Saul is the protagonist and narrator of Indian Horse. The novel is framed as a memoir he is writing about his own life as a form of therapy.
Saul's people are the northern Ojibway, an Indigenous group who live along the Winnipeg river. His early childhood centers around his grandmother Naomi, who tells him stories and passes down Ojibway knowledge and legends. From a young age, he understands the danger of white people, who are responsible for abducting his mother and father, and later his brother Ben, to place them in “residential schools” for reeducation. Ben escapes and Naomi takes the family to Gods Lake, which will become the most important place in Saul’s life, the place where he lived Ojibway traditions and shared them with his family. When Ben dies of tuberculosis, the family splinters and Saul is taken to a residential school called St. Jerome’s.
For the rest of his life, Saul is marked by the past he lost at Gods Lake, and the traumas that replaced it once he arrived at St. Jerome’s. Saul watches as the students around him are subjected to constant emotional, physical, and sexual abuse with the aim of beating the Ojibway out of children and transforming them into Christians. He appears to find the beginnings of freedom with Father Gaston Leboutilier, who introduces Saul to hockey and presents himself as his friend. But by the end of the novel, Saul realizes that his pleasant memories of the priest were fictions born of self-preservation. In reality, the priest’s “affection” took the form of routine sexual abuse.
Throughout Indian Horse, Saul’s love of hockey is his lifeline. He’s an unlikely athlete because of his short stature, but he has an incredible ability to understand the motions of the game and predict where the puck will go. He uses this ability to control the ice and predict the movements of his teammates. It’s the place where he feels free—first from the horrors of St. Jerome’s, and then from his own memories, his abiding grief. However, he is also met with violent racism both on and off the court, which only increases the more successful he becomes. He begins to struggle with bouts of anger born of despair, with a feeling of darkness and hopelessness at the pit of his stomach. Although he spends a long time trying to remain stoic in the face of violence, he eventually gives in and fights back.
Hockey is important to Saul because it is an escape from the violence of everyday life, and because it is based in community. When he loses those elements of the game, he loses hope, and eventually slides into alcoholism. Later on, with the help of therapy and his ancestors, he realizes that Leboutilier’s abuse, and the other traumas he survived at St. Jerome’s, were the roots both of his dependence on hockey, and the darkness that began to overtake him. Ultimately, beating his addiction requires reckoning with his past, allowing himself to grieve for his family, and finding the strength to return home to the Kellys and live with his community.
Shabogeesick Indian Horse
Saul’s great-grandfather Shabogeesick is a recurring presence in the novel, even though he died long before Saul was born. Instead, Saul learns about him from his grandmother Naomi’s stories. Shabogeesick was famous for introducing horses to the Ojibway and revealing how they could be domesticated. This adventure gave his family the name “Indian Horse.” By speaking to the horses, he learned how dangerous white people would be, and how drastically the Anishinabeg way of life would change because of them. Despite his dire warnings, he was respected and loved by the people throughout his life.
At the end of Indian Horse, Shabogeesick returns twice. The first time, Saul is spending a night alone in the woods while in residence at the New Dawn Centre. Shabogeesick appears in a cloud of fog, riding a horse. Silently, he uses an eagle feather fan to show Saul a vision of his departed family members. After the vision, Saul is compelled to go on a journey through the places of his childhood, where he finally remembers that Father Leboutilier raped him. Shabogeesick appears again at the end of Saul’s journey, at Gods Lake. Once again, he shows Saul a vision of his family, but this time he speaks, and tells Saul that he must find a way to keep Gods Lake with him after he leaves.
A figure from stories passed down through the generations, the visions he shows Saul are always grounded in family, and give Saul the strength to reckon with his own past.
Naomi Indian Horse
Naomi is Saul’s grandmother and his connection to Anishinabeg tradition and history. She encourages his family to return to Gods Lake, where she passes knowledge down to Saul and Ben. Her most central conflict is with Saul’s Christian mother, who tries to prevent Naomi from practicing Ojibway religion, and forbids her from giving Ben a traditional burial. She dies after bringing Saul all the way from deep in the wilderness into Minaki, a town in Northern Ontario.
Father Gaston Leboutilier
Father Leboutilier is a priest at St. Jerome’s who arrives after Saul. He is disliked by the other “teachers” for being more lenient with rules and for his relaxed, personal relationships with students. He forms such a relationship with Saul, giving him permission to clean the rink, spending time practicing with him, and watching hockey games with him on television. He creates that closeness for the sake of sexually abusing Saul, exploiting his need for affection and a parental figure.
Fred is the coach of the Moose, a team in the informal Native league of hockey teams. He notices Saul’s athletic ability while attending a St. Jerome's game, and uses his position as the coach of the Moose to recruit Saul and rescue him from St. Jerome’s. Although Fred is usually too busy with work to coach the Moose, he still serves as a mentor figure for Saul. Fred is a survivor of St. Jerome’s, and his shared history with Saul enables him to understand his trauma and give him the distance he needs to figure himself out. Outside the patients at the New Dawn Centre, he and his wife Martha are the first people Saul tells about Father Leboutilier.
Virgil is Fred and Martha’s youngest son and Saul’s closest friend. He is the captain of the Moose, and also does most of the coaching work because of Fred’s busy schedule. Virgil is frank with Saul, expressing his disappointment, anger, and doubt honestly. At the same time, he always pushes Saul to take risks and be his best self, first by encouraging him to pursue a career in the NHL, then by discouraging his choice to abandon Manitouwadge and work on the road. Despite Virgil's anger at Saul’s decision to leave, the two never lose their affection for one another or their open, relaxed way of being together.
Ervin Sift finds Saul drunk and alone in a bar in Northern Ontario. He takes Saul home and offers him work, lodging, and food. He understands that Saul carries old wounds and doesn’t push him to open up, but is instead comfortable simply sharing silence. Ervin has his own grief, having recently lost his wife of almost thirty years. That sadness allows him to better understand Saul.
Moses is Saul’s counselor at the New Dawn Centre, a treatment center for alcoholism. He encourages Saul to speak, and if he won’t do that, to write. At the end of Indian Horse, he works closely with Saul as he tries to understand his own life.
Martha Kelly is Fred Kelly's wife. She is the kind of person who makes everyone feel naturally comfortable, and she treats Saul as part of the family from the moment he arrives. She and her husband Fred are substitute parental figures to Saul. Because they share his experience in the residential school, they are able to empathize with him. They are the first two people in Manitouwadge who Saul tells about Father Leboutilier.
Mary Mandamin is Saul Indian Horse's mother. She is a survivor of the residential schools, but unlike Saul, she ends up converting to Christianity. She frequently clashes with Naomi over religious issues, and tries to assert the superiority of the Christian god, eventually breaking up the family in order to give Ben a Christian burial. She is also deeply traumatized by her time at the school, and remains fearful of it as an adult. She is prone to silence and brooding. Like Saul, she struggles with alcoholism.
Indian Horse Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Indian Horse is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Wagamese's narrative links the soul of nature with the soul of Saul and his family. It is at God's Lake where Saul experiences a spiritual awakening at such a young age. He hears the trees whisper his name; he feels the mist in his bones; he hears...