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The American Indian Quarterly 27.3 (2003) 697-726

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"Survivance" in Sami and First Nations Boarding School Narratives

Reading Novels by Kerttu Vuolab and Shirley Sterling

While colonial influences are with us everywhere in the world, the ways in which colonialism operated and continues to operate in different parts of the world vary radically from one another. Each colonial state has implemented various colonial and imperial ideologies in its specific ways that have also changed historically. Despite these often vast differences, the consequences and effects of colonization on subjugated peoples are usually very similar. This is not surprising, considering how the various colonial policies and practices in different parts of the world were and are informed by the same ideology of assumed predetermined inferiority of non-European or non-western peoples and cultures. As Edward Said points out, imperialism and colonialism

are supported and perhaps even impelled by impressive ideological formations that include notions that certain territories and people require and beseech domination, as well as forms of knowledge affiliated with domination; the vocabulary of classic nineteenth-century imperial culture is plentiful with such words and concepts as "inferior," or "subject races," "subordinate peoples," "dependency," "expansion," and "authority."1

These ideologies—which conveniently legitimated the conquest, usurpation of land, exploitation, and various forms of oppression—were, at the end of the nineteenth century, fueled by a cadre of racist theories such as race biology, eugenics, evolutionary theory, and Social Darwinism.

Educational institutions in particular have played a central role in colonizing Indigenous peoples.2 Colonial school system, despite its geographical [End Page 697] location, has also been a very effective tool in implementing these racist theories and indoctrinating them in children (Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike) worldwide. In this paper, I will demonstrate how, despite the vast differences in actual colonial processes, colonial education has produced very similar effects in different parts of the world. These effects include cultural intrusion, conflicts and confusion between cultures and values, and various strategies of survival and resistance.

My particular focus is the way in which these effects are represented through literary works. The novels analyzed here are Kerttu Vuolab's Čeppari Čáráhus (1994) and Shirley Sterling's My Name is Seepeetza (1992). Such an analysis not only challenges the binary opposition between literary and historical texts and their relationships to the world, but as Gayatri Spivak proposes, literary texts may also provide an alternative site for articulating the histories of subaltern women which are often foreclosed and excluded even in historiography of the subaltern groups themselves.3 This is also suggested by Kateri Damm, who, analyzing Maria Campbell's and Beatrice Culleton's autobiographical novels, notes that they "present an alterNative perspective of the history of Canada and in so doing, affirm and preserve Native views, Native realities, and Native forms of telling, while actively challenging and redefining dominant concepts of history, truth and fact."4

Writing by Indigenous women can also offer a powerful counter-discourse that undermines the authority of colonial master narratives such as the official residential school reports written by the school management and other colonial authorities (such as local Indian Agents in British Columbia) and intended to represent the successes and benefits of these schools. As Jeannette Armstrong suggests, "[t]he dispelling of lies and the telling of what really happened until everyone, including our own people understands that this condition did not happen through choice or some cultural defect on our part, is important."5 Such a counter-discourse also challenges the common misrepresentations and stereotypical images of Indigenous women in mainstream fiction and media.6 In a way, Indigenous literature can surely be considered "an act of survivance."7 We need to remain cautious, however, of false assumptions that literary representation will automatically result in political representation and empowerment of subaltern or Indigenous women.8

In this article I will consider two novels, both telling the story of a young Indigenous girl attending a boarding school. My particular focus [End Page 698] is to...


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