Indian Horse offers a chance to foster country-wide healing and understanding
The story happened so many times in our short history. As a child, Saul Indian Horse is taken from his northern Ojibway family to be placed in an Indian residential school. There Saul suffers routine emotional, physical, and verbal abuse alongside his Indigenous peers in an effort by both the Canadian government and Catholic Church to rid the child of the Indian.
In this oppressive environment, eight-year-old Saul is denied the freedom to speak his language or learn about his Indigenous heritage. It is also in this environment that Saul secretly discovers hockey, which quickly evolves into a passion and a rapidly-growing talent for the young Anishinaabe boy. It isn’t until his athletic talent and prowess is seen as a young adult that he glimpses an escape beyond the trauma that haunts him everyday.
Based upon the award-winning novel written by Richard Wagamese, Dennis Foon’s screen play adaptation of Indian Horse hits theatres across the country this weekend. In the novel, as Saul reaches the pros, the ghosts of his traumatic past haunt him and threaten his balance. Starring Sladen Peltier, Forrest Goodluck (The Revenant), and Ajuawak Kapashesit (Indian Road Trip) as Saul at ages six, 15, and 22 respectively, together the three form a character forged by the injustices done to him, which fuel his determination and spirit forward.
Directed by one Canada’s brilliant visual minds behind several award-winning films (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri being the most recent), Stephen Campanelli (Momentum) brings the story of Canada’s swept-away past to the forefront, and in doing so tells a universal story of hope.
“It just hit me like a ton of bricks,” Campanelli says. “I knew very little about the subject matter to be honest—like wow—how could this happen in our own backyard and be kept a secret all these years?”
Growing up, Campanelli, along with the film’s producers Christine Haebler and Trish Dolman, were never taught about residential schools, in fact the subject was entirely new to them when they first stumbled upon Wagamese’s novel in 2012. This was the case for many Canadians when they first picked up Indian Horse, and still is for some.
Edna Manitowabi, who plays Saul’s grandmother (Naomi), knew of the residential school system because she attended one as a girl. In filming, certain scenes like the haircutting and the bathtub drug up unwanted old ghosts and traumas for Manitowabi to confront. At first she was frustrated by the process, but eventually found it to be healing for her.
“I think because I’ve had those strong emotions in my body all my life that it triggers right away,” Manitowabi says. “It was almost like a sense of purging actually, a releasing of old traumas that were lodged or stored in the body for all those years since I was little.”
With ceremony weaved into the filming process, actors were able to excise past traumas and heal suppressed wounds—whether they were personal or familial—in a good way.
Frog Lake, Alberta actor Tristen Marty-Pahtaykan grew up with a grandfather—“mosóm Joe”—who attended residential schools, but didn’t ever speak about his experiences there. Before filming, Marty-Pahtaykan asked to sit with his mosóm to better portray his character (Buddy Blackwolf) in the film, but as a result found an ability to better understand his grandfather and his larger family.
The extraordinarily healing power of Wagamese’s Indian Horse goes beyond just those involved in the film. Screenings in First Nations across the country have seen healing as well. The hope is for this to only continue as the film is brought to theatres country-wide.
“It was something you didn’t talk about—it was taboo—and you’ll find people who won’t talk about it,” Manitowabi says. “You hear things like: ‘Get over it,’ or ‘Why cry about the past?’ but for me, it was like I had to bring it out, I had to share it. For me, the film was very powerful because it freed me, it set me free.”
Indian Horse presents an opportunity to learn our history. A history that led to the “aggressive assimilation” policy that allowed Canadian government agents to take Indigenous children from their families to be placed in church-run industrial schools designed to forcibly assimilate. The assumption at the time was that Indigenous culture would be unable to adapt to society’s rapid modernization.
From the beginning of production through until his passing in spring of last year, Wagamese continually echoed the sentiment: “we change the world one story at a time.” His words still ring true today at this juncture: a place for people to understand our history and actively pursue truth and reconciliation going forward. This happens first and foremost by understanding our collective history and secondly, in the way we relate to and reconcile with those we meet.
Opening Fri., Apr. 13
Directed by Stephen Campanelli
Scotiabank Theatre Edmonton, Cineplex Odeon South Edmonton, Landmark City Centre 9