Ed. Note: Indian Horse will be screened at the  Atlin BC Globe Theatre on Thursday, July 5, 2018 at 7 PM as part of the Atlin Arts & Music Festival.

It was with some resignation that I went and saw the film, Indian Horse, the story of how a young Aboriginal boy survived his personal ordeal in residential school by focusing his energy on the game of hockey.

Being an Aboriginal person, we get inundated with media surrounding the legacy of Indian residential schools. At times, it becomes burdensome to carry the weight of the past. I personally feel that this past keeps us from moving forward and enjoying life as we should. So when I read of the film’s release, I must admit I shuddered at the thought of yet more media around the topic. My own work in the film and TV industry had exposed me even more to the legacy of these schools, as well as my personal experience, limited as it was, and that of my friends and family.

But I had an ulterior motive to see the film—I knew the author of the book, Richard Wagamese, the celebrated Ojibway author who, sadly, passed away a year ago. We’d shared the love of music and spent many hours playing old blues songs and talking about our musical heroes. And as a writer, I’m always curious to see other writers’ works.

Without giving too much away, I was not surprised at how the producers dramatized some of the events that happened at this school. And as a filmmaker, I understand the value of drama. You hear stories over the years and you become somewhat immune to them.

But one particular scene triggered a memory—that of interviewing a Dené Elder in Fort Good Hope, NWT, during the Truth and Reconciliation hearings. He showed me a scar on his lip, and his chipped tooth he’d never repaired, where a nun had hit him with a fire poke because he had stolen some food. I had to swallow hard. The truth was there.

Then there was a scene where little kids were crying at night. It reminded me of the three months my sisters and I spent at Stringer Hall, the protestant “hostel,” as we called them, when our parents went trapping. And I froze, like I did then. Because I knew the supervisor would come stomping in to scold the kids with her harsh words and sometimes wicked hand. I could feel the lump in my throat beginning to form.

My eyes misted over as I remembered especially seeing my big sister, Shirley, down the hall, and how we could not talk until Saturdays. And missing my mom and dad … and how much I wanted to go home. I can only imagine what others were experiencing, those who’d spent their entire childhoods in those places.

Then there was a scene where a group of kids ran away from the school. And it brought me back to grade four or five, when three of our young classmates ran away from the hostel and attempted to walk the one-and-twenty kilometres back to their hometown of Tuktoyuktuk, following the CN power line. Only one made it. They found one of the boys dead under a power pole, halfway to Tuk. He had neatly laid his shoes at the foot of his bed, like he was taught in the hostel. They never found the other boy. A tear formed and I could not keep from silently weeping for their lost lives.

In the film, the hero goes full circle—from fame and glory, to despair and hopelessness. And I thought of the many kids I went to school with who either ended up dead or on the streets, walking aimlessly, looking for some meaning to their existence. Like I said in a documentary I produced for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), I could bore you with names of people I know who’ve died. And that’s just me, a town kid with limited knowledge or scope of what really happened.

I like to stay positive and not dwell on the past, but my old blues-picking friend, Richard, through his book and this film, taught me a valuable lesson—to not bury my head in the sand and wish the past away; but acknowledge it, accept it, forgive, and keep walking into the light.

Mussi Cho Sitja.

On set filming Indian Horse