined up one behind the other as far as he allowed his mind to wander. But there was something in the gentle way the old man had of talking that made him feel safe—a trust that everything he said was true. Even if he couldn’t understand it all.

“Can I get there from here?” he asked finally.

The old man smiled at him and patted him on the shoulder. “Here is the only place you can start from.”


I was that lonely little boy, Joshua, and I was the lonely young man who tried so hard to belong. Like him, I have travelled a lot of hard roads searching for the one thing that would allow me to feel safe, secure, and welcome. Some of them led to prison, poverty, drunkenness, drugs, depression, isolation, and thoughts of suicide. But many were glorious roads to travel—the ones that led to sobriety, friendship, music, writing, and the empowering traditional ways of the Ojibwe people to whom you and I belong.

There were many teachers on those roads. Always there was someone somewhere who offered things meant to teach me how to see the world and my place in it. But like most of us, I only ever trusted my mind—and my mind always needed proof. The sad thing is that when you spend all your time in a search for proof, you miss the magic of the journey, and I was on those roads a long, long time before I learned the most important lesson of all: that the journey is the teaching, and the proof of the truthfulness of all things comes secretly, mysteriously, when you find yourself smiling when you used to cry, and staying staunchly in place when you used to run away.

I spent many years afraid of the questions. I was afraid of the questions because I was afraid of the answers, and that fear kept me on narrow, twisted roads deep into my life. My greatest fear was that after the search, after the most arduous of journeys, I would discover, at the end, a me I didn’t like, the me that I was always convinced I was: an unlovable, inadequate, weak, unworthy human being. And at that point of discovery I would be alone. Alone with myself. Alone with my fears. Alone with the one person I had spent so much time and energy trying to run away from.

When I was scared I ran, from darkness to darkness. But flight is futile when the bitterest pain is the memory of the people that get left behind. The innocent ones bearing the hurts and disappointments of our leaving, standing by the wayside watching as we disappear down another sullen highway. They never really understand departure. They can’t. Because we are incapable of explanation. We only know that we need to move on, desperate gypsies seeking the solace of flight, the vague, lingering hope that geography, in some way, might save us.

You are one of the innocent ones. You are six years old at this writing and because of the choices I made during the part of my journey since your birth, we are not together. I chose drink and isolation to deal with my pain, my fear, and the resultant overwhelming sense of inadequacy, and the effect of those choices is a life where son and father cannot live together—perhaps not ever.

Today the ache of your absence is hard.

Because I was there at the very moment you entered the world. I stood beside your mother when she delivered you. I received you from the nurse and held you, afraid that I might press too hard and hurt you, or not press firmly enough and let you tumble from my grasp. I held you like the treasure that you are. When I looked at you that April morning I found myself grateful for a Creator that could fashion such a magnificent being, such a beautiful boy, such a gift to me.

Your arrival filled my heart with joy, and it was so great it spilled over into the empty side of my chest and made me more—bigger, stronger, more alive. I didn’t want to give you back to them when they asked to weigh and measure you. I didn’t want to give you back because I didn’t want to surrender that feeling your arrival had created in me.

For a time I felt like a father. I’d never been one before and learning to change your diapers, rock you to sleep, feed you, and get you to giggle were private joys that I still carry in my heart. They are my pocket treasures and even though they’ve been worn smooth from handling over the years, it’s comforting to know that they are there when I need them.

You and I would wander along Danforth Avenue in Toronto. I carried you on my chest in your carrier and talked to you about where we were going and what we were seeing. We got a lot of strange looks from the people we passed because I was not ashamed to talk to you out loud, laugh, and coax you to make some happy noise. There was a bookstore we’d go into almost every day and I’d read to you from my favourite volumes. We’d go to a small park and I’d sing to you as we swung slowly back and forth on the swing set in the playground. You used to love that. And as we moved together through the great, grand noise that is Toronto I heard nothing but you and felt nothing but the warmth of your body nestled against mine. I can’t enter that city now without a feeling of incredible loss or joy for you.

Drinking is why we are separated.

That’s the plain and simple truth of it. I was a drunk and never faced the truth about myself—that I was a drunk. Booze owned me. I offered myself to it when I was a young man and it was only too glad to accept me into the ranks of its worshippers, the ones who are willing to pay with everything for one more round. I drank because it made things disappear. Things like shyness, inadequacy, low self-worth—and fear. I drank out of the fears I’d carried all my life, the fears I could never tell anyone about, the fears that ate away at me constantly, even in the happiest moments of my life, and your mother did the only thing that she knew to do and that was to take you away where you could be safe. I don’t blame her for that. I’m thankful in fact. I drank on and off, like I’d done all my life, and your mother grew tired of my constantly returning to the bottle. She refused to let me see you. When I finally got sober I knew I had responsibilities, but by then we’d been apart more than two years. This book is my way of living up to some of that responsibility.

As Ojibwe men, we are taught that it is the father’s responsibility to introduce our children to the world. In the old traditional way, an Ojibwe man would take his child with him on his journeys along the trap lines, on hunting trips, fishing, or just on long rambles across the land. The father would point out the things he saw on those outings and tell his child the name of everything he saw, explain its function, its place in Creation. Even though the child was an infant and incapable of understanding, the traditional man would do this thing. He would explain that the child was a brother or a sister to everything and that there was no need to fear anything because they were all relations.

The father would perform this ritual so the child would feel that it belonged. He would do this so that the child would never feel separated from the heartbeat of Mother Earth. So that children would always feel that heartbeat in the soles of their feet. He would do it so that kinship was one of the first teachings the child received. The father would do this to honour the ancient ways that taught us that we are all, animate and inanimate alike, living on the one pure breath with which the Creator gave life to the Universe.

And he did it for himself.

He performed this task so he could learn that devotion is a duty driven by love, one which has its beginnings in the earliest stage of life, and that teaching, preparing a child for the world, begins then as well.

This book is my way of performing that traditional duty. I do not know if or when we will be together. Because of the way I chose to live my life, the price we’ve paid is separation. I am neither a hunter nor a trapper. I am not a teacher, healer, drummer, singer, or dancer. Nor am I a wise man. But I offer this book as a means of fulfilling that traditional responsibility. I want to introduce you to the world, to Creation, to the landscape I have walked, to some of the people who have shaped my life. All I have to offer is all that I have seen, all the varied people I became, and maybe you will glean from all of it an idea of the father that my life and my choices have denied you.

Table of Contents


Author’s Note

For Joshua
For Joshua
For Joshua