Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse takes its title from the protagonist Saul Indian Horse’s family name, so it’s no surprise that family (and the traditions that families preserve) is one of the book’s central themes. Saul Indian Horse is a member of the Fish Clan, an Indigenous Canadian tribe that lives near the Winnipeg River. Saul’s family has always been influential in the Fish Clan. Saul’s great-grandfather, Slanting Sky, was a shaman—an important healer and religious figure in his community. The novel takes place during the 1960s and ‘70s, at a time when Indigenous Canadian traditions were under attack in Canada. Laws—for example, the Indian Act of 1876 (and its amendment in 1884)—required Indigenous Canadian children to attend Christian, English-speaking schools, where they were separated from their families and forced to un-learn their tribe’s traditions. Wagamese shows Saul Indian Horse struggling to maintain ties to his family and his culture, even after he’s taken away from his family and sent to school. In some ways, Saul embraces his longstanding family traditions, but in other ways he embraces new customs and even new family.
While Wagamese doesn’t go into a tremendous amount of detail about Fish Clan culture, he does suggest that the Fish Clan has strong beliefs about the importance and structure of family, as well as strong traditions that sometimes conflict with those of the white Canadian population. One of the first things Saul writes about his culture is that it places a lot of emphasis on respect for elders, especially women. Indeed, the de facto leader of Saul’s family isn’t his father (as is often the case in societies of European heritage), but rather his grandmother, Naomi. In the first part of the book, Naomi leads her family in search of food and safety, and also is a spiritual leader of the family, often overruling the younger, less experienced people in her family. Saul’s family and culture also place a lot of emphasis on respecting and living in harmony with the natural world. The family believes that there are forests and lakes in Canada that offer spiritual enlightenment that no manmade community can match. But furthermore, these sites only offer enlightenment to certain families and certain people—they’re not for everyone.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Fish Clan tradition in Indian Horse (and the biggest difference between Fish Clan culture and white Canadian culture as Wagamese depicts it) is the way tradition itself is conceptualized. To Saul and his family, tradition isn’t a vague, wishy-washy concept—it’s a real, tangible thing that can be experienced through visions and dreams. Over the course of the book, Saul has visions in which he sees his distant ancestors and receives advice from them, based on their own wisdom and experiences. In this way, Wagamese seems to see tradition and family as two sides of the same coin: families are the bearers and inheritors of traditions, and many of the most important traditions concern the structure of the family.
Family and tradition play an important role in Saul’s coming-of-age. They give him a sense of higher purpose and remind him that he’s not alone in the world—that, on the contrary, he’s connected to his family members, both living and dead. During the long middle section of the book, when Saul is feeling depressed and lonely, he seems to lose touch with his family and traditions. As he explains in the first chapter, he loses the ability to have mystical visions, which causes him great sadness. By the same token, Saul seems to regain his confidence and sense of purpose following a vision he has at the end of the book. During this vision, his great-grandfather, Slanting Sky, tells him to keep Gods Lake (a place where, according to tradition, only Saul’s family may live) within himself. As Wagamese sees it, Saul attains enlightenment when he accepts that he is a member of the Fish Clan tribe, the descendant of countless ancestors, and the bearer of proud traditions.
At the same time, Wagamese makes it clear that Saul is not just the bearer of the traditions of the past. As a young man growing up in a tumultuous time, Saul discovers new customs and cultures and incorporates them into his identity. He plays hockey, speaks and reads English, and embraces many other aspects of white Canadian culture, balancing Fish Clan tradition with the culture of a changing world. Balancing Indigenous tradition with white culture—in other words, living one’s life in the present without losing touch with the past—is the crux of Wagamese’s point about family and tradition. Doing so gives Saul the resilience and sense of community that he needs to live a happy life.
Family and Tradition ThemeTracker
Family and Tradition Quotes in Indian Horse
Our people have rituals and ceremonies meant to bring us vision. I have never participated in any of them, but I have seen things. I have been lifted up and out of this physical world into a place where time and space have a different rhythm. I always remained within the borders of this world, yet I had the eyes of one born to a different plane. Our medicine people would call me a seer. But I was in the thrall of a power I never understood. It left me years ago, and the loss of that gift has been my greatest sorrow.
I wondered what would become of us there. I wondered if the spirit, the monitous, of Gods Lake would look upon us with pity and compassion, if we would flourish on this land that was ours alone.
I crept to the edge of the ridge and looked over. The face of the cliff had collapsed, and the camp was gone. Vanished. Even the trees had been scraped away and the beach was strewn with boulders. The chalky smell of rock dust brought tears to my eyes and I stood there weeping, my shoulders shaking at the thought of those people buried under all that stone.
When we walked into the lobby the first thing we saw were glass cabinets along the walls filled with trophies and photographs. It was like a shrine to their home team. We stood there with our gear bags in our hands, studying the display. There were no awards in our bush league. The winners were celebrated with feasts and parties but there was no money for trophies.
There were moments when you'd catch another boy's eye and know that you were both thinking about it. Everything was contained in that glance.
All the hurt. All the shame. All the rage. The white people thought it was their game. They thought it was their world.
"The journey you make is good." "What am I to learn here?"
He swept his arm to take in the lake, the shore and the cliff behind us. "You've come to learn to carry this place within you. This place of beginnings and endings."
"Did they rape everyone?" I asked.
There was a long silence. In the distance I could hear the sounds of the mill and a train. I waited and they both looked at the floor.
"It doesn't have to be sexual to be rape, Saul," Martha said.
"When they invade your spirit, it's rape too," Fred said.
"They scooped out our insides, Saul. We're not responsible for that. We're not responsible for what happened to us. None of us are." Fred said. "But our healing-that's up to us. That's what saved me. Knowing it was my game."
"Could be a long game," I said.
"So what if it is?" he said. "Just keep your stick on the ice and your feet moving. Time will take care of itself."
"Even up here in the sticks, we like to use a hockey puck to play hockey," Virgil said and pushed out onto the ice.
"Old habits," I said when he reached me. "New days," he said.
"The guys here?"
"Them and more," he said.