Skip to main content
Close

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter for announcements, education- related info, and more!

Close
Menu

Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades

Research and Discovery: Shirley Sterling and Laura Tohe Authors and Literary Works

Shirley Sterling: Biography & Works

Biography

Shirley Sterling is a member of the Nlaka’pamux First Nation of the Interior Salish of British Columbia, which is located in the southern part of the province. (The Salish territory also extends into northern Washington, Idaho, and western Montana.) The First Nations are Native peoples who already inhabited the area of the Americas when the first Europeans arrived. They were called “Indians,” and their descendants are also known as “Aboriginal” people, as well as “First Nations.”

Born on Joyaska Indian Reserve 2 (in the Kamloops district on Godey Creek near Merritt), she was the fifth of seven children. Her early years were spent happily at home, where, Sterling says, “We could climb trees, and holler and screech and jump on the horses and go for a ride and sing.” At five and a half she was sent to the Kamloops Indian Residential School, in accordance with Canada’s Indian Act of 1876 that sought to assimilate First Nations children into white culture by removing them from their homes, communities, and Native languages. She remained there for seven years.

Paralleling the Canadian system, thousands of American Indian children were sent to Indian boarding schools in the United States. Originally, some went to schools run by Protestant denominations, until the federal government began opening residential schools in the 1870s that would eventually number more than 150. Discipline in the schools was very strict — many would say cruel — and officials restricted home visits, lest the children’s assimilation be slowed down and their new lifestyle “degraded.”

Sterling’s novel, My Name Is Seepeetza, is a highly autobiographical account of a year at Kamloops. After her graduation, she studied classical ballet in Vancouver. She married and had three children, then returned to school to get a Ph.D. in education.

Sterling began to find her writer’s voice in graduate school when she wrote her dissertation about the stories her grandmother had told. She wanted to reconnect to her grandmother, she says, because, “We had everything taken away from us, including our language and customs and subsistence activities, by being sent to the residential school. But one thing you cannot stop is the storytelling.”

Sterling began My Name Is Seepeetza as an assignment for a course, when the instructor suggested that everyone write a journal entry as if they were nine years old. Sterling was hesitant. She didn’t want to revisit her residential school years. But then she began writing, and the voice came to her. In an interview she recalls, “It was quite an amazing experience because the story came back to me in the thinking of a child… It was one of those things where you start the process and are just brave enough to let the story come and tell itself — because at the time nobody had disclosed [their stories] about residential schools. I was very terrified to do it, but I decided just to let the story come. And I think for those of [us] who are interesting in writing, this might be something to consider: Just let the story come, you can edit it later.”

Sterling says that her ease in writing in the voice of Seepeetza especially surprised her. “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.”

In her work, Sterling says she is constantly examining certain interrelated issues such as “The questions of language and history, of voice and representation and appropriation, of institutional racism, of resocialization programs and genocide.” Her writing is a kind of activism on behalf of the survivors of residential school as well as their children.

Most people who went to residential schools are almost unable to talk about it… But 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. We were placed in a situation which was completely abnormal, isolated from our own communities and isolated from regular society. And we had our personalities stripped down just like a soldier would in joining the army — except with the soldier, it would be a matter of choice. But for small children it was a matter of Canadian [and U.S.] law… I think that’s what happened to the Aboriginal people in North America — they were taught to be institutional people and trained to be domestic servants and farmhands, so that it was never the intention that the residential school students would go on to join the higher economic strata of society. It was always meant for the people, the Aboriginal peoples, to become servants.

Sterling’s work helps to heal the wounds of those who suffered in silence and encourages future generations to reclaim their heritage. Shirley Sterling has achieved considerable recognition and assistance for her groundbreaking writings. She received a Laura Steiman Memorial Scholarship in Children’s Literature for creative writing from the University of British Columbia and won the university’s Native Indian Teacher Education Alumni Award. She was granted the Professional Native Women’s Association Scholarship, a University Graduate Fellowship, a Dofasco Inc. Fellowship, a B.C. Hydro Fellowship, and the Robert William Sterling Award.

 

Work

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.

Shirley Sterling: Interview

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.

Laura Tohe: Biography & Works

Biography

Shirley Sterling is a member of the Nlaka’pamux First Nation of the Interior Salish of British Columbia, which is located in the southern part of the province. (The Salish territory also extends into northern Washington, Idaho, and western Montana.) The First Nations are Native peoples who already inhabited the area of the Americas when the first Europeans arrived. They were called “Indians,” and their descendants are also known as “Aboriginal” people, as well as “First Nations.”

Born on Joyaska Indian Reserve 2 (in the Kamloops district on Godey Creek near Merritt), she was the fifth of seven children. Her early years were spent happily at home, where, Sterling says, “We could climb trees, and holler and screech and jump on the horses and go for a ride and sing.” At five and a half she was sent to the Kamloops Indian Residential School, in accordance with Canada’s Indian Act of 1876 that sought to assimilate First Nations children into white culture by removing them from their homes, communities, and Native languages. She remained there for seven years.

Paralleling the Canadian system, thousands of American Indian children were sent to Indian boarding schools in the United States. Originally, some went to schools run by Protestant denominations, until the federal government began opening residential schools in the 1870s that would eventually number more than 150. Discipline in the schools was very strict — many would say cruel — and officials restricted home visits, lest the children’s assimilation be slowed down and their new lifestyle “degraded.”

Sterling’s novel, My Name Is Seepeetza, is a highly autobiographical account of a year at Kamloops. After her graduation, she studied classical ballet in Vancouver. She married and had three children, then returned to school to get a Ph.D. in education.

Sterling began to find her writer’s voice in graduate school when she wrote her dissertation about the stories her grandmother had told. She wanted to reconnect to her grandmother, she says, because, “We had everything taken away from us, including our language and customs and subsistence activities, by being sent to the residential school. But one thing you cannot stop is the storytelling.”

Sterling began My Name Is Seepeetza as an assignment for a course, when the instructor suggested that everyone write a journal entry as if they were nine years old. Sterling was hesitant. She didn’t want to revisit her residential school years. But then she began writing, and the voice came to her. In an interview she recalls, “It was quite an amazing experience because the story came back to me in the thinking of a child… It was one of those things where you start the process and are just brave enough to let the story come and tell itself — because at the time nobody had disclosed [their stories] about residential schools. I was very terrified to do it, but I decided just to let the story come. And I think for those of [us] who are interesting in writing, this might be something to consider: Just let the story come, you can edit it later.”

Sterling says that her ease in writing in the voice of Seepeetza especially surprised her. “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.”

In her work, Sterling says she is constantly examining certain interrelated issues such as “The questions of language and history, of voice and representation and appropriation, of institutional racism, of resocialization programs and genocide.” Her writing is a kind of activism on behalf of the survivors of residential school as well as their children.

Most people who went to residential schools are almost unable to talk about it… But 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. We were placed in a situation which was completely abnormal, isolated from our own communities and isolated from regular society. And we had our personalities stripped down just like a soldier would in joining the army — except with the soldier, it would be a matter of choice. But for small children it was a matter of Canadian [and U.S.] law… I think that’s what happened to the Aboriginal people in North America — they were taught to be institutional people and trained to be domestic servants and farmhands, so that it was never the intention that the residential school students would go on to join the higher economic strata of society. It was always meant for the people, the Aboriginal peoples, to become servants.

Sterling’s work helps to heal the wounds of those who suffered in silence and encourages future generations to reclaim their heritage. Shirley Sterling has achieved considerable recognition and assistance for her groundbreaking writings. She received a Laura Steiman Memorial Scholarship in Children’s Literature for creative writing from the University of British Columbia and won the university’s Native Indian Teacher Education Alumni Award. She was granted the Professional Native Women’s Association Scholarship, a University Graduate Fellowship, a Dofasco Inc. Fellowship, a B.C. Hydro Fellowship, and the Robert William Sterling Award.

Work

No Parole Today

In this prose and poetry memoir, Laura Tohe describes growing up on the Navajo reservation in Arizona and New Mexico, and attending “Indian school,” the government-mandated boarding schools for Native American children. The book opens with her letter to Richard Henry Pratt, who instituted Indian schools in the 1800s, and famously said he hoped thereby to be able to “kill the Indian, save the man.”

“I am a survivor,” she tells him in her letter as she describes the ways the boarding schools tried to eradicate Native American culture. But, she writes at the end, “I speak for me, no longer invisible, and no longer relegated to the quiet margins of American culture, my tongue silenced… Writing is a way for me to claim my voice, my heritage, my stories, my culture, my people, and my history.”

Tohe speaks honestly and with flashes of humor about her life in the Indian schools. She tells of senseless and cruel institutional experiences, like being hit “for the crime of speaking Diné,” but she also describes teenage crushes and school dances and trips to Woolworth’s as ordinary “American” experiences seen through the lens of her Diné identity. In the poem that gives the book its title, she reflects on a prison riot in Santa Fe in 1980, and remembers her “own scars” as someone who lived in a kind of prison herself. “I’m not from here/no more rubber meat and showering on cement floors/I learned early that my life/was separated by walls/and roll calls.”

Tohe began to write stories “in secret” when she was 12, but only intermittently. After college she took a fiction-writing course given by noted Mexican American writer Rudolfo Anaya, who “saw my potential” and encouraged her to write stories using the oral tradition of the Diné people. “I write because I want to give a Navajo voice or give expression to the Navajo.” But Tohe says she wants to reach a wide audience, so she writes for “both Indian and non-Indian people.”

No Parole Today was chosen as Poetry of the Year by the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. Tohe was recognized for her contributions to American Indian literature through “Those Who Speak the World into Place: An Honoring of Native Writers,” made possible through Joy Harjo and the Lila-Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund.

Key References

American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978


Until the passing of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, it was illegal under U.S. law for Native American spiritual leaders to practice their spiritual or religious traditions. This act, passed after centuries of oppressive policies toward Native Americans, was the result of long resistance from Native American groups and spiritual leaders who struggled to assert themselves and their cultural strengths by calling for a return to traditional practices and beliefs and by directly objecting to the infringement on their rights. The act allowed Native Americans access to their religious sites and sacred objects and tools, as well as the freedom to participate in their religious ceremonies and rites. Challenges to these practices continue, however, with the Supreme Court holding that the First Amendment does not guarantee total religious freedom if practitioners violate generally applicable state laws. While spiritual leaders and Native American groups have continuously asserted their right to practice their own religions over the past centuries, groups such as the American Indian Movement (AIM) reignited the fight for Native religious rights, protection, and respect in the 1960s, when Native American political activism emerged with efforts such as the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz.

Authors Resources

Shirley Sterling

Works by the Author
Listed below are selected works by the author.

Sterling, Shirley. My Name Is Seepeetza. Vancouver, B.C.: Groundwood Books, 1992.

Further Readings About the Author

Books

Eigenbrod, Renate. Creating Community: A Roundtable on Canadian Aboriginal Literature. Penticton, B.C.: Theytus Books, 2002.
This collection of essays examines Native American literature and includes one essay that looks at symbolism in Shirley Sterling’s novel.

Periodicals

Andrews, Marke. “Bringing a Forgotten Childhood Back to Life.” The Vancouver Sun (December 18, 1992):D8.
This article describes Sterling’s own experience in boarding school and talks about how she became a writer.

Ellis, Sarah. “My Name Is Seepeetza — Book Reviews.” Horn Book (May 1993):365-67.
This book review compares Seepeetza’s life at school to her life at home, contrasting her emotions about the different environments.

Johnston, Ingrid and Margaret Mackey. “Multicultural Books for Readers 10-18.” Emergency Librarian (November-December 1995):24-30.
The authors discuss methods of selecting multicultural literature for a classroom, suggesting My Name Is Seepeetza as a well-written novel for teaching about Native American history and culture.

Web Sites

Reading Online: “Writing ‘In’ Books” (Beth Matlack, November 1999)
http://www.readingonline.org/reviews/literature/writing/
This article reviews My Name Is Seepeetza and offers suggestions for bringing the novel into the classroom and for mediating discussions it may foster.

Language and Literacy: “Life in Residential Schools: A Response to Shirley Sterling’s “My Name Is Seepeetza,” (Desirée Pelletier, Winter 2000)
Pelletier expands upon the descriptions of residential school life in My Name Is Seepeetza, and advocates for the use of Sterling’s book in classrooms.

Laura Tohe

Works by the Author
Listed below are selected works by the author.

Tohe, Laura. Making Friends with Water. Omaha: Nosila Press, 1986.
A number of Tohe’s earlier poems are collected in this anthology.

—. No Parole Today. Albuquerque: West End Press, 1999.

Further Readings About the Author

Books

Bataille, Gretchen M. and Laurie Lisa. Native American Women: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Garland, 1993.
This well-organized dictionary offers an entry about Laura Tohe with a detailed biography.

Francis, Lee. Native Time: A Historical of Native America. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
This reference guide to Native American history includes an informative entry about Laura Tohe and her work.

Web Sites

Dr. Laura Tohe’s Web site
http://www.public.asu.edu/~ltohe/
Laura Tohe’s university Web site contains her curriculum vita, contact information, and information about classes she teaches.

Laura Tohe
http://www.hanksville.org/storytellers/tohe/
This short biography of Laura Tohe offers links to her work online, a bibliography, and a list of anthologies that contain her work.

Reznet: “Survivor” (Benny Polacca, January 13, 2005)
http://www.reznetnews.org (see Culture)
In this article, Laura Tohe discusses her time as a student in a residential school, her experiences writing No Parole Today as a graduate student, and her current role as a university professor.

Periodicals

Arizona Humanities Council. “Laura Tohe: Commitment to Heritage.” Arizona Insight Newsletter (May 1997):3.
The Arizona Humanities Council, an organization dedicated to promoting the recognition of the variety of cultures in Arizona, interviews Laura Tohe.

Film/Video

Distant Voices, Thunder Words. Nebraska Educational Television, 1990.
Laura Tohe is interviewed in this documentary about Native American and African storytelling traditions.

Workshops