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"Indian Horse" Analysis

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Richard Wagamese’s novel Indian Horse illustrates the traumatic experiences of Saul Indian Horse through the events at a residential school, where Saul and other Native American children are forcefully assimilated into Canadian culture. The experience of forced assimilation plants a poisonous seed in Saul’s mind, and nearly destroys his entire future. The progression of the story reveals the long-lasting effects of forced assimilation and that they function as the cause of Saul’s suffering trauma.

In the beginning of the novel, Wagamese relates the forceful adoption of First Nations children through the descriptions of Saul’s parents: “The spectre lived in the other adults too, my father and my aunt and uncle”. At the time, it was a common occurrence for Native Americans to be forcefully taken to residential schools. The first victim Saul witnesses is his sister Rachel; she is taken away from the family at the age of six. Afterwards, his brother Benjamin is grabbed. A few years later, his grandmother Naomi dies while holding Saul in her arms just before Saul is sent to St. Jerome’s residential school. This scene is particularly significant in terms of trauma. Naomi represents the traditionally native side of Saul: “I reached out to her, shouting in a mixture of Ojibway and English… But instead I was borne away… and I was cast adrift on a strange new river”. Her death while holding Saul in her arms represents the loss of the native culture in Saul (Robinson 93). Such forced assimilations occurred at dozens of schools like St. Jerome’s: “These mission schools aimed to assimilate Indigenous people by using Christianity to ‘civilize’ the ‘savages’” (Neeganagwedgin 32). Saul and other Native American are harshly washed with soap, and their hair is shaved; when one of the children disobeys the Sister, he is violently struck with a paddle. The effects were long lasting and brutal; in the novel, they continue to manifest in Saul’s life, surfacing in different forms.

While Saul tries to survive in St. Jerome he discovers hockey. Wagamese characterizes Saul’s enthusiasm in hockey in a way that it generates hope, both for Saul and the reader. However, it seems as if Wagamese intended to illustrate this period of story in such hopeful and joyful way so that the dark sides of Saul’s traumatic experiences could be forgotten: “It’s like watching you walk into a secret place that no one else knows how to get to” the author suggests that hockey is not a simple sport to Saul. As the story progresses, we realize that Saul “attempts to escape from emotional agitation into the self-forgetting of hockey: ‘That’s why I played with abandon; to abandon myself. For Saul, hockey is actually a method of escape from the traumatic experiences, and yet it proves to be pathetic when he “packed [his] bag and got on a bus back to Manitouwadge”. Saul discovers his increasing inability to fit in the community due to his unresolved misery, and tries to escape once again: “‘I’m not disappearing,’ I said. He shook his head sadly. ‘Seems to me you already did”, this time, Saul finds relief in alcohol, which offers an “antidote to exile” in which it enables him to play the clown and raconteur (Robinson 96). The enduring trauma appears throughout Saul’s adolescence and young adulthood; they surface in the manners of Saul’s addictive behaviours in hockey, his disconnection from his community, and his destructive behaviours associated with alcohol.

After living with the Kellys for a while, Saul chooses to leave Manitouwadge at the age of eighteen. Then, he starts his “fifteen years of his young manhood that are spent in emotional confusion and alcoholic drifting” (Robinson 90). Saul does not leave without a reason, even though he is not aware of it yet. According to an academic journal published by Oliver Morgan, ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) “have a profound and lasting impact many years later, although they are transformed from psychosocial experiences into organic disease, poor social functioning, mental illness, and addiction” (Morgan 9). Clearly, Saul possesses various ACEs from his experiences of forced assimilation at St. Jerome’s, and his Native identity has been damaged by “the ‘structured violence’ of residential schools” (Robinson 100). With his identity and way of life robbed from him, Saul loses the ability to connect with nature and his people. He loses the way of “storying,” and there is no way for Saul to “[impart] and [preserve] Indigenous cultural wisdom”; moreover, he cannot “cope with extreme cultural transition,” which is the effects of residential school (Robinson 91). When Ervin Sift tries to offer him a normal life, Saul wants to connect but “there was a bigger part that he could never understand. It was the part that sought separation” (Wagamese 186). These few lines strengthen the link between his enduring trauma and his disconnection from people. Being unable to deal with his unresolved ACEs, addictions and SUDs (substance abuse disorders) that naturally occur, drinking helps Saul calm his rage and “exert some measure of control over intolerable feelings and intrusive thoughts” (Morgan 8). Thus, Saul continues to rely on alcohol as a way of dealing with his enduring trauma until he enters the New Dawn Centre for recovery.

Many people might’ve not thought of generational survivors of residential schools as the victims of the school system, but in general, a victim refers to all people harmed as a result of an event or action. The author of “Indian Horse” tells his point of view on intergenerational survivors, having been one himself: “I never attended a residential school, so I cannot say that I survived one. However, my parents and my extended family members did. The pain they undergo became my pain, and I became a victim”; as Wagamese describes the pain carried by the victims passes through the generations and so the scars stamped deeply on their bodies and spirits.

Saul and Wagamese’s life starts alike, living with their families in the bush. In both cases, their families had attended residential schools and were suffered by psychological, emotional, spiritual, and physical harassments that only alcohol seemed to be helpful for healing. Due to the fact that they were both being separated from their families as kids, they never learned how to be proper parents, and as a result, Wagamese’s relatives turned out to be abusive. Saul’s family went through the same, making them weak enough to choose to consume alcohol, and they abandoned him with his grandmother at a young age of eight; it was just alike Wagamese’s parents, who abandoned him at the age of three with his two brothers and sister. They were both abandoned in the middle of winter, where the weather was freezing and the breeze which was excruciatingly cold. Saul’s grandmother did not make it due to her sacrifice of keeping him alive (providing him, her clothing) and in both cases, the children were found and taken away by the government; They sent Saul to St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School, while Wagamese and his siblings were sent to the Children’s Aid Society.

This tragedy impactfully changed their lives. Saul was taken to a residential school where he witnessed and experienced unimaginable abuses. The school tried to assimilate Indigenous people and remove their Indian traits from them, their identity. According to Richard Wagamese, “The most fundamental human right in the universe is the right to know who you were created to be”, but residential schools denied their human rights, and Saul was forced to tolerate all this for five years before he was adopted by Fred Kelly and saved from the dominations of the school. But it was also at that school where Saul discovered his love of hockey, a game that for a short time played as a means of escape. Saul began practicing hockey after having been introduced to it by father Gaston Leboutillier, a young priest at the school: “As long as I could escape into it, I could fly away. Fly away and never have to land on the scorched earth of my boyhood”. He describes how he is trying to escape his situation and fly away from it, and seek for freedom. He began using hockey to overcome the memories of trauma, it was his escape. Richard Wagamese’s life extremely changed too. He was put into two parent homes and finally adopted at the age of nine. For seven years he went through “beatings, mental and emotional abuses, and a complete dislocation and separation from anything slightly Indian or Ojibway”, it was until then that he decides to run away in efforts of saving himself. His experience was just as shocking, brutal, and desperate as Saul’s in St. Jerome’s.

Both Saul and Wagamese were fulfilled by the feeling of uncertainty and confusion and had a sense of not belonging, with no clue what even have caused it. Saul, on one hand, was lost because he kept hiding away from the truth instead of facing it. After he lost his passion for hockey and it ceased to act as his escape, he turned to an alcoholic. He started falling into the endless pit of alcoholism and this continued until Saul became apart of himself, and hid from himself for so long that he had no clue who he was anymore: “I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t run the risks of someone knowing me, because I couldn’t take the risk of knowing myself”. Saul kept running away from his problems, avoiding them and became so lost that even if he wanted to get to know himself, he would not know where to begin, so he ran away because it was easier. He only tried to get better once he realized that he would die if he kept drinking over and over. Through a visit to his dead family, he came to the conclusion that he has to go back to the beginning. After he went back to where it all started — the residential school — he realized what had occurred to him and he was forced to face the ugly truth. On the other hand, Richard Wagamese who did not know what to do with his life, lost, either on the streets or in the prisons. He was lost because he was left in the dark about his family’s traumatic past in residential schools: “At that time, our people, Aboriginal people, did not really talk about residential schools and certainly the greater Canadian majority never spoke of residential schools. Most people had never heard of them”, he explains how he did not know at the time the cause of his family’s suffering and the reason behind their past behaviour. He only discovered these once he reunited with his family after twenty-one painful years of not seeing each other.

Essentially, both Saul and Richard Wagamese ended up reuniting with their family and found a way ease of their bitterness caused by the residential schools, and they began a new journey towards healing. Eventually, Saul went back to Fred and Martha — his adoptive family — and coached the kids in hockey to get back the joy in the game and pass his skills into the others. Wagamese also went back to his family and learnt about their history and culture. It was then that he went to a church, the main cause of his anger, “heard about compassion, love, kindness, trust, courage, truth, and loyalty and the life-ending faith that there is a God, a Creator”. He heard about healing and eventually gave up his anger. Afterwards, he spoke out and wrote books to make sure that everyone has the knowledge, and everyone’s moving in a glide path. The creation of the book Indian Horse helped heal Richard Wagamese: “And I found for my own self as a writer that at the end of Indian Horse I bore much less anger and much less dissatisfaction and much fewer questions that I had when I started”.

Deep down, Saul Indian Horse experiences traumatic forced assimilation into Canadian culture at St. Jerome’s residential school, and these experiences follow him into his adolescence and young adulthood, functioning as the cause of his enduring trauma and nearly destroying his life. Fortunately, Saul eventually gets sent to the New Dawn Centre, where he is able to share and write about his traumatic experiences. This process helps Saul recover, “as with recovery from addictions, trauma recovery involves repair of connections to community”.

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