by Waubgeshig Rice
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My name is Waubgeshig.
It means “white sky” in Anishinaabemowin.
It’s also a reference to the colour of the sky before the sun comes up in the morning.
My parents gave me that name when I was born.
They wanted me to grow up with a name in the language of my people and community…
Which was somewhat rare back in the late 1970s because of the lingering shame and trauma caused by colonialism.
Before I was born, they consulted with my grandmother - my dad’s mother - on a name.
She suggested Waubgeshig, because that was her father’s name.
My great-grandfather died long before I was born, but I grew up with stories about him.
So it’s an honour to carry and speak his name as my own.
It’s a constant reminder of my family, my people, and where I’m from.
As a sky name, it also places me firmly on the land beneath it.
In particularly difficult times, remembering who I am and where I’m from helps carry me through.
My name takes me back to my community, a beautiful island on Georgian Bay.
Anishinaabeg have known it since time immemorial as Wasauksing.
There are different interpretations and translations of that name.
Some say it means “a place that shines” or “shining beaches”.
Our old stories tell of the island itself being a beacon of sorts on long migrations.
It’s a large, rocky, tree-covered island with scenic cliffs and sandy beaches throughout its vast shoreline.
To the east is the town of Parry Sound, Ontario, and to the west is the vast Georgian Bay.
I consider it a gem of a place.
A natural wonder.
An oasis for the spirit.
It’s where I go - both physically and mentally - for respite and to recharge.
I sit on the cliff near where the house I grew up in stands, and look out on the bay.
I stand on the beach at the bottom of that cliff, feeling the hot black sand between my toes.
I step out into the water to feel its mighty embrace.
It’s water so powerful it both gives and takes life.
Here, I am surrounded by the trees, rocks, and water that my recent Anishinaabe ancestors call home.
It’s more than just being in nature.
It’s being part of the land.
Respecting and understanding our surroundings is essential to humanity.
We exist with it, not just from it.
If we take from the land, we give back.
These are Anishinaabe principles that have guided people here since time immemorial.
We have abided by our respect for the land, even when our traditions were taken or beaten from us.
And returning and reconnecting to it is an important part of collective and individual healing processes.
It’s not always easy to get there, though.
Especially if we’ve been forcibly removed from the land.
Or if the society we’ve become a part of has imposed different values on us.
And there’s been an added challenge lately.
A global sickness has changed our lives.
As we collectively do our part to limit the spread of this virus and keep others safe and healthy, many of us have stayed home.
That means not going to our natural places of refuge as often as we’d like.
My family and I live in a city about an hour and a half’s drive north of Wasauksing.
Normally, we visit regularly, and stay in a cabin on that beach near my childhood home.
But when the first wave of the pandemic gripped the land as spring turned into summer, we stayed away.
There were dozens of cases of the sickness in the city, but none on the Rez.
We didn’t want to threaten the community’s health and wellness.
There’s too much to lose.
Our elders carry so much wisdom and knowledge of our culture and history…and they’re most vulnerable.
Eventually, restrictions eased, and we carefully visited throughout the summer.
It was our newborn son’s first visit to his ancestral homeland.
He experienced the land that has nurtured me for more than four decades.
It’s a special place my wife and older son can call home, too.
Our time on the land this year was brief, but profoundly fulfilling.
We savoured every moment among those trees, in front of that water.
But that time is done for another season.
As another wave of the sickness rises, we’re staying put in the city once again.
It’s part of our responsibility to keep the community safe and healthy.
So for now, we’ll hold on to those memories of our natural refuge.
We’ll remember the sound of our young relatives playing on the beach and swimming in the water.
We’ll remember the high summer sun, piercing through the leaves of the tall oak and birch trees.
We’ll remember the ducks, the loons, the squirrels, the bears, the fish, and every other living being.
We’ll remember the evening breeze as it comes off the water.
We’ll remember the rocks, firm under us all.
We’ll remember our safety and comfort in this natural haven.
We’ll remember the stillness of the morning and that neutral sky before the sun comes up…
Waiting to be painted with the vibrancy of this life.
And we’ll return, as we always have.
As our ancestors have survived harm after harm…including sicknesses.
We’ll help create memories for our young ones to pass down as the seasons turn.
We are proud to be people of the land.
And we’ll share its stories forever.
WAUBGESHIG RICE is an author and journalist from Wasauksing First Nation on Georgian Bay. He has written three fiction titles, and his short stories and essays have been published in numerous anthologies. His most recent novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, was published in 2018 and became a national bestseller. He graduated from Ryerson University’s journalism program in 2002, and spent the bulk of his journalism career at CBC, most recently as host of Up North, the afternoon radio program for northern Ontario. He lives in Sudbury, Ontario with his wife and two sons.
Photos Courtesy of Waubgeshig Rice.