"One, two, three, four mornings left until I go to school,"
said Shi-shi-etko as she watched
sunlight dance butterfly steps
across her mother’s sleeping face.
In just four days young Shi-shi-etko will have to leave her family and all that she knows to attend residential school. She spends her last days at home treasuring the beauty of her world – the dancing sunlight, the tall grass, each shiny rock, the tadpoles in the creek, her grandfather’s paddle song. Her mother, father and grandmother, each in turn, share valuable teachings that they want her to remember. And so Shi-shi-etko carefully gathers her memories for safekeeping.
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When I first wrote Shi-shi-etko it was for a writing assignment for my Writing for Children class in the Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia. I initially did not have a specific storyline in mind; I just sat down to write. My main character did not have a name for a long time either. I put the story away for a year and would occasionally revisit it and edit it. I am a very slow writer so it is pretty normal for me to work on a poem or story for a few years.
The following year my previous classmates asked me if I had named my main character yet and I hadn't. It was very important to me that the character for this story had a First Nation's name so one night I prayed about it. That night I dreamt of the name, "Shi-shi-etko." I woke up and wrote down the name and phoned my auntie Delia the following morning and asked if it was possible for this to be a name. In my culture, (Nle7kepmx), many women's names end in, "qo7" which means "water." "Shey7shiy" means, to "play." My auntie said yes, that it could be a name and it would mean something like, "she plays in the water," or "she loves to play in the water." Shi-shi-etko is actually an Angliacized version of the actual name to allow for easier pronunciation. I also asked many elders in my community if they had ever heard this name before. There was one family who's grandmother carried a similar name, but it was unclear if it was the exact same name. When I spoke with the family, I asked for permission to use the name and was told that because of how the name came to me, that this was okay.
When I finally sent Shi-shi-etko to Groundwood, it was with a lot of encouragement from my family, friends and classmates. I was at a bit of a crossroads about my dreams for my future. It was following my younger brother's passing and I had failed almost an entire year of the Native Indian Teachers Education Program at the University of British Columbia. I knew that I eventually wanted to go into teaching, but my first goal was to write. I took a year off and worked for Sto:lo Nation at a job that I loved but one that was also not my dream. Many family, aquaintances and co-workers questioned my dream of being a writer because according to my auntie, "writers starve." I finally applied to the UBC Dept of Creative Writing Program despite family hesitation and was accepted. It was at that same time my first book was accepted by my publisher, Groundwood Books. I knew then that my dream was to write and get books published as it still is.
My goal with the story, Shi-shi-etko, is that it awakens people, opens eyes and hearts to the impact of Residential Schools and to our Aboriginal children and families. My hope is that children of all nations everywhere can understand that no matter who they are, no matter where they come from, they are sacred. To be inspired by it and always be proud of their of who they are and where they come from.