Indian Horse is Richard Wagamese’s sixth of seven novels. He also wrote five non-fiction books and a poetry collection, and has worked as a journalist. Indian Horse took Wagamese a little longer to write than usual — more than three and a half years — and he attributes this to the “emotional territory” that the novel covers. Although he did not experience the residential school system himself, he suffered from residual generational trauma as his mother, aunts and uncles were survivors.
In an interview with the Calgary Herald in 2012, Wagamese said that he originally set out to write a book about hockey “with a residential school as a very, very nebulous kind of background.” The story later evolved with the residential school as a central focus. However, he intentionally wrote the story with the clear, straightforward language of journalism because he wanted “to illuminate that dark history of residential schools appropriately, without assessing too much vilification and anger and empty rhetoric towards the whole process.”
The novel begins with an Ojibwe man struggling with alcoholism who finds himself at a treatment facility called the New Dawn Centre after his latest binge. He identifies himself as Saul Indian Horse, a descendant of the Fish Clan of the Northern Ojibwe, or Anishinabeg. He is advised to share his story in order to find peace, but he is unable to share openly with others. Instead, he is given permission to write his story down, so that he can “get on with life.”
Saul begins with the story of his grandfather Shabogeesick and how he earned the name Indian Horse. He then recounts his childhood, beginning with the stark statement: “All that I knew of Indian died in the winter of 1961, when I was eight years old.” That was the year Saul was taken to the St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School.
The residential school had loomed over his life even before he attended. His parents were survivors who had turned to alcohol to cope with their traumatic experiences. His sister had been taken before he was born, and his brother, Benjamin, was taken after years of hiding from government authorities. Benjamin would later escape, but his return is tainted by illness, which Saul later learns was tuberculosis.
On the advice of Saul’s grandmother and family matriarch, Naomi, the family moves further into the bush to Gods Lake. When his brother passes away, Saul’s parents leave over a disagreement with Naomi about how he should be buried, thematically highlighting the generational fracture between many residential school survivors and their parents. Saul never sees his parents again. He recalls: “I can see the canoe that held my brother’s body as it passed the rock cairn and slid out of my view forever.”
After a harrowing journey out of the bush, Saul is ripped out of the frozen arms of his dead grandmother and taken straight to St. Jerome’s. Saul soon realizes that the school is not designed to help Indigenous children succeed, but rather to break the students’ spirits and to physically and emotionally sever them from their culture. He witnesses daily beatings and other forms of humiliating punishment, and learns to fear the “Iron Sister,” where students who misbehave are taken and often never return. Many of his classmates end up in the “Indian yard” in unmarked graves. It is truly “hell on earth.”
Saul finds solace in hockey after a seemingly kind-hearted young priest, Father Leboutilier, introduces the sport to the school. Although he is considered too young to play, Saul is allowed to clean the ice in the morning before the other boys practice. He uses that time to train himself how to skate and how to shoot using frozen horse dung as a makeshift puck. It soon becomes clear to Father Leboutilier and the school faculty that Saul is a gifted athlete and he is permitted to play with the older boys. He earns himself a spot on a hockey team but is pushed out by racism because the boys, and their parents, “think it’s their game.” Saul must also cope with the trauma of being sexually assaulted by Father Leboutilier.
Saul is later recruited by the Moose, a team from Manitouwadge that plays teams from other reserves across Northern Ontario (see also Reserves in Ontario). The team’s coach, Fred Kelly, and his wife, Martha, become Saul’s guardians. Both are survivors of St. Jerome’s. Saul becomes close with his new teammates, especially the team captain, Virgil. Saul’s playing elevates the team to a higher level and they soon find themselves playing teams in mill towns, where they encounter additional discrimination. Saul starts to worry that he and the team will lose their sense of camaraderie and joy as the game becomes more aggressive.
At first, Saul refuses to participate in fights, even when he is severely pressured to stand up for himself, because he is afraid of losing the sense of joy that the game brought him. While playing in Toronto, he becomes the media’s caricature of an “Indian” hockey player, and he fights back by playing with more aggression. He leaves the game for good once he loses sight of the original joy he felt for it.
After a brief return to Manitouwadge, Saul decides to go his own way, driving across the country and picking up odd jobs. He replaces hockey with alcohol — another shield to protect him from facing his past. By the time he ends up at the New Dawn Centre, he realizes that he must face his pain in order to heal.
A prominent theme in the novel, and in most of Wagamese’s work, is the power of storytelling. Saul must tell his story in order to confront the horrors of his past. On his journey to sobriety, Saul reflects: “Sometimes ghosts linger. They hover in the furthest corners and when you least expect, lurch out, bearing everything they brought to you when they were alive. I didn’t want to be haunted. I’d lived with that way for far too long as it was.”
In the novel, hockey becomes Saul’s shield against the cultural displacement that is slowly scraping away his identity. Saul comes to believe that the game can lift him up and throws himself into the sport to move himself “further away from the horror.” As Quill & Quire reviewer, James Grainger, observed: “[Saul] also operates as a kind of allegorical figure in a larger, spiritual drama of personal and communal trauma, endurance, and recovery.” Saul’s story is a journey of self-reflection that brings him to self-acceptance.
Indian Horse is Richard Wagamese’s best-known work. The novel has been praised as a sensitive, raw and realistic exploration of heritage and trauma. It was listed in the Globe and Mail’s top 100 books of 2012. In 2013, the novel was a finalist for CBC’s Canada Reads, where it was defended by Carol Huynh and went on to win the People’s Choice award. That same year, Indian Horse won the First Nation Communities Read Selection Award and the Burt Award for First Nations, Inuit and Métis Literature from the Canadian Organization for Development through Education (CODE).
A film adaptation of the novel, written by Dennis Foon and directed by Stephen S. Campanelli, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017. It was produced by Christine Haebler, Trish Dolman and Paula Devonshire, with executive producers Roger Frappier and Clint Eastwood. Eastwood signed on as executive producer when Campanelli, Eastwood’s regular camera operator for the last 24 years, showed him the film. Eastwood was surprised by both the horror of the Canadian residential school system and the public’s lack of knowledge about it.
The film stars Sladen Peltier as young Saul, Forrest Goodluck as teenage Saul, and Ajuawak Kapashesit as adult Saul. Wagamese, who passed away before the film’s release, states on the film’s website: “The producers have taken the time to bring unheralded and unknown Indigenous actors to the screen and the 52 Indigenous speaking parts are a testament to their devotion to the integrity of the story. I'm proud to have worked with them on this vital project.”
Edna Manitowabi, who plays Saul’s grandmother, Naomi, is also a residential school survivor. She shared with the CBC that this was the main reason she signed up for the film: “I really, really felt strongly that we have to tell our stories, that we can’t be silenced and that’s the way that we lift up our people."
The film was nominated for several awards. It won the Audience Award at the Calgary International Film Festival and the People’s Choice Award at the Vancouver International Film Festival, as well as several others at festivals across Canada and the United States. Sladen Peltier received a Canadian Screen Award nomination for Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role.
Indian Horse was the highest-grossing English Canadian film of 2018, with a total Canadian box-office take of $1.69 million. However, the film also received criticism for being produced by white filmmakers rather than Indigenous artists, even though Wagamese chose Campanelli and the film’s producers over Indigenous filmmakers who had also bid on the project.