Netflix

Editor’s note: This article contains mentions of abuse, sexual assault, suicide and self-harm.

 On Netflix (where it’s currently streaming), “Indian Horse” is described as “heartfelt,” “forceful” and “feel-good.” Only the first two adjectives are accurate. Similarly erroneous is Netflix’s marketing of the film as a sports movie. Ice hockey does play a pivotal role in the journey of Saul Indian Horse, but this is no stereotypical against-all-odds sports success story.

“Indian Horse” will rip your heart out.

Netflix’s less-than-honest marketing is ironic, given that the internationally recognized film is actually about righting an obfuscation of the truth. “Indian Horse” is about bringing the hidden, horrific history of Canadian residential schools to light and illuminating an untold story of Indigenous suffering and survival.

Based on the 2012 novel of the same name by Ojibwe author Richard Wagamese, “Indian Horse” follows Saul, a First Nations Canadian, from 1950 to the late 1980s. In 1959, Saul and his family flee the residential school system that traumatized his parents and sickened his brother. Though Saul vows never to be caught, he is eventually seized by local authorities and sent to St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School in Ontario. There, he bears witness to the abuse, assault and dehumanization inflicted upon First Nations children in the name of “assimilation” and religious conversion. Many children are driven to suicide by the violence inflicted upon them by the Catholic fathers and nuns who administer the school. These scenes are gut-wrenching to watch, but they are an inescapable part of the legacy of residential schools.

“This topic, such a massive part of our history, still feels hidden,” said Eva Greyeyes ’24. Greyeyes actually played a supporting role in “Indian Horse,” her first film role, at age 14. Researching the role meant engaging with family history in the not-so-distant past: “Both of my grandparents on my father’s side had gone to residential schools … the last school closed in Canada in 1996. The government issued their official apology in 2008. This is recent, this is happening, it’s still happening.”

“One thing that’s really important about Indian Horse is that it’s this mainstream indigenous film that absolutely did not shy away from showing the horrors of residential schools. It didn’t keep it hidden, it didn’t sugarcoat it for people. It was very upfront about the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse that was present in these schools,” Greyeyes said.

Accessing this intergenerational trauma is an emotionally taxing task, as Greyeyes remembers: “It was really emotionally draining at some points, but I just remember being so incredibly supported [by the intersectional cast and crew].”

That kind of support is crucial to addressing painful history, particularly when survival meant enduring a loss culture and horrific trauma.

In the film, Saul’s own survival is grounded in ice hockey. When a new priest at St. Jerome’s introduces the sport to the school, Saul quickly develops a singular passion for the game and finds an outlet on the ice. Eventually, an Ojibwe family (themselves survivors of the school) adopt the highly skilled teenage Saul to play for their semi-professional team. There, Saul finally finds family, community, and a place to actualize his love of the game.

If this were any other hockey film, at this point the narrative would shift into a gritty, comeback success story — by its end, Saul would prove every racist naysayer wrong by making it to the NHL, winning a trophy, and maybe even receiving an insufficient apology from those who doubted him. Instead, “Indian Horse” unflinchingly shows another oft-ignored history: racism in the world of sport.

When Saul’s team, the Manitouwadge Moose, begin playing (and beating) non-Indigenous teams, they are subjected to violent harassment from fans and opponents alike. When Saul attempts to make it to “the Show” (the NHL), his own (mostly white) teammates either actively contribute to the heckling or remain silent, further ostracizing him. “It’s their game, not ours,” Saul says in a moment of demoralization. In many ways, he’s right.

As a minority playing hockey, I’m no stranger to discrimination inflicted by bystanders, opponents, referees, coaches and teammates. A few scenes from the film could have been lifted almost verbatim from my own lived experience, even 40 years after the events depicted in “Indian Horse.”

We love to believe that sport is a true meritocracy, and that success therein is determined solely by passion, skill and work ethic. For minorities, athletic achievement is often touted as “your way out, your way to a better life” — as a coach literally tells Saul in the final third of the film. But life is indivisible from history and oppression, and so too are these factors indivisible from sport. Whereas other films merely skate over the uncomfortable truths of bigotry and unequal opportunity in the game, “Indian Horse” confronts them. Saul is only allowed to leave the residential school because of the near-fetishization of his talent; throughout his playing career, he endures the narrative that he “has a gift,” that he “shouldn’t waste it” — as if the chance to play at the highest level makes all his suffering worth it. As a late plot twist reveals, sometimes the price of playing isn’t worth the pain.

As much as “Indian Horse” is a film about trauma, it’s also about beginning the process of growing beyond it.

“We’ve needed [films like this] in the past, but we also need it now,” Greyeyes said, providing insight into the complex feelings “Indian Horse” evokes and its significance as a mainstream movie. She described a marked difference in response to the film between non-native and native viewers. “In terms of what resonated with people…there were really different reactions…there was a lot of guilt,” she said. For the Indigenous cast, crew and watchers, Greyeyes said that the film was “about the community, and the found family aspect.”

For Greyeyes, this distinction is an essential one: “[Indigenous resurgence is] about healing and rebuilding our communities. For non-natives, it’s about knowing the truth and knowing how to support us in that process.”

The hard truths of residential schools aren’t limited to Canada; in the 19th and 20th centuries, the United States had its own “Indian Boarding Schools.” As suggested by the similarity in name, these institutions also erased culture and identity through forced severance and child abuse. These legacies of disenfranchisement continue to affect the health and economic well-being of residential school survivors and their descendants. As long as we fail to address these issues, past and present, we have no hope of even approaching “reconciliation.” Only by actively seeking out and acknowledging these hidden histories, and by furthering the visibility of contemporary Native issues, can we begin to cope with a long history of trauma. Intersectional collaboration in activism and representation — in daily life as well as projects like “Indian Horse” — is the key to moving forward.

 “It’s about shifting the national conversation, and it’s about having a mainstream Indigenous film with a native cast that is so incredible and deserves to be recognized,” Greyeyes said of “Indian Horse’s” significance. “Healing is happening. It happens in our own ways, with our families and communities. It happens with sports. We need our own space to heal, but we also need to be recognized, we need accurate representation, and we need the truth to be out there.”

Greyeyes also has a message for Yalies: “I want to teach people … that this isn’t over. It’s something we all need to know about, in order to move forward and heal.”

MeiLan Haberl | meilan.haberl@yale.edu