The Role of Family in the Indian Horse


The Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese is a book published in 2012 and revolves around Saul’s story. In the novel, the author intends to show the importance of family in someone’s life, and it’s no wonder that even the title of the book Indian Horse comes from Saul’s family’s name (Chicklinski-Cahill, 2019). in the plot of the story, the audience sees Saul as he goes through a series of challenges, including his family member’s death to abuse and the struggle with alcoholism. Even though Saul faces many challenges in life, there is someone there to show him love and give him hope; whether these people are biological family or not, they play a crucial role in Saul’s life. 

Family plays a crucial role in connecting someone to his/her culture. The Indian Horse family hails from a Fish Clan, a native Canadian ethnic group that Winnipeg’s river. The Indian Horse family has always been influential in the clan from his great grandfather, who stories say was a great teacher and healer and, as a result, played a key role as a religious figure (Wagamese 2012). However, this influence is deteriorating as the story’s setting takes the readers through an event that takes place in the 1960s and 70s Canadian society. This was the time that Canadian native traditions were under heavy attack. Laws such as the Indian Act of 1876 were developed, which required all native Canadian children to attend Christian and English-speaking schools (McKegney & Phillips, 2018). To attend school, these children were separated from their families and were forced to unlearn all their native traditions and replace them with Christian ones. “We will honor him in the old way” (Wagamese 2012). These were the words of Saul’s grandmother after Benjamin’s death. She wants him to be buried traditionally, but Saul’s parents object and decide to take him to a nearby priest for a proper burial. To show the importance of culture in someone’s life, Wagamese tells the audience that after the parents walked out of their traditions and opted for new traditions, they never returned, and Saul had to live with his grandmother till death. In the whole story, Wagamese shows children struggle in Christian schools as they try to maintain the relationship with their cultures and family as some are beaten to death. Others take their lives due to their inability to let go of their cultures and family ties (McKegney & Phillips, 2018). In Saul’s case, he maintains some of his cultural traditions while adopting part of the new customs.

In the Indian Horse, the concept of family is depicted as an important part of a person’s belongingness. According to psychological research, the need for love and belongingness is a need for all human beings, similar to the need for food and shelter (McKegney & Phillips, 2018). When one successfully acquires the sense of completion and belongingness, one gets over emotions such as loneliness and abandonment. These negative emotions can harm a person’s performance in life and health, and thus getting away from them helps increase a person’s chance of improving his/her life. As the story opens, Saul’s family goes through many tribulations (Chicklinski-Cahill, 2019). However, even in these trying times, they stick together and help each other. For example, even after his parents and brother’s death, Saul’s grandmother stuck with him till she froze to death. When Saul was going through trying times at St. Jerome’s, a new family comes to his rescue (Wagamese 2012). As he leaves with the Family, Father Leboutilier tells him that Hockey would save him, but in the real sense, Kelly’s family had saved him from the miseries of St. Jerome’s. When he becomes part of the family, Saul finds love and support from the family, which helps him become even better at playing Hockey (McKegney & Phillips, 2018). Kelly’s son Virgil does not become jealous of his hockey prowess; in fact, he takes him into his team and trains with him. Even though Saul becomes better than Kelly’s son, there is not time that they felt jealous of him as he was family. Kelly and the family encourage him to carry on and get to greater heights, such as the time he needed to move to Toronto; they did not hold him back even though he was having a hard time leaving them. The family wished the best for him.

A family is a place where one can always go back when all other things fail. Society fights Saul with racism, and the memories of abuse back in St. Jerome’s still haunt him. However, Martha and Fred knew their place in Saul’s life. Saul states, “Fred and Martha Kelly were good to me. They didn’t try to be parents. They settled for being friends, and Virgil and I grew close. He was my greatest ally” (Wagamese 2012). Unlike society, Kelly’s family understood Saul’s past, and they were ready to hold his hand and help him as a friend. The use of the term “settled for” symbolizes that despite offering him the help that he needed, the Kelly’s knew that they could not replace Saul’s biological family but were ready to stay with him as a friend and help him like a family (Chicklinski-Cahill, 2019). To this end, when Saul comes from the rehab, and all is lost, he goes back to the Kelly’s, and they receive him like a family and give him another chance to use his talent.  

In a nutshell, the family is where an individual clings for support and hope in life. The theme of family is key in the Indian Horse as even the name of the book comes from the name of the protagonist’s family. The family is portrayed as an individual’s connection to culture and traditions. It is through the family that a person’s belongingness need is fulfilled. The family is also the place where one gets back to heal after the worldly struggles are over. 



Chicklinski-Cahill, K. (2019, July 27). ‘Indian Horse’ a ‘small but Huge Story.’ The Journal.

McKegney, S., & Phillips, T. J. (2018). Decolonizing the Hockey Novel: Hockey, 97-110.

Wagamese, R. (2012). Indian Horse. D & M Publishers.