I did something that I have never done before – within a couple of days of reading the book, I saw the movie.
Read and saw have different active ingredients. My emotions always emerge more readily in the dark of a movie theatre, whereas a story on a page demands more concentration and allows time to re-read parts, ponder ideas, characters, plot and basically go wherever your mind needs to travel. Books exercise my mind and movies open my heart.
And so with mind and heart fully engaged, I thank Richard Wagamese for this opportunity to expand my understanding of the lived experience of many of our past and present Indigenous citizens.
Indian Horse is the story of Saul Indian Horse, abandoned by his parents and sent to one of the many residential schools run by the Catholic Church. It was a time that left him “bearing a sorrow that could not be reached.” From his very beginnings at the school, where delousing “felt as if they were trying to remove our skin,” he was forced to live a lonely, cold and detached life.
The words on the page describing Saul’s residential school life stunned me. I had to stop reading. My mind retrieved an experience I had as a teenager working in a “reform school” for Correctional Services in Toronto. One day I had to serve a meal to a young Indigenous girl in “solitary.” I unlocked the door to a very sad girl in the middle of scratching her arms with a safety pin. I immediately went to tell the nun in charge, to say that it was so unfair to treat the girl like this. I was told to mind my own business. I was not re-hired. It was quite a few moments before I returned to the narrative. As depicted in the movie, the scenes of despair at the residential school that had halted me in the book were so profoundly sad, very powerful. My heart moved and I cried. But then the movie rolled on and I was pulled along with it.
Luckily, Saul’s life changes the day one of the Jesuits introduces him to hockey. “Someone reached down and put a lightning bolt in your legs.” This lifted him up for a while but the endemic racism and hatred that he encountered poisoned his soul and took the game he loved away from him.
I do not know exactly how much Saul’s life was similar to Wagamese’s. It is clear, however, that Wagamese and his siblings were abandoned in the woods by their alcoholic parents and planted by Children’s Aid in a series of very bad foster homes. Against the forces of bigotry and discrimination, Wagamese was able to fight back to gain his being and become one of our most distinguished writers. It is also clear and so unfortunate that Wagamese’s recent death was caused by sorrow and relapse into the world of alcohol.
Wagamese is probably Canada’s most renowned Indigenous writer. He is Ojibway from the Wabaseemoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario. In his book For Joshua, he confesses and apologizes to his son for his failure as a father. Unfortunately, it’s an archetypal story of what has happened to so many of our First Nations, Metis and Inuit children, men and women. But it is also reveals how to be proud of your heritage and retrieve the identity that was stolen from you.
So I would definitely say, read Indian Horse the book, see Indian Horse the movie, or do both. One of the recommendations of The Truth & Reconciliation Committee is for every citizen of our country to engage in the stories of our Indigenous citizens. Your mind and emotions will certainly be exercised and propel you to be more active in understanding and supporting the original peoples of this country.