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Analysis of The Motifs in The Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

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Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese is a novel that narrates the life of Saul Indian Horse an Indigenous Canadian and a member of the Fish Clan, a tribe located near the Winnipeg River. Saul grows up in the early 1960s and during this time in Canada, indigenous issues are prominent and racism towards indigenous people are very common in their day to day lives. While Saul grows up his identity is heavily impacted by hockey and St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School. The motifs of Wagamese’s story reflect the identity of Saul Indian Horse. The main motifs that mirror Saul’s identity are residential schools and hockey, the other motifs of the novel such as racism, death of children, and community interlock with the two main motifs.

The most explicit motif in the book is the game of hockey, it becomes a big part of Saul’s identity as his love for the game develops through the novel. Saul discovers the game of hockey in St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School through the help of a new priest Father LeBoutillier:

“’Have you ever heard of hockey?’ That was the first thing he said to me. I was sitting on the steps behind the kitchen as the other kids played in the fresh fallen snow. ‘No. What is it?’ I asked. ‘It’s a game,’ he said. ‘Maybe the greatest game. It’s played on ice with skates and it’s very fast, very exciting”.

After this exchange Saul reads hockey books and asks questions about hockey, Father answers all his questions. Watching the older boys play, Saul sees hockey as a scramble or chaos, but he can see the excitement in the boys while they play. Saul then begs to play hockey, but he is denied because another priest Father Quinney only allowed the older boys to play. As a result of this, Saul then asks to clean the ice every morning which he is allowed to. After that day Saul cleans the ice every morning and then learns hockey own his own in secret since he is not allowed to play hockey. Saul hides a hockey stick in the snow and uses frozen horse turd as his hockey pucks. Saul does this for the rest of the winter and by next winter his new job is to take care of the team’s equipment. This new job allows Saul to get skates to use and then Saul slowly learns how to skate. “I was a small boy with outsized skates, and in the world that hockey had created I found a new home”. Saul learns a new skill every day and one day one of the team members were injured while playing a scrimmage, and Saul volunteered to take his position. Everybody was surprised that he claimed that he could play hockey because he did not have any connections with the boys playing hockey and says that he has been practicing in secret all along. Saul surprised the team with his skill, and he was able to join the tear m. Saul becomes so good at hockey that he gets the opportunity to move away from the residential school to a new town and play with a team of older boys. Saul’s love for hockey is a big part of his identity as it differentiates him from his ancestors. But through hockey Saul experiences relentless racism which becomes detrimental to his struggle to remain true to his identity.

The motif of racism connects the two main motifs that reflect Sauls identity. In Indian Horse, Saul experiences many different forms of racism. The first form of racism that Saul experienced is Saul being kidnapped and sent to St. Jerome’s and forbidden from speaking his own native language. During Saul’s time at St. Jerome’s, he’s beaten and abused by the racist priests and nuns. In hockey, Saul experiences a huge amount of verbal racism from Canadian opponents in hockey, they never miss an opportunity to call him names. In Toronto, there were the racism of sports journalists who call him a “Rampaging Redskin”, even when they are praising his skills. In games people in the stands join in with other racist slurs and terms. Saul was beat verbally and physically whenever he played hockey: “I was taunted endlessly. They called me Indian Whores, Horse Piss, Stolen Pony. Elbows and knees were constantly flying at me. I couldn’t play a shift that didn’t include some kind of cheap shot, threat or curse”. For a time, Saul is able to ignore the racism from the white Canadians he encounters in hockey. But eventually, their torture overcomes his containment of aggression, and Saul throws in the towel and fights back. Saul then get kicked out of the NHL despite his extraordinary talent as a hockey player. The main struggle for Saul is racism, it turned what could have been a bright hockey career into years of fighting, soul-searching, and drinking. In Indian Horse there are many different kinds of communities that Saul has become a part of. In the beginning there was Saul’s tribe near Winnipeg river and the tribe at Gods Lake. Through hockey and the residential school Saul found community: “In the spirit of hockey I believed I had found community, a shelter and a haven from everything bleak and ugly in the world”. After his hockey career when Saul left home, he had his co-workers and later the people at the New Dawn Centre. When Saul returns, he had the Manitouwadge community but this time he had the whole community. These communities have taught Saul different things with his time with them and it has shaped them into the person that he is. In the novel Saul was brave enough to admit that he needed other people. Saul does not end up alone facing his trauma by himself, there is always a community that comes over to share his problems with him.

The most major motif of this book and has shaped Saul identity the most is St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School as it introduces most of the other motifs in the story: hockey, racism, death of children, abuse and trauma. While in St. Jerome’s Saul has witnessed serval indigenous children who died due to abuse at St. Jerome’s:

“I saw kids die of tuberculosis, influenza, pneumonia and broken hearts at St. Jerome’s. I saw young boys and girls die standing on their own two feet. I saw runaways carried back, frozen solid as boards. I saw bodies hung from rafters on thin ropes. I saw wrists slashed and the cascade of blood on the bathroom floor and, one time, a young boy impaled on the tines of a pitchfork that he’d shoved through himself”.

Saul was able to contain his sadness towards the death of the children that he witnesses or hears about as he was still a kid and did not know how to feel about the death of his fellow indigenous peers. When Saul discovers the game of hockey, it becomes a somewhat of a distraction from noticing the deaths of children until in the last third of the novel Saul remembers a girl from St. Jerome’s. The girl’s name was Rebecca Wolf, she had a sister named Katherine who died one night, and Saul never found out what happened. The next evening, Rebecca sang a traditional Indigenous mourning song in Ojibway: “It was a mourning song. I could tell that from the feel of the syllables. Her agony was so pure, I felt my heart ripped out of me. I stood crying in that doorway, offering what prayers I could for the spirit of her sister”. After the song was over Rebecca killed herself with a knife. Saul and his peers continued to sing the song Rebecca sang when she was mourning the death of her sister. In this chapter, Saul disrupts the chronological order of his story. But this cutoff with a story from the past reflects the way that Saul keeps looking back and relives his traumatic years at St. Jerome’s. Near the end of the novel Saul also remembers some memories that he’s been holding in for many years. As a child, his mentor and coach at St. Jerome’s, Father Leboutilier, sexually abused him. Over the years, Saul seems to keep in all memory of Father Leboutilier’s despicable actions. Saul realizing his great amount of trauma adds to his identity as an abuse victim.

Every motif in Indian Horse has ties to Saul’s identity these motifs have shaped him in one way or another. The story of Saul’s hockey career mirrors the story of his life as an Indigenous person living in Canada at a time when racism towards Indigenous people is prevalent. Furthermore, hockey becomes a major part of his identity as it differentiates him from his ancestors, and it is what Saul was known for. Wagamese’s emphasis on racism, abuse and trauma on Saul’s identity makes it apparent that these motifs reflect Saul’s identity the most. As Saul grows older, the trauma from his past in the residential school and the racism he faces in hockey makes him become violent, dark, gloomy, and an alcoholic. It’s not until when he is a grown man, that he begins to accept his unhappiness and depression. As the book comes to its end, Saul’s new ambition is to focus on healing the pain that remains from his childhood.

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Analysis Of The Motifs In The Indian Horse By Richard Wagamese. (2021, May 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 25, 2022, from
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