Review of Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese
by Richard Wagamese
So earlier this month, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, announced that the residential schools program was a program of “cultural genocide” against indigenous peoples. If you’re looking for some background and a good beginner discussion to this, check out the Canadaland Commons podcast episode on residential schools. Desmond Cole and Andray Domise break it down with the help of two expert guests. Unfortunately, despite the release of this report and so much other activism over the past few years, our federal government continues to ignore the needs and opinions of Canada’s indigenous peoples. Prime Minister Harper and his party’s lack of respect for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis nations and their citizens is manifest. And it’s sad that a government so interested in nationalistic chest-beating and touting Canada as a role-model for other countries is still not mature enough to recognize these problems and set aside the colonialism that is in place even today.
Oh, didn’t expect me to get so political? Sorry (not sorry). But you can’t not get political with a novel like Indian Horse, really—or at least, I can’t. I mean, yes, on one level Richard Wagamese tells a compelling story about an individual’s struggle with the effects of abuse, his love for the game of hockey, and his journey into and out of the oblivion of alcoholism. This book is intense and very personal, narrated as it is in Saul’s matter-of-fact, pull-no-punches style of descriptive delivery. Yet if I drew the line there, and ignored the fact that Saul is an Ojibway man taken from his family as a boy, forced to attend a residential school, abused and “lucky” enough to leave the school before it killed him, only to further experience systematic and personalized discrimination at the hands of others while he plays hockey … well, I’d be ignoring a handy chunk of subtext of this book.
I’d be doing exactly what Harper is doing: erasing and negating the struggles of indigenous peoples because it’s inconvenient to the narrative that Canadians are nice and polite. And he is not the only one—hence his actions, and words, because politicians are not big on leading the charge. He’s just making it a little easier for people like Richard Gwyn to ask us to tone down the rhetoric, eh.
So let’s get political.
No, scratch that. Let’s get angry, hmm?
I’m not going to start quoting statistics or link to reports. There are Wikipedia articles for that. Humans are bad at numbers. It’s why we find movies like Schindler’s List more compelling than a dry recounting of how many concentration camps there were and how many people died each day. We are more attached to narratives than numbers. That’s why Indian Horse matters: it packages the depth of Canada’s racism in the twentieth century into a form our brains can grok. And it does so in a humanizing, deeply empathetic way.
I think I need to make that clear. I am angry, for a whole bunch of reasons I’ll elaborate on later, but Indian Horse the novel is actually not an angry book. It is a compassionate book. It is not a book about how all white people are guilty, guilty, guilty and bad, bad bad (and I don’t think that either—again, more later). Rather, Wagamese demonstrates how Saul experiences systemic racism as a result of what the culture and policies were like in the 1960s and 1970s. But even though the events in this book are often dark and, frankly, disgusting, the ending is one of optimism and hope.
It’s the same reason we have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, not a Blame and Bad Feelings Commission. What matters is that we listen to people when they talk about their experiences and believe them, even if that means we feel horrible. It is good that we feel horrible, because that means we are empathetic human beings—if you listen to someone talk about all the people they lost to a residential school, or their own experiences therein, and you feel nothing, then something is wrong. Feeling horrible is a natural reaction—but just because something makes you feel bad is not a reason to ignore and erase it. That’s a childish reaction, to be sure. We need to accept the past before we can move on.
Such is the theme of Indian Horse. For Saul, the past includes not just his time at residential schools but also his relationship to his ancestors. I’m given to understand that many indigenous cultures believe strongly in an ongoing connection to one’s ancestors. Even if they are dead, their spirits can still guide you. Wagamese shows this with Saul’s visions later in the book when he returns to Gods Lake. It is incredibly important that Saul’s journey of reconciliation with his past led him not just to St. Jerome’s but also to Gods Lake. Like many indigenous men his age, he had his connection with his heritage brutally severed—only to find that—surprise!—the society that had severed it was never planning to accept him. So he has to reconnect not just with the memories of residential school that he pushed down so deep he didn’t tell us the first time, but also with the memories that maybe hurt as much, if not more, because they are of a family he can never get back.
That is the unrelenting and unforgivable nature of the cultural genocide that happened through residential schools and other means. Despite Gwyn’s protests that residential schools were successful because, decades later now, more aboriginal youth are entering university (I’m feel vaguely nauseous even typing that paraphrase), the veracity behind any claims, religious or otherwise, that residential schools were for the improvement of indigenous peoples is totally irrelevant. No matter how you spin it, assimilation was never going to work, because even if indigenous peoples went along with it, gave up their culture, and became culturally white, other people would still kick them out of the white club and treat them differently.
Wagamese demonstrates this through the incredibly appropriate arena of hockey. A bit of a personal disclaimer here: I don’t watch, follow, or even really know much about hockey. I know the names of some of the positions, the fact it tends to get played in three periods, and that there is a puck and a stick and goals and … oh yeah, ice (usually). So as Saul ticks off the names of hockey legends, indigenous or not, and describes the inherent beauty and grace of their skating or his, of their shots or his moves and speed … well, none of that resonates with me on a personal level. But that’s OK. Wagamese is a good enough writer that I still managed to get sucked into the descriptions. I still got a tingling sensation and a rush of adrenaline as Saul talks about the Moose’s first game against the Chiefs and how he contributes to their come-from-behind win. Moreover, it’s just clever for Wagamese to take the utterly Canadian game of hockey and use it for these purposes, appealing to people who might not otherwise find themselves open to reading a story like this.
Saul is a hockey natural. Everyone says so. Yet his pure enjoyment of the game is marred by the misbehaviour of white players and fans who view him as trespassing on a whites-only game. In this way, Wagamese makes Saul’s experience into a microcosm for the attempts to assimilate indigenous peoples. It doesn’t matter if Saul adheres to the stereotypes of an Indian or not—some people just can’t get past the colour of his or his teammates’ skin. Wagamese belies the myth of meritocracy: even as numerous (white) people believe that Saul has NHL potential and help to elevate him to another level of play, the rampant racism that pigeonholes him as the Rampaging Redskin pushes him away from the sport he once loved. This is why meritocracies can’t exist the way some people want to believe they do: it doesn’t matter how good you are, if people don’t see you, just their prejudices about you.
All those countless micro-aggressions, as I’ve heard some people talk about recently—and for Saul and other indigenous people in the 1960s, and today, let’s face it, it’s more like actual aggression—wear Saul down. He’s one guy, and he has lost the one thing in his life that was giving him happiness. So he gives in. He wallows in self-pity and the stereotype and the solace of the nothingness of the bottle. I don’t drink. I only understand, on the barest intellectual level, why people might become drunks. But Wagamese does an excellent job explaining, through Saul’s paradoxically poetic prose, the lure of alcohol in its capacity to make time and memories slip.
This is what cultural genocide does. It forcibly takes children from their families in the name of “educating” them—actually no, let’s be honest, and call it “civilizing” the savages, as Saul so accurately relates it during the chapters at St. Jerome’s. It subjects these children—the most vulnerable and innocent members of our society—to abuses that literally send chills down most people’s spines, driving some insane, or to suicide. While inflicting these psychological (and physical) scars, it punishes the children if they speak their own language—because obviously that isn’t civilized—erasing their heritage and leaving a void in its place. It’s like they reached in with a scoop and hollowed out Saul … and then when they couldn’t fill that void, he turned to hockey, with mixed success. Those that they did not kill residential schools broke, as people, condemning them to spend the rest of their lives adrift, unattached to culture, in a society overtly hostile to their existence.
That’s … I can’t even. Evil is an appropriate enough word that springs to mind, I think.
But it’s not all bad news. And I mean that not in the way that apologists like Gwynn would have it—residential schools were all bad news. Rather, it’s good that we are beginning to talk about this. That the Truth and Reconciliation Commission releasing these findings and some people are listening. That Richard Wagamese is writing books like this, receiving national recognition. That people are reading these books. That finally we are maybe, just maybe, open to learning about, talking about, and processing the depths of the injustices in our country, past and present.
Because Canada doesn’t just have a history of colonialism: it is an ongoing process. If you don’t believe that, just look at the number of missing and murdered indigenous women. Still not convinced? Then why are there so many First Nations communities without healthy running water? We are supposedly a first-world, developed country, yet we can’t bring a basic need to thousands of people? That is shameful. And if it were any other country it would get international attention and be called the humanitarian crisis it is. Maybe one of those nice democratic countries could send in some troops to help us out.
Canada turns 150 in two years. The government in power at the time will spend an unfathomable amount of money on the celebration. The Harper government has made it clear that if it’s still in power, it’s going to do so in a way that glorifies the Eurocentric, white part of Canada’s national heritage and minimize and ignore the part where there have been people living in this land for millennia. That is, after all, the only way to prove we have no history of colonialism: can’t be colonialist if there wasn’t anyone here to colonize, eh?
You can’t have it both ways. You can’t take pride in and celebrate the good parts of our nation’s history and heritage and simultaneously ignore the bad stuff, pretending it didn’t happen or pretending it doesn’t matter. That is, as I said, childish. And we are nearly 150, Canada. So let’s grow up, and learn to deal with the bad in our past. Indian Horse offers one, valuable perspective on how to do that. Read it, and read other books and blogs like it, and listen to people as they talk about their history and their heritage. Have this conversation, like the adults we are.
I’ll conclude with this: earlier I was careful to make the distinction in this review between the compassionate tone of Indian Horse and the anger I’m feeling, partly as a result from reading it. Being white, I can’t really be angry for the injustice done to “my people” when I read this story. So what do I have to be angry about? What, aside from the fact that this isn’t fiction, but more a fictionalized account of terrible things that happened to actual human beings? That isn’t enough to get angry about?
I’m angry because I’m white, and as a result, I don’t know enough about a hugely important part of our nation’s heritage, simply because it either wasn’t taught to me or wasn’t taught very well. I’m angry that Stephen Harper and people like him would like to excise this inconvenient part of our history from the textbooks, just like some elements of American society want to talk about how “some” slaves were “happy” to have masters and work on plantations (again with the near-nausea of writing that sentence). Because that is part of my history as much as it is part of any indigenous person’s. While I don’t feel guilty for what white people inflicted on aboriginal people in the past, I feel responsible, as a person with privilege in today’s society, to help make things better right now, for the people alive today. One way to do that is to talk about why things are so bad today, about how it got this way, rather than simply shrugging and saying, “Nope, no colonialism here—move along now!” I will be angrier still if we continue to let Harper get away with this, if we write him another blank cheque to do whatever the hell he wants to this country, regardless of how much it perpetuates the colonialist attitude he ignores in the most Orwellian of ways.
So be the change, right? Read Indian Horse. Read other books. Listen to indigenous activists on the radio and TV and online—or, you know, go to things in person, if unlike me you happen to enjoy leaving your house. Learn more about these subjects. It isn’t the job of indigenous peoples to stand up and educate us about these problems; it is our responsibility, as Canadians, to come together, not out of shame or guilt or blame, but simply common human decency. Canada has a super-colonialist history—but it also has a history with some pretty amazing moments in it. We can celebrate the latter even while we acknowledge and regret and rectify the former. Because we can do better. We must.