“We didn’t know what the heck was going on,” he told the journalist Aaron Lakoff for a 2018 episode of the podcast “Only a Game,” produced by the Boston public radio station WBUR. “We were too small.”
Sasakamoose would spend years at St. Michael’s, one of Canada’s notorious residential schools, in Duck Lake, about 60 miles from the Sasakamoose home. The schools, financed by the government but run largely by churches, were in operation from 1883 until 1998, when the last one closed. The government has apologized for the practice and compensated survivors, and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in 2015 called the system “cultural genocide.”
Life at St. Michael’s was grim. “I never heard words of encouragement,” Sasakamoose wrote in his memoir. “Orders and corrections. That’s all we ever got.” But he found joy there playing hockey.
A mentor from St. Michael’s, the Rev. Georges Roussel, a Roman Catholic priest, later took him to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, to play junior hockey — a feeder to the professional leagues. After four seasons, Sasakamoose received word that he had been selected by the Chicago Blackhawks of the N.H.L.
He made his league debut on Nov. 20, 1953, against the Boston Bruins. Over his 11 games, he played against legends like Gordie Howe and Maurice Richard.
At one game in Chicago, the organist played the old Broadway show tune “Indian Love Call” after Sasakamoose’s name was announced. He was later asked if that had offended him.
“The fact that the white audience didn’t really understand who I was or where I came from, the fact that they didn’t understand the significance of the symbols they were using, well, that didn’t diminish my pride one damn bit,” he later wrote.