Richard Wagamese was born in 1955 in northwestern Ontario. His parents, Marjorie Wagamese and Stanley Raven, were both members of the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations, which is located northwest of Kenora, Ontario in Canada. Wagamese was also a member of the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations. As a toddler, he grew up hunting, trapping, and fishing, sharing responsibilities communally with extended family.
Marjorie and Stanley were two of the 150,000 First Nations children abducted and placed into Canadian residential schools. These so-called educational institutions were run by the church, and created with the explicit goal of assimilating indigenous children into white western society by destroying their connection to their own heritage. Indigenous children were forbidden to speak their languages, communicate with their parents, or wear their regalia. Thousands of Indigenous children died throughout Canada and the United States in the confines of residential or boarding schools.
When Wagamese was three, his parents left for a distant camp to drink, leaving him and his siblings alone for days. The children managed to reach the railroad town of Minaki, where a policeman seized them and sent them into foster care. This action was part of the “Sixties Scoop,” in which the Canadian government aggressively “scooped” Indigenous children and placed them into foster care. Wagamese did not see his parents again for 20 years. By the time they reunited, he had come to forgive their neglect, understanding it as a result of their own trauma as a result of the residential schools system.
Wagamese moved from one white foster family to another, and was often the victim of physical abuse at the hands of these families. At the age of 9, he was adopted by a white family who forbade him from having any contact with First Nations people. Wagamese left home and dropped out of high school at the age of 16, living on the streets or with friends. During this time, Wagamese recalls that he “practically lived in libraries,” beginning his lifelong love for literature.
Wagamese struggled with alcohol, drugs, and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the abuse and alienation of his childhood. He lived all over Canada and worked numerous jobs—much like Saul, the protagonist of his most famous novel, Indian Horse.
In 1979, Wagamese began his first professional writing job as a reporter for the First Nations newspaper The New Breed. He moved from there to the Calgary Herald, where he won a National Newspaper Award in 1991, the first Indigenous writer to do so.
In 1994, Wagamese published Keeper’n Me, his first novel. It follows the story of Garnet Raven, an Indigenous man who returns to his reserve after twenty years and forms a friendship with Keeper, an elder who teaches him about his people’s traditions. Although not autobiographical, the plot takes inspiration from Wagamese’s own life. He went on to write many more novels and memoirs, including The Quality of Light (1997), Father Teaches His Son (2003), and One Native Life (2008). He also published one collection of poetry and five anthologies, and was a writer for the TV show North of 60.
In 2012, Wagamese published Indian Horse, his best-known novel. It won the People’s Choice Award on CBC’s Canada Reads, and was adapted into a film in 2017. Wagamese was the recipient of many other awards and honors throughout his life. His first novel, Keeper’n Me, won the Alberta Writers Guild Best Novel Award in 1995. In 2007, his novel Dream Wheels won the Canadian Authors Association Award, and in 2011 his memoir One Story, One Song was awarded the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature.
In 2014, three years before his death, Wagamese published Medicine Walk. The novel is the recipient of the 2015 Banff Mountain Book Festival Grand Award, and the same year Wagamese received the Writers' Trust of Canada's Matt Cohen Award for his entire body of work. The unfinished sequel to Medicine Walk, entitled Starlight, was published posthumously in 2018.
Wagamese received a National Aboriginal Achievement Award in 2012. The following year he was awarded the Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature, as well as the Canada Council for the Arts Molson Prize. He also received an Honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, and was the Harvey Stevenson Southam Lecturer in Journalism at the University of Victoria.
Wagamese passed away at the age of 61, at his home in Kamloops, British Columbia. He left behind his life partner, Yvette Lehman, his two sons, Jason and Joshua, and many grandchildren.