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 began 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.