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Orange Shirt Day Raises Awareness of Native American Boarding Schools

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October 12, 2021

In Canada, September 30th is a holiday that aims to acknowledge and reconcile the negative impacts that the Indian Residential School System had — and continues to have — on Canadian Indigenous communities. On Orange Shirt Day, or National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Canadians of all backgrounds are encouraged to wear an orange shirt, and learn more about the history of residential schools. As noted on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation website, “the day honors the lost children and Survivors of residential schools, their families and communities.”  A tagline of Orange Shirt Day is Every Child Matters.   

A history of trauma 

The Canadian residential school system started in the late 1800s with the aim of separating Indigenous children from their families and communities to assimilate them. Many schools were rife with disease and abuse. It's estimated that thousands of children never made it home, dying at school.  Recently, the discovery of 1,397 unmarked graves at five former Canadian residential schools has heightened global awareness.    
 
Canada’s residential school system was modeled after the U.S. Native American boarding school system. In the 1800s, thousands of Native American children in the United States were forcibly taken from their families and tribal communities to boarding schools. Over the ensuing decades, there was a mix of on-reservation and off-reservation, Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and religious schools.  Sometimes families would hide their children or deny their existence to keep children home.  By 1926, more than 80% of school-aged Native American children attended boarding schools.  In the United States, boarding schools were located across 29 states.  As noted by The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition,13 schools operated within Washington State.   
 
As in Canada, a primary goal of these U.S. schools was assimilation. Children were stripped of their traditional clothing, punished for speaking their Native language, and sometimes forced to live thousands of miles from their tribal communities. Like their Canadian counterparts, many schools were filled with disease and abuse. Again, some children never made it home, dying at school or while running away. The trauma many children experienced was long-lasting and for many, intergenerational. Boarding school survivors and their descendants are a testament to the resiliency of Native American people. 

An opportunity to learn 

Several members of the Port of Seattle’s Native American Committee, including myself, are the descendants of boarding school survivors. In solidarity with Canadian Indigenous communities, we encouraged our colleagues to learn more about boarding schools and to wear an orange shirt on September 30th.  

Orange Shirt Day originated from the story of Phyllis (Jack) Webstad who shared that on her first day at residential school, her new orange shirt that had been a gift from her grandmother, was taken from her. The date of September 30th was selected as this was traditionally the start of the school year when children were taken from their families and communities. Colleagues at all levels within the Port participated in dialogue and wore orange shirts this past September 30th.  
 
The national dialogue on boarding schools must and will certainly continue beyond one day in September. Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior, recently announced the launch of a U.S. Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative.  Secretary Haaland is Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American cabinet member.  Her own family members experienced the boarding school system.  The initiative “will serve as an investigation about the loss of human life and the lasting consequences of residential Indian boarding schools.”  

The Port of Seattle’s Native American Committee continues to share staff learning opportunities on boarding schools and the resiliency of survivors.  As the tagline says so clearly, Every Child Matters.    

Learn more about Native American boarding schools and Canada’s residential boarding schools.   

 
*Image credit: The Every Child Matters logo was created by Andy Everson of the K'omoks First Nation in 2015. 

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