The first time I saw Wab Kinew was at a speaking engagement in April 2013. Best known as the dynamic host of the acclaimed CBC documentary series 8th Fire, the journalist/broadcaster-cum-indigenous-spokesperson was the guest of the Halton Catholic District School Board, educating the small audience in Oakville on the Idle No More movement. He was engaging, informative, personable, entertaining. There was a bit of an unexpected moment outside of the presentation and friendly banter. An indigenous woman in the audience dismissed Kinew as not really indigenous enough because he had chosen to wear a business suit to this event. Kinew handled this situation with deftness, class, and vigour. More on this later.
In The Reason You Walk, Kinew recounts his journey reconnecting with his father after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The memoir is as much Kinew's story of coming into himself as an educated (both formally and traditionally) Anishinaabe man, weaving his own experiences in with his father's life story. Kinew starts at the beginning of his father's life. Named Tobansonakwut (Low Flying Cloud), Kinew's father was born into a traditional family with early spiritual growth until the moment his childhood ends as he is sent to St Mary's residential school. "Renamed" Peter Kelly, Tobansonakwut's story here is much like many survivors' stories as recounted at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings across Canada from 2010-2014. Religious conversion, mistreatment, abuse, but also also stolen moments of joy, like the company of a kind priest or skating on an outdoor hockey rink.
When Tobansonakwut finally returns home at 16, it was not the home he remembered: his father gone, younger siblings still in residential school, and am older brother already an alcoholic. Tobansonakwut quickly leaves and heads to work, and while his story of hard work and racism and poor decision-making is not unusual, what does stand out from this story is a persistence to not be shackled by the injustices he has experienced. Tobansonakwut keeps circling back to the traditional culture, his deep connection to the spirituality from both indigenous and Christian (here Catholic) perspectives, a retention of Anishinaabemowein (the language), and eventually, cleaned up, political action, activism and forgiveness.
The strongest parts in this memoir occur when Kinew talks about indigenous traditions and ceremonies. Kinew provides his audience with an insider's view of some sacred ceremonies such as Sundance. In my experience in the indigenous community, many elders and knowledge carriers closely guard ceremonial practices. One elder said to me this summer, "Everything else has been taken from me. This is all I have. I am not yet ready to give this up by sharing it." Another perspective is that there is power in knowledge. Educating people about the importance and sacredness of ceremony, the sacrifice, responsibility and humility that accompany ceremony may lead to better understanding by those outside the community. Kinew is careful to provide context, explaining, for example, the responsibility that he had by being given his father's war bonnet, that the pain of piercing at Sundance is an act of selflessness as it shows that prayers and hopes for others are more important than personal comfort. It was these Sundance scars that Kinew offered to bare to the woman in Oakville who challenged his business attire. As he removed his jacket he asked her how he is a different person with, or without the jacket.
Kinew talks about the forces within indigenous community that divide (like the woman in Oakville), and those who work tirelessly behind the scenes for change for indigenous peoples. In one poignant scene, Tobansonakwut adopts the archbishop with Kinew presiding over the ceremony. The image of the meshing of two cultures is striking: "The archbishop raised the eagle feathers in his left hand... He wore the bright star quilt over his black robe and Roman collar. This Catholic holy man stood in the centre of a traditional Anishinaabe building adorned with the accouterments of both cultures." Beautiful.
Ningosha anishaa wenji-bimoseyan is a line from an Anishinaabe travelling song traditionally sung at the end of a gathering to wish everyone safe journeys. The line roughly translated into English, I am the reason you walk, gives Kinew's memoir its title. Kinew notes that there are layers of meaning within this line, as with most phrases in Anishinaabemowein. Kinew examines how all the layers are intertwined in his life, how simply the ebb and flow of life bring different layers to the forefront for different people at different times, how the gravity of watching the decline of a beloved father brings the family closer together as they consider all the reasons they walk.