Communication leads to community, that is, to
understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing is a quote by Rollo May, an
American Psychologist, which highlights the purpose of languages and their
importance. Sadly, an idea such as this can be considered idealistic even in
modern society. Bev Sellars' testimony in They Called Me Number One
makes us witness the atrocities committed in residential schools at these times.
Some of them, such as physical, verbal, mental abuse are directly detailed in the
book whereas others such as language issues are more implicit. In the following
text, you will learn more about these language related issues which are slightly
more subtle but still deeply anchored in the cultural rupture that native people
were the victims. I will begin by looking at the effects the mission had on the
language, and then move on to the cultural heritage intertwining with languages,
and finish off with the government issues.
In her testimony, Bev Sellars exposes several
atrocities that many generations of her community went through. Most of them took
place at St. Joseph's Mission Residential School which operated for nearly a
century, leaving deeply rooted scars on most of the children who attended. One of
the effects the mission left on most First Nation communities is language related.
In They Called Me Number One, Bev Sellars tells us more about the
Secwepemc language which they were forbidden to speak at the Mission. Her
grandfather, who did not attend the mission, could only speak broken English which
in fact created a language barrier between him and his grandchild, as they did not
learn this language. Bev Sellars even explains that it was impossible for him to
Bevie, which was the nickname everyone called her (15). Fortunately,
even if they
never did have any deep conversations or even talk much, [they]
spent lots of quality time together (Sellars, 15). This highlights the crucial
influence of a family presence and its heritage. It also provides the evidence
that bonding goes beyond simple words. As mentioned earlier, Bev Sellars herself
never learned any First Nation language but neither did her brothers or sisters
nor her uncles and aunts. As Bev Sellars states, part of it can be attributed to
the fact that both her grandparents came from a different tribe so they spoke
different languages, but that it was mostly due to the Mission. In fact, Bev
Sellars first thought that her grandmother did not speak Carrier. Needless to say
that she was really surprised when she learned that she could speak Carrier when
she was taken to the Mission, since she never heard her say a single word in this
language. We soon learn that what kept her from using the language and therefore
from teaching it to her children and grandchildren. In fact she
wanted to spare
them the agony of being punished with the strap since
they whipped [them]
when [they] spoke [their] language (Sellars, 44). Many other parents were in
the same situation and decided not to pass on their native language and spoke
English instead. They were so deeply indoctrinated to be ashamed of their origins
that even years after their stay at the Mission, they could not overcome their
conditioning. Of course, there is other evidence showing their deeply rooted
scars, but the inability to pass their languages on is one of them. In a most
ironic display, the nuns at the Mission did not even speak English among
themselves as they asked the children to, but instead spoke their first language:
Alongside with any native language being forbidden, they were deprived of their cultural heritage which is tightly intertwined with languages themselves. The fact that they were referred to as numbers instead of their given names led to dehumanization, but also to cultural rupture as one's name is part of his or her cultural heritage. As mentioned earlier, Bev Sellars only had rare moments of discussion with her grandfather which is due to the language barrier. This kept her from knowledge - indigenous knowledge - therefore from her cultural heritage, since in Native culture, oral tradition is often the vessel that keeps the culture alive. This was Bev Sellars' and her family's reality as it was for many other aboriginal families.
Moreover, not only does Bev Sellars discuss issues such as language throughout her novel, but she also adds up notes on different chapters, providing further depth regarding them. Her notes on Chapter 4 are an indicator of the impact residential schools have had on aboriginal communities and more precisely on their native languages. Unfortunately, most of the fluent speakers of these languages passed away, leaving only a few who are still able to speak them, thus leaving certain communities completely deprived of these languages (203). Sellars also brings to light the fact that Canada's official languages, English and French, are not representative of the country's origins - mainly aboriginal. She also argues that there be at least one of the many native languages added to the list of official language (203). In order to better your understanding of the issues discussed in They Called Me Number One, I suggest you watch this short video of Bev Sellars introducing her book as well as this interview. This speech by Bev Sellars during The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is also really powerful.
All in all, residential schools really impeded native culture since they led to the suppression of the voices of those who attended it, as they were forced to use English instead of their first language. This further led to restrain cultural heritage as languages are the main vessel through which it was spread, but also since languages themselves are an integral part of culture. Moreover, to keep our eyes closed and ignore the fact that aboriginal languages are not represented federally is to ignore their presence and our origins altogether. Many other natives testified about their time in residential schools and brought to light different issues of which most Canadian are completely unaware. It is by raising awareness that we can avoid further prejudice.
Sellars, Bev. They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School. N.p.: Talon, 2013. Print.