Native despair: face to face with ennui on a reserve

Posted on August 25, 2013 in Inclusion Debates – commentary
24 Aug 2013.   Richard Wagamese

The hardest battle in our fight to save our native children is against ennui. If you haven’t encountered that word before, it means something about a ton heavier and a lot deadlier than simple boredom. It means a lifelong sort of tiredness. It means lassitude, an unrelenting feeling of nothingness. It means you give up trying, dreaming or seeing yourself doing something better.

I encountered it head on recently. I was at a northern reserve to deliver a workshop called Empowering Community Through Story. It was designed to allow native youth to gather and tell stories about themselves and their community in a variety of different media. The program offered the chance to use art, photography, video and oral and written story to create a comprehensive image of their home. It would have allowed them to see and share how they viewed their reserve in the past, present and future.

Because I believe so much in the healing power of story, I created the program so that native youth would discover that stories can be told in any number of ways. I designed it so they could choose how they wanted to tell them. I aimed it right at technology and art. If I had the relevant experience, I would have used dance, theatre and music to achieve the same goals. It was a grand initiative with incredible potential for change and empowerment.

Not a single youth registered. It was a free program with no registration fee. It wasn’t really their fault, because no one on the reserve got the word out. There were no posters or anything, so that when we arrived, no one was expecting us. There wasn’t a single person from administration, community development or health and wellness to show us where to go. We were a special program with no participants. So months of creating and planning went down the drain and we had to create something out of nothing.

When word did get out that we were there, reserve families simply sent their young children to us so that we could act as a sort of casual daycare. The program wasn’t designed for tots or those under 15, so it collapsed and became something far different. It became a face-to-face encounter with ennui.

The youngsters wanted stimulation. That was the good news. So we created an art program on the fly and got them painting, making collage and decorating hula hoops. But their level of interest and ability to concentrate and focus flagged very quickly and every art session devolved into noise and mayhem after about 30 minutes.

When I tried to get the community to show up at free lunches so I could take photographs for a community album, no one showed. When we attempted to get the health workers to arrange interviews with elders for a video that would go in their museum, no one showed – except when they knew they would be paid. Everything we tried to accomplish for that community fell flat. In the end, we created a small but vibrant community photo collage, and a short video with three elders talking and telling stories. But it was only through our energy. The community itself never showed.

When we left, there was no one there to receive the projects. There was no one interested enough to come see what we had created for them even though we’d been there for 10 days. Our bright, shiny projects that showed such hope and promise were left with no one to view them. It was sad – heartbreaking, even, because that’s what’s at the core of dysfunctional and ineffective reserve communities. Ennui. A thousand-pound word that means you simply just don’t care any more.

It’s the system that brings a people to that. It’s the Indian Act. It’s an imposed welfare mentality. It’s generation after generation of crushing isolation andpoverty. It’s the deeply ingrained belief that there is nothing else possible and that no one sees us or cares about us anyway. It’s the entire history of Canada and her relationship with native people focused despairingly on our most vulnerable.

It’s killing us, starting with our youngest. It’s foisted upon our youngsters and our youth and robs them of vision. Those kids in that art class didn’t lose their focus because they weren’t interested. They lost it because in the larger picture of their lives it had no place. It would end as all things end. It would flare as all promises flare and then gradually slip away never to be repeated.

Ennui. The acceptance that this is all there is and all there ever will be. Fighting that is where our greatest battle has yet to be fought.

Richard Wagamese is an author and journalist from the Ojibway Wabasseemoong First Nation.  His most recent book is the novel Indian Horse.

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