Grad reveals wisdom in elders' storytelling

by Gavin Wilson

Staff writer

Graduating student Shirley Sterling is the author of a book she says was difficult to write, but even more difficult for some people to pick up and read.

My Name is Seepeetza recounts Sterling's experiences in the Kamloops Indian Residential School in the late 1950s, a time when First Nations children were taken from their parents, forbidden to speak their language and often abused and neglected.

"Some people who lived in residential schools have the book, but wait two or three years before they have the courage to read it," says Sterling, who is receiving her PhD in Education.

Sterling is one of about 2,000 UBC graduates who will receive their degrees during Fall Congregation ceremonies Nov. 20-21. Degrees will be awarded in seven ceremonies at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.

My Name is Seepeetza is aimed at young people, but is often read by adults. It won the B.C. Book Award for Children's Literature and was short-listed for a Governor General's Award when it was published in 1993.

A member of the Nlakapamux or Thompson First Nation of the Interior Salish, Sterling wrote My Name is Seepeetza in the voice of a young girl keeping a journal in fictional Kalamak, B.C.

Her daily entries relate the mundane and the horrific, from coping with schoolyard bullies to the accidental death of a young boy by hanging. What shines through is the indomitable spirit of childhood.

Now on reading lists from Grade 4 classrooms to universities throughout North America, My Name is Seepeetza has been hailed for its power to heal.

"When people who went to residential schools read it they find it's not as dreadful as they feared. It helps them remember the good things as well as the bad," 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."

Younger readers are moved, too. They write her and ask how they can help eliminate racism, or relate how they lost a brother or sister to suicide. Young First Nations readers appreciate knowing what their parents and grandparents experienced at residential schools.

Sterling could bring a personal perspective to her PhD thesis, called Grandmothers' Stories: Oral Tradition and the Transmission of Culture. She is a grandmother herself.

The thesis examines the creation stories and personal narratives that grandmothers, other family members and elders tell children to pass along traditional knowledge and wisdom.

Sterling examined these stories in terms of personal meaning and their inherent quality of healing, as well as in terms of educational theory and practice.

Now teaching at Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo, one of Sterling's goals is to spend more time with her grandson, 14-month-old Kieran, whose Nlakapamux name is Nkwakushon, meaning Morning Star.

See other Congregation Profiles.