Indian Horse author Richard Wagamese wields the saving power of stories

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Richard Wagamese’s writing is exceptional not only for its sensitivity but for a warmth that extends beyond the page. With a finely calibrated hand, he explores heritage, identity, nature, salvation, and gratitude in works that quietly celebrate storytelling’s vitality and power to transcend.

“I believe that storytelling in and of itself is a truly redemptive thing,” he says, “and it allows us to create the one story that is told forever about our time here.” Recipient of the 2012 National Aboriginal Achievement Award for media and communications, the acclaimed Ojibwa writer is introspective and articulate as he talks to the Straight about writing his latest novel, Indian Horse.

“I really believe it took a lot longer because of the emotional territory it covers,” he says, on the phone from his writing studio in Paul Lake, B.C. “And it covers a wide range of things, from loss and grief to addiction to trauma.…the territory that it covers is really, really harrowing for me to explore as a First Nations person—and really, really difficult as a writer to attempt to both get right from a historical perspective and to illuminate that dark history of residential schools appropriately, without assessing too much vilification and anger and empty rhetoric towards the whole process.”

Written over three-and-a-half years—a significant amount of time for an author who usually writes a book in under eight months—his new volume recounts the life of Saul Indian Horse, a 30-something recovering alcoholic. Inspired by individuals he met “as a traditional ceremonialist” and through his work in journalism, Wagamese traces Saul from childhood in northern Ontario through his years at St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School during the early 1960s, where a love of hockey begins, and into young adulthood, when accumulated misfortune and racism derail a promising athletic career, eventually leading to alcoholism. A remarkably empathic writer, Wagamese presents the episodes of Saul’s life in a modest prose style that belies its psychological power.

Although he has no personal history of residential schools, the 56-year-old author did suffer their residual effects. His mother, along with aunts and uncles, survived the government-sanctioned institutions designed to assimilate First Nations children into Euro-Canadian society from the mid 19th to the late 20th century. “In the beginning of my life, I was a victim of that process too,” he says, “because we weren’t able to be adequately cared for.” The physical and sexual abuse that occurred in these schools was widespread, as were cases of tuberculosis, and these blights would affect successive generations of the country’s First Nations population.

Despite the shadows that residential schools cast over Saul’s family, and his resulting struggles with abandonment and neglect, Wagamese says there are few similarities between him and the character, aside from their vast appetite for books and music, and a love of hockey that dates back to adolescence.

Having played amateur hockey across the country, Wagamese infuses Saul with what the author calls “that same joy and abandon that I discovered and still enjoy about the game today”. Hockey in these pages is a symbol of self-realization, and Saul submerges himself in the sport as a shield against feelings of displacement and restlessness. Athleticism allows him to preserve some of the dignity and innocence that marginalization and cultural censorship are systematically stripping away.

In his previous material, both fiction and nonfiction, Wagamese has chronicled the adversities facing First Nations communities in Canada. Approaching residential schools through fiction here was a deliberate choice, determined by his indirect experience and the creative process that fuelled the book. “Sometimes a story will just tell you where it wants to travel,” he says, “and your responsibility as a writer is to follow that stream where it leads you, and to build it from within as much as you can.”

Relevance combined with the wisdom and grace of Wagamese’s narrative tenor is what lends Indian Horse its lasting impact. “Sometimes ghosts linger. They hover in the furthest corners and when you least expect it, they lurch out, bearing everything they brought to you when they were alive,” Saul observes, returning to addiction treatment. “I didn’t want to be haunted. I’d lived with that way for far too long as it was.”

Having endured his own tragedies, Wagamese believes fundamentally the acknowledgment of personal history. “I can be grateful for all of [my hardships],” he concludes, “and not carry forward any residual wounds or pain or trauma, and live free and express myself through the complete and utter joy of being a writer.”

Richard Wagamese appears at the 19th annual National Aboriginal Achievement Awards on Friday (February 24) at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

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