this is not a review: indian horse by richard wagamese


I didn’t know exactly what to expect when I began reading Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse . Everyone seems to be talking about it, I’d seen reviews, it’s a Canada Reads contender. I knew there was hockey. I’d heard the descriptions: ‘powerful’, ‘stunning’, ‘heartbreaking’. But I hadn’t heard the details.

Now I understand why.

The details are hard to talk about, hard to accept. Harder still to read but impossible to stop reading.

The in-a-nutshell version is this: An Ojibway man who is a mess due to a family history of residential schools, booze and unemployment, ends up in rehab after almost making it to the NHL.

If you think you’ve heard the story before, believe me, you haven’t. Not like this.

The book opens with images of life before the white man, before indigenous peoples were made to accept a pittance for the job of helping the government devastate their own land, before they beganindianhorse trading berries for bottles.

It soon moves ahead a few generations with the focus on Saul Indian Horse’s childhood and family: a nurturing grandmother; a father who’s fine when he’s working but work for Indians is rare; a mother who is already a wreck from her own years at residential school and is now forced to watch as her children are taken to the same place, one at gunpoint.

Saul himself ends up at the school—where, among other atrocities, children die standing up, bodies hang from rafters, wrists are slashed on bathroom floors and a young girl fills her pockets with stones and calmly walks into the creek to drown. Where another child, already dead inside, speaks matter-of-factly about the priest and the nuns coming to her in the night to share “god’s love”.

“They called it a school, but it was never that….There were no tests or examinations. The only test was our ability to survive.”

Despite the horrors there is not a trace of rancour in the writing, not one gratuitous scene to drive home a point. Quite the opposite in fact. Wagamese wields a strong but subtle hand on the subject, the power being in what’s left unsaid. One gets the terrible idea that what Saul knows, what any of us know, is merely the tip of the iceberg.

How Wagamese kept what must be his own deeply rooted feelings out of the story, focussing only on Saul, telling The Bigger Story through him… is a feat not many writers manage, much less manage so beautifully.

“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.”

Escape for Saul comes in the form of hockey—and these are some of the most beautiful passages in the book. While I can watch a game and be soothed by the sound of skates on ice, puck meeting wood—even though I really know very little about what’s going on—I didn’t think I’d like reading about hockey and it was one of the reasons I initially hesitated picking up the book. Turns out reading about hockey the way Wagamese writes it is an utter joy, even for someone who doesn’t know a crease from a blue line. The passion and lyricism of those chapters could easily be applied to a description of any artist or athlete doing what they love.

Saul has the talent of a Gretzky or a Crosbie and he moves quickly up the ranks, becomes a local hero where ‘hockey brings unity to a fractured society’ and “Every reserve in the North had a team.” But the system has him move up even higher, to minor leagues, to big city games in the south where an Indian on skates is an event, a cause for racist headlines, jeering and jokes.

“During one game [the fans] broke into a ridiculous war chant whenever I stepped onto the ice…. When I scored, the ice was littered with plastic Indian dolls… A cartoon in one of the papers showed me in a hockey helmet festooned with eagle feathers, holding a war lance instead of a hockey stick.”

What once was his salvation proves to be just another thing that belongs to the white man. Hockey is metaphor for the “white man’s game”… the game of life. They expect him to play the role of savage Indian, and eventually, fueled by a lifetime of suppressed rage, and against his better instincts, he obliges them.

From there he spirals down until he’s at the New Dawn Rehab Centre where he discovers perhaps the most difficult layer of his past [a shocker I did not see coming…] and begins the long process of healing.

This is the part of the book that was hardest to take. We white folk in Canada pride ourselves on our multiculturalism, our supposedly easy acceptance of all races. But we don’t talk about the aboriginal population when we talk about race and racism. We don’t talk about the aboriginal population at all. Because, well, they live “up there somewhere” and very little that happens to them is reported in mainstream media, and even when it is, it’s a news blip not a serious problem. Contaminated water in Walkerton? A very big deal. Heads rolled. In Attawapiskat? Where’s that?

Ditto mould, insufficient housing, suicide.

But it’s not that we don’t care, it’s that we don’t know.

The Idle No More Movement has shown, at least to some degree, that there are large numbers of us, people of all description, that do care. And we crave information. Yes, we can ferret it out online, but perhaps the day has come where equal air time and ink in mainstream media is given to aboriginal issues.

The long and short of it is this: we know too little about the history of native communities. For this reason books like Indian Horse are important in that they convey a hard story that needs not only to be told to heal the teller—but heard, to help heal our world.

Indian Horse  is available for purchase on-line at Blue Heron Books. 

And Hunter Street Books.

Support indies!

15 thoughts on “this is not a review: indian horse by richard wagamese

    1. Thank you, Lynda. I think you were one of the first people I ‘heard’ mention it some many moons ago. A gorgeous book.

  1. “Voices from the North seldom gather sufficient force to rise above the colonial din of southern, settler life” (Peter C. Van Wyck in The Highway of the Atom.)
    But sometimes they do gather extraordinary force and move people even in the south.

    1. Am so hoping the momentum Indian Horse has gained these past months won’t be lost. Will do my part to keep it ‘out there’…

    1. Have you read the book, Kelsey? If so, your take would be interesting to me also. My vote for antagonist would be those who have not seen it necessary to value Saul’s cultural background. What makes them tragic is how much they miss by their lack.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I too enjoyed the writing and message. They say it will take seven generations to undo the damage of seven generations of residential schools. As part of the second generation I feel that we can speed it up. It was done through “education” and can be undone through education. Also by recognizing the residual effects of RS and educating all Canadian children about the true history of Canada and the negative repercussions that continue to this day. I did not learn about Residential school sydrome until university and it was so late to learn why Aboriginal people are so burdened and struggling.

    1. I agree with you; this is the history that needs to be taught in schools. So much needs repairing. Seven generations to undo seven generations. That’s a powerful sentiment. Thank you so very much for your thoughts…

  3. I am here because we are going to talk about Indian Horse at my book club next week. I am commenting because I found one of your observations interesting and eye-opening: “We don’t talk about the aboriginal population at all. Because, well, they live “up there somewhere” and very little that happens to them is reported in mainstream media, and even when it is, it’s a news blip not a serious problem.” On the prairies and the west coast this is not so much the case. First Nations/Metis people are much more visible in towns and cities, and their issues often make the front page. But that doesn’t change our response to this book other than, perhaps, that we might apply its messages to encounters and situations we run into with FN. But it never occurred to me that our experience in the west was not the same as that of people in central and in southwestern Ontario, and further east.Thanks!

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