I wrote this as a sample essay for my students, and I liked it so much I decided to share it. The formatting isn’t perfect, but you’ll get the drift.
As the building block of our bodies, DNA has been thought to be permanent and unalterable. Recent studies have revealed this not to be the case. Trauma can actually change our brain structure, as well as our DNA, to change. These changes can be passed down to our offspring. The good news is that the changes can also be reversed. Sustained positive experiences can erase the mutations made to people’s DNA, but more importantly, they can lift the scars left upon people’s spirits. Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese is an unrelentingly honest story of the trauma residential schools inflicted upon Indigenous people, but it also serves as a road-map for how the resilience of Indigenous communities will help end the inter-generational trauma caused by these experiences. As the ending of the novel suggests, the best way forward is together.
Saul Indian Horse’s family had already been marred by the effects of colonization long before his siblings were abducted to attend residential schools. We see this in the way Saul’s parents and his auntie and uncle interact with Grandma Naomi on the topic of Christianity. Grandma Naomi recognizes the damage done to her family in the name of Christianity, but her children seem to have been brainwashed by the priests and church. One has to wonder if the metaphorical border described in the following quote was crossed sometime between Naomi’s generation, and the one to follow:
That was a border my generation crossed, and we pine for a return that has never come to be. (Wagamese 3)
We see further hints of what must have happened between Naomi’s generation and that of her children in the fact that her son was able to teach Saul how to read in English, and we have proof Naomi didn’t approve of teaching him these skills:
My father taught me to read the Zhaunagush books, taught me to form the sounds the letters built with the tip of his fingers 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.” (Wagamese 8)
Desperate for anything that might cure Benjamin of what they called the “coughing sickness”, most likely tuberculosis, Naomi tells the family they should go to God’s Lake for healing. She tells them the spirits at God’s Lake have always been kind to their family. When the illness takes Benjamin’s life anyway, Naomi’s children turn on her and refuse to allow her to give them spiritual guidance about how to bury the boy:
“You do not honour him,” my mother cried. “You brought him to this forsaken place. You told us by coming here that we would return to how things were. But those ways are gone. Those gods are dead. We need to take my son to the priest so that he can be returned to the bosom of Christ.” (Wagamese 31-32)
Putting these clues together we can safely conclude Naomi’s children attended residential schools, and they were taught that their mother’s beliefs were wrong and dirty. This caused them shame every time they tried to believe in the guidance Naomi provided. It is reasonable to believe this internal conflict was the reason they didn’t return for Saul and Naomi; that they had turned to alcohol to provide them the ability to cope with their loss, because residential school had stolen their spirituality and faith in family.
In Beauval Indian Residential School 1944-1954, Dene author Raphael Victor Paul writes about how his parents used the specter of the residential school to make him behave:
My parents often used scare tactics to keep me in line. I was always into some sort of mischief or another. They would tell me that if I did not behave, the white man would take me away. This threat was very frightening to me as a child. (Paul 12)
It was a threat his parents came to regret making. Having already lost two children to disease, they tried to keep him at home. In the end they were forced to relent:
My father was given an ultimatum. Either I was to be taken to BIRS or the RCMP would arrest my parent and take them to jail. That was the system in place at that time. My mother got frightened and relented. (Paul 13-14)
It’s easy to imagine Raphael Paul sitting awake at night, wondering what he had done to make his parents hand him over the white people, and his parents lying awake at night wishing they’d never told used the schools as a threat.
Just like Saul Indian Horse, Raphael Paul discovered both hockey and the invasion of his spirit at the Beauval Residential School:
The next recollection that I had was of the huge piles of snow around the skating rink….Little did I realize that my Dene identity would be under attack and my Dene culture was to be greatly changed, altered and damaged. WOW! God help me! (Paul 14)
Saul Indian Horse also felt under assault the moment he stepped through the doors of the St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School. Even the smells attacked him:
Inside, the smell of bleach and disinfectant, so strong it seemed to peel the skin off the inside of my nose. (Wagamese 44)
There were worse invasions to come: The kind that damaged both body and spirit. Saul had to witness children dying around him, or being driven crazy by the way they were treated. Sheila Jack came into the school proud of her culture and language in a way the children weren’t used to seeing. The nuns made it their mission to break her, and they succeeded. She eventually had to be taken away to a mental hospital. In those days they were the kind of place you went, and you never returned. Rebecca Wolf was so broken by the fact that the nuns and priests kept her from mourning for her sister in the traditional way that she killed herself on top of her sister’s grave.
Saul saw deaths that were supposedly accidents, except they wouldn’t have happened if the children weren’t being forced to do manual labour instead of being given an education, and he saw other deaths that were clearly not accidental. On top of all this, Saul had to listen to the sounds of children being molested at night. It’s easy to understand why Saul withdrew into his, “…chrysalis of silence….” (Wagamese 49)
One of the most poignant expressions of the pain the school caused him is stated in the following:
When your innocence is stripped away from you, when your people are denigrated, when the family you came from is denounced and your tribal ways are pronounced backwards, primitive, savage, you come to see yourself as less than human. That is hell on earth, that sense of unworthiness. That’s what they inflicted on us. (Wagamese 81)
Raphael Paul says:
It wasn’t all abuse and other negatives. We had to survive somehow after we got over the loneliness of being separated from our homes and parents. We learned to adjust and become part of the culture of these Residential Schools. (Paul 63)
He talks about feeling lucky, because the Beauval residential school was at least in a forested area which allowed them to keep doing some traditional activities. That doesn’t mean they weren’t used for manual labour, in the same way Saul describes in Indian Horse. Paul describes an incident that resulted from burning grass:
We lit the dry grass and watched the flames consume it. One time the flames got out of control with the wind shift and the flames raced towards a group of us boys. We ran to the nearest open water and jumped in. It was cold. After we got out of the water, we went near the flames to dry up. By the time we were through, we were covered with black ashes and soot. But, it was fun! That is how we bonded with our school-mates. We helped each other out. (Paul 63)
This story could easily have ended in death, even though it didn’t. Raphael Paul’s book is about a real school, and real people, which means he has to be careful about not causing those people further trauma through his storytelling. As a fictional story writer, Richard Wagamese was not constrained by the need to limit the scope of his story to the real events of one particular place. He could cast a wide net for inspiration. He appears to have chosen to remind readers that each of the real residential schools had graveyards full of white crosses without names, marking the resting places of children who didn’t get happy endings.
Raphael Paul does tell one story that helps us see not everything at the Beauval school was as pleasant as he sometimes makes it sound. It’s the story of an attempted escape:
In the years that I was in BIRS, running away from the school was never entertained. Where would we go? There were no roads or highways and in the winter, it was too risky. With the arrival of the students from the south this changed. It was during one of these potato picking times that five boys decided to run away to Meadow Lake using the old bush road. The boys were in their early teens and three of them have passed on as of 2017. For posterity, these boys were Wilfred McCallum (d), George Larocque (d), Joe Matchee (d) Joe Merasty, and Patrick Campbell. They must have planned this escape for when they were left unsupervised for a little while. It is 120 miles away in a single path vehicle bush road, two ferries to cross, and hardly any vehicular traffic at the time. Their first crossing was at Beauval Crossing using a ferry boat. They used a skiff that was available, but people saw them and reported them to the priest. There were no policemen in Beauval. Father Gagnon and some of the school employees went after them with the school truck. All were finally apprehended and brought back to the school.
Father Gagnon led the five boys back to the potato field. Their hands were tied together with a rope. They looked beaten and defeated, with their heads down like the black slaves we had seen in the movies. Father Gagnon was leading them and ridiculing them. “Look at Patrick, he wants to go to Meadow Lake and work and he can’t even blow his own nose.” (Paul 66-67)
One may read between the lines of this story, and assume the reason these boys were running was more than being homesick.
Through most of Indian Horse we are lead to believe hockey is the place where Saul escapes. We are lead to believe it is the thing he uses to cope. We see this in the following, where Saul makes it sound as if hockey filled the role in his life that the school hoped Jesus would play:
I would raise my arms in the hushed light of the dorm. My mouth would be open with glee and I would face the picture of Jesus hung there on the wall, my salvation coming instead through wood and rubber and ice and the dream of a game. I’d stand there, arms held high in triumph, and would not feel lonely or afraid, deserted or abandoned, but connected to something far bigger than myself. (Wagamese 62)
We also see it in the way he talks about the joy that hockey brought him when he first started travelling with the Moose:
We were hockey gypsies, heading down another gravel road every weekend, plowing into the heart of that magnificent northern landscape. We never gave a thought to being deprived as we traveled, to being shut out of the regular league system. We never gave a thought to being Indian. Different. We only thought of the game and the brotherhood that bound us together off the ice, in the van, on the plank floors of reservation houses, in the truck stop diner where if we’d won we had a little to splurge on a burger and soup before we hit the road again. Small joys. All of them tied together, entwined to form an experience we would not have traded for any other. We were a league of nomads, mad for the game, mad for the road, mad for ice and snow, an Arctic wind on our faces and a frozen puck on our sticks. (Wagamese 113)
When we find out Father Leboutilier used hockey as a tool to keep Saul captive to his secrets, it feels like a punch to the gut. He used hockey as bait, luring him with the promise of being able to do something he loved, only to be trapped by the secrets Father Leboutilier forced upon him. He made Saul feel as if he chose to be abused because he never fought back. Father Leboutilier tricked Saul into thinking that if he liked any part of the special attention, or the things he got because of the molestation, he was an accomplice in his own abuse. In other words, the more he loved hockey, the more Saul believed he’d actually liked being molested. This is how Father Leboutilier turned the thing Saul used as an escape into his prison.
The stories Raphael Paul tells about hockey in Beauval Indian Residential School 1944-1954 don’t have the weight of abuse on top of them that Saul’s stories of hockey carry. Hockey was the universe for Saul, but it also was a black hole. By comparison, Raphael Paul’s stories of hockey are what Saul would have liked hockey to be: An escape found in a fun activity that brought him closer to his peers.
Raphael Paul says:
The game of hockey helped us keep our sanity, especially during the long, cold winters. It gave us a sense of freedom to be able to develop all the skills we needed. In detailing all of what we did at BIRS school, we found the comradeship, team play, and skill development. We were able to see and play against other communities and extend our friendship with them. We played the game because it was fun. We did not have that spirit of, ‘Winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing’ attitude. We were not brought up in BIRS to be competitive, but only to be part of a team. (Paul 92-93)
While Raphael Paul was talking about how his teammates at the Beauval school saw hockey, his words are a reminder of how Richard Wagamese ends Indian Horse. After all the trauma that Saul goes through, his entire personality changes. He spends years trying to be someone else; lost in alcoholism, headed toward an early grave. At the New Dawn Treatment Center the counselors tell him that not speaking is killing him, and that he has to understand where he has been in order to see where he is going.
It takes a vision of his family, guided by his great-grandfather who gave him the last name of “Indian Horse”, to understand what he needs to do to start the healing process. Raphael Paul obviously must have come to a similar realization at some point in his life, because he chose to write Beauval Indian Residential School 1944-1954 in order to process his memories. Saul’s journey began by going back to St. Jerome’s to face his ghosts, and returning to God’s Lake in order to find the gods that had been pushed out of his life by the school. The next step was returning to the last place he had called home, and letting hockey back into his life. He discovered his family and teammates had been waiting for him all along, ready to help him. At the end of Indian Horse the whole community comes together to show Saul support:
“How are we gonna do this?” I asked.
“Gotta hit the post to call it a goal. No raising the puck.”
“No, I mean with all these people. How are we gonna play the game?”
He smiled and tapped my stick with his. “Together,” he said. “Like we shoulda all along.” (Wagamese 221)
The ultimate lesson Richard Wagamese appears to have wanted readers to learn is that when generations of a community have gone through a shared traumatization, the only way to move past the damage that was caused is together.
Lara, Lorena Infante. “Your Childhood Experiences Can Permanently Change Your DNA.” 14 September 2017. Smithsonian Magazine. Online . 14 October 2018.
Paul, Raphael. Beauval Indian Residential School 1944-1954. Winnipeg: McNally Robinson Booksellers, 2017. Print.
Wagamese, Richard. Indian Horse. Madeira Park: Douglas and McIntyre, 2012. Print.