Indian Horse begins with Saul Indian Horse, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, introducing himself. He describes his people, the Ojibway, and their close connection to the land of Ontario, in eastern Canada. The voice of the elders, or Old Ones, is especially important to Saul and his people. They teach the Anishinabeg intuitive understanding of the landscape, and their protective relationship to the earth. Before Saul’s time, the Ojibway understood their world through the storytelling of the Old Ones. When white people arrived, the legends were compromised. For Saul and his peers, that time is cut off, part of a past that is deeply missed, but that cannot be returned to.
Saul is part of a therapy group at The New Dawn Centre, a treatment facility. The treatments are informed by Anishinabeg traditions, but Saul is still frustrated by them—the counselors are never quiet, and they expect him to talk just as much as they do. He’s thirty years old, older than most of the other patients, and he gets tired of sitting around and talking all day. Despite his irritation with the Centre, the treatment is working—he’s gone weeks without alcohol and feels healthier for it, although he still sometimes craves a drink. Now, the counselors are pushing him to continue his recovery by sharing his story. Although most of the patients choose to tell theirs aloud, he decides to write instead. He hopes that when he recovers and moves on, he will be able to reclaim his own past, to become a seer once more.
Saul begins by recounting a story he heard so many times as a child that it feels real to him, although it happened years before his birth. At the time, the Ojibway were still living on untamed land, sharing it with wild creatures. Saul’s great-grandfather transformed this reality by bringing the first horse back to the people. He was a great man, a shaman and a trapper with a close relationship to the land. At first, when he ventured into the bush and came back to the village with the horse, the people were afraid. Yet once he explained its gentleness and how useful it could be, they came to see it as a gift.
One day, he brought the people to a sacred place and shared that the horse had told him many things on their way back to the village. It had arrived with the Zhaunagush—the white men. These people would bring great changes to the Anishinabeg, changes that would be difficult to ride out, yet ride them out they must. Although the people were afraid, they listened to Saul’s great-grandfather, and they continued to nurture the horse. Years later, when the white men arrived with treaties, and asked for the name of Saul’s family, they gave the last name “Indian Horse.”
Saul lost his connection to this past when he was eight years old. At the time, he was living in a small camp led by his grandmother Naomi, who worked hard to hide Saul and his brother Benjamin from the outside world. His mother, father, and aunts lived with them too, but all of them, especially his mother, were distant, haunted by something she just called “the school.” It was this that Naomi was hiding them from; white people stole Saul’s sister and took her there before he was born.
When Saul was four, his family was gathering roots by the river when an airplane arrived. He escaped with Naomi, but the white men stole away his brother Benjamin. His mother grew even more quiet and distant, unable to speak of anything but “the school.” His father and uncles gradually turned to drink. Saul began to rely more and more on his grandmother, who would sit up with him late at night and tell him stories about the old days, teach him about medicine, and sing him Ojibway songs.
After Benjamin’s abduction, Saul’s family left the bush and began doing “Indian work” in camps outside of the small towns. The pay was bad, and most of it went towards drink. The work was brutal and unsafe, and there were few other children because so many had been taken by the Zhaunagush. Eventually, the family settled in a town called Redditt, where things were a little better because the family could make slightly more money. Saul’s father stopped drinking quite so much, and his mother, though still heartbroken, began to spend more time with the family, by the fire.
Then one day, Benjamin walked out of the bush and back into Saul’s life. He had run away from school and was nearly unrecognizable, but the whole family rejoiced at his return. However, they soon realized that he was sick, with something Saul will later identify as tuberculosis. Naomi convinced the family that if they remained in Redditt the authorities would find both boys and steal them away. Instead, they went to Gods Lake.
The journey was beautiful. Saul was never far from his brother, and remembered how much he loves him. On the way, Naomi told the story of Gods Lake. The spot was discovered when a group of hunters stumbled upon it while following some moose. When they arrived, they heard voices coming from the lake, speaking the Old Language, which no one had spoken for centuries. Terrified, they fled. Then one day, Saul’s grandfather Solomon had a dream where the family farmed rice on the shores of the lake. He returned to the spot and made offerings to the spirits, making peace with them. Ever since, Gods Lake has been Indian Horse territory.
Wagamese opens Indian Horse by establishes a framing device, a narrative technique in which a story is surrounded by a secondary narrative, creating a story within a story. The surrounding story is Saul’s adult life and his attempt to recover from alcoholism by telling the story of his own life; the primary plot of the novel, Saul growing from a boy into a man, is the story Saul tells.
The first chapter of Indian Horse is focused on adult Saul, and introduces several of his major conflicts. He is recovering from alcoholism, although his commitment to overcoming his addiction is rooted only in his desire to get out of the Centre and move on with his life. At the same time, he is grieving a lost past, a grief he shares with his generation, the first Ojibway children born into a world where white settlers had already destroyed the possibility of living an unthreatened traditional life. Finally, Saul’s “greatest sorrow” is the loss of his ability to see beyond the boundaries of the physical world. By introducing all these conflicts early on, Wagamese foreshadows the impact that Saul’s turbulent childhood will have on his adulthood.
Saul begins his story by introducing himself, naming his parents, clan, tribe, and homeland. This adheres to the traditional structures of Ojibway storytelling. Although Saul specifically elects to write his story rather than speak it aloud, the style and structure of his writing parallel that of an oral history. More explicitly, Wagamese emphasizes the importance of storytelling through the character of Naomi, Saul’s grandmother. Throughout her time with Saul, she passes down knowledge, tradition, and history through stories. More than just a factual recollection of the past, her stories are complex and teach multiple lessons. For example, the story of Shabogeesick and the horse introduces Saul to an important piece of family history, but it also presents a possible response to colonization, something Saul and his family have to reckon with in their own lives. While Shabogeesick may be literally in the past, Naomi’s storytelling practice figuratively places him in Saul’s present by tying his concerns to Saul’s own.
The connection between an individual and their ancestors, community, and family is an important theme throughout Indian Horse. For Saul, that reality is something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, his love for Naomi and her stories forms a lifeline to his past that runs all the way to his great-grandfather. On the other, the colonial violence of the residential school system is perpetrated not against individuals in isolation, but against whole communities, because of the connections between people. Saul’s own ordeal at St. Jerome’s is foreshadowed by the experiences of his family: his mother and father are both scarred by their own years spent at the school, and his brother Benjamin is taken as well. Before Saul ever steps foot inside a residential school, his life has been damaged by the impact the schools had on his family.
The family's trip to Gods Lake after Benjamin returns represents Saul’s last exposure to a traditional Ojibway way of life. As the family travels to the lake, Wagamese dwells on the beauty of the landscape, as well as the two brothers’ joy at reuniting. Nature and family are intimately connected; Saul savors the warmth of the rain while laughing with his brother and reveling in their love for one another. The land isn’t just the place where they are; it is another character in their lives, sharing in Saul’s relationship with his brother just as his grandmother does.