Orange Shirt Day 2023: Every Child Matters

A decorative image with an orange gradient background from dark to light orange that reads "Orange Shirt Day 2023". Sketch renderings of bright orange t-shirts are in the bottom left and right-hand corners, and light orange flowers are in the upper left and right-hand corners.

[Note: Today’s post contains mention of the boarding schools many Native American and First Nations children were subjected to, and the abuses that went on behind closed doors at these places. If you’re not in the headspace to hear about this, I encourage you to give this post a miss, and go check out some of my other stuff instead. We’ll kick it together some other time. Deal? If you decide to move forward w/ this post, and it brings up difficult feelings for you, I encourage you to reach out to the ppl at the Crisis Text Line for help, or dial the emergency number for your local authorities. There is also a hotline specifically for providing support to survivors, the Indian Residential School Crisis Line, which you can reach at 866-925-4419. In the U.S., the number is 1-800-273-TALK.]

Normally I don’t post on the weekends, but since today is an important observance, I’m breaking w/ tradition. Today is Orange Shirt Day 2023 in Canada and the U.S., or the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation got its start in 2013 by Phyllis Jack Webstad, and according to this site, Canada made this an official observance in 2021.

The reason this even came to be is tragic on so many levels, and as Glen from We Were Children said, it never had to happen. As colonialism gained traction, there were government officials that came up w/ the idea to set up boarding schools for kids from Native Nations. One of these was the notorious Carlisle Indian Industrial School, established in 1879.

More of these so-called “schools” started popping up across the country, and across Canada. Government officials would go into Native communities, and force these kids to attend these schools, or else. Some of these kids were as young as 4 and 5 years old, preschool-aged. These kids’ families thought they’d be learning math, science, reading, and social studies, but this wasn’t the case.

Instead, these so-called “schools” turned out to be forced assimilation institutions. The Powers that Be at these “schools” would take their culturally-specific items away from them upon their arrival, including cutting their hair short. They would also assign English/European names to them, which would be the ones the leadership members would refer to these kids henceforth, instead of their given names.

These kids learned nothing they couldn’t have learned in their home communities. The leadership members/abusers would indoctrinate these kids in their belief systems, denigrating the beliefs and customs of their home communities.

In many instances, the leadership members would subject these kids to horrific abuses on a regular basis. I won’t spell out the specifics about these abuses.

Since these “schools” had so many students w/ unreliable sanitation and subpar nutrition, and the leadership members would work these kids to the point of exhaustion, it didn’t take much for diseases to spread rapidly and make them sick. Many kids died from tuberculosis, measles, pneumonia, and also in the 1918 flu epidemic.

Others died by suicide, and others also died trying to escape these rotten institutions. Most instances, these “schools” wouldn’t record their deaths or notify their families about what happened. Instead, these kids would be buried on site, sometimes in unmarked graves, by themselves, away from their families, and w/o their ceremonies.

Kids would act out in order to get themselves kicked out of these “schools,” and sent back to their home communities. Many other kids would run away and try to go home. Often, their home communities were thousands of miles away, and the “school” leadership members would catch them.

Over time, kids’ families would understandably push back against the government officials mandating their attendance, so instead of boarding school, they introduced a day school option.

Some of these “schools” lasted a few years before they closed, and others would pop up in their place. The last of these “schools” closed as recently as the 1990s, and as these institutions closed, local Native communities and historical societies would come into ownership of the buildings.

This is something many history books either gloss over and mention in passing, if they even mention it at all. I don’t remember seeing anything about this in the history books I had in high school, and I know for sure that’s something I’d remember reading if it were there. After all, this is coming from someone who used to read ahead in her history textbooks for fun. True story.

I didn’t learn about the residential schools until college, and it was in a class that wasn’t required, so I basically learned about it by happenstance. This is doing a huge disservice to everyone, and it’s also lying by omission, in a sense. This needs to be included in history curriculums, and while it shouldn’t ever be whitewashed or spun in a way that favors the abusers, it needs to be presented in a way the intended audience would understand.

Here in the States, U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Debbie Haaland set up an initiative in 2021 to document survivors’ accounts of what happened to them at these institutions. Many survivors of these schools have passed on since they left these places, so it’s crucial that we get their stories documented as a way to say that this happened, and this can never happen again.

There’s also the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which has interactive maps of where these institutions once operated, and survivors’ accounts of what happened to them while they were there. PBS has Home from School: The Children of Carlisle, which I had the chance to see while it was available for free. We Were Children documents the story of two residential school survivors, Lyna and Glen. Glen passed on during the making of the movie in 2011, and to respect his community’s cultural norms, the filmmakers had a private screening for his family a year after his passing. Lyna died in 2015, after the movie came out.

In honor of Orange Shirt Day 2023, I’ll be re-watching We Were Children, and observing a moment of silence in solidarity. I saw this movie years ago, and it was so heartbreaking. It’s something we need to know, and remember. Every single one of these kids deserved to be w/ their families and communities as they grew up and came of age in safety, learning their traditions and customs, and the chance to contribute to their communities.

Over to you, readers. Have you heard of Orange Shirt Day? Have you heard of these government-run institutions set up for forced assimilation? I’d love to hear your thoughts and takeaways, so drop it like it’s hot, and let’s talk.

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