Indian Horse: A Novel

Indian Horse: A Novel

by Richard Wagamese


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Saul Indian Horse is a child when his family retreats into the woods. Among the lakes and the cedars, they attempt to reconnect with half-forgotten traditions and hide from the authorities who have been kidnapping Ojibway youth. But when winter approaches, Saul loses everything: his brother, his parents, his beloved grandmother—and then his home itself.

Alone in the world and placed in a horrific boarding school, Saul is surrounded by violence and cruelty. At the urging of a priest, he finds a tentative salvation in hockey. Rising at dawn to practice alone, Saul proves determined and undeniably gifted. His intuition and vision are unmatched. His speed is remarkable. Together they open doors for him: away from the school, into an all-Ojibway amateur circuit, and finally within grasp of a professional career. Yet as Saul’s victories mount, so do the indignities and the taunts, the racism and the hatred—the harshness of a world that will never welcome him, tied inexorably to the sport he loves.

Spare and compact yet undeniably rich, Indian Horse is at once a heartbreaking account of a dark chapter in our history and a moving coming-of-age story.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781571311306
Publisher: Milkweed Editions
Publication date: 04/10/2018
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 74,911
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Richard Wagamese (1955–2017) was one of Canada’s foremost writers, and one of the leading indigenous writers in North America. He was the author of several acclaimed memoirs and more than a dozen novels. He won numerous awards and honors for his writing, including the People’s Choice winner of the national Canada Reads competition in 2013, for Indian Horse.

Read an Excerpt


My name is Saul Indian Horse. I am the son of Mary Mandamin and John Indian Horse. My grandfather was called Solomon so my name is the diminutive of his. My people are from the Fish Clan of the northern Ojibway, the Anishinabeg, we call ourselves. We made our home in the territories along the Winnipeg River, where the river opens wide before crossing into Manitoba after it leaves Lake of the Woods and the rugged spine of northern Ontario. They say that our cheekbones are cut from those granite ridges that rise above our homeland. They say that the deep brown of our eyes seeped out of the fecund earth that surrounds the lakes and marshes. The Old Ones say that our long straight hair comes from the waving grasses that thatch the edges of bays. Our feet and hands are broad and flat and strong, like the paws of a bear. Our ancestors learned to travel easily through territories that the Zhaunagush, the white man, later feared and sought our help to navigate. Our talk rolls and tumbles like the rivers that served as our roads. Our legends tell of how we emerged from the womb of our Mother the Earth; Aki is the name we have for her. We sprang forth intact, with Aki’s heartbeat thrumming in our ears, prepared to become her stewards and protectors. When I was born our people still talked this way. We had not yet stepped beyond the influence of our legends. That was a border my generation crossed, and we pine for a return that has never come to be.

These people here want me to tell my story. They say I can’t understand where I’m going if I don’t understand where I’ve been. The answers are within me, according to them. By telling our stories, hardcore drunks like me can set ourselves free from the bottle and the life that took us there. I don’t give a shit about any of that. But if it means getting out of this place quicker, then telling my story is what I will do.

It was social workers at the hospital who sent me here. The New Dawn Centre. They call it a treatment facility. The counsellors here say Creator and the Grandmothers and the Grandfathers want me to live. They say a lot of things. In fact, they talk all the time, and they expect us to do the same. They sit there with their eyes all shiny and wet and hopeful, thinking we don’t see them waiting. Even with my eyes on my shoes I can feel them. They call it sharing. It’s one of our ancient tribal principles as Ojibway people, they claim. Many hearts beating together makes us stronger. That’s why they put us in the sharing circle.

There are at least thirty of us staying here. Everyone from kids in their late teens to a few in their thirties, like me, and one woman who’s so old she can’t talk much anymore. We sit in circles all day. I tire of talk. It wearies me. It makes me wish for a drink. But I endure it, and when my counsellor, Moses, ushers me into his office for one-on-one time, I endure that too. I’ve been here a month, after six weeks in the hospital, and that’s the longest I’ve been without a drink for years, so I guess there’s some use to it. My body feels stronger. My head is clear. I eat heartily. But now, they say, the time has come for the hardest work. “If we want to live at peace with ourselves, we need to tell our stories.”

I can’t tell mine in the circle. I know that. There’s too much to sort out and sift through. And I’ve noticed the younger ones getting all twitchy in their seats the few times I’ve tried to speak. Maybe they don’t believe me, or something about what I’m saying pisses them off. Either way, I can’t talk there. So Moses gave me permission to write things down. So I will. Then I’ll get on with life. Somewhere.

Our people have rituals and ceremonies meant to bring us vision. I have never participated in any of them, but I have seen things. I have been lifted up and out of this physical world into a place where time and space have a different rhythm. I always remained within the borders of this world, yet I had the eyes of one born to a different plane. Our medicine people would call me a seer. But I was in the thrall of a power I never understood. It left me years ago, and the loss of that gift has been my greatest sorrow. Sometimes it feels as though I have spent my entire life on a trek to rediscover it.


I wasn’t there the day the first Indian horse came to our people, but I heard the story so many times as a boy that it became real to me.

The Ojibway were not people of the horse. Our land existed as an untamed thing, lakes, rivers, bogs and marshes surrounded by citadels of bush and rock and the labyrinthine weave of country. We had no need of maps to understand it. We were people of the manitous. The beings that shared our time and place were lynx, wolf, wolverine, bear, crane, eagle, sturgeon, deer, moose. The horse was a spirit dog meant to run in open places. There was no word for it in the old talk until my great-grandfather brought one back from Manitoba.

When the sun was warm and the song of the wind could be heard in the rustle of the trees, our people said that the Maymaygwayseeuk, the water spirits, had come out to dance. That’s the kind of day it was. Sparkling. The eyes of the spirits winking off the water.

My great-grandfather had wandered off into the bite of the north wind one day near the end of winter, headed west to the land of our cousins, the Ojibway of the plains. His name was Shabogeesick. Slanting Sky. He was a shaman and a trapper, and because he spent so much time out on the land, it told him things, spoke to him of mysteries and teachings. They say he had the sending thought, the great gift of the original teachers. It was a powerful medicine, allowing vital teachings to be shared among people separated by tremendous distance. Shabogeesick was one of the last to claim its energy before history trampled it under foot. The land called to him one day and he walked off without a word to anyone. No one worried. It was something he did all the time.

But that late spring afternoon when he walked back out of the bush from the east, he was leading a strange black animal by a rope halter. Our people had never seen such a creature, and they were afraid. It was massive. Huge as a moose, but without antlers, and the sound of its hoofs on the ground was that of drums. It was like a great wind through a fissure in rock. People shrank from the sight of it.

“What manner of being is this?” they asked. “Do you eat it?” “How does it come to walk beside a man? Is it a dog? Is it a grandfather who lost his way?”

The people had many questions. None would approach the animal and when it lowered its head and began to graze on the grass, they gasped.

“It is like a deer.”

“Is it as gentle as Waywashkeezhee?”

“It is called a horse,” Shabogeesick told them. “In the land of our cousins it is used to travel long distances, to bear loads too heavy for men, to warn of Zhaunagush before he can be seen.”

“Horse,” the people said in unison. The big animal lifted its head and whinnied, and they were afraid. “Does it mock us?” they asked. “It announces itself,” Shabogeesick said. “It comes bearing great teachings.”

He’d brought the animal back on the train and walked it thirty miles from the station to our camp on the Winnipeg River. It was a Percheron. A draught horse. A working beast, and Shabogeesick showed the people how to halter it, to rig it with straps sewn from cedar roots and trading post rope so it could haul the carcasses of moose and bear many miles out of the bush. Children learned to ride on its broad back. The horse pulled elders on toboggans across the deep snows of winter and allowed men to cut trees and haul the logs to the river where they would float them to the mill for money. Horse was indeed a gift and the people called him Kitchi-Animoosh. Great Dog.

Then one day Shabogeesick called everyone together in a circle on the teaching rocks where the Old Ones drew stories on the stone. The people were only ever called to those sacred stones when something vital needed to be shared. No one knows where that place is today. Of all the things that would die in the change to come, the way to that sacred place was perhaps the most grievous loss. Shabogeesick had brought Kitchi-Animoosh, and Horse nibbled at the succulent leaves of the aspen while my great- grandfather spoke.

“When the horse first called to me, I did not understand the message,” Shabogeesick told them. “I had not heard that voice before. But our cousins on the plains spoke to me of the goodness of this Being, and I fasted and prayed in the sacred sweat lodge for many days to learn to speak with it.

“When I emerged from the sweat lodge this Horse was there. I walked with it upon the plains and the Horse offered me its teachings.

“A great change will come. It will come with the speed of lightning and it will scorch all our lives. This is what Horse said to me under that great bowl of sky. ‘The People will see many things they have never seen before, and I am but one of them.’ This is what he said to me.

“When the Zhaunagush came they brought the Horse with them. The People saw the Horse as special. They sought to learn its medicine. It became a sign of honour to ride these spirit beings, to race the wind with them. But the Zhaunagush could only see this act as thievery, as the behaviour of lesser people, so they called us horse thieves.

“The change that comes our way will come in many forms. In sights that are mysterious to our eyes, in sounds that are grating on our ears, in ways of thinking that will crash like thunder in our hearts and minds. But we must learn to ride each one of these horses of change. It is what the future asks of us and our survival depends on it. That is the spirit teaching of the Horse.”

The People did not know what to make of this talk. Shabogeesick’s words scared them. But they trusted him and they had come to love Kitchi-Animoosh. So they took good care of him, fed him choice grains and hay that they traded for at the rail line. The children rode him to keep him fit. When the treaty men found us in our isolated camp and made us sign our names to the register, they were surprised to see the horse. When they asked how he had come to be there, the People pointed at Shabogeesick, and it was the Zhaunagush who called him Indian Horse. It has been our family name ever since.


All that I knew of Indian died in the winter of 1961, when I was eight years old.

My grandmother, Naomi, was very old then. She was the matriarch of the small band of people I was born to. We still lived a bush life at that time. We had little contact with anyone besides the Zhaunagush at the Northern Store in Minaki, where we took our furs and berries, or the odd group of wandering Indians who stumbled across our camps. If there was ever a sign of an approaching stranger, our grandmother hurried my brother Benjamin and me off into the bush. We would stay there until the stranger departed, even if that took a day or so.

There was a spectre in our camp. We could see the shadow of this dark being in the lines of our mother’s face. She would sometimes sit huddled close to the fire, clenching and unclenching her fists, her eyes dark moons in the firelight. She never spoke at times like that, never could be comforted. I’d walk to her and take her hand but she didn’t notice me. It was as if she was under the influence of a potent medicine no shaman had the power to break. The spectre lived in the other adults too, my father and my aunt and uncle. But its most chilling presence was in my mother. “The school,” she would whisper then. “The school.”

It was the school that Naomi hid us from. It was the school that had turned my mother so far inward she sometimes ceased to exist in the outside world. Naomi had seen the adults of our camp taken away as children. She’d seen them return bearing a sorrow that could not be reached, and when my grandfather died, she took her family back to the land, hoping that an Ojibway life might heal them, ease their pain.

Besides my brother, I had a sister that I never met. Her name was Rachel, and the year before I was born she disappeared. She was six.

“The Zhaunagush came from across the water,” our grandmother told Benjamin and me one time when we were hidden in the trees. “It was the end of August and we were coming back to the river from the summer camp near One Man Lake. Our canoes were full of berries. We planned to go to Minaki to sell them and buy supplies for the winter. We were tired.

“I never thought they’d come in the dawn. Me, I always thought the Zhaunagush slept late like fat old bears. But they walked into our camp and I pulled my robe up over Benjamin who was so small and hid him from their view. But they found Rachel and they took her away in their boat.

“I stood on the rocks and watched them. Them, they had a boat with a motor, and when they rounded the bend in the river I thought how fast things can vanish from our view. Her screams hung in the air like smoke from a green fire. But even they finally vanished and all that was left was the wake from that boat slapping at the rocks at my feet.

“That’s all I carry of her now—the wet slap of water on the rocks. Every time I hear it I remember the dawn the white men came and stole Rachel from us.”

So we hid from the white men. Benjamin and I developed the quick ears of bush people. When we detected the drone of an engine we knew to run. We’d grab the old lady’s hand and scuttle into the trees and find a place to secret ourselves away until we knew for certain that there was no danger.

I learned English at the same time I learned Ojibway. My father taught me to read from Zhaunagush books, taught me to form the sounds the letters built with the tip of his finger as my guide. They felt hard, those white man words; sharp and pointed on my tongue. Old Naomi fought against it, trying to throw the books in the fire.

“They come in different ways, them, the Zhaunagush,” she said. “Their talk and their stories can sneak you away as quick as their boats.”

So I grew up afraid of the white man. As it turned out, I had reason to be.

In 1957, when I was four, they got my brother, Benjamin. The old lady and I were gathering roots in a glade back of the trees that stood against the river. The men and my brother were at the foot of a rapids setting gill nets. The airplane came out of the west, and we did not hear it soon enough. Naomi and I made it to a cleft in the rocks, but the men and my brother had nowhere to go. The plane cut them off, and we crawled up out of our crevice in the rocks and watched as those men from the plane lowered a canoe and forced my family’s canoe to the opposite shore. They had guns, those Zhaunagush. I think that if they hadn’t, my father and my uncle would have fought them off and we would have run into the back country. But they took my brother at gunpoint and pushed him up into the plane.

My mother collapsed on the long, flat rock that reached out into the river at our camp. No one could move her. She lay there for days, and it was only the chill of the first autumn rains that got her up on her feet and back to the fire. She was lost to me then. I could see that. She was gaunt and drained from days of weeping, a tent of skin over her bones. When Benjamin disappeared he carried a part of her away with him, and there was nothing anyone could do to fill it. My father tried. He never left her side for weeks. But now that she had lost two children, she would not speak anything except “the school,” the words like a bruise in the air. So he left her—and he and my uncle paddled off downriver to sell the berries. When they returned they brought the white man with them in brown bottles. Spirits, Naomi called them. Bad spirits. Those spirits made the grown-ups move in strange, jerky ways and their talk was twisted. I fell asleep to evil laughter. Sometimes my mother lurched to her feet and danced around the fire, and the shadow she threw against the skin of the tent was like the outline of a skeleton. I clutched my robe tight to my throat, lay across the space my brother once filled and waited for sleep to claim me.

On clear nights the old woman and I would sit on the rocks by the edge of the river. The stars pinwheeled above us and we would hear wolves calling to each other. Naomi told me stories of the old days. Told me about my grandfather and the medicine ways he carried. Good medicine. Powerful, Ojibway medicine. The river wound serpentine, radiant in the light of the northern moon. In its curling wash I sometimes thought I could hear songs sung in Ojibway. Honour songs, raising me above the hurt of my brother’s absence. That voice sustained me, as did the firm, warm hand of Naomi on the thin blade of my shoulder.

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Indian Horse: A Novel 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
gaele More than 1 year ago
Canada has much to answer for in its treatment of the First Nations people, and Wagamese in this award-winning novel tells the story of one young man who, despite all the odds, found survival in the telling of his story. At eight years old, Saul Indian Horse was taken from his grandmother’s house and placed in a residential school. These were common in Canada – some government run, others by the church: stories of abuse, neglect, discrimination and erasure of traditions, language and ‘indian-ness’ taken from these children, often leaving the shell of what they may have been, behind. Ojibway by birth, Saul’s life was one of abuse, deprivation, rootlessness and a strange disassociation from the traditions and families that would have strengthened and built his sense of self, allowing him some connection to his people. Instead, removed from tradition and family, punished harshly, forced into a quasi-assimilation that simply means one doesn’t quite fit in anywhere, his saving grace was his athletic ability on the ice. Hockey – the nation’s great sport provided Saul a modicum of acceptance, still tinged by the racism that was both rampant and governmentally sanctioned with this program of assimilation that seems to have been left without regulation, oversight or even a passing concern for the abuses perpetrated. Now looking back on his life, Saul is trying to reconcile what he lost with just who he is, and in the larger aspect of humanity itself, what his people have lost – how they became “the Indian Problem” rather than a culture to be celebrated for its deep roots, richness of acceptance and ancestry, even the gentle ways with the earth. Now in treatment for alcoholism - he, like many others, filled the hole in their lives, dealt with the anger from their abuse, and even accepted the pervasive attitude of worthlessness from years of government interference in lives, homes, lands and worship. The writing is smooth and quite easy to follow along: allowing the moments, the horrors and the sadness to shine through in ways that can’t help but to fuel sympathy for little Saul, and understand why the grown man seems so lost, even as he clings to the pieces of his life before he was taken. Soon to be a film: this story gives insight into what has to be one of Canada’s great failures: the treatment of its First Nations people: from reservations in isolated areas, to economic paucity, through and including the destruction and dismissal of traditions and family stories that were once passed through generations, now with great holes in their stories and in the souls of the people. I received an eArc copy of the title from the publisher via Edelweiss for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese is a fictional story that tells us the life story about Saul Indian Horse. Saul begins living with his parents, brother and grandmother. They are hiding out from authorities, trying to reconnect with the land that was once theirs to be free on. Until, one day he gets put in a boarding school with no family. A relationship I loved in the beginning of the story was between Saul and his grandmother. She was a very wise woman, as he often refers to her as old lady. I wondered why he would refer to her as an “old lady” and I think it is out of respect for her and all the wisdom she carries with her. The reason I loved her in this story was because of how loving she was toward Saul. She protected him with her life and was always the one to remind Saul about where he came from and how to honor the lands. Saul had to learn how to “grow up” or in better terms be on his own, when he does end up finding himself in a boarding school with no family. One good thing that came out of that boarding school for Saul was the game of hockey. Saul was really good and everyone around him knew it, but it took Saul a few years to figure that out. Will it be hockey that gets Saul out of that school? Will it be a family member or maybe someone who becomes family? Maybe but maybe not, maybe it’ll be something else. But, transitioning toward the second half of the book, we learn what hockey does Saul. But there were many issues that arise when an “Indian boy” is playing hockey against “White boys.” As you can imagine, this is a rough time for Canadian white people to take Native people seriously. This is one thing that really shapes Saul into the man he becomes. It either will destroy him or build him up. One thing I love about Saul’s character, is he is a fighter. I don’t mean physically but emotionally. He does his best to keep his cool and try to find his way, the way his grandmother taught him. It may take him a few years to really figure himself out…but man he is one strong character. That is a reason I loved this book. Richard Wagemese does a fantastic job creating each of his characters to be as real as possible. What I mean by real is, even though this is a fictional story, this could have been someone’s real life, that is how well it is written. I recommend this book to anyone who wants an insight on what is was like to grow up on your land, be taken from the only places you know, and thrown into a whole new world.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Indian Horse was an AMAZING book. It is a very well written book. One thing that I loved most about it was that it gave an intimate connection with the characters in the book, especially Saul. Saul Indian Horse is our main character. He is a boy with a family who is taken to a boarding school for Native’s. There, he learns how to play hockey and it is something that he holds on to tight. A man by the name of Father Gaston Leboutilier, introduced him to the sport. Saul finds comfort in Father L., and uses him as a guide. Later in life Saul becomes an alcoholic. There, a counselor named Moses urges him to think through his past and find the issue that lies deeply within him. As Saul carries on in life an unexpected turn from his past comes to surface and many face challenges after the news arrives. Saul then takes us through the chronicles of his untold story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese is a fiction story about Saul Indian Horse. The reader follows Saul as he grows up. He begins with his Native family, but soon is forced into a boarding school. Terrible things happen to him there, but one piece of good comes out of it- his love for hockey. By pushing around “horse turds,” Saul teaches himself, with the help of a Father and then a team, how to play hockey. His hockey journey takes him many places, but he still must deal with inner turmoil that stems from a tragic past. As a young adult, I feel a connection to the story of Indian Horse. Bearing witness to his growth and his setbacks connects the reader to the protagonist. He goes through alcoholism and restlessness as he accepts his past at the end of the story. In other stories where the reader has not witnessed the main character growing up, they may blame him for the negative happenings. This story places the reader firmly on Saul’s side. The only aspect of the book I had a hard time with was the extensive play-by-play hockey games, but they made sense in context of the story. Hockey was the escape for Saul, so his only thoughts were of the game, both when he was playing and when he was off the ice. It was written in a way that someone with no knowledge of hockey could still follow along, which helped its readability. I’d recommend this book to any reader, but especially those with knowledge of hockey. It’s a beautifully written journey of a Native person. It’s easy to empathize with because the emotions are apparent to any reader. Saul rejects his own feelings, but the way the book builds creates tension. It’s difficult to not feel for Saul. After reading about half of the book, I was completely immersed in his life. I was rooting for him, and I still am.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Indian Horse written by Richard Wagamese is a well written book that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Wagamese tells the story of Saul Indian Horse’s life and will make you feel like you are experiencing the situations in the book first hand. This book will lure you in more and more the farther you get in the book. One of my favorite parts about the book is the understanding of family through out the story. There are many problematic situations that occur, but at the end everyone stands together and supports one another. During the intense part of the book, it makes you think about the events that could occur I real life, and how these events are unfortunate to those who experience it and to those who are the support system for the victims. It sheds a new light on unforeseen issues that occurred to the Indigenous communities in Canada during this time. This book is a very informative about true events that happen to many of Native people, while keeping the reader on their toes. The only warning I would give this book is to make sure the reader is old enough to understand and handle the painful situations of different types of abuse. I would not recommend letting young adolescence read the content mentioned in the story being told. In conclusion, this book is very easy to read, and you will lose tract of time while doing so.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Indian Horse is the story of Saul Indian Horse’s life and written by Richard Wagamese. I found this book to be something unexpected. Richard Wagamese a wizard with words and an amazing storyteller. His words are clear and concise, and the book reads quickly. When I first opened the book I found myself getting completely sucked in. I found myself learning about Saul Indian Horse, his story to overcome alcoholism and the struggles Native American children went through in the school system. Indian Horse is both a heartbreaking and heartwarming story. The book has several themes like abuse and racism. Personally, I have always found these topics to be difficult to read about, but Wagamese does an amazing job creating a teachable moment about the residential schools throughout the entire story. This book really opened my eyes to the horrible things that the native people have endured behind closed doors. In the story, Saul struggles with being pulled away from his family and forced into a residential school. Where I felt like you could feel how unloving it can be until Saul finds hockey. I have always enjoyed the sport and am amazed as to how powerful it becomes throughout the story, and how passionate Saul becomes. After seeing Saul furthering his passion, I found it to be inspirational and I would definitely recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I usually, don’t watch the movie first but this time I did. I loved the movie but I especially loved the book. Not being Native it made me feel angry with how they were treated. Especially the children!!! It gave me insight to how the abuse affected so many young people. The abuse destroys generations of a family and people. I would highly recommend reading ,”Indian Horse.” D. B.