Once in a while there happens along a piece of art, maybe a book or a song or a picture, in this case a movie, that snaps everything into its place and makes me think “OK, now I get it.”
There has been a lot of talk the last few years in Canada about First Nations and Aboriginal Peoples. The topic sort of lingers in the air as I hear it come and go in the news. Much as I have no direct experience with Rohingya refugees or South African apartheid, my life did not feel touched directly by the legacy of Indian residential schools in Canada. Sure, I knew that some 150,000 indigenous kids were taken from their families by force, but it seemed about as relevant to my daily life as the battle of Stalingrad or the siege of Sarajevo.
That is, until I saw Indian Horse, the movie.
Adapted from Richard Wagamese’s novel, the story of Saul Indian Horse is that of an Ojibwa boy who ends up in one of Canada’s notorious Catholic residential schools in the late 1950’s. He is forcefully separated from his family and his language (as well as his long hair) and subjected to some very nasty abuse by people who should know better. At the school he discovers a love for hockey and turns out to be very good at it. When he finally leaves the school and embarks on a promising career in the game, the ghosts of his past haunt him until he must confront what he went through as a kid. Saul then draws on the spirit of his ancestors and the understanding of his friends to begin the process of healing.
The film is not without humour, like the frozen horse turds he uses instead of pucks. And it can be experienced in different ways at the same time. It deals with two great motifs in Canada: Hockey and Aboriginal Peoples. So on the one hand I cheered for a talented, hard luck kid struggling to make it to the big leagues, while on the other hand experiencing alternating waves of shame, guilt and anger as I was confronted with images of terror and abuse that happened close to home, recently, not far away.
As I watched this movie I started to understand what it might have looked like and sounded like to, as Wagamese put it …
“… pull Indian kids from the bush and from the arms of their people.”
It would have been easier to watch if it had been an NFB documentary something like Nanook of the North. I could have detached intellectually. But Indian Horse swept me up like the full-blown Hollywood-style film that it is (Clint Eastwood is an Executive Producer). I identified with the characters like I did in Brokeback Mountain and The Revenant. It carried me away emotionally and as a result was that much more personal.
This movie brought home to me that this terrible stuff happened in my country and in my time, some of it just down the road from me, here, at this moment. The survivors are still living today, still telling their stories. Indian Horse is one of those stories. Now I get it.