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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
Talking with Shirley Sterling (as interviewed by students in Sally Brownfield's class)

Why did you title your novel My Name Is Seepeetza?

Well, my real name is Seepeetza, and it means "white skin" or "scared hide." That was a name given to me by my father when I was a little girl. It was really precious to me because it was the one thing that could not be taken away from me when I was at the residential school. The first thing that happened was we had our hair cut off. We were deloused. We had our clothes taken away; we had to put them in suitcases. And then there was nothing from home. But the one thing I could always hang on to was the fact that I had my name, Seepeetza. And in fact, I didn't even know I had a different name until the nun asked me, "What is your name?" And I said, "My name is Seepeetza." And she got very, very angry and she terrified me because nobody ever yelled at us at home and nobody ever hit us. But she was very, very angry and she said, "You go and ask your sister what your real name is." And so I went and asked my sister, and she told me [it was Shirley] and I had to practice it over and over because I had never heard it before.

Did the children get an adequate education?

The residential schools, in fact, used the children for child labor. They worked half a day in the tomato fields and the residential school people were able to sell fruit and vegetables. And perhaps there was an economic need, but there's still something terribly wrong that this happened. If the students going to provincial schools were allowed to go a full day, then the children in the residential schools should also have been allowed to go to school for a full day to develop their talents and abilities and build up their knowledge.

In the 1940s, 50 percent of Aboriginal children in Canada who went into residential schools died of tuberculosis, and you cannot argue with those kinds of statistics. Now if they were mainstream children going to such a school, the parents would have been up in arms. And yet when the Aboriginal parents attempted to protest, they were thrown in jail. So the inequities are simply not acceptable. And I think in democratic societies, we realize this, that we cannot allow these things to go on.

How did the residential schools originate?

The residential schools were pretty terrible in a lot of ways. And yet what came before it was even worse. They had the genocide wars in the 1860s in the United States, where the tribes were attacked by the American government and there was an attempt to just completely annihilate all the warrior tribes. But this one man stood up -- and he was a thinker -- and created something called residential schools because he said, "We don't have to kill the people, we can Americanize and then Christianize them" -- which was still not good, but it was a step up from genocide, literal genocide.

So we always have to be aware that racism is a mythological beast. We have to be watchful and make sure that we approach things in an unbiased manner, and that takes a real active will. I think there's a really good start here. We hear the true narrative about residential schools and how they affected children and generations and we can stop those kinds of things individually and all together. We can put forth laws and create a system where everyone gets a good chance of living a good life.

How did your experience in the school affect you later in life?

I found that being in a situation in which you are dehumanized does not make you a better human being. And I went through a stage when my children were very young where I began to notice that I was using some of the tactics used by the nuns on us -- loud voice, name-calling, yelling, etc. Of course, in crisis situations or when you want to hurry the children up, you use the same techniques, and they were very, very bad. And one day my children came to me and said, "Mom, sometimes it seems like a witch takes over your body and our mom is gone and there's this witch and we're real scared." It really shocked me because I thought I was being a terrific mom. And I'm so glad that they did that because it gave me the opportunity to change. That would never be the relationship I'd want to have with my kids. I want them to be safe with me and to have a good friend in me. But I'm really glad that at least I taught them to have a voice and to speak up if there's something wrong at school.

I promised them that I would begin the change, but I needed their help. So it was a long, tough process of tearing down those bad habits and then building up good ones and learning to communicate with the children, and trying to find good counselors. Over the years, though, we worked at learning different techniques. I took a life skills program and learned how to communicate well and learn how to confront in a positive way.


Why is it important for students to learn about the residential schools?

Well, the importance of talking about residential schools has to do with not only the survivors of the system but also the future generations. When the children find out what their parents and grandparents went through, there's a better understanding of, for instance, why we have some of the social problems that we do. They are learning about how people can be oppressed and have all the things that they value most taken away from them, with the idea that another personality would be built up.

What we're hoping for in Aboriginal communities is that our children will gain the knowledge to be competent in technological society, but also maintain the traditions and values of the past so that they will also live in a successful, happy way according to their own culture. So to have a well-balanced education is certainly one of the goals, and it's quite a challenge. Right now we have Western education, which presents only one point of view, and this is akin to indoctrination.

But I think that as we learn to draw upon the wisdoms of many cultures, it will give our children much more to draw upon when they grow up and become decision makers. And for instance, one of the things that we truly honor is the concept of Mother Earth, and we take care of Mother Earth for the next seven generations. And if we could teach all children to value Mother Earth in that way -- so that seven generations down the road the water is still clean and our earth is not toxic and our rivers are not toxic -- I think that's a tremendous value that we can share as Aboriginal peoples and help the growing up decision makers to develop that sensitivity.

We can teach the children to have compassion. We can teach them to not grow up being biased people, but to be open to new ideas and new peoples. A lot of people are frightened of change and they're frightened of new things. And when they begin to hear about residential schools, I think there's such a tendency to throw up a wall and say, "Well, it wasn't that bad," or "We didn't do it. This is the previous generation." And there's a tendency to maybe deny it had such terrible, far-reaching results in First Nations communities. So I think it's important to acknowledge the pain and the unhappiness and to deal with it in a positive way. Having to face up to what happened and developing true ways of dealing with racism will benefit the entire society. That's what we're aiming for. And it's really important.

back to top Next: Laura Tohe: Biography
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