It’s hard to believe that in Canada, a country often touted for its inclusiveness, there existed for over a century a government-sponsored institution that attempted to systematically sever Aboriginal Peoples’ ties to their own culture and identity. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, between 1883 and 1996, approximately 150,000 children were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in residential schools, where in addition to and as a result of neglect, abuse, malnutrition, and isolation, they faced odds of dying similar to those of Canadians serving in World War II.
Indian Horse is the heart-wrenching yet uplifting story of Saul Indian Horse, a residential school survivor who writes an account of his life in an attempt to understand the source of his addiction and begin the healing process.
Saul leads us through his early years living in the bush with his family. Wagamese takes the reader on a spellbinding journey through time and place to experience what it was like for an Ojibway family to live off the land. The poetic depictions of the thrills and beauty of such a life, the Anishinabeg‘s strong spiritual connection to nature, as well as the sheer difficulty of surviving in the wilderness were one of my absolute favorite things about this novel. Sadly, even in those first few chapters, we get a sense of the disturbing nature of residential schools; Saul’s mother’s experience at “the school” still haunts her, as does the absence of her daughter, who was taken away by the Zhaunagush, the white man, when she was only six years old.
“There was a spectre in our camp. We could see the shadow of this dark being in the lines of our mother’s face. She would sometimes sit huddled close to the fire, clenching and unclenching her fists, her eyes dark moons in the firelight. She never spoke at times like that, never could be comforted. I’d walk to her and take her hand but she didn’t notice me. It was as if she was under the influence of a potent medicine no shaman had the power to break. The spectre lived in the other adults too, my father and my aunt and uncle. But its most chilling presence was in my mother.” – Richard Wagamese, Indian Horse
When Saul loses his brother (who also gets taken to, but manages to escape from, a residential school) to tuberculosis, his parents turn to alcohol to cope with the trauma, leaving Saul alone with his grandmother deep in the wilderness of God’s Lake, a remote area considered to be their spiritual home. Harsh winter conditions eventually force them to embark on a perilous trek through the forest to find more adequate lodging.
“The cold was an awesome beast. As I plowed through the knee-deep snow to forage firewood I could feel the beast tracking me, waiting for the exhaustion to fell me so it could feed on my frozen flesh. The fire we built against it was tiny. The wood hissed and I feared the flames would wink out. But the old woman humped off into the bush and came back with arms filled with fir branches, and when she threw them on the fire it blazed high and hot and crackling. Snow fell like pieces of stars through the night.” – Richard Wagamese, Indian Horse
Unfortunately, his grandmother doesn’t survive, and Saul gets taken to St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School, where he witnesses atrocities that many have equated to cultural genocide. Others like him are forced to renounce their culture: they are stripped of their precious, long hair, forbidden from speaking their mother tongue, given Christian names, and subject to harrowing abuse until they submit. We learn about many such vulnerable children whose spirit were broken by the cruel nuns and priests at the school as a result of severe psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. Saul becomes quieter, more reserved during this stay at St. Germ’s.
“When your innocence is stripped from you, when your people are denigrated, when the family you came from is denounced and your tribal ways and rituals are pronounced backward, primitive, savage, you come to see yourself as less than human. That is hell on earth, that sense of unworthiness. That’s what they inflicted on us.” – Richard Wagamese, Indian Horse
When Father Leboutilier introduces the boys at the school to hockey, Saul discovers his passion and innate talent for the game. Hockey becomes an escape for Saul, and it even allows him to leave St. Germ’s to live with a family in Manitouwadge, where joins The Moose to travel long distances to play native tournaments. Wagamese describes the spirit of hockey so skillfully that even those who don’t watch the sport can appreciate what hockey lovers see in the game.
theAs word of the team’s success spreads, The Moose and Saul get exposed to racism from other hockey players and fans. The reader becomes a spectator as they watch Saul change from a gentle soul to a hardened adult as he experiences prejudice, humiliation, and racism in the world of the game that was once akin to his salvation.
Although incredibly sad and heart-wrenching, this story is also uplifting and insightful and is a must-read for all Canadians.
What did you think of the book? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
On a side note, over the past couple of years, I’ve come across some amazing Aboriginal fusion music. I hope you enjoy it!
A Tribe Called Red: Sisters ft. Northern Voice
The Jerry Cans: Ukiuq