Fred Sasakamoose’s emotional autobiography, Call Me Indian, will be published posthumously Tuesday. The memoir was almost finished in November when he died of COVID-19.
For most of his life, Fred Sasakamoose did not like to talk about himself. He never bragged about his accomplishments. But then his grandson pestered him to tell his story and the words began to flow: The abuse he suffered in the residential school system; becoming the first Treaty Indigenous player in the National Hockey League; his battle with alcohol; his rise to band chief; and, his son’s suicide. The result is his autobiography Call Me Indian, Mr. Sasakamoose’s story of survival and recognition.
The book is being published posthumously on Tuesday, in conjunction with the province of Saskatchewan proclaiming Fred Sasakamoose Day. During a ceremony in Saskatoon, it will be announced that a bronze statue of the NHL groundbreaker is going to be erected outside of the SaskTel Centre alongside that of Hockey Hall of Famer and Saskatchewan farm boy Gordie Howe. Mr. Sasakamoose lined up against him during a brief stint in 1953-54 with the Chicago Blackhawks. He played against Ted Lindsay and took faceoffs against Maurice Richard, too.
Mr. Sasakamoose’s book is a chilling page-turner and, as a nod to his heritage as a member of the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, includes short passages in Cree.
It talks about the emotional suffering he endured from being raped by a group of older boys at the St. Michael’s Indian Residential School when he was nine years old. He was so ashamed by what happened that he kept it from his family until he gave testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Saskatoon in June of 2012.
In the book, Mr. Sasakamoose says a priest was standing within distance to hear his cries as he was being dragged into the brush but never turned around.
“I don’t know how long I lay in that bush, sobbing,” he writes. “When I finally got up, I was all alone. I struggled back into my clothes and took a few steps. I felt something trickling down my legs. Blood.”
Mr. Sasakamoose tells how opposing players called him a “squaw humper.” Teammates told him to ignore the taunts and warned him not to retaliate. He should take the name-calling as a compliment, they said, intended to make him lose focus.
“I appreciated [their] advice, but I also knew they could never really understand what it was like,” he writes. “How one moment you could feel like just another guy on the team and the next you would be reminded you were an outsider. How one word could shatter your sense of belonging.”
He shares how he felt he was lied to and betrayed by the Blackhawks’ management and how it led to him quitting the sport at the professional level at an early age.
“I hated the way the coaches and managers talked to each other but told you nothing,” Mr. Sasakamoose writes. “The way they gave you instructions but no explanations. They parcelled out information as if it was in short supply. They kept your hopes up, strung you along, made you feel like you belonged, just in case they needed you later.
“They threw you promises like you might throw scraps to a dog.”
The book delves into even darker memories. It chronicles the death of one of his daughters in an alcohol-related automobile accident, and how that caused him to stop drinking. He collapsed when he heard.
“I could sit here for days, weeks, months, and I’d never be able to find the right words to describe how that felt,” he writes. “The most that I can say is it changed me. Knocked me down and hollowed me out. Left me weak.”
And it recounts the day one of his sons killed someone else and then took his own life. Mr. Sasakamoose and his wife were at a conference when she put her hand on his back and told them they had to go home.
“I could barely understand what she told me,” he writes. “Our gentle, loving son was being accused of killing a man and now he was missing.”
When they arrived at home, police were waiting. They wanted to know if the couple had any idea where he might be. Mr. Sasakamoose knew and told them, but he was not allowed to accompany them.
“Please don’t shoot him,” he begged.
Hours later police returned. Their son had taken a hunting rifle with him to a teepee near a lake where he would go to smudge and pray. He had taken his own life.
“My heart aches for [him] and his family,” Mr. Sasakamoose writes.
All of these things he had not previously discussed publicly because the memories were so painful.
Other parts of his story are known, such as when he was removed from his parents as a six-year-old and loaded into the back of a truck with other crying children and taken to the residential school north of Saskatoon with one of his older brothers. Once there, the braids his mother carefully arranged each morning were cut off and his head was shaved. When he and other children spoke to one another in Cree, the language they had learned at home, they were punished. Priests and nuns made them strip their clothes off and stand in front of other students while they were beaten with a leather strap.
It was part of a pattern of struggle and perseverance that became a hallmark of most of Mr. Sasakamoose’s life, although not his death. The memoir was all but finished last November when Mr. Sasakamoose fell ill with COVID-19. Four days later, he died in a hospital in Prince Albert, less than 100 kilometres from the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation in central Saskatchewan where, with the exception of when he was away playing hockey, he lived all of his life. He was 86, and afterward 20 other members of his family, including Loretta, his wife of 66 years, also tested positive. His funeral, bare-bones as it was, had to be delayed.
“The sad part is that we were essentially done,” says Fred’s son Neil Sasakamoose, 54.
Fred Sasakamoose chose the name Call Me Indian because he was proud of his heritage. He never considered the word “Indian” to be a slur, and preferred it over “native,” “Indigenous” and other terms that today are considered to be more politically correct.
Born on Christmas Day in 1933, he grew up with 10 siblings in a 10-by-24-foot log home that had no electricity or running water. He was taught to skate on a slough behind his home by his paternal grandfather, who was unable to talk. His grandfather Alexan, or moosum, carved him his first hockey sticks out of willow branches and provided him with pucks fashioned from frozen horse manure.
Mr. Sasakamoose’s skills got noticed when he was a teenager playing for the residential school team at Duck Lake. At 16, he was recruited to play for the junior Moose Jaw Canucks of the Western Canada Junior Hockey League. After scoring 31 goals during the 1953–54 season, he was named the league’s most valuable player.
During that season he made his NHL debut with the then-Black Hawks, playing for the first time on Nov. 20, 1953 against the Boston Bruins. He played two games with Chicago before being sent back to the junior level, but was then called up again after Moose Jaw’s season ended in February of 1954.
A fast skater with a booming slap shot, Mr. Sasakamoose played 11 games for Chicago that season without recording a point. He left the organization after he was sent to the franchise’s farm teams in each of the next two years. He spent the rest of his career in the minor leagues or playing on contract for clubs in small towns across Saskatchewan. On the nights when Fred came to play, arenas were packed.
After he retired, he spent 35 years as a band councillor for the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation and for six years served as its chief. The initiatives he presided over included the construction of an addiction centre for band members and the development of sports programs for children. He was inducted into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame in the builders category in 2007, and became a member of the Order of Canada in 2018.
For years, people suggested to Mr. Sasakamoose that he should write a book, but he would reject the idea.
”Dozens of people asked,” says his son Neil, executive director of the executive council of the Battleford Agency Tribal Council. Seven bands are members, including Ahtahkakoop. “I would set up appointments for him, and then he would cancel them.”
Three years ago, Mr. Sasakamoose’s 17-year-old grandson Zaine, a history buff, asked to hear his life’s story. He recorded the answers and when Fred finally agreed to do a book with Penguin Random House, Zaine turned over dozens of hours of audiotapes to its editors. Neil helped organize the thoughts, which were then handed off to Meg Masters, a Toronto writer who works for the publishing company.
“I knew he was getting up there in age, and I didn’t want his story to be forgotten,” says Zaine, who turns 21 next month. “There is a saying on the reserve that when a grandparent passes away, an entire library goes with them.”
Zaine says when a copy of the book finally arrived, he did not read it at first.
“In essence, it was hard for me to open the book,” Zaine says. “It had been only a few months since he passed away, so it was difficult. All I hoped was that I told the story in such a way that it would honour him.”
The Globe and Mail, May 17, 2021