Indian Horse

Indian Horse Summary and Analysis of Chapters 6-15


The chapter begins with the Indian Horse family arriving at Gods Lake. Saul spends a lot of time describing the setting. The lake is surrounded by trees, and, on one side, tall cliffs which stretch high above the shoreline. The land is rich and fertile, and the family has more to eat than they ever had before. One day, Saul is sitting in his favorite place, the top of a pink gravel cliff where he can look out across the green land. Suddenly, he hears his name and looks down to the lake, where he sees a group of people living joyful lives on the shore. As he watches, the day turns to night, and Saul can smell the land and hear the people, now singing in the Old Talk, the forgotten language from long ago. An old man looks up from the singing and makes eye contact with Saul, and suddenly the morning comes and the people disappear. Saul is heartbroken. Naomi finds him, and he weeps in her arms.

Saul’s vision helps him realize that in the past, his family had lived and died on the shore of Gods Lake, which is why it still belongs to them. Rice harvesting season has arrived, and Naomi leads the family in traditional harvest practices. First, she teaches the family to make rice ties, elaborate braids to tie each head of rice as it is harvested. While they weave the ties, Naomi and Saul’s mother get into an argument. Saul’s mother calls Naomi blasphemous for insisting that all gods are one, and says that they should give thanks to God with the rosary. On the night of the harvest, Ben and Saul prepare fire pits to dry the rice while the adults paddle off to the rice beds in their canoes.

When they come back, Naomi instructs Ben and Saul on how to remove the husks, which she identifies as an important part of maturing from a boy into a man. After the rice is dried over the fire, the two boys dance on its surface to the sound of their grandmother’s singing. It is difficult to keep rhythm on the shifting rice and exhausting to continue dancing for so long. Saul notices that Ben is coughing, but sees that he is trying to hide it from the family. He gets weaker and weaker, until he begins coughing up blood. Everything stops, and Saul and Naomi tend to him while the rest of the family sits far away by the fire. There’s nothing they can do, and Ben dies that night.

The next day, Saul’s grandmother prepares Ben’s body for burial while the rest of the family mourns. She plans a traditional burial, where the body will be laid on the earth in a high place. His mother objects furiously, calling Naomi a heathen, and insists that Ben receive a Christian burial instead. Naomi tries to change her mind, and her husband’s, but they decide to take the body and leave to find a priest. Everyone accompanies them but Saul and Naomi, who stay together and watch the canoe leave with Ben’s body. They never come back. When winter approaches, Naomi sees that they will die if they do not leave Gods Lake, so she decides to take Saul to Minaki, a town where they can find shelter with her nephew.

Saul and Naomi load their canoe with supplies and head off downriver. The way is difficult because of the cold and the snow, and because they have to haul the canoe into and out of the water every morning and night. They struggle to fend off the cold with small fires, makeshift shelters, and body heat. Then disaster strikes when they fall asleep on the canoe and it sails down a rivulet, colliding with a rock and breaking apart. Naomi remembers a path Saul’s great-grandfather made out of the mountains, and asks Saul if he can see it. A seer, he hears a voice and finds the path, and they follow it until they reach Minaki, weak and starving. They lie down together at the train station to rest, in the freezing cold and the snow, and Saul feels Naomi go cold in his arms. Eventually, people come and take him away from his dead grandmother, into a strange new world.

Saul has been taken by two nuns, who cram him into the back of a truck with two other Ojibway children and take him to St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School. Its a cold, unfeeling place, with regimented interiors and perfectly disinfected surfaces that make Saul miss the sky. He is introduced to Sister Ignatius and Father Quinney, the heads of the school. They force Saul to exchange his traditional clothing for “western” clothing, and cut his long hair into a short crew cut. Lonnie, the boy who arrived with Saul, is forced to change his name because it isn’t biblical. He resists, because he is named after his father, and Sister Ignatius beats him, insisting that his only father is “the heavenly Father,” or the Christian God.

Saul begins his time at St. Germ's (his name for St. Jerome’s) alone. Most of the kids can’t speak and read English the way he can, and they see him as an outsider. His own pain at the loss of his family cements his desire to stay away, as does his growing love for literature and the nuns' encouragement. Those children who don’t obey the mute order of the school are the victims of abuse and wanton cruelty at the hands of the nuns. A six-year-old boy, Arden, who wipes his runny nose with his arm instead of a handkerchief, is tied up with his hands behind his back and left that way, day after day. Eventually, he hangs himself. A twelve-year-old girl named Sheila Jack was raised to be a shaman, and draws the admiration of the other students when she arrives. Fearing her influence, the nuns force her to recite the catechism at all hours, until she goes insane and is taken away to an asylum.

Death is common, from despair or abuse. Those who survive are left with “holes in [their] beings.” During a rare unsupervised afternoon, the children go to the river and fish with burlap sacks. They leave the fish to die on the shore, weeping because there is no way to store or clean the fish. For days, they smell their hands and cry, yearning for their lost way of life. Saul continues to watch children die. To survive, he hides all feeling, remaining alone, letting everyone see only a quiet, unfeeling boy.

The same year, a new priest, Father Gaston Leboutilier, arrives at St. Germ’s. He’s different, quicker to laugh and kinder to the children, and the other priests and nuns dislike him. One day, he asks Saul if he has heard of hockey. He hasn’t, but Father Gaston’s enthusiasm is infectious, and Saul begins to read about the game. Then he goes to watch the older boys play, and immediately understands the fundamental rhythms of the game. When the priest takes him to watch a game on the television, he is amazed by the new technology, but more amazed by the sport itself. He begs to be allowed to play, but Father Gaston tells him he is too young. Saul asks to care for the rink, and the priest obliges.


In Chapter 6, Saul has a vision of his ancestors as they were when they lived on the shores of Gods Lake. This important scene parallels the end of the novel, when Saul returns to the lake and has another vision. In both scenes, Saul looks up and sees the moon transformed: here, into the face of old man, then later, into a hockey rink. As a child, he sees his distant ancestors, people he doesn’t recognize, although he understands his connection to them. At the end of the novel, he sees the family he lost. This connection between the beginning and the end of the book establish a cyclic, rather than linear, narrative structure. The circular shape of the narrative emphasizes that for Indian Horse, what’s important isn’t abandoning the past, but returning to it with new eyes. Saul’s visions themselves, which speak to the ongoing presence of ancestry, emphasize this theme.

At the same time, intra-family conflict becomes central in these chapters. Saul’s mother, and the other members of her generation, are all Christian. Although they converted due to their time in residential schools, time which Saul’s mother still remembers with dread, they nevertheless hold onto their faith and push back against Naomi’s adherence to her own traditions. Naomi isn’t prescriptive about her religious practice—she merely insists that there is no meaningful difference between her Creator and their God. But for the Christians, even refusing to choose one over the other is an act of blasphemy.

Benjamin’s death becomes the breaking point for this conflict, which will rear its head throughout the novel in different forms. As Ben is dying, Saul feels that “the land [is] already reaching out and claiming him,” an observation that mirrors the connection between the natural world and his closeness with his brother when they were first reunited. Naomi’s intent of burying him in the earth would honor both Benjamin’s life and what Saul sees in his body. Thus, when Benjamin’s Christian parents insist on burying him according to “the rites of the Church” and taking him away from the land, they deny those parts of him. This action foreshadows the assimilationist project of St. Jerome’s that Saul experiences, which similarly uses Christianity to deny the connection of indigenous children to the natural world and their traditions.

The closeness between Saul and Naomi, in opposition to the rest of his family, is the central dynamic of his young life. It establishes his understanding of what affection looks like, and of the role physical touch has in emotional closeness. When they begin traveling towards Minaki, Naomi uses her body heat to shelter Saul from the cold, “the old woman took my hands and put them up her skirt and held them between her thighs to warm them. I wasn’t embarrassed. I put my face against her belly.” Her touch is directed towards keeping Saul safe, but its also about love, as he shows when he presses his face against her stomach, not to keep warm, but to be close to her. When Father Leboutilier abuses Saul, he forces the kind of touch that Saul gives freely here, and exploits the boy’s desire for safety and affection in order to justify it.

At this early stage in the novel, Saul spends less time describing his own experiences at St. Jerome’s and more on the children around him. Rather than focusing on one story, Saul lists off individual horrors one by one, ending with the fate of the children driven mad, or to suicide, or killed. The vivid, specific imagery combined with a multitude of victims, some of whom are named, and some of whom are never introduced to the reader, forces the reader to feel the omnipresence of violence at the school. Saul interrupts this deadening litany of evil with a moment of respite, a trip to the lake to catch fish. Where they are closest to tradition, to the bush, and to community, where hope seems closer, Saul is most open about his grief. The stories of death and abuse are individual, but this grief is communal: “there wasn’t a one of us that didn’t cry for the loss of the life we’d known before.”