Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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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
Authors and Literary Works
Shirley Sterling
Laura Tohe
Key References
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
Student Work
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

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.

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