Indian Horse


Richard Wagamese

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Saul Indian Horse is an Indigenous Canadian and a member of the Fish Clan, a tribe that lives near the Winnipeg River. He grows up in the early 1960s with his parents, John Indian Horse and Mary Mandamin, his two siblings, and his grandmother Naomi. At an early age, his brother, Benjamin, and his sister, Rachel, are kidnapped by white Canadians in the area and sent to Christian schools where the teachers’ primary aim is to “remove the Indian from” them. At the time, all Indigenous Canadian children are required by law to attend such schools, which means that Canadian authorities have the legal right to tear families apart, often using kidnapping to do so.

After they lose their children, Saul’s parents begin drinking heavily, and migrate from town to town in search of work. Miraculously, they reunite with Benjamin, who has run away from his school. The family decides to journey to a place called Gods Lake, where Saul’s ancestors lived generations ago.

At Gods Lake, Saul has a mystical vision. He sees his ancestors, laughing and playing at the water’s edge. Then, he sees them crushed under enormous rocks. Shortly after this vision, Benjamin begins coughing up blood, a symptom of a disease he contracted during his time in school. He dies one day while harvesting rice with the family. Saul’s parents take Benjamin’s body into the nearest town to seek a Christian burial for him, but they never return. Naomi decides that she and Saul will have to travel down the river so that they don’t freeze to death.

Naomi leads Saul through wilderness and fierce snowstorms. Eventually, the two of them make their ways to the outskirts of the town of Minaki. There, in the middle of a blizzard, Naomi freezes to death. Two white men take Saul away from his beloved grandmother’s body, and bring him to St. Jerome’s school for Indigenous children.

St. Jerome’s is a terrifying place. The teachers, priests, and nuns believe they have a mission to teach their Indigenous Canadian students about Christianity, the English language, and Western laws. They severely punish anyone who speaks their native language, and effectively torture little children for acting up in even the smallest ways. Some of Saul’s classmates are beaten to death, or kill themselves out of despair. At night, priests rape and abuse many of the children.

Saul has one protector at St. Jerome’s: a young, kind priest named Father Gaston Leboutilier. Father Leboutilier is protective of Saul, and encourages him to learn to play hockey. Although Saul is too young to join the school hockey team, Leboutilier allows him to clean the ice every morning, which gives Saul an opportunity to practice in private. On his own time, Saul teaches himself how to skate and shoot the hockey puck. Even though he’s much younger and smaller than the other hockey players, he becomes a brilliant athlete. Leboutilier, recognizing his talent, allows Saul to play in hockey scrimmages, and Saul does very well. In some games with opposing teams, however, Saul is ridiculed for being Indigenous Canadian.

One day, an Indigenous Canadian man named Fred Kelly arrives at St. Jerome’s and offers to adopt Saul. Kelly recognizes Saul’s talents, and offers to give him a home and a family, in return for which Saul will play for Kelly’s local team, the Moose. Saul accepts. He says an emotional goodbye to Father Leboutilier, who tells him that hockey will set him free.

Saul begins living with Fred Kelly, his wife Martha Kelly, and their son, Virgil Kelly, who is a couple years older than Saul. Virgil is the captain of the hockey team, and he encourages Saul to do well. Saul is much younger than the other players, but he wins their respect with his phenomenal talent. The hockey team competes in tournaments with other Indigenous Canadian teams, and wins almost all its games, thanks in part to Saul, who quickly emerges as their star player.

The team experiences a milestone when a talented team of white Canadian players challenges them to a game. Saul reluctantly agrees to play with his Moose teammates, even though he has strong reservations about playing against white Canadians because of the racism he has experienced before. In the game, the Moose get off to a rough start, but with Saul’s brilliant playing, they come back to win, 6-5. Afterwards, the Moose begin traveling more frequently, playing the best teams in Canada and often winning. After one particularly impressive victory against a white team, however, the Moose teammates are attacked and savagely beaten by white townspeople. Following this horrific incident, Saul begins to notice small instances of racism and prejudice more regularly in his daily life.

One day, a talent scout comes to watch the Moose practice. The scout tells Saul that he has the talent to play professionally, and offers him a chance to train in Toronto and eventually go professional. Saul is reluctant to leave his friends and adopted family, but with Virgil’s encouragement, he agrees.

In Toronto, Saul plays brilliantly for his rookie team, and the future seems bright. But as the season goes on, he notices that opposing teams, and even his own teammates, mock him for being Indigenous. Journalists call him a “savage” and a “crazy redskin,” even when they praise his performance. Saul becomes more aggressive during games, and eventually begins regularly fighting with members of the opposing team. Before long, Saul has been kicked off the team, and heads back to the Kelly family. Saul begins working for a living, and quickly leaves town to find a better job.

Saul spends the next couple years working in various low-paying outdoor jobs. He makes little money, and spends whatever he saves on alcohol. Sometimes, his white coworkers give him a hard time for being Indigenous, and he usually fights back. By 1978, Saul has become a full-blown alcoholic. He begins living with a kindly farmer named Ervin Sift, who seems to think of him as a surrogate son. With Ervin’s help, Saul tries to cut down on drinking. But eventually he relapses, begins drinking more and more heavily, and is so ashamed of himself for this that he leaves Ervin without any explanation.

Saul drives around the country, going on drinking binges and eventually trying to quit drinking altogether. However, he begins having seizures as a symptom of withdrawal and ends up in the hospital. After this, he checks into a rehabilitation facility called the New Dawn Center, where he works with a counselor named Moses to recover from his alcoholism. Moses urges Saul to write down his experiences—which Saul does, in the form of this book.

Saul leaves the New Dawn Center and drives out to St. Jerome’s, which is now in ruins. There, he has vivid flashbacks to his time as a student, and realizes the truth: that Father Leboutilier had raped and abused him as a child. For years, Saul has repressed his memories of the abuse.

Furious and confused, Saul journeys out to Gods Lake. There, he has a vision of his great-grandfather, Slanting Sky, who tells Saul that he must learn how to carry Gods Lake within himself.

Saul returns to the visit the Kelly family. He tells Martha and Fred what he has realized about his past at St. Jerome’s, and they tell him they understand: they went through similar experiences themselves. They encourage Saul to stay and rebuild his life with their support. Saul rejoins the local hockey team, and rekindles his friendship with Virgil, who coaches one of the local teams. Moving forward, Saul knows that he will continue to struggle with the pain of his past, but he’s grateful to have loyal friends and a loving adopted family.