Wilfred Peltier (pen name Wilfred Pelletier) was born in Wikwemikong, Ontario on October 16, 1927. Actually, Wilfred celebrated two birthdays. His second birthday, he joked, was October 27th - the date of birth recorded on his status card.
According to his long time partner, Nancy Stewart, "Wilfred had conflicting ID, and on his birth certificate his name was 'Winfred'. Alanis (Obamsawin) used to call him Winnie-fred and I remember him showing her his birth certificate and how funny it was for her to see "Winfred." I think his status card had his birthday being on the 27th confused with 1927 the year of his birth. Then there was the Peltier/Pelletier issue so throughout the years there was confusion. Mostly it was just fun."
The beautiful irony of this man with two birthdays and two names is that more than most people, Wilfred was not confused in his identity - he knew who he was: he was the land. Wilfred embarked on a life long journey in storytelling to try to express his point of view on life, a view shared by many Indigenous peoples in the world, in the hopes that mankind could lift itself out of the destructive path we have made for ourselves.
In his life Wilfred was called a storyteller, an author, an Elder, a pipe carrier, a mentor, a philosopher and in his own words "a bull-shitter". Although passionate and serious about what he believed in, it was his wit and ability to make a person laugh that endeared young and old alike to him.
Wilfred's "Indian" or spirit name was Baibomsey ("he who travels"), which could be interpreted literally or figuratively. He travelled far geographically but also, and perhaps more importantly, Wilfred pushed himself to think beyond the societal boundaries of accepted norms.
Raised in the First Nations community of Wikwemikong, he learned his language and an Indigenous way of seeing the world. In his published paper Childhood in an Indian Village, Wilfred says, "the class structure in the community was horizontal. There was only one class. Nobody was interested in getting on top of anybody else."
At 15 his family moved to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. This was his introduction to urban life and he recalls fondly the sleighs that dotted the downtown streets in the winter. But, he recalls, life for him as a native person was very different there "Being Indian was different. Indians were 'drunks' and 'bums' - its seems everybody knew that. And I was one of them. There was that same idea back at Ten Mile Point and in Little Current, but the lines weren't so sharply drawn. Here there were no exceptions, no acceptable Indians: that was the feeling."
At 15, he joined the U.S. Navy (after lying about his age), and was sent on the USS Cohocton out of San Francisco to Japan. Contrary to what he had been told, he did not see an enemy in the Japanese, but a people whose culture he appreciated. It was there that the experiences which had shaped his youth became cemented in his philosophy.
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia (www.canadianencyclopedia.ca) "Pelletier expressed the unity of all terrestrial life with the Earth, and with his quiet eloquence inspired listeners of different ages and backgrounds. Especially interested in education, he believed that there are better ways of learning than traditional Western methods."
Once back in Canada, Wilfred spent a few years as the owner of a restaurant, a tourist resort, an apparel shop, and a grocery store. It was a time he considered was his process of trying to "become" something.
His businesses ended up failing and he and his first wife Dorrie and daughter Jennifer moved back to Wikwemikong. Wilfred considered this a pivitol moment in his life. He reflected, "here I was back home, broke, being fed by kinfolk...I got a good look at Wilf Peltier; saw, really what he had been doing to himself all those years out there, working so hard, striving to become a success and to become somebody - and putting himself down. Denying the somebody he really was."
For the first time as an adult, he accepted who he was, a man with no need for titles. From then on he was "just Wilf".
Perhaps he said it best in his book No Foreign Land, "It takes a long time not to feel like an alien, a long time to search out and discover who you are. But if you go all the way with that exploration it takes you beyond race, beyond colour, beyond class, beyond every kind of category, and you discover you belong to humanity. And that's who you are. If you go all the way with that
I remember Wilfred sitting down in Nancy’s kitchen. His face circled by rings of tobacco smoke. A cold beer frothed in a medium sized glass next to his arm as he quietly read a newspaper.
I remember his hat and cane, and the signature braided hair that dangled at his shoulders. A yellow cowboy hat, and a wooden cane with a face carved in its handle. The hat perched gently on his head, his two braids of hair hanging at his shoulders – there were beads that clicked softly sometimes as he walked or moved.
I remember Wilfred’s stories, his recollections – Nanabush and the dogs; Angus and the rock; how he lost his teeth; the experiences at Morely; Rochedale College; Dan Pine’s words.
I remember his laughter and smile – the toothless grin and unique sense of humour that greeted both friend and stranger.
I remember his words – "Everything you need to know is there, inside of you. It’s all there; it always has been there."
I remember the eyes that shone behind the black rimmed glasses – eyes that saw beyond the physical; through the half-light and darkness of the world, and accepted those visions as part of himself.
I remember Wilfred – Uncle, teacher, and friend.
- Wayne Peltier
search, it takes you beyond property, beyond lumber, fish, furs, metal, oil, beyond "resource" industry, beyond commercial food production to where you find you belong to the land. And that's who you are. And when you are that, there is no foreign land. Wherever you are is home. And the earth is paradise and wherever you set your feet is holy land."