Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese
Published by Milkweed Editions
Publication date: April 10, 2018
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Cultural, Literary
I love discovering new writers, the voices of people with stories I’ve never imagined. In the past two years I’ve been fortunate to read more from Native American authors like Tommy Orange and Oscar Hokeah, with their singular style. I can now add Richard Wagamese to this list. A Canadian writer and member of the Ojibway tribe, his novel, Indian Horse is a stunning portrayal of a young hockey phenom, Saul Indian Horse, and his painful journey from the love of the game to broken alcoholic and beyond.
As a little boy Saul and his family live in Northern Ottawa. Life is one of hunting, fishing, and trapping, but its simplicity is marred by his mother’s erratic behavior. She is trapped in a deep well of sadness, something caused, according to his grandmother, by the school that took her and her sister away as children. When they came back as adults their spirits were gone. Their native ways erased, leaving them lost between the world they knew and one that was forced on them. This is the fear felt by everyone they know—being taken.
Despite the family’s best efforts, he’s 8 when he’s kidnapped by the government and sent to St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School. It’s 1961 and the Canadian Indian Act, in place since the 1940s, says all Native American children must be acclimated into white society. This is accomplished by taking them from their families to Catholic boarding schools, where siblings are split apart, hair is cut, and only English may be spoken. Every trace of their “barbaric” culture is to be eradicated. Infractions, including even trying to speak with a sibling, are brutally enforced to the point of torture.
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.
St. Jerome’s is not a place for education. Beyond the basics of math and reading the children perform manual labor to make money for the school. Because Saul can read and speak English, he escapes many of the punishments other suffer. Instead, the passing pages in Indian Horse recount the loneliness and deprivation he feels and the abuse he witnesses. Until hockey.
Being entrusted to sweep off an iced-over pond where the older boys play hockey is Saul’s solace and the only exercise and enjoyment provided for some of the boys. He envies their abilities but is too young to play and so finds an old pair of skates and teaches himself. On the ice, his spirit soars. Although small he has a gift for the game, an ability to see things before they happen and make them happen. His skills advance so quickly that before he turns 17 he has a chance to play for one of the NHL feeder clubs. But now, instead of living with a Native family and playing amongst other Native American young men he’s living and playing for and against whites in front of white crowds. It brings a wave of racism and discrimination that crushes him in ways not even the school could. His love for hockey disappears, replaced by a blinding rage and a thirst for alcohol.
I couldn’t run the risk of someone knowing me, because I couldn’t take the risk of knowing myself.
It’s hard to use the word pleasure about a novel of brutality against children, but in Indian Horse Wagamese’s words are beautiful even as they’re soaked in pain. His gift is in being able to plait the terrors of abuse, the grind of racism, and the sheer love of a sport into a braid of uncommon strength and resilience. The many scenes of Saul playing hockey soar with the glory of a mind and body united in perfect union. This is the story of a boy of joy who wins and loses and wins again, not just in an icy sport but in the battle for himself.
Indian Horse is not easy reading, especially given that it’s based on the real experiences of Canadian Native Americans. But for every reader out there, who, wants to move beyond their own experiences, to learn about the best and the worst of this world, it is profound and vital reading.
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