Years ago, I was a tour guide at a place called The Olentangy Indian Caverns in Delaware, Ohio. It’s a small cavern, and so the tour script had to be good. We could not just take people on a LONG walk underground for an hour. You can walk the whole thing is five minutes- not counting the breathless climb back to the top! After being hired, the first thing we were given was our employee handbook, and tour script. We could not give tours until we demonstrated to a staff person we knew that script.
I realized, after doing this for a few Summers on my weekends I knew nothing of Native Americans aside from what was in the script. So, I felt I owed it to myself and my customers to learn as much as possible about our Indigenous people and their history.
One way I researched was through not only reading more about the topics I covered in my script, but through watching films. Not films like the black and white cowboy/Indian fight movies, but films made by Native Americans, and starring Native Americans. I saw a lot of Wes Studi, Adam Beach, Spears Brothers, Chris Eyre, and Rose Marie Tantoo Cardinal films. I still watch every single Native American made film I can. When I saw Indian Horse was on Netflix, I immediately started watching.
I did not know I would be crying for two hours. The topics covered were already familiar to me due to my research, but not everybody in North America is aware of those things. It occurred to me these topics are things that Neo Pagans, especially will want to be aware of. I’ll tell you why.
Many Neo Pagans believe because that because they burn sage, sweetgrass, and do things in circles and chant that they are doing the same things Native Americans have done for centuries. Members of religions all over the world including Xtianity and Hinduism do many of these things. So, it’s not a Neo Pagan and Native American practices- it’s human practices. Furthermore, the Neo Pagan faiths are revival of religions from places like France, Ireland, Spain, Greece, and Rome. Not Native American at all.
Before the eclectics who create their own traditions get mad at me- ask an Indian if they feel your homemade practices mirror what they learned from their grandparents. It doesn’t.
Neo Pagan appropriation of Native American religions and cultural practices are all part of the colonizer mindset white culture in America is saturated with.
This film addresses so many cultural issues, and yes, Neo Pagans are trying to recover from our own colonization, and forced conversion our ancestors suffered- but it’s still not the same as the Native American’s experience, and we, as people who have been colonized need to understand that our appropriation of their practices further colonizes our American Indian brethren.
The main topic covered in the 2017 film Indian Horse is the church ran boarding schools children were sent to. Reach for the tissues before watching this trailer:
This film follows the life of Saul Iron Horse. It opens just after his brother has escaped a boarding school, and fled back to family. Grandma decided to take the grandkids and their parents to their ancestral homeland. The family piles into canoes, and arrive to beautiful scenery, and peace the family desperately needs.
Grandma and the boys mom butt heads because mom has converted to Xtianity, and accuses grandma of trying to damn the kids to hell with her old stories. Sauls brother gets very sick right away, and dies. Grandma wants to bury him in the old way and mom, of course, again accuses grandma of endangering the child’s immortal soul. Mom and dad pile into a canoe after a night of drinking liquor, stating they are taking the child to the priests to ensure his body is buried in such a way he goes to heaven.
Grandma tries to stop them, saying she knows they will get more liquor and never return.
They never return.
So six year old Saul, and his geriatric grandmother are left to fend for themselves in the wilderness. When the days turn cold, grandma tells Saul they have to load the canoe and go to family to stay for winter, or they will die. Yes she said that. Their boat is dragged into rapids, they are thrown into the icy waters, and barely make it to the shore.
Weakened, grandma and Saul gather whatever belongings were spared in the accident, and sleep in the snow that night. Freezing, grandma somehow manages to get Saul to the road where cars will pass and rescue him before she lies down and dies.
Saul’s life goes downhill from there.
He is snatched away from his deceased grandma’s side, and thrown into a boarding school.
For those who don’t know- these “schools” as they were called were actually not schools at all, but places used by the government and the church to kidnap, convert, and torture Native American children. It is said over 6,000 of the 150,000 plus children died, and that is just in Canada. In the USA, the same system was used, and it was for both assimilation, and tear apart families.
The film is fair in showing the brutal treatment some children endured from being isolated , beaten, scrubbed roughly, raped, and punished if they spoke their native language. Their given names were taken from them and they were forced to answer to “Christian “ names. If they tried to escape, they were punished harshly. Their hair was cut against their will, and let me tell you, I know what that feels like. You don’t want to do that to anybody.
Saul manages to get out of the school because he shows amazing talent for ice hockey and has a chance to go pro.
I’ve actually told a lot more about plot and storyline than I usually do, so no more spoilers!
This story shows the toxicity of the church and the abuse children suffered at the hands of the corrupt clergy. Having grown up Catholic, I guess I am expected to say I was abused by the nuns and priests. I was not. They were all good to me. I know stories of missionary priests who gave their own lives to save the people they converted and dedicated their whole lives to them when they survived. I am in no way saying all Catholics were or are evil- but a lot of them were, and the church was used as a tool by government to assimilate and decimate North American Indigenous people.
Early in the film, grandma tells stories and shares culture with Saul. Later, one of the other kids thrown in the boarding school, Lonnie, just wants to escape and find his dad. He wants to go live the way he was used to “in the bush” as he calls it. He wants to hunt his own food and be with nature. Takeover by the colonizers took away that way of life and thousands and thousands of men, women, and children were never happy again.
The demanding these kids worship the churches way, and make the churches religion the center of their lives demonstrates the ugly truth that when you want to destroy a people, you take away their culture, and their religion is part of that.
As Neo Pagans, we know truths that members of mainstream religions don’t. We know about the connection between the ancestors and today’s people. We also understand that race does not make up ALL of who we are. Native American people accept non Native Americans at their gatherings and into their families all the time, including religious ones. However, their traditions are theirs, and not tools for people who are fascinated with Indians to use for a fun mix-up of things. If you really feel drawn to Native American religious practices, put down the fake dream catchers and mainstream books, and go where Indigenous people actually are. If you belong, you belong with them, not playing Indian at home by yourself.
Part of learning as American Pagans is learning about what things happened in the name of colonization that our ancestors, and that we also directly benefited from. The systems oppressing our Indigenous people have changed some, but not enough. We don’t need to contribute to that.
Every Canadian and American especially need to know what our governments did, and what they continue to do. This film is a good portrait of what the church, schools, and white people in general did to people like Saul Indian Horse, and how it wrecked lives.
Watch, learn, and share what you learn.
About the Author:
Saoirse is a practicing witch, and initiated Wiccan of an Eclectic Tradition.
A recovered Catholic, she was raised to believe in heaven and hell, that there is only one god, and only one way to believe. As she approached her late 20’s, little things started to show her this was all wrong. She was most inspired by the saying “God is too big to fit into one religion” and after a heated exchange with the then associate pastor of the last Xtian church she attended, she finally realized she was in no way Xtian, and decided to move on to see where she could find her spiritual home.
Her homecoming to her Path was after many years of being called to The Old Ways and the Goddess, and happened in Phoenix, Arizona. She really did rise from her own ashes!
Upon returning to Ohio, she thought Chaos Magic was the answer, and soon discovered it was actually Wicca. She was blessed with a marvelous mentor, Lord Shadow, and started a Magical Discussion Group at local Metaphysical Shop Fly By Night. The group was later dubbed A Gathering of Paths. For a few years, this group met, discussed, did rituals, fellowship, and volunteering together, and even marched as a Pagan group with members of other groups at the local gay Pride Parade for eight years.
All the while, she continued studying with her mentor, and is still studying for Third Degree, making it to Second Degree thus far.
She is a gifted tarot reader, spellworker, teacher, and was even a resident Witch at a Westerville place dubbed The Parlor for a time.
Aside from her magical practice, she is a crocheter, beader, painter, and a good cook. She has been a clown and children’s entertainer, a Nursing Home Activities Professional, a Cavern Tour Guide, a Retail Cashier, and a reader in local shops. Her college degree is a BA in English Writing. She tried her hand at both singing and playing bagpipes, and…well…let’s just say her gifts lie elsewhere! She loves gardening, reading, antiques, time with friends and soul kin, and lots and lots of glorious color bedecking her small home!
On the encouragement of a loved one several years back, she searched for a publication to write for, and is right at home at PaganPagesOrg.
She is currently residing in Central Ohio with her husband, and furbabies.
Saoirse can be contacted at [email protected].