Educational Insights
Guide for the Perplexed
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V.3 N.1, October 1995

Seepeetza Revisited: An Introduction to Six Voices

by Shirley Sterling

Centre for the Study of Curriculum and Instruction
University of British Columbia

The Voice

Not alone

Not flying scattered

     into a dustblown sky

     A pale petal drifts

               The wind whistles

               And still

     I am not alone.

Could it be merry music

     From Veracruz

     Or that coyote yip

     Calling from

               Half a continent

               Half a life-time

               away?  Or breath?

Some artistry

     Formed the pearl rose

     In fragrant mist

     To make of this

               pale grey

               The Day-Dawn


Third shadow from the red sky

     Illumines hastily

               Imagined roar

              Of river's song.

                    Is it

     Too soon to tell?

     Too late

In the spiral happily


The eagle dipped its

               wings and floated


               Following me

                    My tears thank you


    My heart, unfettered now

     Circles west, north, east

               And south

Whose Voice is This?

From Children's Novel to Graduate Seminar

An Introduction by gary william rasberry

The voice

was coming

from down the hall --

(not alone, not flying scattered ...)

from the Creative Writing Department's

tiny reading room at the University of British Columbia.

The voice

was a small voice, a steady voice, a sing-song

voice.  A voice

that drew me to the open doorway where she stood

(Into a dustblown sky ...)

reading to a small group:

I looked at the name in the corner. J. Stone. My brother Jimmy. I smiled. Jimmy must have wrapped the parcel in the kitchen with my mum helping. Imagine. Just a few days ago this parcel was at home. My mum must have touched it. Maybe she put something in it and said, "Seepeetza will need this."

I pulled off the brown paper. Opened the little skinny box. The intermediate girls crowded in closer. "Oh," we all said together.


The voice was an easy voice

to listen to:

Formed the pearl rose

In fragrant mist...

The voice was not an easy voice

to listen to:

"Yes Sister," I said.  That's all we're allowed to say to the Sisters,

yes Sister or no Sister.

Whose voice is this?

Is it

Too soon to tell?

Too late


I heard the voice again:

It is through this process of writing critically

that I am examining the issues.

The questions of language, and

history, of voice and representation and

appropriation, of institutional racism, of

re-socialization programs, and genocide

It's almost unbearable.

I was sitting next to the voice,

this time in the Centre for the Study of Curriculum and Instruction.

It was in this room that Shirley Stirling and I dreamed

theory and poetry and story together,

both trying on voices,

both stretching long, fine lines

of words together to make patterns,

sentences, theoretical frameworks:

pulled back taut,

the west coast cedars always a promise

out the window.

Shirley was many voices.

Troubling.  At least it could be, never

quite knowing how to rest lightly on each branch

without demanding the release of every tiny bead

of water nested there:

The questions of language

and history.

Imagined roar

Of river's song ...

Maybe it was easier for me --

already floating in some cloud of unknowing --

to recognize that there was room

for all of these voices

Calling from

     Half a continent

     Half a life-time

          away?  Or breath?

And so I invited Shirley to follow those voices

(The wind whistl/I>)es ...)

for whatever

educational insights

she might stumble upon

(Third shadow from the red sky ...)

For whatever

    My Name is Seepeetza

  1. Thursday, October 23, 1958. Kalamak Indian Residential School.

  2. This morning I got a parcel from home. I was so happy when Sister Theo came into the recreation room and called my name. My white name, that is. Not Seepeetza anymore, or Tootie, or McSpoot which only my dad calls me.

  3. "Martha Stone, you have a parcel," she said. Sister handed the brown package to me and said I could take only one thing from my parcel every day at recess. The rest she would keep in the closet with the other parcels.

  4. "Yes Sister," I said. That's all we're allowed to say to the Sisters, yes Sister or no Sister.

  5. I took my parcel over to a bench to open it. A bunch of girls followed me to see what I got.

  6. "Who's it from? Who's it from?" they asked.

  7. I looked at the name in the corner. J. Stone. My brother Jimmy. I smiled. Jimmy must have wrapped the parcel in the kitchen with my mum helping. Imagine. Just a few days ago this parcel was at home. My mum must have touched it. Maybe she put something in it and said, "Seepeetza will need this."

  8. I pulled off the brown paper. Opened the little skinny box. The intermediate girls crowded in closer.

  9. "Oh," we all said together.

  10. There was a bag of marshmallows, a package of cookies with coconut over marshmallow, fancy ones. My mum and dad never buy these kind. They cost too much. There was a bag of toffees in shiny wrap and colourful wax paper, some peanuts and peppermints. A treasure.

  11. "Take one thing and bring the rest back, miss," yelled Sister. Her face was red.

  12. I tore open the marshmallow bag. I took two. I sneaked one to the biggest of the girls around me.

  13. "Share," I whispered. I put the other marshmallow in my pocket. Every once in a while I take a tiny bite and keep it in my mouth for a long time. That way I'll still have a piece in my hand when I go to sleep tonight. I'll fall asleep thinking of home.

    Whose Voice is This?
    From Children's Novel to Graduate Seminar

  14. Martha Stone, a twelve year old Nlakapamux girl, writes a secret journal for one year, from September 1958 to August 1959, at the Kalamak Indian Residential School. The work is "fictionalized" because Martha could not remember exactly what she did on Thursday, October 23, 1958, but the incidents are based on real experiences. The brown parcel is real. Martha Stone is real. The voice is mine.

  15. For a number of reasons the residential schools are a topic of discussion: the quintcentennary in 1992, of Columbus stumbling upon what is now called America has sparked discussion of imperialism and its high cost to First Nations; incidents of child abuse and child sex abuse by Catholic clergy at many residential schools have been brought to court; the RCMP has announced an inquiry into child abuse at residential schools.

  16. What does a children's novel, like My Name is Seepeetza, tell us about residential schools?

  17. In many ways, writing the novel was a process of discovery for me. Some of the incidents surprised me as did the new point of view I gained as a result. For instance, I realized that my father, by giving me my real name before the rite of passage would have allowed it, gave me a lasting sense of my cultural identity. It was something that could not be taken from me.

  18. What I would like to do is introduce some of the possible ways that as an adult, I might examine the experiences of the child, Seepeetza. I will call those ways six voices. They speak from varying contexts and yet remain interconnected as traditional native, as author, as child, as adult, as researcher, and as educator.

  19. My real name is actually Seepeetza.

  20. My people are the Nlakapamux, part of the Interior Salish in Brit/I>)ish Columbia. We have been called the Couteau, or Knife People by the fur traders, who probably could not pronounce our name. Later we were known as the Thompson River Indians and then the Thompson People or Thompson Indians. The Nlakapamux dwell along the banks of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers, in the Nicola Valley, and in some parts of Washington. Our people are hunters, gatherers, and fishers, well-known for our cedar root basketry and for the high number of consonant sounds in our language. Among pre-contact trading groups we were known for our finely crafted bone needles.

  21. Among the Nlakapamux we are known as the Scawaxmux, the Mountain Creek People. We live in the hills and valleys and mountainous areas of the Nicola Valley. The Nicola River and Coldwater River in our valley, are tributaries which flow into the Thompson River at Spense's Bridge.

  22. My immediate family lives at Joyaska Indian Reserve #2, a small family ranch. I was born to Albert and Sophie Sterling, in Merritt, B.C. the fifth of seven children. The number five is very special to me. We have five seasons; winter; spring; summer; early autumn and late fall. The Nlakapamux year ends after the twelfth moon, and flows into the new year in November. It is then that the seasons and moons merge.

  23. I think of myself this way, a place where different worlds merge, part of a traditional time and yet part of a contemporary one; part Caucasian, part Nlakapamux; the youngest of the older children in my family and the oldest of the younger group. Being the oldest of the "kids" in my family has given me a role as elder sister in my Nlakapamux family, and in the world family.

  24. Until I was five and a half years old I lived on Joyaska Ranch with my family. Then I was sent to the Kamloops Indian Residential School. I graduated from there and took grade thirteen at Kamloops. The following year I took classical dance training at the Mara McBirney School of Dance in Vancouver. I met my (now) ex-husband and we were married in 1968. I have three children; Bobby, Eric and Haike.

  25. When my children graduated and moved away from home I decided to get a teaching degree though the Native Indian Teacher Education Program. I completed a Bachelor of Education, then joined Ts'`kel, the First Nations graduate program at the University of British Columbia to do a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction. After a year of course work, I was transferred by my department to the doctoral program where I am now completing a PhD in education.

  26. This voice of introductions is the traditional voice. As is customary among my people, I have introduced myself. Seepeetza is one of my names, and, I hope, it tells a little of who I am and where I have come from.

  27. A book about residential school would have been the last thing I would have considered writing. I could not and did not want to remember school, and having written the book I certainly did not want to have it published. It was too close to me. People knowing all those awful things: Welcome to the tub room where a supervisor tries to bully an eight-year-old into undressing completely.

  28. If I wrote to publish I would have wanted to express something with dignity and brilliance and wit; a book of moonlight poems; a philosophical work; something like Treasure Island, full of adventure. Something from that safe storybook place where I live a lot of the time.

  29. The book came into existence by way of a creative writing course in Children's Literature. People ask me what motivated me to write the book and I reply, "Six university credits."

  30. One day the instructor asked us to write a journal entry from when we were nine years old. The only thing I could remember from that year was the day I got a parcel from home. I wrote that entry and handed it in. My instructor, Sue Alderson, told me to drop everything else I was working on and write more entries. I told her I couldn't remember any more. She said to try. She sa/I>)id the entry was a good read. That was the one thing that would touch my heart. From my own ostracized childhood I remembered what it meant to have a good read; sometimes everything.

  31. I went home and sat at my computer and decided to write whatever came to mind, the way it came to mind, regardless of how stupid it sounded, regardless of what the subject matter was. The concept of the first draft was crucial in this process as was the technology afforded by the computer. I needed to be able to go back and change, delete, cut and paste, update and save. The computer allowed the story to grow from the middle. The entry about St. Joseph came next, then the antics of that big, ribald horse, Baldy...

  32. By the end of April I finished fifty pages and got my six credits. In the spring semester I took a tutorial with Sue and completed another fifty pages. She suggested I send the manuscript to a publisher. I was reluctant to do so because I didn't think any publisher in Canada would take the manuscript and besides I didn't really want this particular work published. My daughter has a degree in English literature. I asked her what she thought. She told me my manuscript had a message the world needs to hear. I sent it off in June 1991. It was in the book stores by December 1992.

  33. I remember what it was like to open the box the publisher (Groundwood Press) sent me, and to see the first twelve books. Beautiful royal blue, and the little girls in Irish costumes, and the child's script, and two of my names, right there on the cover. "Ohhh," I said.

  34. Another delightful experience I had was walking into a book Store on 4th avenue and seeing My Name is Seepeetza next to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. We are forever listed with great people, I thought, feeling staggered. And unborn generations of Nlakapamux children will read this book, and they will know who Yaya' was and Baldy and my dad.

  35. I was astonished when the book won the B.C. Book Award in 1993. Authors and playwrights and artists and poets are supposed to tell the "truth." Shouldn't the truth have made everybody mad at me? Something seemed wrong with the way it was so well received, by children, by First Nations, by Canadians. Whose voice is this?

  36. People ask me if I had written the dairy as a child. I did keep journals on and off all my life. In 1991 I wrote the book as it came to me, in a child's voice with a child's perceptions and interpretations because it was the only way I could recall the experiences.

  37. Seepeetza, age twelve, in the 1950's and 60's had no idea of the larger issues. She knew that more than anything in the world she wanted to go home, and that it would not be possible. She knew her dad didn't like the residential school either but he respected the law. He believed in the value of an education.

  38. I remember the tremendous happiness of getting the parcel from home. It wasn't just the goodies. In fact, I think the supervising nun either distributed the cookies and candies to the other nuns and staff or to other children. Maybe she ate them herself. The parcel was missing the next day. What was so precious to me was that my brother had put the package together. For me. It was magical to think that my mum may have put things into the box and thought about me. In my mind I could see my brothers and my mum and dad in the kitchen putting it all together, and for one shining moment I was home again.

  39. The child, I think, does not want to see evil in the people who surround her, especially "God's people." I remember thinking of myself as the evil one for having such rebellious attitudes. But there was something I admired about my evil side, as though it were a special secret I shared with no one. It was the force that allowed me to be disobedient by refusing to unclothe myself for the nun in the tub room. It is only the critical thinker in me which can now ask those important questions. Which of the two of us was e/I>)ngaging in an indictable offence? Was disobedience evil when it protected the child from an irreversible personal violation? I'm not sure why I realized I had a will and the right to use it. I think it was my dad and his ways. He taught us these things by example. The child's voice is the most compelling because it simply tells the story without judging.

  40. As an adult reading the child's thoughts, I am filled with a tremendous sense of gratitude, for the choices she made, for the fact that she survived. That ornery, awkward child with the indomitable heart and secret dreams. I did the child's weeping for her, calling out, "Please don't leave," in front of a computer, decades after hearing Mum's footsteps fading down the long hall.

  41. Weeping was a punishable offence in residential school. We were told that it showed the weeper to be selfish and feeling sorry for herself, both sins, even in a child. The habit of displaying no emotion stayed with me many years after I left the school, as did many other dysfunctional behaviours.

  42. Writing the story of the child Seepeetza was a way to peel back the fetid layers of labels and names and awful experiences imposed on her, and in turn, sometimes created by her, over many years. I discovered that the incarcerated child had something for me, a story and an image and a handshake, a poem even, and a wonderful energy and love I would not have dreamed possible. I admire the way she spoke honestly, holding to her heart the real and lasting treasure of the Nlakapamux way, the way of honouring the family.

  43. The voice of the adult Seepeetza, is that of the mother whispering assurances as she is wiping away the tears. It is also the researcher questioning the lines and sources of authority as they are socially and culturally and politically constructed. It is the author refusing to edit out the raw parts. It is the parent and teacher fighting hard to change a dysfunctional self into a wholesome one so as to offer the next generation of Nlakapamux children what was missing in her own childhood -- the presence of an adult with a vested interest in her health, happiness and well- being.

  44. It is through the process of writing critically that I am beginning to examine the issues. There are so many of them, the list runs on and on. The questions of language, and history, of voice and representation and appropriation, of institutional racism, of re- socialization programs, and genocide... It is almost unbearable.

  45. Strangely enough, I am aided by my ancestors in my work. I have never thought of myself as a particularly traditional or spiritual Nlakapamux person. In fact I delayed writing in the First Nations voice for many years because I thought I was not raised traditionally enough. It is surprising to me that I would have found this voice while engaged in a Western initiative; that of doing a university course. It is only one of the many paradoxes.

  46. When I was in the depths of despair about one particular curriculum paper, I saw my grandmother in a kind of dream; she was standing four feet away holding a fir bough out to me. This inspired me to write a paper about the Nlakapamux concept of respect using my grandmother as the model of a person who lived within that Nlakapamux worldview and philosophy. The success of the argument gave me the confidence I needed to continue my studies.

  47. The book about Seepeetza gives a personal account of a historical Canadian experience; that of residential schools. The parcel entry (the opening journal entry in this particular piece) opened my eyes to many things. The real name of the child is not acknowledged at the residential school, nor are nick names which show affection among family and friends. The voice of the nun is grim. Her face is red with anger, as if Seepeetza has done something offensive by getting a parcel. What kind of life philosophy could the clergy have been following and teaching? Were punishment and discipline actually percei/I>)ved as love by the nun, or was her behaviour guided by her position of power, or by jealousy? Why were the children allowed to say only yes Sister or no Sister? What if a child hurt herself or was being molested or got her period? In a system which separated families, how did a child gain a sense of her cultural identity or her family role? How did total, blind obedience prepare a child for a life in any society outside of a military one? What happened to the parcel after that first day? The children had everything from home taken away from them. Seepeetza found it necessary to disobey the authority figure in order to sneak a marshmallow to the "biggest of the girls" there. What does that tell us about the child-child relationships in such a place? These questions are important ones that call for other voices and other questions.

  48. The researcher voice has been labelled the "white basher" on two occasions to date, and two of my articles were abandoned as a result. Ironically, it is this voice which comes closest to being guided by Western thinking. What does this tell us about writing which is weighted in analysis and logic and sound argument I wonder. Is it a way of welcoming researchers into an adversarial arena?

  49. As an educator I see a system of re-socialization taking place by the fact that Seepeetza has been removed from her community and her family. What I think needs to be examined is not so much the child as the system which incarcerated Seepeetza and the First Nations children for offences they had not committed. The educator asks how such a system is supposed to prepare a child for citizenship in a society from which she is removed? How does a silenced group learn to voice opinion and guard democracy when blind obedience and prison-like conditions prevail? Most importantly, who stands to benefit from the assimilation of First Nations children? How does the present education system contribute to on-going colonialist initiatives? How can we best combat the type of racist thinking which put together the residential schools? Adequate treatment of these types of issues and these kinds of questions would require a dissertation.

  50. And so my work begins...

  51. With hope and courage and with eyes open, I am taking steps toward a kind of living and writing and researching in which all the voices might come together at certain points and intertwine. The First Nations educator is not separate and apart from the residential school survivor and they struggle to come to terms with each other. The researcher weeps. The child reaches out on a beautiful day in spring when she has just won the hundred yard dash. She is feeling so fine, so strong. Into her mind comes an image of an older woman, faltering. One day I will be tired and discouraged she thinks with amazement. The girl closes her eyes, then offers her hand, a smile, her energy and her vast faith.

  52. "Share," she whispers.

Requiem for Shadow

I reach my hand tenderly, dear Shadow

To brush the backs of my fingers

On that whisper-soft fur,

To touch your round paw,

Transcendent now,

And full of dignity.

My little pal who made us laugh

Not derisively -- but with fondness

And sometimes with a kind of edge

That bordered on tears

Warm teddy-girl with astonished eyes

Astonished fur going every which way

Like porcupine quills;


Old grandmother cat with kitten heart

Leaping up in abandoned glee

To do a kind of kitten dance

With toys and leaves

Made of air.

Visit me sometimes, little friend

As I sleep on summer evenings

By the rocky brook where

A tall fir tree whispers secrets

Like soft purring caressing my ear,

And shadows dance

Across my face.

Posted October 1995
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