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This stream-of-consciousness writing is in a secret journal, for the writer will get into trouble if what she writes is found by Sister Theo, who "checks our letters home. We're not allowed to say anything about the school" (Sterling 12). If the journal is discovered, the girl may suffer abuse at the hands of the teachers. Writing is an act of defiance that the girl sees to be worth the risk.
The time of the story was a disturbing part of Canada's history. The use of Residential Schools actually predates Canada's existence as a country (meaning before Confederation in 1867, and the system served as a means of containment and control if the Indian population. As the Europeans acted out the myth of the New World as an undiscovered and undeveloped land, the existence of the Aboriginal peoples complicated the myth and challenged the government that was instituted. Policies were devised to address the "Indian problem" by erasing Aboriginal cultures in a program of systematic racism. According to the 1895 amendments to the Indian Act, the government had the legal authority to compel children to attend Residential Schools, and a 1920 amendment threatened parents with punishment if they failed to comply. The separation from family suffered by Seepeetza was thus imposed by government fiat, with no regard for how this would affect the child involved. The effort was directed at destroying the native languages, striking at the heart of native culture because language is an essential means of creating and maintaining culture. This was one way to weaken the ties to home and to a collective identity. The consequences were numerous and can be described in terms of social pathologies (social diseases) afflicting the native population since, such as problems of identity after years of being taught to hate themselves and their culture, disruptions in the family as parenting skills and family history were not passed from one generation to the next, the abuse used as the means of control being passed on to subsequent generations, and alienation from their own culture.
The story of Seepeetza, however, shows how the family and the culture can be suppressed but not eliminated completely so long as intelligent children like Seepeetza remember and seek to keep those memories. When she first reaches the school, the experience is emotional and disorienting as she finds her identity under assault from the moment she arrives. Among the methods used to break down Seepeetza's identity were approaches that were physical, emotional, and psychological, as with the supposed medical procedure used by the staff:
When Sister Maura came back she made all the girls line up and she put coal oil in our hair to kill nits and lice, even though we didn't have them. She made us get haircuts, take baths, and put on smocks, bloomers and undershirts, all exactly alike. (Sterling 18)
Individuality ism not tolerated, and Seepeetza even has her name taken from her. Certainly, religion is used as a club to bring the naive children into line:
Sister Maura taught us how to pray on our knees with our hands folded. Then she told us about devils. She said they were waiting with chains under our beds to drag us into the fires of hell if we got up and left our beds during the night. (Sterling 19)
Religion is not a family value when it is used to separate the children from their families.
Again and again, Seepeetza's natural inclinations are stifled by the system, yet she continues to show her true nature in her writings an in her drawings, both of which are creative outlets for the expression denied her in daily life. Even as she adopts some of what she is taught, she does so in her own peculiar way. She has a dream of St. Joseph that comforts her and helps her with her fear of the devils. In this dream, St. Joseph addresses her as Seepeetza and has long dark hair and calloused hands like her father (Sterling 83-4). She puts the religious figure in her own context. Still, an alien faith is being imposed on the children, along with an alien culture.
The effect extends to the parents as well, for Seepeetza's parents refuse to teach their children their language in order to protect them. One form of escape for Seepeetza is drawing, though here again, she has to keep her drawings within certain parameters and cannot express herself as directly a she might want.
For Vitto, family and culture remain connected, though he does suffer the loss of family in several ways throughout his life even as he finds himself once more by looking to the past and reconnecting with his family. Seepeetza suffers a greater loss when both her family and her culture are denied to her, not by the normal circumstances of life, but by a willful government intent in destroying a people. Both find a degree of salvation in the creative act of developing their selves and in finding a way to express themselves in writing, drawing, or religious observance.
Ricci, Nino. The Lives of the Saints. Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2003.
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