Saul Indian Horse is a hockey phenomenon. But he is also victim to the legacy of Canada’s residential schools. This story is about Saul’s reclamation of himself after years of hard drinking and the need for all of us to hear all of our own story if we are to heal. At times, harrowing, brutal and sad but infused with the glory of a game, the light of redemption and forgiveness, Indian Horse was a national bestseller. (Richard Wagamese’s website)
Richard Wagamese tells an authentic story through the narrative voice of Saul Indian Horse who is in a rehab centre called The New Dawn Centre, north of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Part of the program requires that the participants tell their stories, share, so that “hard core drunks like [Saul] can set [themselves] free from the bottle and the life that took [them] there. . . they put [them] in the sharing circle.” Saul can’t tell his story so they say it’s all right if he writes it down. This book is his story.
Saul wrote about his childhood and all about the native traditions he learned from his grandmother — about the rituals, the ceremonies, the stories of family history, how he came by the name Indian Horse, and the inevitability of change coming — that is “the spirit teaching of the Horse”. For Saul, the change came the winter he turned eight. He grew up with a fear of “the school”. Whenever a strange boat or plane are spotted, the children go and hide in the dense wood. One day, when Saul was four, his older brother Benjamin didn’t make it to the woods and was taken from them. His mother was inconsolable; his parents left the bush to follow the white man’s whiskey through sawmill camps. Eventually, Benjamin returned to them, having run from the school in Kenora, sick with TB. Grandmother Naomi led the family to God’s Lake, a place she remembered from long ago. It is here that Saul learns he has the gift of vision. It is here that Benjamin dies and the family abandons Saul and Naomi.
Winter came, and Naomi tried to take Saul to find the family but despite her amazing skills and “gumption”, just short of their goal, Naomi dies with her arms wrapped around Saul keeping him warm on the train platform outside of town. He was discovered and taken to St. Jerome’s Residential School. He was eight years old.
Saul could read and write English and so he withdrew into his own world and stayed out of trouble:
I saw kids die of tuberculosis, influenza, pneumonia and broken hears at St. Jerome’s . . . saw young boys and girls die standing on their own two feet. I saw runaways carried back, frozen solid as boards. I saw bodies hung from rafters on thin ropes. I saw wrists slashed and the cascade of blood on the bathroom floor and, one time, a young boy impaled on the tines of a pitchfork that he’d shoved through himself. . . So I retreated. That’s how I survived. Alone. . . What I let them see was a quiet withdrawn boy, void of feeling.
The same year Saul arrived, a young priest named Father Gaston Leboutilier arrived. He had “a kindness and sense of adventure that drew the boys to him. He led hikes . . . took [them] camping . . . and when winter came he brought [them] hockey”. Saul was hooked! He read all the books. Too young to play yet, he watched the older boys playing and found he could visualize the game, the moves, the “rhythm under all [the] mayhem”. He began watching Hockey Night in Canada with a few other boys in Father Leboutilier’s quarters. He became the ice sweeper, going out early in the morning to ready the ice, then practice with a hockey stick he has hidden in the snow and a “handful of the frozen horse turds” from the barn. He was a natural.
At nine, he stashed skates that were too big for him along with the stick. He used newspaper to make them fit. He set his own practice drills and worked hard. He loved everything about the game.
The labour made me wiry and tough. It gave my lungs a workout and cleared my mind of everything but the ice. . . I floated out onto a snow-white stage in a soliloquy of grace and motion. I loved it. Every time I skated I felt as though I had created the act. It was pure and new and startling.
Finally, when Father Gaston’s team was preparing for their first game against a town team from White River, Saul got his chance. A player, Wapoose, fell and broke his ankle. Saul volunteered to take his place. After that, it was town games. Then an offer to go play for a town team; but he was too good and the other parents wanted to see their own kids playing the game. The white man thought hockey was his game. Then came the chance to leave the school and play for The Moose in Manitouwadge. Fred Kelly and his wife would take him in. He’d go to school and play hockey against other reserve teams across the territory, and Saul had his freedom.
With the Moose, Saul’s spirit soared. For awhile. They had huge success, were challenged to play the Senior A league champions from Kapuskasing. That led to other games against white teams. It led to a new height of racism. Saul was scouted and went to Toronto to play for the Marlboros, a Major Junior A team. That led to even greater racism — he was always the Indian, on the rampage, taking scalps — even in the papers. He was finally forced to fight and it ruined the game for him. He gave up hockey and everything was downhill after that, until he landed in the New Dawn Centre.
This was an incredible story. The descriptions of the game were beautiful — fast-paced, vivid, so real that you don’t have to be a hockey fan to follow the play and get what an amazing player Saul was. From his first time in a game:
I stayed at the edge of the scrimmage, the play rolling its pattern out in front of me. Then, suddenly, I saw it clearly. I saw the direction of the ame before it happened and I moved to that spot. Now I bent to my skating, spreading my feet a little wider and keeping the full length of my stick blade on the ice. . .
I pushed hard, evenly, and I was at full speed in three strides. I scooped the puck onto my stick and cradled it as I pumped with my other arm. The goalie yelped and backed slowly toward the mouth of the net. I whisked across the blue line and there was only me, the puck and the net. I was flying, skating as fast as I could go, and then time slowed to a crawl. I could hear my breath, the yells of the other boys behind me, feel the pump of blood in my chest, see the eyes of the goalie squinting in concentration.
When the story came full circle, it took me totally by surprise. Maybe it shouldn’t have. When I thought back, the clues were all there, but I think, maybe, I just didn’t want to believe it. The parts of the story from St. Jerome’s were horrific. Some of the racist acts, equally so. The spirit in Saul that enabled him to play the game so well, let you float with him in its freedom. And, despite the downside of the story, the brutal truths about the residential schools and the running of them (in this story a Catholic school but it could equally have been any denomination of protestant school as well, and certainly, the Canadian government has recognized its own culpability in this policy), and racism that still is a problem today, there is redemption for Saul and a new life when the story ends. I couldn’t put the book down! * * * * *
Richard Wagamese has written eleven other books. Indian Horse (2012) won the Peoples’ Choice Award in the national Canada Reads competition and his work as an author and journalist has won wide recognition and a variety of awards.