Home > 2010, 21st Century, Canadian Literature, Highly Recommended, Indigenous Literature, Novel, Wagamese Richard > Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese – Native Canadians and hockey.

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese – Native Canadians and hockey.

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese (2012) French title: Jeu blanc. Translated by Christine Raguet.

This week Lisa from ANZ LitLovers hosts her First Nation Reading Week. In previous years, I read books by Aborigine authors but this year, I picked two books by North American Indians. (I use the word Indian because these writers use it themselves.) The first one is by the Ojibway Canadian writer Richard Wagamese. I had already read his Medicine Walk but I think that Indian Horse is even better.

Set in Manitoba and the north of Ontario, the book is the story of Saul Indian Horse who speaks from a rehab facility where he’s treated for alcoholism. His psychologist asked him to write his story to rid himself from its weight.

Saul was born in 1953 in an Ojibway family and had an older brother, Ben. He spent his first years living according to the traditional Ojibway ways, as his family hid the children in the woods to avoid their kidnapping by the government. They didn’t want their kids to be sent to a school belonging to the Canadian residential school system.

The authorities caught Ben first and after a fateful trip, Saul was sent to Saint Jerome’s Indian Residential School. This place is hell on earth. The catholic nuns and priests who run the place are positively awful.

The children have no actual education. They endure moral and sexual harassment. They have to work hard. They die due to child abuse and are buried in the woods. It reminded me of The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.

I’ll never understand institutions that abuse children. When these institutions are Christian, it’s even worse. Saul explains that breakfast was a torture because they had to eat bland and vile porridge when the nuns and priest at the nearby table had bacon and eggs. How is that in line with the message of the New Testament?

Saul’s way out appears when Father Gaston Leboutillier arrives at St Jerome’s and starts a hockey team. Saul has a gift for the game. It will give him a goal, a mental lifeline to keep going at St Jerome’s.

Hockey is his safe place. It’s a game he excels at and when he’ll later join a team, it will give him the immense pleasure of the game but also expose him to the ever-present racism against native Canadians. I confess that some descriptions of the hockey games went over my head. It’s not a popular sport in France –the French publisher had to include two pages of explanations about hockey to enlighten the reader about it –so I probably didn’t enjoy as much as I should have the outstanding descriptions of hockey games.

Indian Horse is the poignant story of a man whose identity was partly destroyed and stolen by an inhumane system. It is an ode to hockey and a descent into the life of an Indian in Canada in the 1960s and 1970s. It wasn’t pretty and it’s consistent with what Plamondon describes about the Migmaqs in Taqawan.

Saul’s life is built on drama but he still finds beauty and self-value in hockey. His sport gives him his worst and his best experiences. He faces racism and hatred but also builds friendships and a team family.

Wagamese writes well about the Ojibway culture and how white Canadians treated Indians in the 1970s. Some scenes are shocking but I don’t think his imagination went away from him. Like Baldwin for black people, he’s descriptive. He writes about actual behaviours in a system built to reject Indians. He shows the reader how things were and lets them make their own opinion about it.

We follow Saul in his quest for his lost Indian soul, his buried childhood trauma and his difficulties as an adult. I wanted to lift him up and ensure he’d live a better life from now on. A powerful book.

Highly recommended.

  1. July 4, 2022 at 8:10 am

    Thanks for this contribution, Emma!
    I haven’t read this author, but I am familiar with the residential school system because there was similar institutional abuse here in Australia.
    Like you, I
    I’ll never understand it. I can understand (though of course I don’t approve) someone losing their temper, or doing something vile on impulse. But when it’s deliberate, daily discrimination, when it happens again and again and people turn a blind eye to wickedness that is routine, I think it’s unforgiveable.


    • July 6, 2022 at 9:17 pm

      Thanks for hosting this week again.
      The residential system. Like you I can understand impulsive violence even if I don’t approve of it.

      I can understand that people at the time had a different view of the world and thought that the residential system was an acceptable solution (something I really don’t appove of either but would have I thought differently at their place?). They were the product of their time, I get that.

      The abuse and violence were gratuitous and that’s unforgiveable. And done by people who are supposed to be wiser and who preach to “love thy neighbour as thyself”?


  2. July 4, 2022 at 11:49 am

    This sounds like a timely and important book, and a well-executed one. We have had systematic abuse found out at children’s homes here, and dreadful things where we shipped children to other countries. It beggars belief, doesn’t it – but all these things need these narratives to make them hit home.


    • July 6, 2022 at 9:20 pm

      It was a common view of the time. I haven’t heard of such scandals here but it doesn’t mean that they didn’t exist.

      Books like Indian Horse or The Nickel Boys are important because they turn facts and statistics into human stories. Empathy is what makes us human.


  3. July 5, 2022 at 10:27 am

    A thought provoking review, Emma. I’ve been doing some Canadian First Nations reading this year (at last!) and the residential schools system was a shocker – cultural genocide by the state, one writer said, with the sadism of the churches operating the schools on top of that.


    • July 6, 2022 at 9:24 pm

      The system is extremely shocking in itself but consistent with old colonial views of the world.
      But the abuse of these priests and these nuns is appalling. They have a lot of groveling to do.


  4. July 6, 2022 at 3:05 pm

    This sounds an immensely powerful read Emma. Such a painful topic but such an important one that needs to be heard.


    • July 6, 2022 at 9:25 pm

      It’s an excellent book and I really recommend it.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. July 4, 2022 at 8:30 am
  2. July 9, 2022 at 8:32 am
  3. September 4, 2022 at 8:17 am

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