Indian Horse

Indian Horse Summary

Saul Indian Horse is born to an Ojibway family in northern Ontario. As a child, his grandmother told him stories about his ancestors, connecting him to a deep history. For Saul, that history, so intimate for her, is cut off by the violence done to him and his people by white settlers. He is writing a memoir as part of therapy for alcoholism, in an attempt to recover from his addiction, but also to regain a connection to the past and his abilities as a seer.

Saul’s great-grandfather Shabogeesick is one of the men his grandmother speaks about. He is remembered in legend because he brought the first horse to their people, taming it and drawing it out of the woods and into the village. The horse arrived with the white man, and as Shabogeesick brought it out of the bush it warned him of them, of the danger they would pose to Ojibway life. Shabogeesick passed those warnings on to his people. When the white settlers asked his ancestors for their last name, they called on the horse again, and took the name “Indian Horse.”

When Saul was a child, he lived in a small, isolated camp with his brother Benjamin, his mother and father, a few aunts and uncles, and his grandmother Naomi. His mother and father were often distant, haunted by something they call “the school.” As Saul gets older, he realizes that this is what Naomi is hiding them from. Despite her efforts, Benjamin is abducted when Saul is four. After this catastrophe, the family leaves the bush and the adults begin doing manual labor in camps around small Canadian towns.

Then one day, Benjamin returns unexpectedly. He is sick, and Naomi warns that if they don’t hide him, he’ll be taken again. She leads the family to Gods Lake, a sacred site belonging to their family. It’s a beautiful place, inhabited by spirits who speak the Old Talk, a forgotten Ojibway tongue. Not everyone can see them, but Saul can, and his vision allows him to realize that his family has deep roots in Gods Lake. Meanwhile, rice harvesting season arrives, and Naomi guides the family in traditional harvest practices. After the adults gather the rice, she tells Ben and Saul to dance on the grains to remove their husks. It’s difficult work, and although Ben tries to hide that he is struggling, he ends up coughing up blood. They stop immediately, but its too late, and he dies that night.

Naomi wants to give him an Ojibway burial, but his mother and father insist that they take his body and find a Christian priest. They take his body away from Gods Lake, leaving Saul and Naomi alone. At first, the two are able to subsist alone, but as fall turns to winter Naomi realizes that they will starve if they don’t find other people. She brings Saul all the way out of the wilderness, navigating by canoe through the freezing water, but the journey is difficult because of her age and the lack of food. When they reach a town, she lies down with Saul and dies in his arms. There, government officials find him and take him away to St. Jerome’s, a residential school run by priests and nuns with the purpose of forcibly assimilating Indigenous youth.

It’s a miserable, cruel place. Saul is forced to cut his hair and change into western clothes; students without “Christian” names like Saul’s have their names changed as well. At the school, they aren’t allowed to speak Ojibway, and are subject to thousands of petty rules designed to force them into “order.” Those who disobey are beaten and humiliated, and many die while Saul is at St. Germ's, his name for the school.

Because he can already read and speak English when he arrives, Saul is treated as an outsider by the other students. The nuns encourage his isolation, and his grief makes being alone feel like the easier path. The forced assimilation at St. Jerome’s is just as painful for Saul as it is for the other children, and he too is left with a “hole in [his] being.”

The same year Saul arrives, a new priest, Father Gaston Leboutilier, arrives at St. Germ's. He’s kinder to the children than the other priests and nuns, who distrust him. He’s also an enthusiastic hockey fan, and soon introduces Saul and the other boys to the sport. Although Saul is too young to be allowed to join the team, he eventually gets permission to wake up early and care for the rink.

Over time, caring for the rink turns into a chance to practice hockey, using frozen horse turds as pucks and wearing a borrowed pair of skates. Quickly, Saul discovers a natural talent for the sport, marked by an ability to see where he will go in his imagination, and then go there. He finally has his chance to play on the team when a player is injured and Saul takes his place during a practice game. Although he’s never played before, he’s able to see the hidden patterns of the game and use that knowledge to score. Impressed, Father Leboutilier invites him to play center, and Saul joins the team. His ability allows them to beat a better-funded white team in the first official game in which Saul plays.

St. Jerome’s is still a hellish place. Along with the obsessively strict regimentation, and often physically or psychologically abusive punishments, the “school” doesn’t even provide an education—the vast majority of the children’s time is spent doing manual labor. Saul and his peers are most terrified by what they call “nighttime invasions”—when they are routinely sexually assaulted by priests and nuns.

Hockey is so important to Saul because it provides his only refuge from the horrors of St. Germ's. He quickly becomes the best player on the St. Jerome’s team. He is briefly recruited to a village team, despite his youth, but is soon kicked off again. Father Leboutilier tries to make excuses, but Saul knows it's because he’s the only Indigenous player, and white people think the game belongs to them. Frustrated, he returns to the St. Germ’s team, bored by their inability to challenge him.

Then one day, an older Native man shows up at practice and watches Saul skate. Afterward, he introduces himself as Fred Kelly and tells Saul about the Native hockey league. He offers Saul a home and place on his team, the Moose. Over time, Saul becomes close with Fred, his wife Martha, and his youngest son Virgil, the team captain. Despite Saul’s young age and diminutive size, he soon proves himself to his new teammates and is accepted as part of the team. The Moose play against other Native teams at weekly tournaments, which they begin to dominate with Saul’s help. One day, Father Leboutilier watches a game, and afterward, says goodbye for the last time.

Eventually, a white team hears about the Moose’s reputation and challenges them to a game. The Moose are overwhelmed by their fancy stadium and seem outmatched at first, but once Saul joins the game he is able to lead them to victory. They continue to play white teams, although Saul misses the warmth and community of First Nations players. The white teams are hostile, and often openly racist. One day the Moose go to a diner after winning a game, and a group of white men take each player outside one by one, beat him, and piss on his body, sparing only Saul. The assault permanently influences their relationship to the game.

At one tournament, white players discover that they can violently target Saul without the referees calling them out, and without him fighting back. Yet Saul just skates faster, winning the tournament. His incredible play finally draws the attention of a white scout, who invites Saul to join a training camp that can feed into the NHL. He’s reluctant, but his friends on the Moose encourage him to join, and he eventually gives in.

Saul travels to Toronto for practice, and immediately dislikes the city. He performs well at training, and moves on to the Marlies, a junior feeder team to the NHL. Saul’s a great player, made even better because the skill of his new teammates allows him to make incredible passes and trust that they’ll be there to catch them. Yet his brilliance on the ice doesn’t prevent the violent racism of the fans, opposing teams, and even his own teammates, who are cold and distant towards him. Finally, Saul snaps, hogging the puck and fighting back when his opponents foul him, until the Marlies coach declares him a liability and benches him.

Defeated, Saul returns to Manitouwadge, where the Kellys live, and begins working as a logger. When his white coworkers harass him, verbally and then physically, he fights back. Hockey with the Moose begins to lose its magic, and Saul is angry all the time, regardless of whether or not the team he’s playing is white or Native. Finally, Saul decides to leave and find work on the road, abandoning his friends and his home.

He follows work from one town to the next. Although he enjoys being alone at first, he soon misses the camaraderie of his teammates on the Moose. Attempting to fill the void they’ve left, he begins frequenting bars, at first just to listen to other people talk, but then to drink himself. Alcohol gives him the confidence to join in, spinning tales, but it becomes a dependency, one he languishes in for years.

His fate changes when a white man named Ervin Sift finds him in a bar, alone and inebriated. Ervin brings him home, keeps him from drinking, and gives him work. Saul cares for Ervin, and relates to his grief, but he’s still restless. Unable to shake his hopelessness, he begins going on long walks, and then drinking while he is out of the house. Guilty, he leaves Ervin and slips back into alcoholism. Eventually, Saul has a stroke, and the doctors tell him he’ll die if he doesn’t stop drinking. Social workers at the hospital refer him to the New Dawn Centre, a place for Native alcoholics to get care.

There, his caseworker Moses encourages Saul to tell his story however he can. The past comes spilling out as he begins to write his memoir, but as Saul reaches the present in his story, he still feels stuck. He begins going on walks again, and one day stays out so late that he decides to spend the night in the woods. There, he has a vision of his great-grandfather Shabogeesick, who sings an Ojibway song and then shows Saul the members of his family. When he disappears, Saul realizes he needs to go on another journey.

He begins to retrace the steps of his childhood, beginning by returning to St. Jerome’s. The school is now abandoned and desolate. As Saul stands on the grounds, he suddenly realizes what was missing from the memoirs he wrote, why his reckoning with his past felt incomplete. As he looks at his old hockey rink, he thinks about Father Leboutilier, and suddenly remembers the priest touching him, kissing him, raping him. Their “friendship” was a facade, a way for the priest to exploit Saul’s desperation for affection in order to rape him. After his realization, he realizes he needs to keep going, to return further back, to Gods Lake.

There, Shabogeesick comes to him again in a second vision, along with Saul’s whole family, sailing over the lake in a flotilla of canoes. Shabogeesick comes ashore and tells Saul that he must learn how to carry Gods Lake with him wherever he goes. Then he takes Saul to the top of a cliff, from which Saul looks down and sees his whole family singing in low voices. Listening to the sound of their song, Saul is finally able to mourn. When he stops crying, he sees the northern lights filling the sky above him.

He leaves Gods Lake and returns to the New Dawn Centre, working closely with Moses to reckon with everything he’s realized about his past. Then he returns to Manitouwadge and tells Fred, Martha, and Virgil Kelly about Father Leboutilier. After their conversation, Fred invites Saul to rejoin the old members of the Moose, but Saul declines—he wants to coach instead. But when Virgil asks Saul to join in a scrimmage, he gladly accepts. After warming up alone, he is joined on the ice not just by former Moose players, but by many of the boys and girls of Manitouwadge. They take the ice together.