'Call Me Indian' travels through trauma, triumph of NHL's 1st Indigenous player
Fred Sasakamoose's autobiography is a story of racism and resilience
Call Me Indian
By Fred Sasakamoose
Fred Sasakamoose, the first treaty Indigenous player in the NHL, begins his memoir 200 years ago in northern Saskatchewan. Sasakamoose family history unfolds in the Sandy Lake area, where Fred's great, great uncle, founding Grand Chief Ahtahkakoop, chose to live.
"This land, the country that Ahtahkakoop gazed at from the top of Lonesome Pine Hill, the land he claimed - wherever I have travelled, wherever I have lived, this land has always called me home."
Hold that thought.
Fred is born, on Christmas Day 1933, into a Cree family, mostly living off the land. A traditional healer places Fred's umbilical cord on a frozen pond. A couple of years later, his beloved moosum shovels snow off the ice, ties blades to Fred's homemade moccasins, and whittles the child a hockey stick from a willow branch.
When he is seven, little Freddy's world is destroyed. A truck pulls up on their farm, full of crying children. Three white men get out, and shove his powerful father and grandfather aside. Fred and his brother Frank are tossed in among the frightened kids. His last sight of home, out the back of the truck, is his mother crying, his moosum flat on the ground in tears.
Fred is terrified upon arrival at St Michael's, a school in name, a forced labour camp in reality. The four-storey building is the biggest he has ever seen. His braids are shorn, his lovingly beaded clothes taken away forever. Fred's new identity is number 437.
Whenever a child speaks Cree, the priests strip them and strap them. Fred had never seen an adult strike a child, but now he's the target of belts and smacks, punches and kicks. Sometimes the priests don boxing gloves, force boys to fight them, and knock them unconscious. Sasakamoose knows too well the sexual abuse of his cohorts. He sees it and hears it, nightly.
A return home met with loss
Almost two full years after being taken away, Frank and Fred are trucked home again for the summer. His twin siblings have died in the interim. So has the gentle grandpa who did everything with Freddy. He couldn't bear the loss of the boys.
The children cannot tell their parents how bad it is. Mums and dads were convinced by Indian Agents that it was for the best, and in any event, they are arrested if they try to keep their kids at home. So the horror continues. Each summer, Fred returns to his family to see that the government plan is working. His first language, Cree, is dying.
The students learn to practise the abuse they are taught by priests. Fred is beaten up and raped by older boys. He is 86 when he recounts this 75 year-old trauma, and he still cannot bring himself to say more than the bare minimum on the subject.
Hockey is the one glimmer of joy at school. A handful of beat up old skates go to the older boys, and at 12, Fred ages into his first pair. A new priest takes an interest in making a team. He is a harsh taskmaster but " I was learning more from him than I did from anyone else at that damn school, and I didn't mind suffering a little – if it was on the ice and making me a better player."
They play white schools and face continual racist animosity. The white kids have new equipment but the residential school kids are hard and lean from labouring while their opponents are seated in classrooms.
'How could we really feel victorious in that place?'
Fred's team wins the Saskatchewan U-13 championship. He stays in a motel for the first time. A string of firsts unspool over the years. A first visit to a cafe, first home with electric lights, first sight of a carpeted room, first sip of pop. The winning team eats their first and only decent dinner at St Michael's.
Fred enjoys this celebratory feast "but how could we really feel victorious in that place? Despite the few good times, the years at St. Michael's had covered us with scars. They had destroyed some part of us. They had made us realize we were poor. They had made us ashamed of being who we were. At the end of our days at St Michael's, the only true victory was having made it through, was going home."
For years to follow, Fred flinches and is sickened each time he finds himself on the threshold of a Catholic institution.
In 1950, he is drafted by Moose Jaw's Junior 'A' hockey team. His coach and billet family treat him well but "this was a white man's world. It was not a world made for me. I missed the trees and the water. The woodsmoke curling up the stovepipe. The rabbit-skin blankets warming me as I slept. The sound of Cree being spoken all around me."
At a game in Edmonton in 1953, the Hobbema nation makes him an honorary chief, Mekao Ru Apeseemose, Chief Running Deer. It is a beautiful ceremony, with full regalia and sacred intent. But Fred learns later it was also a publicity stunt by the Edmonton Oil Kings. Later still, Sasakamoose reads newspaper accounts of the ceremony which include ignorant scalping 'jokes'.
"Looking at the magnificent headdress the Hobbema had made me, I understood the true significance of the gesture and the ceremony, even if the Edmonton manager didn't."
Oddly, history repeats in Kamloops, B.C., where a genuine honour is again tainted by a PR stunt, and some smoke signal nonsense. But this time, Fred is formally welcomed into the Shuswap nation and on balance, the honour outweighs the insult.
In 1953, while he's still a teenager, Chicago signed him. He becomes, in a contractual sense, 'their property.' That moment and that phrasing curdles. Being anyone's property, given his life experience, is poison.
In the meantime, without having seen Bernie Geoffrion, Fred invents his own slap shot. The booming innovation unnerves defenders. When Fred gets called up to play his first NHL game in Chicago, he has to be driven there by a white coach, because the law forbids any 'Indian' under the age of 20 from leaving the country unescorted. (Except as soldiers during world wars, as sharply noted)
No warm welcome in Chicago
When he steps on NHL ice for the first time, No. 21 for Chicago, the organist greets him with hokey war path music.
He plays the legendary Leafs, and is dazzled by the skating skills of George Armstrong, whose Ojibway mother made him a player that indigenous Canadians loved, even if his non-treaty status denies him the official league first. Playing in the Forum, Montreal Canadien defenceman Doug Harvey greets Fred with a corny-solemn 'How.' Fred snaps back "I'm not Howe. He plays for Detroit" which cracks up everyone in earshot. He likes Mr Hockey's personality more than he respects his game, by the way. Sasakamoose plays against the era's greats, and shares brief anecdotes about many of them.
Chicago has the worst year in franchise history. No one passes Fred the puck, which does not help his internal struggle to feel like he belongs.
Back in Saskatchewan, he falls in love with Loretta. She is his rock for 66 years, but she has no interest in moving away from the only land and family she has ever known. Still a very young man, he logs and clears a patch on the reserve to build their farm.
Dick Irvin, Chicago's new coach, calls Fred back to training camp. The team wanted him to play for either the Buffalo or Calgary farm teams. But at that point in his career, Fred has played a good strong dozen NHL games and he can't help wondering if racism fuelled his demotion.
"'You're Black Hawks property.'
St Michael's had considered me property too. They told me what to do, where to go, when I could leave them. When I had to come back. They thought I was theirs, that I no longer belonged to my parents, my family, my community. And now I apparently belonged to the Hawks. I'd traded in number 437 for number 21. The Hawks were moving me about like some residential school kid."
This moment is part of an excerpt from the audiobook version of Fred's story, read by Wilton Littlechild.
LISTEN | Wilton Littlechild reads from 'Call Me Indian':
He reluctantly agrees to play for Calgary. Loretta does not join him there. His decision comes quickly. He voids his contract and heads home. NHL career be damned.
Fred says that's how his story usually ends, when others tell it. But he has 60 more years to talk about.
He has a decade of giving and getting hard knocks in prairie Hockey leagues. By 1969, 20 years after he first left the reserve to play junior 'A', he's done. He and Loretta, mostly Loretta, raise their nine kids off the grid. He wants to give them the childhood on the reserve that had been stolen from him. They have next to no money. Sandy Lake has grown to 1,000 people. There are new gravel roads, electricity and even a few phones.
Fred gets deeply involved in developing hockey for kids on reserves. He helps launch the popular Native Hockey League championships. He plants 1,100 acres and moves his house to a spot where the river water is safer to drink. He hunts and fishes and keeps chickens for eggs and cows for milk.
The residential school years ignited anger that Fred could safely vent in hockey fights. But once his playing days end, he loses that outlet for his rage. He drinks too much. He is highly critical of his own parental failings during this time. He shares his deep shame about the way he treats his kids. He remembers the love his moosum and others showed him, and feels rotten that he didn't do the same for his own.
A second chance
Sandy Lake suffers widespread PTSD, intergenerational trauma, addiction, and unemployment. Fred becomes Chief and turns his life around. He drinks very little alcohol, and reconnects with his culture. His beloved daughter Phyllis dies and her three young children move in with Fred and Loretta. He quits drinking altogether. His grandchildren give him a second chance to be nurturing.
Brutal drug use sweeps the reserve. HIV follows the needles. He builds a simple cabin for homeless addicts. He travels and speaks to kids about healthy living. He works to defend treaty rights.
Fred joins Willie O'Ree on the NHL's diversity task force. He focuses on indigenous kids' hockey. Richard Wagamese's Indian Horse is made into a movie, produced by Clint Eastwood, loosely based on Fred's story. It helps spread a wider understanding about Residential Schools.
Fred ends his story with brutal family tragedy. Violent deaths of his children. He needs to be honest about it. His reserve, now Ahtahkoop Cree nation, has swelled to 2,000 members. The culture is healing, passing from parents to children.
As COVID-19 rages, Fred drives his old truck to the top of Lonesome Pine Hill. He reflects that Ahtahkoop would be proud of how his people looked after the land and how the land looks after his people.
Fred Sasakamoose died suddenly from COVID-19 complications on Nov. 20. He lived to complete his potent, sad, and important memoir, but not to see its publication.
Foreword by Bryan Trottier. Hardcover $32.00 Viking
8 pages photos, 268 pages