Erasing the Indian in ‘Indian Horse’
Aboriginal identity and the struggle to maintain it amongst other hostile forces is a major theme in Richard Wagamese’s novel, Indian Horse. The book charts the journey of Saul Indian Horse, a young Ojibway boy, as he is separated from his family, and brought to a residential school that aims to erase Indian culture from Aboriginal children’s minds. In Tracking Heaven, Richard Van Camp brings up the question, “Who is the bigger liar? – The story teller or those who don’t tell stories?” and concludes with the declaration that “silence is a lie” (5). I argue that Saul’s struggle to articulate the traumatic experiences that he goes through is precisely a resistance against the residential school’s silencing of his cultural identity. This is made especially prominent in Chapter 12 of the novel, when Saul lists down, one by one, the children who he meets in the school, along with their backstories. Here, silence is presented as a form of erasure, and by telling his and their stories, Saul rebuilds and resists the erasure of the children’s identities, as well as that of the Aboriginal culture.
In Chapter 12, silencing is presented as a way to erase the Aboriginal culture from the children. They are prohibited from speaking their native language, and “speaking a word in that language could get [them] beaten or banished to the box in the basement” (Wagamese 48). By describing the banned native language as “Indian talk” (48), Wagamese highlights the important link between cultural identity and language – you are what you speak. This is further emphasised when Saul tells the reader about how the kids “called [him] ‘Zhaunagush’”, the Aboriginal word for “white man”, “because [he] could speak and read English” (48). He is seen as one of the white men by his own people, simply because he is fluent in their language. By silencing the children in their own language and forcing them to turn to English, the school attempts to distance them from their culture, erase their Aboriginal identities and remake them as “Zhaunagush”.
However, this form of silencing is quickly revealed to be problematic. While Saul appears to be “studious” to the nuns and the priests as he “turn[s] to Zhaunagush books and language” in his “chrysalis of silence”, he refers to himself as retreating “further into [his] self-imposed exile” (Wagamese 49). The use of the word “exile” suggests that Saul does not successfully migrate from the Aboriginal culture into the White culture – he is simply being forcefully removed from his Aboriginal identity. While his retreat into silence implies a lack of resistance and submission towards White culture, it is really nothing more than a pretense. Similarly, the other children resist the silencing of their cultural roots by “learn[ing] to speak without moving their lips”, doing so “to keep their talk alive” (48). By resisting the silencing of the native language, which is linked to their culture, the Aboriginal children resist the erasure of their native culture as well.
While the Aboriginal children are able to reject the silencing and erasure of their native culture, they ultimately have no power to fight against the erasure that they themselves go through in a white-dominated system such as the residential school. This is seen through the way they are disposed of after their deaths – in “row on row of unmarked graves” (Wagamese 50). The unmarked graves signify the children’s loss of identity, when they die, there is no longer any evidence that such a person once lived – they are left out of the narrative of history. Similarly, when speaking about Lenny Mink’s death, Saul narrates that “there wasn’t a funeral. […] His body disappeared and none of the priests or nuns said anything about him again.” (80). Lenny Mink and the other children who die are literally wiped out of the narrative completely. By not acknowledging their deaths or speaking about them, the nuns and priests render these children’s lives void; it is almost as if they have never lived or existed in the first place.
Hence, the way Saul lists down the children that he meets in Chapter 12 is significant in that it rebuilds their identity and existence into the main narrative, resisting both the erasure of their persons and the Aboriginal culture. Saul starts off each person’s story with his or her full name, from “Arden Little Light” and “Sheila Jack” to “Shane Big Canoe” (Wagamese 49-51). It is almost as if he is marking their graves one by one, giving identity back to a nameless body. The structure of the text, with each person’s story coming one after the other, also forms the image of tombstones standing one after another in a graveyard. Here, Saul erects new tombstones for them with words, rewriting them into a narrative that they were previously erased from with silence.
Saul’s narrations about the children also notably include their heritage and where they came from before being taken to the residential school. He mentions how Arden “was from a people who had forged survival out of the bush as hunters, trappers, fishermen”, and how Sheila was a future shaman from “Wikwemikong” who had “been taught the traditional protocols of the medicine way” (Wagamese 50). Later on, he states that Shane’s “family was Metis from Saskatchewan” (51). The inclusion of details about their Aboriginal background seems to be a deliberate decision on Wagamese’s part, a direct rebellion against the residential school’s aim to “remove the Indian” from the children (46). While Sister Ignacia urges the children to abandon their past, telling Lonnie Rabbit that “your human father has nothing to offer you anymore” (45), Saul returns their cultural identities to them by using their native backgrounds to define their identities. By breaking the silence and relating these stories about them, he enables these people to exist in history, and by defining them with their Aboriginal roots, Saul resists the whitewashing that the residential school attempts to enforce on the children – in his narrations, they are Aborigines and nothing else.
Saul’s act of storytelling throughout the novel can also be seen as a form of resistance towards being a part of the erasure of the Aboriginal culture and people. He states that the “biggest crime” that the nuns and priests made was “making [the children] complicit through [their] mute and helpless witness” (Wagamese 80). He implies that silence is acquiescence. Although the children have no power to fight against the adults, by not standing up and saying anything about the nuns and priests’ abusive actions, they are all perpetuating the abuse and condoning it. Hence, by telling his story and revealing all the abuse that went on in the residential school, Saul steps up and out of complicity, rejecting the role of silent supporter that was imposed on him due to his lack of power. By telling his story, he gains complete control of his own narrative, resisting the erasure of his identity by recreating it himself.
Silence is a strong tool in Indian Horse; it is the act of omitting something from the narrative completely, erasing it from existence and opening it up to creative license by other people. However, Saul’s narrative, in many ways, resists the erasure of the Aboriginal culture and people from the course of history. While he was forcibly molded and stuffed into the white people’s narrative about Aboriginal people, by creating his own story, Saul manages to reshape events and people, restoring events and people who were left out by the dominant white narrative.
Camp, Richard Van. Tracking Heaven: Stories from First Nations’ Men and Women on Life, the Spirit World and Heaven. Waglisla, B.C., Richard Van Camp, 2000.
Wagamese, Richard. Indian Horse. Vancouver, BC, Douglas & McIntyre, 2012.
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Aboriginal identity and the struggle to maintain it amongst other hostile forces is a major theme in Richard Wagamese’s novel, Indian Horse. The book charts the journey of Saul Indian […]