Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse (2012; Douglas & McIntyre) is a harrowing, yet ultimately uplifting, novel that explores the impact of Canadian residential schools on generations of Aboriginal Canadians.Why, then, is it being reviewed on a hockey blog?
Although not necessarily a novel about hockey, Indian Horse centrally features hockey, and offers important insights about the culture of the sport. As Courtney Szto has explored previously on Hockey in Society, hockey was used in residential schools as part of an effort to forcibly and violently assimilate First Nations boys into European-Canadian culture. This was part of a broader effort to restrict the ways in which Aboriginal children could engage in particular physical cultural practices (e.g. the Potlatch or certain dances) while using other physical activities as form of assimilation.
Canada’s residential schools are a huge stain on the country’s history. While Canadians celebrate their multiculturalism and openness to immigrants from around the world (although, obviously, these characteristics are idealized in problematic ways), they have only recently begun to engage with the devastating impact of the forced abduction and cultural assimilation of generations of Aboriginal children. As described on the website of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada:
Residential schools for Aboriginal people in Canada date back to the 1870s. Over 130 residential schools were located across the country, and the last school closed in 1996. These government-funded, church-run schools were set up to eliminate parental involvement in the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual development of Aboriginal children. During this era, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were placed in these schools often against their parents’ wishes. Many were forbidden to speak their language and practice their own culture. While there is an estimated 80,000 former students living today, the ongoing impact of residential schools has been felt throughout generations and has contributed to social problems that continue to exist.
It was not until 2008 that the Government of Canada officially apologized for its role in the residential school system. Later that year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was established to gather and share testimony from survivors of the schools, and it concluded its work in 2015. The Commission touched on hockey in perhaps surprising ways. For some survivors, hockey was a key form of coping with hardship, depravation, and abuse. Meanwhile, one of the many testimonies of abuse and horror came from Fred Sasakamoose, who after leaving residential school became the first Aboriginal to play in the NHL, when he suited up for the Chicago Blackhawks in 1953-54.
Published in 2012, Wagamese’s Indian Horse is a timely and significant contribution to the recent excavation of hockey’s complicated history in the residential school system. The novel, written in first person, follows the decades-long journey of Saul Indian Horse, an Ojibway who is forcibly taken from his home and family in Northern Ontario and placed in a residential school, called St. Jerome’s. Trying to cope with the horrors of the St. Jerome’s, which include physical and sexual abuse by the priests and nuns who run the school and brutal tactics designed to destroy students’ Aboriginal culture, Saul finds solace in hockey—a sport offered to students by Father Leboutilier, a hockey-mad junior priest at the school, who constructs an outdoor rink and assembles a team of boys for competition in tournaments.
Though too young to join the school’s hockey team, Saul is enthralled by the sport and is able to get a role preparing the rink each morning. He uses this early morning chore time as an opportunity to teach himself the game—how to handle the puck (he uses frozen cow turds as a proxy), how to shoot, how to skate. Eventually, he gets an opportunity to join the older boys in a scrimmage, where his hard work practicing—combined with a certain supernatural vision of the game—allows him to excel. Before long, Saul is the star of the team, which becomes a roaring success in local tournaments. The team’s renown leads to Saul being recruited away from the school to join a hockey team called the Moose, a barnstorming squad of First Nations athletes based in the Northern Ontario mining town of Manitouwadge. Hockey, it seems, has offered Saul salvation and an escape from the horrors of the residential school system.
As Saul progresses in his hockey career, rising ever higher up the ranks of competitive hockey, he becomes doubly disillusioned by hockey culture. As a skilled and visionary player, Saul detests the increasingly violent tactics he faces from opponents, and finds that his enjoyment of the game diminishes as a result. In this respect, the novel offers a none-too-subtle (and sometimes too heavy-handed) condemnation of tactical intimidation and thuggery in modern hockey.
Much more troubling and problematic, Saul encounters increasing racism and hostility as he and his team achieve greater levels of on-ice success. While still a student at St. Jerome’s, Saul catches the eye of a local coach, who convinces the school’s staff to allow him to play on his team. While Saul is wildly successful on this new team, he is soon cut, as his white teammates and their parents resent the Ojibway’s presence on the squad. Devastated, Saul tries to make sense of having his one source of pleasure ripped away from him. “It’s because I’m Indian, isn’t it?” he asks Father Leboutilier. The priest confirms Saul’s intuition: “They think it’s their game.” Later, when touring small-town arenas across Ontario with the Moose, Saul is called racist insults and spit on; in the newspapers, he and his team are disparaged and belittled. Saul and his teammates face some truly horrifying moments of racist violence and degradation.
It is in these descriptions of racism and hatred that Indian Horse makes its most profound commentary on hockey culture. “White ice, white players,” Saul tells his teammate and friend, commenting on his experiences of racial exclusion and hatred in the sport. This is a powerful observation on the historically exclusive and exclusionary social construction of hockey’s culture. While contemporary hockey fans and organizations love to celebrate the sport as diverse and inclusive, it has, as Indian Horse powerfully highlights, long been the domain of white men, who exercised powerful control over the ability of people of colour to infiltrate the sport. Outsiders have not been easily accepted into this exclusive culture. Rather, like Saul, they have only grudgingly been allowed in—and have had to struggle through extreme forms of exclusion and abuse in order to succeed in the sport. Even today, non-white players may be seen by some hockey fans as a novelty at best, and a target for abuse and harassment at worst.
The latter chapters of the book follow Saul’s journey after he quits hockey and leaves Manitouwadge. Battling his demons, Saul drifts from town to town, finding work where he can and numbing his pain with alcohol. He is lost, adrift from any sense of his home or culture and unable to form lasting relationships. Ultimately, he finds the strength and support to overcome his addiction and face his past—though doing so forces him to confront his vast well of lifelong pain and make a devastating revelation about his childhood love of hockey. Returning first to his ancestral country and his cultural roots, and then to Manitouwadge, the only place in which he has ever felt at home since he was taken to St. Jerome’s, Saul ultimately finds a sense of peace—and, with it, is able to return to hockey, and find joy and meaning in the sport that was his sole bright light through a life filled with trauma, abuse, and devastation.
Indian Horse is an excellent book, particularly for Canadians who want to learn more about the impact of their country’s residential school system. The book uses a fictional narrative, grounded in the real experiences of countless Aboriginal children, to make powerful statements about the nature of power and abuse. Furthermore, it shows sports, such as hockey, can be Janus-faced—that is, they can offer immense pleasure and social meaning to some participants, yet can also be activities that provoke hostility, violence, and racism. As Canadians continue to grapple with the complicated and extremely problematic legacy of the residential school system, Indian Horse makes an important contribution to this ongoing process.