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More than a hockey story: 'Indian Horse' film explores boarding school trauma; opens Friday in Bemidji

BEMIDJI--A film that explores the boarding school era and the trauma it inflicted on Indigenous people is set to play in Bemidji. "Indian Horse" follows Saul, an Ojibwe boy whose talent for hockey gets him out of a rural Canadian boarding school....

Ajuawak Kapeshesit is one of three actors who plays Saul, an Ojibwe hockey star haunted by the trauma he endured at a rural Canadian boarding school. Submitted photo.
Ajuawak Kapashesit is one of three actors who plays Saul, an Ojibwe hockey star haunted by the trauma he endured at a rural Canadian boarding school. Submitted photo.

BEMIDJI-A film that explores the boarding school era and the trauma it inflicted on Indigenous people is set to play in Bemidji.

"Indian Horse" follows Saul, an Ojibwe boy whose talent for hockey gets him out of a rural Canadian boarding school. The hardships Saul endured there haunt him as he skates closer to the NHL and deeper into a culture that celebrates his skill and belittles his heritage.

The film and the book it's based on are works of fiction, but the enduring trauma they depict is a common-and historically recent-experience for many Indigenous people across North America. One of the film's stars said the vast majority of Native people in Canada and the U.S. have a direct relation to a boarding school.

"This is my grandfather's generation," said Ajuawak Kapashesit, a Minneapolis actor who grew up in White Earth and briefly attended Horace May Elementary in Bemidji while his mom studied at Bemidji State University. "Any one of these characters could be somebody I'm related to or that I know in the community."

Kapashesit plays Saul in the character's adulthood, when he grapples with alcoholism and the beatings, death, and sexual abuse that marked life at the school.

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Boarding schools-also referred to as residential schools-were schools sponsored or run by governments or churches that worked to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into white culture. That meant quashing their native tongue in favor of English, force-feeding them Christianity, cutting their hair, confiscating culturally significant items, and more. Punishments at the schools could be notoriously harsh, and many children died while enrolled there.

The Canadian government issued a formal apology for its residential school program in 2008.

"This policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on Aboriginal culture, heritage and language," then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper wrote. "The legacy of Indian Residential Schools has contributed to social problems that continue to exist in many communities today."

Kapashesit said his grandfather was enrolled at a Canadian boarding school and would tell stories about his time there. The actor said he was "born into" the research that many do before taking on a role.

"This is a part of not just Canadian history, but also American history and world history," Kapashesit said. "This is talking about something that happened as much in Minnesota as it did in Canada. And it's a true story that many people do not know a lot of the details of."

The film has sparked conversations at several screenings: a recent one in White Earth drew forth stories from community members about the boarding schools that used to be there. Kapashesit said it was the first time he'd heard some of them.

Screenings in mostly white communities tend to elicit a more probing sort of response.

"They don't have the same story. But we do get a lot of people who want to talk about the fact that they don't know this," Kapashesit said. "And then they also want to know more...They want to hear where can we learn more about this, this book, this history, communities today, and stuff like that."

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Kapashesit, 28, left a nonprofit job in 2016 to try his hand at acting, and has appeared in several short films and plays in and around the Twin Cities. He landed a recurring role as Twix Sunwind in the second season of "Bad Blood," a Netflix crime drama.

But "Indian Horse" is his first role in a major movie, Kapashesit said. He performed for the film in the fall of 2016, and it premiered in Toronto in the fall of 2017.

Showtimes in Bemidji, which is surrounded by three of the state's largest Ojibwe communities and hosted a statewide hockey festival this winter, are scheduled to begin Friday, March 1, at Bemidji Theatre.

The movie is based on a book of the same name by Richard Wagamese, who wrote it with help from two Ojibwe boarding school survivors and elders, plus two Anishnawbek nations in Canada, according to the film's PR team.

The novel started out as a hockey story, Wagamese, whose parents and grandparents were residential school survivors, told the Calgary Herald in 2012.

But the legacy of the residential school system quickly became its focus.

"That story is a work of fiction, but it's based on the true stories of so many people," Kapashesit said.

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Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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