My Name is Seepeetza by Shirley Sterling, 30-Anniversary Edition published by House of Anansi Press has maintained its validity over time. The book is a novel written in journal-entry style, by Nlaka’pamux author Shirley Sterling, based on her own experiences at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. The author refers to the school as Kalamak Indian Residential School (K.I.R.S.), and her first entry is made on September 11, 1958. Ms. Sterling brilliantly paints a picture of twelve-year-old Seepeetza’s life at home on the Joyaska Ranch and her contrasting life at school, where she had her name changed to Martha Stone.
At age six, Seepeetza found out she had to go away from her loving family, her ranch and her beloved pets to a far-away school, which was to become her new home. She would begin in September and end in June, with a Christmas break. She would return home for Christmas and the summer. “We drove for a long time. Then we came to this big building and Dad parked the truck. Mum walked in with me. The red doors slammed shut behind us and we walked down a long hallway. Our footsteps sounded hollow. … A nun called Sister Maura came over and talked to Mum. Then Mum turned and left. I looked at her walking away from me. I heard her footsteps echoing, and I was so scared I felt like I had a giant bee sting over my whole body. Then I stopped feeling anything.”
My Name is Seepeetza allows the reader to experience what and how the school taught its students. It is also an account of the tragedy that was to come from the enforced removal and institutionalization of Indigenous children. “There are four hundred of us Indian students here and we come from all over B.C.” The school is peppered with punishments and rewards. Thoughts of her happy, but not perfect, home life are contrasted to the harsh and spirit-eroding life in the school. A life so achingly different than the life she lives with her family, on her ranch, learning her traditions, speaking their language, and listening to her Dad tell their stories. Seepeetza/Martha tries to stay focused on what she loves about school, like learning, journal writing, and her friends, but she daydreams about her home and all the wonderful days she spends there. “The best part is riding on top of the hay sloop back to the stack. We all sit in a row facing the back and tease each other. Sometimes my dad lets me drive the horses … I think this is what I want to do when I grow up. Live on a ranch with horses. Dad says I have to be a nurse or a teacher…”
This book truly captured the feelings and thoughts of both characters – Seepeetza and Martha – even though they are the same person. Ms. Sterling writes this story with authenticity and clarity; the reader can easily decipher who is speaking and why there is a difference in her voice. I immediately fell in love with this brave girl. My Name is Seepeetza introduces the hard topics of Indian residential schools – such as loss of identity, forced institutionalization, emotional and physical punishment, forced child labour, cultural and community disconnection, and loss of language. The connective string was broken: The string which ties the Indigenous children to their family and culture by their forced removal from their homes is severed. “Last year Father Sloane took some pictures of us when we were in our dancing consumes 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?”
The new afterword by acclaimed writer Thomson Highway brings the reader up-to-date with a 2022 perspective that stays true to the author’s style and purpose of writing. He offers a great insight into the trauma Seepeetza must have suffered, yet was too young to understand what she was actually going through. “Through it all we see how the Indian residential school system affected the life and psychology of a girl of twelve. Seepeetza is scared, she says, through most of the experience. But then she wonders why she looks so happy in pictures from the period. What is the source of that strength, one asks oneself? What holds her soul together through those years when an entire system attempted to erase her identity?” The afterword by Thomson Highway is an important addition to the book and a necessary study aid.
My Name is Seepeetza is an excellent book for younger grades to begin to study this crucial and traumatic part of our history. This is a book for anyone, at any age, as an introduction to, or indeed, to learn more about the Indian residential schools and those courageous students who attended them. My Name is Seepeetza is as valid a book today as it was when it was first published, and it is well worth in-depth study. I guarantee the story will leave you wanting to learn more about this topic. I will forever admire this wonderful girl, Seepeetza, and all of those brave and beautiful souls who have come before her and after her. Thank you, Shirley Sterling, for creating this character, and for making Seepeetza a hero for all times.
About the Author
Born in Merritt, B.C., Shirley Sterling was a member of the Interior Salish Nation of British Columbia. She earned a Bachelor of Education and a doctorate on oral traditions and the transmission of culture. She wrote My Name Is Seepeetza, which is based on her own childhood experiences at an Indian residential school. Acclaimed in both Canada and the United States, the book has won the Sheila A. Egoff Children’s Literature Prize. She also won the Laura Steiman Award for Children’s Literature.
- Title: My Name Is Seepeetza: 30th Anniversary Edition
- Published: September 6, 2022
- Publisher: Groundwood Books Ltd
- Appropriate for ages:9 – 12
- ISBN – 13:9781773068565
Carrie Stanton has a BA in Political Science from the University of Calgary. She is the author of The Jewel and Beast Bot, and picture books, Emmie and the Fierce Dragon and The Gardener. Carrie loves to write stories that grow wings and transport readers everywhere. She reads and enjoys stories from every genre.