Orange Shirt Day highlights dark legacy of residential boarding schools

Orange Shirt Day highlights dark legacy of residential boarding schools

By Molly Bryant, Puyallup Tribal News

The color orange flooded the Little Wild Wolves Youth Center on Saturday, Sept. 30. The Children of the River Child Advocacy Center (CRCAC) organized the fourth annual Orange Shirt Day event, commemorating the victims of residential boarding schools. Orange Shirt Day, also known as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, is a Canadian holiday that was first observed in 2013.  This meaningful day was inspired by Phyllis Webster, a survivor of Canadian residential boarding schools. She drew upon her firsthand experiences attending these institutions.

When she was young, Webster’s grandmother purchased a new orange shirt for her first day of school, but it was taken upon the child’s arrival, along with all of her other clothes. The orange shirt was never returned.

CRCAC Program Manager and Forensic Interviewer Carmelita Smith first heard of the event around four years ago. She thought it would be a beneficial way for members of the Puyallup Tribal community and participants in the CRCAC program to share their stories.

One of the central objectives of the holiday is to spread awareness of the atrocities committed at boarding schools. Such institutions followed the Civilization Fund Act of 1819 in the United States, which lead to the creation of schools where Native children suffered decades of systematic abuse in an attempt to assimilate them.”

Attendees donned orange shirts designed by Puyallup Tribal artist benSUN, emblazoned with a bird logo and the slogan “every child matters,” commemorating the victims of residential schools. “The design is called ‘On Hummingbirds Wings,’ Smith said. “The hummingbirds are the spirits of children who did not make it home and the eagle’s spirit is returning them to the spirit world,” said Smith.

The theme of the event was “healing.” The staff at CRCAC encouraged attendees to tell their healing stories and offer their ideas for self-care, which included berry picking, basket weaving, drumming and dancing.

Smith and her staff reminded attendees that they were in a “safe space.” That sentiment felt evident as participants patiently listened.

Participants bravely recounted their stories. One speaker recalled his own firsthand experience attending a boarding school in Oklahoma, and there was not a dry eye in the room.

Orange Shirt Day is more than just a holiday. It symbolizes resilience within Indigenous communities, and serves as a reminder that “every child matters.”

To reach the CRCAC program, email or call 253-382-6060.