September 30th is both Orange Shirt Day & National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, which promotes the awareness of U.S. Indian Boarding Schools by wearing orange on this day.
The day was born in Canada, when a residential school survivor told the story of wearing an orange shirt that her grandmother bought for her, and then having it stripped off of her when she arrived at a boarding school.
This day recognizes the loss of identity, culture, and language that many Indigenous children experienced in these institutions.
*Trigger warning: The following blog will talk about child abuse & child death.
Beginning with the Indian Civilization Act Fund of March 3, 1819 and the Peace Policy of 1869 the United States, in concert with and at the urging of several denominations of the Christian Church, adopted an Indian Boarding School Policy.
Between 1819 to 1969, the Federal Indian Boarding School system consisted of 408 Federal schools across 37 states or then-territories, including 21 schools in Alaska and 7 schools in Hawaii. Some individual Federal Indian boarding schools accounted for multiple sites. The 408 Federal Indian Boarding Schools accordingly comprised 431 specific sites.
These government-sponsored religious schools were implemented as part of a larger goal: to assimilate and absorb Indigenous people into the settler culture by systematically undermining the cultures and ways of life of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples.
Residential schools did this by disrupting families by taking away the children, thereby severing the intergenerational ties through which Indigenous cultures and ways of knowing and being are taught and sustained. Indigenous children as young as 3 years old were removed and isolated from their homes, families, traditions, cultures, and communities. They were forbidden from speaking their languages and forced to adopt Christian religious practices, and modes of thinking, behaving, and being.
At boarding schools, staff forced Indigenous students to cut their hair and use new, Anglo-American names. And by removing them from their homes, the schools disrupted students’ relationships with their families and other members of their tribe.
On top of that, many children faced other forms of abuse including physical, emotional, & sexual abuse.
In 2015, the Orange Shirt Society was formed to create awareness of the individual, family and community inter-generational impacts of Indian Residential Schools with the purpose of supporting Indian Residential School Reconciliation and promoting the truth that every child matters. The Orange Shirt Society is a non-profit organization based in Williams Lake, BC where Orange Shirt Day was first honored in 2013.
Orange Shirt Day was created out of Phyllis’ story.
In 1973, when Phyllis (Jack) Webstad (Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation) was six years old, she was sent to the Mission School near Williams Lake, BC. Her first memory of her first day at the Mission School was that of having her own clothes taken away – including a brand new orange shirt given to her by her grandmother.
In 2013, Phyllis attended the St. Joseph Mission (SJM) Residential School (1891-1981) Commemoration Project and Reunion events that took place in Williams Lake. At this event, Phyllis shared her story with those in attendance – and Orange Shirt Day was born.
The September 30th date was chosen because it was the time of year in which children were taken from their homes and families to residential schools, and the date now provides an opportunity to set the stage for anti-racism and anti-bullying policies for the current school year.
Many children never returned home and their fates have yet to be accounted for by the U.S. government. In recent years, efforts to raise awareness about the legacy of boarding schools have gained momentum with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland – the nation’s first Native American to serve as cabinet secretary – who launched an initiative to investigate the boarding schools.
The Interior Department’s initial investigation found that 19 boarding schools accounted for the deaths of more than 500 American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children but noted the number of recorded deaths was expected to rise.
Indigenous communities are currently undergoing a complex and ongoing process of healing after decades of Indian Boarding Schools. The trauma inflicted by these institutions has had deep and lasting effects on individuals, families, and entire communities. Healing is a multifaceted journey that encompasses several key aspects:
- Cultural Revival: Indigenous communities are working diligently to reclaim, preserve, and revitalize their traditional languages, customs, and spiritual practices. This process is essential for reconnecting with their cultural heritage, which was often forcibly suppressed during the boarding school era.
- Truth and Reconciliation: Truth and reconciliation commissions have been established in various countries, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Canada. These initiatives aim to provide a platform for survivors to share their stories and experiences, while also seeking acknowledgment, apologies, and redress from the government and church institutions responsible for the schools.
- Community Support: Indigenous communities are strengthening their support systems, both internally and externally. Mental health services, counseling, and community healing circles provide safe spaces for survivors and their descendants to share their feelings and experiences and seek emotional support.
- Education and Awareness: Advocacy for accurate and inclusive education is a significant part of the healing process. Indigenous communities, along with allies, are working to ensure that the history of Indian Boarding Schools and their impact is integrated into school curricula. This helps promote understanding and empathy among future generations.
- Inter-Generational Healing: Many Indigenous communities are addressing the intergenerational trauma passed down from boarding school survivors to their descendants. Healing ceremonies, storytelling, and cultural activities play a vital role in this process.
- Legal Actions and Restorative Justice: Some Indigenous communities are pursuing legal actions to seek justice and restitution for the harm caused by Indian Boarding Schools. These actions aim to hold responsible institutions accountable for their actions.
- Empowerment and Resilience: Indigenous communities are celebrating their resilience and strength in the face of adversity. By highlighting their achievements, talents, and contributions to society, they counteract negative stereotypes and narratives.
Learning about Orange Shirt Day and the generational trauma endured by Indigenous people attending Indian Boarding Schools is not just a matter of historical significance; it is an essential step toward acknowledging our shared past, fostering empathy, and working towards a more inclusive and just future. By understanding the profound impact these schools had on Indigenous communities and by actively engaging in conversations and education around this painful chapter in history, we can contribute to the process of healing, reconciliation, and building stronger, more compassionate societies.
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