#OrangeShirtDay: Boarding School Survivors Speak Out, Seek Truth and Healing

School in Canada celebrating Orange Shirt Day
September 30th or #OrangeShirtDay has become in Canada, and slowly in the US, a day of resistance and resilience for the intergenerational survivors of indigenous boarding schools—a cruel colonial practice of family separations and children forced “assimilation” into white Christian capitalist society that began in the 1860s and lasted for more than a century. It is estimated that as many as 150,000 children were forced to attend these schools in Canada, and well over 40,000 children in the US, where they were subjected to psychological, physical, sexual abuse and cultural genocide. In the name of “civilization” and “modernity” children were stripped of their Native names, clothing and few possessions, their braids or long hair cut short the first day, and experienced severe punishment for speaking their own language or expressing any vestige of cultural Native pride. Most experienced forced labor and many died of measles, tuberculosis, and other illnesses in an environment completely unsuitable for young souls to thrive. Many of those children still lie in graves on school grounds, unidentified and unclaimed by their families who lost ties to their little ones or just didn’t survive them. Both in Canada and in the US there are currently campaigns to remember and identify those children (the National Residential School Student Death Register in Canada has identified 2,800 names so far) and to bring their remains back home to their tribes (thanks to the efforts of a coalition of national organizations in the US). Such efforts are, needless to say, imperative to advocate for justice and to bring the much-needed healing for these communities, such as the Oneida Nation, who recently received the exhumed bodies of three girls: Jemima, Sophia, and Ophelia. In 2007, under pressure from the Assembly of First Nations and Inuit organizations in court, the Canadian government established a $1.9 billion reparations package for survivors of residency schools, and in 2008, it established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to publicly address the experiences of indigenous children in residency schools across the country. Orange Shirt Day#OrangeShirtDay is one of many initiatives that has come out of this process to provide a platform for survivors to share their stories and begin some healing. Schools and organizations across Canada have taken advantage of #OrangeShirtDay to educate, open discussions, and recognize the survivors of residency schools. It is also providing indigenous people an opportunity to reconnect with their culture, as in Anish Corporation’s program “From Surviving to Thriving” in Manitoba, dedicated to elderly people with intergenerational cultural enrichment programs and workshops on themes such as understanding trauma, personal healing, and internalized oppression. In the US, indigenous people are increasingly recognizing September 30 as an opportunity to remember the boarding school ethnocidal experience and the intergenerational trauma still lived today by holding events and taking on social media: Boarding school survivors Boarding school survivorsBoarding school survivorsBoarding school survivorsBoarding school survivors The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition was also created in the US after meeting with their Canadian counterparts in 2011 and recognizing that a strategy towards a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the US needs to be implemented as well. Their website is an incredible resource of historical documentation, advocacy, resources towards healing, and ongoing webinars. Webinar The process of forced “civilization” was experienced by Native and indigenous people all over the world for centuries in a process of racist assimilation. In Latin America millions were forcibly recruited into the military and stripped of their cultural identity, even more so during the so-called “Republics” that claimed independence from Spain but sought to assimilate all new “citizens” under one flag, one language, and one religion. Even today, racism in urban areas are still felt on the streets by indigenous people, in restaurants, in schools, in court. Nevertheless, the exemplary resilience of indigenous people has shown an ability to sprout from the ashes and lead the way towards a more inclusive, just world, redefined by the wealth of our beautiful diversity. RESOURCES: National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition in the US Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada #OrangeShirtDay organization Testimony from boarding school survivor, an excerpt from the film “Our Spirits Don’t Speak English: Indian Boarding School”:
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