Based on Ojibwe author Richard Wagamese’s novel set in the 1960s, Stephen Campanelli’s Indian Horse uses the hook of Canada’s national sport — hockey — to grapple with Canada’s darkest policy: the Indian residential school system. Read the rest of our TIFF coverage here.
Based on Ojibwe author Richard Wagamese’s novel set in the 1960s, Indian Horse uses the hook of Canada’s national sport — hockey — to grapple with Canada’s darkest policy: the Indian residential school system. For over a hundred years, indigenous children were forcibly removed from their parents and communities and placed in brutal “schools”, ostensibly to help them “assimilate” into white Canadian culture.INDIAN HORSE uses hockey to grapple with Canada’s darkest policy: the Indian residential school system. Click To Tweet
At these institutions, students faced physical and often sexual abuse, in an attempt to make students forget their language and culture. At least 6000 children died in the system. As the protagonist, Saul Indian Horse (played by Sladen Peltier at 6 years old/Forrest Goodluck at 15/Ajuawak Kapasheshit at 22) narrates, “They called it a school, but it was never that. There were no tests or examinations. The only test was our ability to survive.”
Saul survives residential school by becoming a hockey prodigy, surpassing players that are bigger and older than him. This eventually gives him a chance to be adopted by Fred Kelly (Michael Lawrenchuk), who runs a travelling team of indigenous players in a northern Ontario mining town. Saul continues to succeed on Kelly’s team, even attracting the attention of the National Hockey League’s Toronto Maple Leafs and earning a place on their junior team.
However, the racism he faces every game exposes the lie in Canada’s stated goal of indigenous assimilation. Although Saul excels at at one of the most stereotypically Canadian activities, he is rejected rather than welcomed for “assimilating”. To both his opponents and Toronto teammates, an indigenous player does not belong in “their game”. Exhausted from the constant on-ice assaults and off-ice jeers he receives, and with a total lack of support from his own coach, he leaves hockey and descends into nomadic alcoholism.'The racism Saul faces every game exposes the lie in Canada’s stated goal of indigenous assimilation.'Click To Tweet
Indian Horse emphasizes that coming to terms with the past is necessary for healing. Just as Saul is told in rehab he must acknowledge the abuse done to him, title cards at the beginning and end of the film emphasize Canada must likewise acknowledge its violent history. While the last residential schools closed in the 1980s, the Canadian government refused to take responsibility for three decades. In 2008, the government formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to collect stories and create a plan for how Canada, at all levels, could address this legacy of cultural genocide. At the film’s premiere, white producers Trish Dolman and Christine Haebler of Screen Siren Pictures (behind films like Hector and the Search for Happiness and Daydream Nation) described bringing Wagamese’s novel to the screen as an act of allyship necessary for reconciliation.
While settler Canadians do need to be allies to indigenous peoples, the film’s indigenous representation remains primarily in front of the camera. Two white men brought the story to the screen: writer Dennis Foon, a playwright known for socially conscious children’s plays, and longtime camera operator, but only second-time director Stephen Campanelli. The filmmakers emphasize their high regard for Wagamese’s work in the film’s faithful replication of the novel’s plot, and avoid falling into a long tradition of making indigenous stories more palatable for a settler audience.INDIAN HORSE avoids making indigenous stories more palatable for a settler audience.Click To Tweet
When adapting a work from page to screen, alterations to the text are necessary. But when a settler director and writer adapt an indigenous work, as is the case with Indian Horse, alterations easily slip into cultural appropriation. While the filmmakers get that the content of the story isn’t theirs to tell, the the way the story is told on screen significantly alters the tone. Wagamese’s novel immerses the reader in Saul’s personal subjectivity, an essential component of indigenous knowledge and storytelling. The novel is framed as Saul writing his story down to share only with a counsellor he trusts. By extension, this forms a personal relationship with the reader as someone to be trusted. Saul writes his narrative relationally, with brief asides about culture and memory to contextualize his story. But by and large, the filmmakers don’t attempt to replicate this intimacy. Occasionally, Saul narrates in voiceover, but this serves more to read aloud Wagamese’s best prose or as a transition device, than to replicate the experience of listening to a story.'When a settler director and writer adapt an indigenous work, alterations easily slip into cultural appropriation.'Click To Tweet
In attempting to faithfully adapt the novel’s plot, the filmmakers abandon one of Indian Horse’s most affecting aspects, its storytelling methods. While readers serve as Saul’s trusted audience, film viewers are independent observers of Saul and his surroundings. The film even gives viewers access to scenes where Saul was not present, such as school staff meetings and incidents of abuse. Had the filmmaking team involved indigenous members, they could have been in a better position to find a creative solution to adaptation that actually reflects an indigenous storytelling perspective. Instead, the result is a film that brings a vital story to a potentially wider audience, but feels like a story told second-hand.
This review was originally published on October 2, 2017.
With a white director, Indian Horse stumbles in portraying the experience of the education system for Indigenous people in Canada. But the documentary Our People Will Be Healed shows that an Indigenous filmmaker telling these stories may do so with more nuance, understanding, and access. Another doc — Marie Clements’ music focused The Road Forward — follows Canada’s Indigenous Civil Rights Movement. And Luk’Luk’I, a narrative feature about the 2010 Winter Olympics, exposes the shallowness of Canadian national identity.