Indian Horse

Indian Horse Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Eagles (symbol)

When Shabogeesick appears to Saul he is holding an eagle wing fan. Someone with an eagle feather is a respected person who worked hard to earn a feather from a noble and powerful creature; it makes sense that Shabogeesick would have a fan, given his well-respected role in his own community. By passing his fan on to Saul, he tells his great-grandson that he has followed a hard path and earned respect. Eagle feathers are also used in Ojibway healing ceremonies, with the eagle carrying sickness out of the body and into the sky. Shabogeesick, a shaman, uses the eagle wing fan to heal Saul.

The Moon (symbol)

Throughout Indian Horse, Saul refers to the moon and describes its place in the sky. The moon represents a force both totally distinct from the world and intimately related to it. It is a distant form, high in the sky, but its light scatters over the earth and cuts through the darkness of the night. When Saul sleeps in the bush while at the New Dawn Centre, he focuses on the stars—the moon is absent. After he sees Shabogeesick, and his family walks out of the bush, the moon appears in the sky as a narrow arc. When he reaches Gods Lake, and has his second vision of Shabogeesick, the moon is full. The waxing of the moon thus parallels Saul’s path on earth, and symbolizes healing and growth. Its cyclical transformation echoes the cyclical narrative of the novel, and the abiding possibility of regrowth and change. Saul enacts this when he sees the moon as a face, and as a hockey rink—its distant surface is fluid and changing not only as a celestial object, but in relation to his own life.

The death of children (motif)

Several chapters of Indian Horse are devoted entirely to lists of Native children who died due to abuse at St. Jerome. This speaks to the historical reality of the schools, where the reported death rate was never less than three times that of the general young population. Estimates range from 3,200 to upwards of 6,000 deaths during the hundred years of the system. Wagamese depicts the human reality of these statistics by imagining these children as characters, as people. Through Saul, the novel also illustrates the lasting traumatic impact the high death rate would have had on other students who survived, something that death statistics fail to communicate.

Community (motif)

Through all of Saul’s moving-around, and all the different social structures he lives in, he always lives in relation to the people around him. Wagamese describes many different kinds of communities: extended family at Gods Lake, regimented and authoritarian systems at St. Germ's, brotherhood among hockey players in Manitouwadge, the cold indifference of white workers when Saul leaves home, and finally the full Manitouwadge community when Saul returns. By fleshing out each of these dynamics, Wagamese argues that community and social structure are central to how people experience their lives, and that being completely alone is impossible.

Language (motif)

There are three major languages in Indian Horse: Old Talk, Ojibway, and English. Old Talk is unspoken except for in ceremonies, and it is the language Saul and his ancestors hear at Gods Lake. Ojibway is the vernacular among Ojibway peoples, but it is violently suppressed by the nuns and priests at St. Jerome’s in favor of English. Suppressing language is an integral part of cultural genocides like the residential school system; taking away someone’s language disconnects them from elders who speak it as their first or only language. Canadian assimilationists recognized this, and targeted Indigenous languages like Ojibway to cut Native children off from their community and especially their elders, in order to destroy their connection to their own culture and replace it with white western culture. When Rebecca Wolf mourns her sister in Ojibway prayer, she resists that system, as do the students when they mourn her in the same language. The persistence of Indigenous language, both Ojibway and Old Talk, in Indian Horse, is one way that the Indigenous characters assert their cultural survival.