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They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School

By Bev Sellars

Review By Jay Lewyn

May 19, 2016

BC Studies no. 193 Spring 2017  | p. 221-222

Bev Sellars’s bestselling memoir, They Called Me Number One, is a personal account of an important part of the colonial history of British Columbia told from a specific region in the province (Cariboo) and from a perspective uncommon to the general public, an Aboriginal woman who is also a community leader and successful politician. A third-generation Indian Residential School survivor, Sellers poignantly illustrates her personal struggles and those of her family and community, the Xat’sull (Soda Creek) First Nation in Williams Lake, with the structure of the Indian Residential School system and colonialism in general. Sellars’s memoir details her personal “victory…against the residential-school experience” (191), but it is also a testament to the resiliency of her community, a valuable contribution to the growing number of non-fiction publications concerning Indian Residential School history in Canada, and a moving account of the traumatic legacy of these institutions on Aboriginal peoples and their cultures.

Elected chief of Xat’sull in 1987, Sellars has also earned degrees in history and law. Shortly after becoming chief, she started writing stories to share with the younger generations of her family. These stories were about the injustices her family members experienced at St. Joseph’s Mission Indian Residential School in Williams Lake. She hoped that their telling would help alleviate the school’s traumatic intergenerational legacy in her family. By including many of these stories in her memoir, she extends her message of healing far beyond her initial intentions. The black and white image on the cover shows her two granddaughters, one of them whispering into the ear of the other, whose grim look suggests the content of this secret. Her memoir includes family photos spanning from 1909 to the time of publication, several of them taken at St. Joseph’s Mission, as well as maps detailing the Williams Lake region, a family tree of six generations from the late 1800s to the present day, and a useful index.

Sellars divides her memoir into fourteen chapters arranged in chronological order. The opening chapter describes the history of her family and concludes with images of her happy early childhood prior to her contraction of tuberculosis at age five. Chapter 2 tells the story of her twenty-month recovery at Coqualeetza Indian Hospital in Sardis. Sellars conveys the loneliness caused by separation from her family and the kindness of one of the nurses. She also acknowledges the ability to forget, a childhood survival mechanism to alleviate trauma. She did not recognize her family following her recovery because she had blocked out their memory to “dull the pain of loneliness” (26).

Chapters 3 through 8 cover the five years that Sellars was forced to attend St. Joseph’s Mission. She details the inhumane treatment and poor living conditions at the institution. Her memory of this period is clear, except for her recollection of her Fourth Grade, which is a “total blank” (40). A male friend later revealed to her that he was sexually abused at St. Joseph’s Mission. She suggests that the extent of abuse in Indian Residential Schools, sexual and otherwise, was more extensive than current records indicate. Sellars also includes positive memories from her time at St. Joseph’s that illustrate both the resiliency of Aboriginal children and the value of a sense of humour as a survival mechanism. The final six chapters follow her life after Indian Residential School: her public school experience, her near-death from suicide, her affirming realization that she had survived into adulthood, and her journey as a mother and eventual leader of her community.

One of the strengths of They Called Me Number One is Sellars’s inclusion of personal stories contributed by family and community members. She presents this accumulated body of knowledge in an authoritative and respectful manner to create a memoir that provides a rich history of a community over several generations. Her attention to detail and her depiction of specific individuals, institutions, and historical events make this a valuable contribution to the historical record of British Columbia. Her generalized use of the term “White” may reinforce racist binary belief systems in some readers and potentially diminish the considerable value of her voice, but I must agree with a Kwakwaka’waka Chief Bill Wilson that this book will be a valuable contribution to the province’s educational curriculum. I can also recommend it to anyone interested in the history of Indian Residential Schools in Canada and in the Cariboo region generally.

They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School
Bev Sellars
Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2013. 227 pp. $ 19.95 paper