“Nobody wants to see an Indian movie.”
That was the general response director Stephen Campanelli and the makers of “Indian Horse” initially received from the Canadian and Hollywood movie industry when they pitched the idea of bringing the fictional story of a First Nations boy – a survivor of Canada’s notorious Catholic residential schools – and his difficult path to adulthood and hockey fame to the big screen.
“‘Does the general public really want to see this?’ That was the attitude. ‘Why bring up the bad past,’ which really wasn’t that long ago.” Campanelli told me recently. “But it’s a great story that people connect with. And if you don’t connect with the part about the racism and horrible things that happened to the indigenous people, you connect with the hockey – you see the resilience and the power of a sport like hockey to change people’s lives.”
American audiences now have the chance to see “Indian Horse” as the Canadian-made film executive produced by Academy Award-winning actor/director Clint Eastwood has finally crossed the border.
It took five years before the film was finally made and released in Canada in April. And it took months to get distribution interest in the United States. But for a product that folks allegedly wouldn’t see, “Indian Horse” has done alright, collecting 16 film awards.
“We work in an industry where indigenous stories and characters on the screen do not reach mainstream audiences,” said Christine Haebler, one of the film’s producers. “An all-Native or indigenous acted movie is not what distributors or theaters are used to seeing and selling on their screens even in 2018.”
But the timing seems right for “Indian Horse” – for positive and negative reasons.
The film comes at a time when a growing number Native American/First Nations players are achieving success at all levels of hockey – from Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price giving a nod to his heritage in accepting the Vezina Trophy in 2015 to the Ditidaht First Nation’s Maryna Macdonald playing defense for Harvard University this season.
It also comes at a time when indigenous hockey players are still experiencing a disturbing number of racist incidents and continue to endure hateful taunts about their heritage.
Last Friday, a pee wee hockey game near Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, ended before the third period after players and parents allegedly hurled racially and culturally insensitive remarks toward the opposing team, the Waywayseecappo Wolverines.
“We heard many parents saying ‘Those boys are just going to get drunk, maybe they’re drunk now. They’re probably hung over…,” Tanis Brandon, the mother of a Wolverines player and the team’s assistant manager, told CBC. “I felt like crying…As an adult, I didn’t even know how to handle it if someone called me a dirty Indian or a savage.”
In May, members of the First Nation Elite Bantam AAA team endured racist slurs and taunts at the Coupe Challenge Quebec in Quebec City, Canada.
“Indian Horse,” based on the late author Richard Wagamese’s best-selling novel of the same name, will be screened in Tempe, Arizona, on Friday and will be shown in other theaters nationwide later this month.
It was shown at the Yakama Nation Heritage Theater in Toppenish, Washington, and at the 23rd annual Red Nation International Film Festival in Los Angeles last month.
The movie doesn’t pull punches. Through the eyes of protagonist Saul Indian Horse, the film gives an unvarnished portrayal of life for Indigenous youth who were plucked from their families and shipped to residential schools, which were established under the premise of helping the children assimilate to white Canadian culture.
Between the 1880s and 1996, more than 150,000 indigenous children attended residential schools. Many of them reported being sexually, physically and psychologically abused by priests, nuns, and other teachers.
The Canadian government formally apologized for the schools in 2008 and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established out of a negotiated settlement that included monetary compensation for survivors.
Fred Sasakamoose cried as he watched “Indian Horse” at a screening in April. Sasakamoose, who is Ahtahkakoop Cree, became the first indigenous player with treaty status to play in the National Hockey League, accomplishing the feat when he skated for the Chicago Black Hawks against the Toronto Maple Leafs on February 27, 1954.
Like Saul Indian Horse, Sasakamoose found an escape from the horrors of the residential schools in hockey.
“It hit back the pain,” Sasakamoose said of the film. “The impact of that movie – it was my life. It is a good movie, but it is also painful.”
While there are some similarities between Sasakamoose and the movie’s lead character, Haebler notes that “Saul Indian Horse took a divergent path of Fred Sasakamoose’s life.”
“Without spoiling the movie, Saul Indian Horses experience differs greatly,” said said.
Harvard’s Macdonald, whose grandmother attended a residential school, said “Indian Horse” is “a great movie that, obviously touches on a heavy topic.”
“The depiction they have in the movie is pretty powerful,” she told me. “It kind of gives light for a lot of people who might not understand a lot about residential schools.”
And it gives light to how hard it was for players like Sasakamoose to make their way in a mostly-white hockey world. Sasakamoose’s NHL career spanned only 11 games in the 1953-54 season in which the talented center failed to score.
But his brief presence blazed the trail for other indigenous players like Reggie Leach, the high-scoring Philadelphia Flyers right wing who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the best Stanley Cup Playoffs performer in 1976, and center Bryan Trottier, a seven-time Stanley Cup champion on three different teams and the NHL’s Most Valuable Player in 1979.
Now, a new generation of Native American/First Nations players, like Macdonald, are at the dawn of their careers, helping to further break down barriers and debunk myths.
Brandon Montour, patrols the blue line for the Anaheim Ducks; Edmonton Oilers defensive prospect Ethan Bear skates for the Bakersfield Condors of the American Hockey League; and Devin Buffalo has gone from being a standout netminder at Ivy League Dartmouth College to a rookie for the Greenville Swamp Rabbits of the ECHL.
Buffalo told CBC in October that his dream “to show people where a Native hockey player could go and overcome these obstacles and stereotypes.”
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