Indian Horse–Richard Wagamese

The name—its explanation comes on the first pages of the book—pulls you into the story. The writing is measured and strong and beautiful—

“The Old Ones say that our long straight hair comes from the waving grasses that thatch the edges of bays. Our feet and hands are broad and flat and strong, like the paws of a bear… Our talk rolls and tumbles like the rivers that served as our roads.”  It keeps you going.

But it’s a rough road. Richard Wagamese, a Canadian Ojibwa writer well known in his own country but not much here, tells a brutal story of old wisdom, a vicious boarding school, the grace and beauty in sport, and the depth of irrational racial hatred.

I’ve said before that slavery is not the original sin; the racism that produced and supported slavery is the country’s original sin. And here I include our neighbors to the north, who were part of, and are today, like us, a product of the invasion of White Europeans, who stole, plundered, and installed a system that we are now learning to see as “systemic racism.”

Ideas precede actions, as Ibram X. Kendi says: “race craft” had to be developed before Black Africans could be routinely put in chains. Race craft meant a color hierarchy, with white Europeans at the top; the Brown peoples of the New World were displaced as Black Africans were imported to build an economy on their lands. 

The digression on race is because one cannot read Indian Horse without wondering at the viciousness, cruelty, and disdain of Whites towards Indians. And there is no room here to allow our northern friends a pass on racism. Their guilt is as deep as our own.

What Euro-Canada did give to Indians was hockey (as we have given them basketball). What will engage sports enthusiasts in the book are descriptions of the thrill of sport, and not the jaw-dropping crushes routine in hockey or football, or even the pure athleticism of any sport’s best. It is the intuitive knowledge of sport, and the grace with which the best go about it.

Saul Indian Horse sees “the rink”—from the shabbiest coldest outdoor rinks in backwoods Canadian Indian hockey to the indoor, Zamboni-groomed rinks of the pros—and the puck and all the skaters as they are and as they might or could be in the next micro-seconds.  Saul scores, but more profoundly, he passes and makes other players and his teams better. Teammates learn to skate where he will find them, and defenses are befuddled by the eyes in the back of his head. He sees the hockey rink as his grandmother saw the lakes and rivers—and a hard route in freezing cold that saved Saul’s own life.

Hockey is Saul Indian Horse’s ticket out of the boarding school—and into other worlds of discrimination and cruelty. I was in tears at book’s end.

And Richard Wagamese, the writer? He’s a Canadian Ojibwa, so there are two counts against him in the American (read US) book world. I think most of his books are only available from Canadian publishers. Milkweed from Minneapolis brought this book out in a beautiful edition. 

The man’s story. The scenes in Indian Horse must be close to those Wagamese lived—parents and their generation were forced into boarding schools; he himself was removed from them and placed in foster care. He ran away from abuse and intolerance at 16, lived on the streets and in prisons until finding his story-telling voice. 

I sometimes feel doubly and triply robbed: robbed of the stories that were all around me when I was young—the Minnesota Ojibwa were my neighbors; robbed of any true accounting of the racism that has permeated White America from its onset in 1492; and robbed of the work of fine artists because of political, ethnic, and cultural boundaries observed by the American literary establishment and publishing industry. 

Oh—one more: I should have known and invited this man to Fishtrap when I was in charge and he was still alive.

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