Anishinabe author Jesse Wente: Unreconciled, a memoir
Watching Star Wars led Jesse Wente on a journey in search of Indigenous identity, truth and joy
'The reason I want Indigenous joy to be seen is because we're more than our tragedies...we're fully human'
Jesse Wente is an Anishinaabe writer, broadcaster and arts leader. He's best known for the more than two decades he's spent as a columnist for CBC Radio's Metro Morning. He has also worked at the Toronto International Film Festival. In 2018, he was named the first executive director of the Indigenous Screen Office and in January of 2020, he was appointed chair of the Canada Council for the Arts.
When he was just three years old, Wente fell in love with the 1977 epic space-opera film Star Wars. He remembers it fondly because it ignited in him an abiding love for film and storytelling.
Wente is a member of the Serpent River First Nation. He reflects on his roots in his new book Unreconciled, a memoir that explores Indigenous assimilation, identity and truth and reconciliation, and how Wente is using his passion for cinema to ground Indigenous stories in joy.
Wente spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing Unreconciled.
You begin Unreconciled with an experience that you had at age 10 playing on your softball team in East York, a Toronto suburb, and you're coming up to bat. What happens at that moment?
The other team started making a sound. It's a neighbourhood "little league" softball game, so there are all sorts of sounds. Taunting opposing players was part of the sport. But this sound was a war whoop, the type that kids used to make when they would play 'cowboys and Indians.'
Typically those taunts were, "We want a pitcher, not a belly-itcher" — that sort of thing. But this sound was a war whoop, the type that kids used to make when they would play "cowboys and Indians."
It is a sound that I have never heard outside of popular entertainment of a particular era and sporting events. In the book, I say it's the moment I realized that I was an Indian.
That is your exact first sentence.
It should be clear — it is not the first moment I realized I was Anishinaabe. I've never known a moment where I didn't know that I was. But it was the moment I understood what being that meant to others.
I remember the sound more than I remember what I did at the plate that day.
You recall seeing Star Wars at the age of three and just being in awe. Why do you think that was?
I think I've now seen it 300 times or more. It was just a movie that you hadn't ever really seen before — even though it's a movie that cribs from all of movie history and pop culture! It was just unique. Star Wars is a way for you to find Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, Sergio Leone, Fred Astaire, all sorts of things, and that's what it was for me.
Sitting here now, as a 47-year-old, and as someone who then proceeded to spend most of their adult life watching movies and thinking of them, I can't thank it enough for being a gateway for me to a whole world of wonder and amazement in storytelling, because that's what it was.
Star Wars is a way for you to find Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, Sergio Leone, Fred Astaire, all sorts of things, and that's what it was for me. I realized that the feeling that I had sitting in that theatre — of wonder, of being fully transported and immersed — and knowing that I'm experiencing something that is changing me.
That is what I have chased in the movie theatre ever since.
In the book, we meet your American father, your Anishinaabe mother and we learn about a close relationship that you have with your maternal grandmother, Norma, your nokomis. She was taken to residential school, but she hardly ever spoke about it. You wonder how her life would have turned out had she not gone to residential school? What do you think her life would have been like?
I want to say to you that it's impossible for me to know. But in my family, there were people of her generation who didn't go. It almost certainly means that I don't exist in this form.
But I'd be willing to sacrifice all that for her to avoid the years that she had at school — and for my mom and my aunt and uncle to have avoided what they had to go through.
This is the thing with residential schools — the consequences aren't held within one generation. The whole point of the schools was to alter families, communities and a culture forever. The heartache, and the part that Canada is continuing to reconcile, is the growing understanding of how harmful residential schools were to Canada.
But I resist the idea that I couldn't achieve or wouldn't have been able to achieve everything I have personally, or that First Nations people at large wouldn't be able to achieve all that we've been able to achieve if we hadn't gone to the schools. I think that's actually foolish. It's quite the opposite.
We would have achieved so much more. The heartache, and the part that Canada is continuing to reconcile, is the growing understanding of how harmful residential schools were to Canada.
You are intentional about Indigenous narrative sovereignty and reframing Indigenous storytelling, especially centring stories in a concept of joy. What do you mean by that?
I've been privileged enough now to be all over the world, and meet Indigenous people from nations all over the world. Of the many commonalities we have, the laughter is maybe the one I always leave with the most. The reason I want Indigenous joy to be seen is because we're more than our tragedies, because we're fully human.
As someone who's watched Indigenous cinema — and who's been very privileged to have what might be described as a front row seat for the development of Indigenous cinema globally — when I think of how it's grown, what it is now, it's still the possibilities of what it can be.
The reason I want Indigenous joy to be seen is because we're more than our tragedies, because we're fully human.