EXCERPT: Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

Each day this week, CBC Books will present an excerpt from one of the Canada Reads 2013 contenders. First up: the book representing British Columbia and Yukon, Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese. Indian Horse is being defended by Olympic wrestler Carol Huynh. In this passage, the book's narrator, Saul Indian Horse, looks back on his heritage and explains why he's chosen to write his life story.

Indian Horse

By Richard Wagamese

My name is Saul Indian Horse. I am the son of Mary Mandamin and John Indian Horse. My grandfather was called Solomon so my name is the diminutive of his. My people are from the Fish Clan of the northern Ojibway, the Anishinabeg, we call ourselves. We made our home in the territories along the Winnipeg River, where the river opens wide before crossing into Manitoba after it leaves Lake of the Woods and the rugged spine of northern Ontario. They say that our cheekbones are cut from those granite ridges that rise above our homeland. They say that the deep brown of our eyes seeped out of the fecund earth that surrounds the lakes and marshes. The Old Ones say that our long straight hair comes from the waving grasses that thatch the edges of bays. Our feet and hands are broad and flat and strong, like the paws of a bear. Our ancestors learned to travel easily through territories that the Zhaunagush, the white man, later feared and sought our help to navigate. Our talk rolls and tumbles like the rivers that served as our roads. Our legends tell of how we emerged from the womb of our Mother the Earth; Aki is the name we have for her. We sprang forth intact, with Aki's heartbeat thrumming in our ears, prepared to become her stewards and protectors. When I was born our people still talked this way. We had not yet stepped beyond the influence of our legends. That was a border my generation crossed, and we pine for a return that has never come to be.

These people here want me to tell my story. They say I can't understand where I'm going if I don't understand where I've been. The answers are within me, according to them. By telling our stories, hardcore drunks like me can set ourselves free from the bottle and the life that took us there. I don't give a shit about any of that. But if it means getting out of this place quicker, then telling my story is what I will do.

It was social workers at the hospital who sent me here. The New Dawn Centre. They call it a treatment facility. The counsellors here say Creator and the Grandmothers and the Grandfathers want me to live. They say a lot of things. In fact, they talk all the time, and they expect us to do the same. They sit there with their eyes all shiny and wet and hopeful, thinking we don't see them waiting. Even with my eyes on my shoes I can feel them. They call it sharing. It's one of our ancient tribal principles as Ojibway people, they claim. Many hearts beating together makes us stronger. That's why they put us in the sharing circle.

There are at least thirty of us staying here. Everyone from kids in their late teens to a few in their thirties, like me, and one woman who's so old she can't talk much anymore. We sit in circles all day. I tire of talk. It wearies me. It makes me wish for a drink. But I endure it, and when my counsellor, Moses, ushers me into his office for one-on-one time, I endure that too. I've been here a month, after six weeks in the hospital, and that's the longest I've been without a drink for years, so I guess there's some use to it. My body feels stronger. My head is clear. I eat heartily. But now, they say, the time has come for the hardest work. "If we want to live at peace with ourselves, we need to tell our stories."

I can't tell mine in the circle. I know that. There's too much to sort out and sift through. And I've noticed the younger ones getting all twitchy in their seats the few times I've tried to speak. Maybe they don't believe me, or something about what I'm saying pisses them off. Either way, I can't talk there. So Moses gave me permission to write things down. So I will. Then I'll get on with life. Somewhere.

Our people have rituals and ceremonies meant to bring us vision. I have never participated in any of them, but I have seen things. I have been lifted up and out of this physical world into a place where time and space have a different rhythm. I always remained within the borders of this world, yet I had the eyes of one born to a different plane. Our medicine people would call me a seer. But I was in the thrall of a power I never understood. It left me years ago, and the loss of that gift has been my greatest sorrow. Sometimes it feels as though I have spent my entire life on a trek to rediscover it.

Excerpted from Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese. Copyright Richard Wagamese, 2012. Reprinted with permission of D&M Publishers.

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