Assimilation, or the loss of group identity in favor of the dominant culture, is central to Saul’s story. While assimilation can happen gradually due to primarily economic and social factors, Wagamese emphasizes that the assimilation of Canadian Indigenous people into White settler culture was forced and violent. This is accurate to Canadian history—residential schools were built with the explicit purpose of “killing the Indian” in Indigenous people. The violence Wagamese details at St. Jerome’s illustrate how literal that “killing” could be; policies that prohibited Indigenous language, religion, and dress could be enforced only through brutality. Yet even without the physical abuse that surrounded these policies, Indian Horse also emphasizes the tragedy of the loss itself. Wagamese uses poetic language and evocative emotional phrases when he describes Saul and his peers’ fishing trip, and the tension between their longing for their old way of life and the nuns’ assumption that they are happily embracing Christianity.
In the western canon, coming-of-age and hero’s-journey stories often center around a white male main character who finds his strength by becoming independent and triumphing over his problems alone. While Wagamese is writing in conversation with these genres, he importantly deviates from the trope of the liberated individual by constantly emphasizing the necessity of community and interdependence. From St. Jerome's to life as a migratory worker, Saul responds to his trauma by choosing to be alone. Rather than finding himself in these moments, they are the darkest in Saul’s life. When he decides to follow the road alone, he quickly realizes that he misses his family and the camaraderie of his team. Each positive turning point in Indian Horse happens when Saul lets someone else help him: Erv Sift, Moses at the New Dawn Centre, the Kellys, his great-grandfather. Indian Horse suggests that strength isn’t being able to survive on one’s own: it's being brave enough to admit that you need other people, and that they need you. It is telling that the novel doesn’t end with Saul alone on the ice, facing his fears, but with the arrival of his neighbors and friends, coming to share the game with him. Through Saul, Wagamese models an Indigenous masculinity that embraces land, ancestry, and community rather than rugged individualism.
In Indian Horse, land isn’t just a setting; it's a character. This dynamic is introduced when Naomi teaches Saul about the family’s history with Gods Lake, which illustrates that land can have a specific character, and that it can choose to accept some people and not others. While St. Jerome’s, and settler colonialism as a system, asserts ownership of land through private possession and transformation, Saul and his Indigenous ancestors have a connection to Gods Lake rooted in a reciprocal relationship with it as a place. When Saul is suffering from alcoholism, land serves as an emotional haven, the place where he feels grounded and at peace. Saul’s ability to see into the spiritual world is also closely related to the land. When he leaves Gods Lake with Naomi, he is able to see the path his great-grandfather left when he focuses closely on the sound of the river, the taste of the air, and the feeling of the snow on his face. Towards the end of the novel, Shabogeesick appears again only after Saul spends a night in the bush, indicating that Saul needs to see and connect with the land in order for his vision to show him his great-grandfather.
By focusing on Saul, and employing an internal narration that tells the reader about his mental state as well as his circumstances, Wagamese highlights not just the mechanisms but the impacts of racism. The anti-Indigenous bigotry that white settlers inflict on Saul wears several guises: institutionalized dehumanization and abuse at St. Jerome’s, the stereotyping that haunts his athletic career, and the coldness white teammates and coworkers show towards him. The cumulative effect of these interlocking forms of bigotry is to cause Saul to shut off from the world. The abuse of St. Jerome’s is the catalyst for this pattern, but Wagamese emphasizes that the verbal and social marginalization Saul experiences as an adult has a similar effect. Fred and Martha Kelly recognize that Saul’s decision to leave hockey and go off alone was rooted in his childhood trauma, but Wagamese makes clear that the immediate decision stemmed from the racism of his teammates and commentators, which barred him from finding freedom on the ice. The stereotypical commentary that followed him as a hockey player also emphasizes the violent power of language; in fact, Saul is able to out-skate physical violence on the court, but cannot so easily evade the way racist language hems him in as a player and a person.
Reckoning with the Past
The central conflict of Indian Horse is Saul’s struggle to reconcile with his past by allowing his traumatic memories to resurface and finding ways to work past them. The beginning of the novel sets up this conflict through Saul’s mother and father, who are terrified by “the school” and unwilling, or unable, to speak of it. This silent preoccupation leads to alcoholism, neglect, and eventually their abandonment of Saul. At the same time, their presence in the novel highlights the past in a different way, as Saul inherits the trauma of the residential school even before he attends it. When Saul reaches adulthood like his parents did, he struggles with many of the same behaviors—he, too, isolates himself, abandons his found family, and slips into alcoholism. However, while Saul’s parents ignored Naomi, embraced Christianity, and shut themselves off from the past, Saul is able to reconnect with his ancestors and his traditions. By reaching back into the deep past, he is able to find the truth about his own immediate past, and to carry what he experienced with honesty. Unlike his parents, after his revelation, Saul speaks about his trauma, both to the younger patients at the New Dawn Centre and to Fred, Martha, and Virgil. Through open conversation, and relying on his community, Saul is able to begin moving on.
In Chapter 21, Saul describes the role sexual abuse plays in the hell of St. Jerome’s. When Saul describes overhearing the other boys being raped, he uses the first person plural, depicting confusion and terror as communal. By speaking more generally, Saul illustrates the impact the assaults had on everyone. He also recounts the silence surrounding the assaults, the way none of the children would say anything to protect their friends from shame. When Saul has his revelation about Father Leboutilier at the end of the novel, this scene is put in a new light. Saul’s avoidance of the singular first person and the lack of references to himself foreshadowed the way he coped with assault—denial. Furthermore, it becomes clear that part of the traumatizing impact of rape was precisely the way it made open discussion so difficult. Overcoming that silence and speaking openly with Fred and Martha is thus central to Saul’s own healing process.
Wagamese also emphasizes the relationship between assault and the ideology and operation of St. Jerome’s. Father Leboutilier takes advantage of Saul’s desire for familial affection when he abuses him, and it was St. Jerome’s that stole Saul away from his family in the first place. Fred and Martha Kelly also draw a simile between the sexual assault and forced assimilation: both are rape because they are both ways of violating someone’s bodily and spiritual autonomy.
St. Jerome’s isn’t really a school, but a way to prepare Indigenous children for manual labor while trying to separate them from culture and family. Saul’s teacher is his grandmother Naomi, who instructs through storytelling, often about Saul’s own ancestors, and through hands-on examples, as when she teaches the family how to make traditional rice ties. Her teaching is thus situated within both land and community. When Saul recovers, he picks up the mantle of teaching. He returns to the New Dawn Centre finally willing to speak, which becomes a way to both learn about himself and teach the younger inhabitants of the center. Then he makes his way back to Manitouwadge and decides to become a coach. Saul sees coaching as a way of giving back, of sharing the joy he found in the game. His goals in coaching parallel the way Naomi taught him; they’re relational and rooted in a desire to share, to pass down.
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...