- Narratives of Place and Relationship:Bev Sellars's Memoir They Called Me Number One
What is often forgotten in discussions of residential school policy is that one of its fundamental purposes was to dismantle Indigenous resistance through a direct, sustained attack on families and the full network of relations and practices that enabled health and self-determination … But what the authorities didn't take into account was the capacity for old bonds to be rewoven and new links to be formed as people began to share their stories and experiences, in person and in print. Shame and silence were no match for story; the suppressed truths couldn't remain hidden forever.Daniel Heath Justice
They called me number one: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School is a discursive articulation of land and relationship from the perspective of the Secwepemc writer and former chief of Xat'sull First Nation, Bev Sellars. The memoir depicts place and relationships before, during, and after being at St Joseph's Mission Residential School, a Roman Catholic institution near Williams Lake, British Columbia. Demonstrating a critical self-reflective stance early in the text, Sellars shares her process of deciding to tell. Aware of the complexities, she is purposeful in her telling "the residential school and non-Aboriginal institutions had a drastic effect on me, and I am eminently qualified to speak on that" (xvi). The 2015 release of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [End Page 25] of Canada is initiating some awareness on the part of Canadians of their responsibility to listen and act in response to stories about residential schools. Even as we applaud the national attention, we along with other critical scholars (Henderson and Wakeham, Simon, Corntassel, Chaw-win-is and T'lakwadzi, Million, Coulthard, Eigenbrod, Rymhs, McKegney) are asking what kind of attention, and what is being learned?
Indigenous memoir offers much in challenging such attention. As Jo-Ann Episkenew argues, "having been denied access to the discourse of public policy, Indigenous people have made public their life stories as eyewitness accounts that critique colonial policies and record the effects of these policies" (73). Sellars's memoir is unique among other residential school memoirs (Merasty, Fontaine, Metatawabin, Knockwood, Johnston) in that her perspective is Secwepemc, woman, and from the 1960s—a time of great change in the residential school system after nearly one hundred years of violent stagnation. One major change in the late 1960s included the shift from schools jointly operated by the federal government and churches for almost exclusively Indigenous children, typically far away from children's home communities, to secular, non-residential provincially funded schools for all students—a dramatic change fueled largely by finances rather than a newly enlightened reconsideration of colonial education (Milloy 195, 208). In 1972 Indigenous leaders published the policy paper Indian Control of Indian Education (National Indian Brotherhood), which called for parental control, culturally relevant curriculum, support for Indigenous teachers, and improved facilities: demands still relevant even after the termination of church–government partnerships (Pidgeon et al.). These changes came after hundreds of years of Indigenous resistance, particularly by parents and students. Sellars's memoir documents this time of change and aligns with Helen Raptis's research on the mid-twentieth century transition in British Columbia from federally funded residential schools to provincially funded integrated schools: a modified system did not necessarily mean Indigenous children had better health or educational outcomes.
Providing readers with a unique glimpse into the home from which she was taken and the community to which she returned, Sellars documents what can be overlooked in many accounts of residential schooling: Indigenous children were taken from loving, capable families and returned to families and communities reeling from the impacts of residential school violence and colonial oppression. Residential school policies were informed by a perceived need to provide Indigenous children with a civilizing education aimed at assimilation. Sellars shows how it was in [End Page 26] actuality her ancestral teachings that made her survival possible, leading more broadly to her and her community's own resistance and recuperation. In the telling of her story, Sellars contributes to what Sara...