He died at 61 on March 10 at his home in Kamloops, British Columbia. Yvette Lehman, his fiancée, said that he had recently had pneumonia but that she was not sure of the cause of death.
Though not widely known outside Canada, Mr. Wagamese was admired by his peers. Louise Erdrich, who is part Ojibwe (and whose novel “LaRose” won the National Book Critics Circle Award this month), described him as “a very funny writer with an eye for the absurd ironic detail.”
“Richard Wagamese divined the secrets of human scars and knew that broken people are the strangest and most extraordinary people of all,” Ms. Erdrich wrote in an email.
His fiction drew on his life, and his return to Ojibwe culture became grist for his first novel, “Keeper ’n Me” (1994). As a freelance columnist and reporter for newspapers including The Ottawa Citizen, he wrote about the Native Canadian community as well as his alcoholism and his times in jail. In 1990 he won a National Newspaper Award, a major award in Canada, for column writing, honoring his work at The Calgary Herald.
His other novels include “Ragged Company” (2008), about four homeless people who win millions of dollars in the lottery, and “Medicine Walk” (2014), about a teenager named Franklin Starlight who accompanies his chronically ill estranged father on a journey into the woods.
“Out here where he spent the bulk of his free time there was no need for elevated ideas or theories or talk,” Mr. Wagamese wrote of Franklin, “and if he was taciturn he was content in it, hearing symphonies in wind across a ridge and arias in the screech of hawks and eagles, the huff of grizzlies and the pierce of a wolf call against the unblinking eye of the moon. He was Indian.”
The novel “feels less written than painstakingly etched into something more permanent than paper,” the novelist Liam Callanan wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 2015.
Mr. Wagamese’s other books include “For Joshua” (2002), a memoir dedicated to his son, and “One Story, One Song” (2011), a collection of essays.
He was born in Minaki, Ontario, on Oct. 14, 1955, to Marjorie Wagamese and Stanley Raven. His adoptive parents legally named him Richard Allen Gilkinson, a name he disowned.
His biological parents had been among the roughly 150,000 native children whom the Canadian government removed from their families and placed in residential schools to “civilize” them. Many were physically and sexually abused in the schools. This aggressive assimilation program, as it was known, essentially destroyed the traditional structure of many native communities. Mr. Wagamese later wrote that he blamed his parents’ experience for their negligence with him and his siblings.
Mr. Wagamese lived in foster homes, then was adopted by a family that, he wrote, subjected him to “beatings, mental and emotional abuse, and a complete dislocation and disassociation from anything Indian or Ojibwe.”
He ran away from the family at 16 and spent years on the street or in prison, struggling with alcoholism, drug addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder and an intractable sense of alienation.
When he was in his mid-20s, his brother Charles, who had huddled next to him on the sled decades before, tracked him down and reunited him with his Ojibwe family and his lost heritage. For the first time he began to feel a sense of belonging, he said, though he never entirely escaped the emotional toll of his youth.
Mr. Wagamese had little formal education but spent much of his time at the library, devouring all the books he could, Ms. Lehman said. After his reunion with his family, he began reporting for indigenous publications and later Canadian newspapers as well as for television and radio, where he was a producer and host.
In addition to Ms. Lehman, he is survived by two sons, Jason and Joshua; his brother Charles; and 10 grandchildren.
In a 2007 column for The Calgary Herald, Mr. Wagamese recalled the first time he had spoken a word of Ojibwe, after he had returned to his family in his 20s.
“It felt all round and rolling,” he wrote, “not like the spiky sound of English with all those hard-edged consonants. When I said it aloud, I felt like I’d really, truly spoken for the first time in my life.”
That word, the first in a lifelong conversation about identity, was “peendigaen,” Ojibwe for “come in.”