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Teaching Multicultural Literature : A Workshop for the Middle Grades
Workshop 1 Workshop 2 Workshop 3 Workshop 4 Workshop 5 Workshop 6 Workshop 7 Workshop 8
Workshop 3: Research and Discovery - Shirley Sterling and Laura Tohe
Overview
Authors and Literary Works
Shirley Sterling
Biography
Work
Interview
Laura Tohe
Biography
Work
Key References
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
Commentary
Student Work
Resources
Interactive Workbook -- Explore two poems using strategies from these workshops. Go.
Channel-Talk -- Share your views on the discussion board. Go.


Authors and Literary Works
My Name Is Seepeetza

A highly autobiographical work of fiction, My Name Is Seepeetza chronicles the experiences of a child at an Indian residential school in the 1950s. Told in diary form from the point of view of Martha Stone, a 12-year-old Nlaka'pamux girl, it is, the author writes, "based on real experiences... Martha Stone is real. The voice is mine."

Martha's daily diary entries describe the everyday trauma of life in the residential schools, from the enforced haircuts and the ever-present threat of corporal punishment to the more subtle cruelties involved in eradicating the children's Native identities. This passage, which gives the book its name, is one example:

After that, Sister Maura asked me what my name was. I said, my name is Seepeetza. Then she got really mad like I did something terrible. She said never to say that word again. She told me if I had a sister to go and ask what my name was... She said it was Martha Stone. I said it over and over.

Yet the more somber entries Martha makes at school are varied with lighthearted entries she makes on vacations at home. While not always perfectly happy, these vacations, times when she is free to be herself, seem to ground her in her culture and a sense of who she is.

My Name Is Seepeetza was originally written for children, but now is assigned in courses from fourth grade through graduate school. In a gentle tone, it probes the grave issues of identity, racism, and assimilation, while making the stories of abuse and isolation suitable for children. Sterling says she wrote it as fiction because, in part, she could not remember accurately enough everything that really happened to her during her years at school. But, she admits, she also fictionalized the story in order to soften the harsher realities of her life during that time. The spirit of Seepeetza, however, makes the story a triumphant one. Readers reach the end the novel confident that she will resist assimilation.

In response to the many who have written and spoken to her about her book's power, Sterling says, "The comment I most often hear is, 'I thought I was the only one who felt that way.' It opens up feelings that have been silent for 20, 30, or 40 years." She notes, too, that "most people, even now, won't talk about their residential school experiences because they find it too traumatic. It was very traumatic for me to write the book, actually. But I'm really glad because now Aboriginal children walk up to me and say, 'Thank you for writing that book because now we know what our parents and grandparents went through.' And I'm really grateful that I had that chance to give that gift to the children."

In the novel, Martha has a dream about three bears that turn her ice cold -- a dream Sterling actually had. "They touched me and turned me ice cold and they allowed me to go into the land of ice and snow," Sterling recalls in an interview, "to release the spring wind, which was the craft of storytelling and how we can look at stories as being academic discourse: that stories can actually teach us to live good lives and how to be good educators." She says it took years for her to understand that the significance of the dream was permission to tell stories. Sterling says she carries on the First Nations tradition of storytelling because "storytelling is still one of the most lasting and effective ways of transmitting culture from one generation to another."

My Name Is Seepeetza was awarded the Sheila A. Egoff Children's Literature Prize of the West Coast Book Prize Society, and was a finalist for the Canada Council's Governor General's Literary Award.

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