Last year Father Sloane took some pictures of us when we were in our dancing costumes at the Irish Concert. It was funny because I was smiling in those pictures. I looked happy. How can I look happy when I’m scared all the time?(36-7)
At home, she goes by her Salish name; at school, she must use her "white" name. The book begins with two maps, drawn in a child’s hand. Her family’s ranch, "by Seepeetza" and the Residential School, "by Martha Stone." She is nearly thirteen. It’s the 1950s in Canada. Native children must attend church-affiliated schools that deny or punish any trace of their students’ culture; Native adults cannot yet vote.
Title: My Name is Seepeetza
Author: Shirley Sterling
Toronto: Groundwood Books/Douglas & MacIntyre, 1992.
The book can be read as children’s literature; some of the more sinister realities that lurked behind the doors of the Residential Schools have been handled in such a way as to make the book acceptable for younger readers. An older reader, however, will catch Seepeetza’s allusions to such events. While she avoid the worst abuse, we hear of three boys who run away "because one of the priests was doing something bad to them"(13). They get whipped when they are returned to the school, and then face ritual humiliation. The narrator’s father was either sexually abused himself as a child, or is aware of other boys who were, and he despises all priests. These things the novel only implies; Sterling avoids graphic details and overt reference in these cases.
Seepeetza herself experiences lesser, though still disturbing, mistreatment at the school, but the author tries to portray the notorious residential schools and their staff in a clear light. Some of the teachers behave horribly towards their charges, as they battle inner demons of their own. One nun gets removed from the school because of her odd actions and arbitrary punishments. Others intend well, but they face pressures managing a large and sometimes unruly group of children, children whose culture they have been raised to see through the lens of society’s racism. Some even prove kindly and likeable, though flawed. It’s clear that Father Sloane, for example, has a genuine affection towards his charges.
Seepeetza also experiences tensions with the other students. While she has friends at the school, she faces the inevitable bully. Her mother is part Irish; as a result, she has a fairer complexion which sometimes makes her the target of racism within her own community.
As a dancer she gets away from the school a little more often than other students. The group performs the ethnic dances of various European groups. We are reminded once again that the school bans or discounts anything from her own culture.
Seepeetza naturally prefers her time at home, though this has not been idealized. Her father, a rancher, works hard and supports his children. He would rather not send them to the residential school, but the law requires him. He also has a background in several Native languages, and often works as a court interpreter. At the time, many Salish and other, older west coast Natives did not speak English fluently. He has, however, a binge drinking problem, and the tensions this causes form part of the story. Sterling drops hints as to the sources of his problem–- his own abuse in a residential school, and his experiences in World War II. Her mother comes across and kindly and strong-willed, and Seepeetza has the support of an extended family.
The novel lacks a central plot; it relates the events and some coming of age experiences of the young Seepeetza, over the course of one year. While not an autobiography, the protagonist bears more than a passing resemblance to the author, who goes by the name "Seepeetza" and whose childhood photo, with friends, adorns the cover. An engaging, sometimes disturbing mix of personal history and plausible fiction, My Name is Seepeetza communicates the experiences of an individual, at a particular time and place in her life and in history.
My Name is Seepeetza won the Sheila A. Egoff Children’s Book Award, and was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Literature.