Image and beadwork design by Tia Marie Pocknett©
Orange Shirt Day – September 30th
This summer, I had the opportunity to meet my biological family in Canada–my Mi’kmaq family. My homecoming was filled with a spectrum of feelings that I found myself unable to describe to my family, my husband, my coworkers, and my friends. For the longest time, I have wanted to connect with them and I was finally getting this moment. During my reunification visit, I met Aunts, Uncles, Sisters, Brothers, and most importantly, the Matriarch of my family. In the beginning, the stories of my mother and grandmother were stories of minor trauma but trickled with happiness and laughter. Through this happiness, my aunt began to tell me a small account of her experience at a Residential School.
I remember as soon as the words “Residential School” left her mouth, my back straightened and my complete focus was upon her. She told me how much she hated being there and how she needed to get back home. So, she did what most children who were lucky enough to do, and that was to run back home to her mother. She was a lucky one who made it back; many children who tried to escape these schools either fell victim to inclement weather and natural physical land conditions that made the journey too difficult, or were recaptured and dragged back to these schools.
Her return was short-lived, as she was brought back to the residential school. I could feel her anger, her sadness, but most importantly her strength in her words as she shared a minuscule story. I knew better than to ask any more questions about her experience; I knew I was meant to listen to her account.
“On September 30, 2021, Canada will hold its first-ever statutory holiday observation of Orange Shirt Day, also known as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, to commemorate the missing and murdered children from residential schools and honor the healing journey of residential school survivors. Orange Shirt Day has been widely observed since 2013 to raise awareness about the residential school system and its impact on Indigenous communities for over a century.” (Garcia).
Spirit Walks and calls for recognition around Orange Shirt Day in Canada are growing larger each year. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was organized in 2008. The commission worked to gather stories (data) from Residential School Survivors and observe the effects these institutions not only had on the individual, but also how this impacted Indigenous Nations and communities throughout Canada. After the conclusion of data collecting that came from this committee’s investigation, it was decided that Residential Schools played a key role in Canada’s complacency in the cultural genocide of First Nations People of Canada. TRC Officials have also made discoveries of large empty graves with children’s remains inside.
“In its final report, the TRC has identified 3,200 deaths although it noted that the exact number of students who died at residential schools remains unknown due to incompleteness of the documentary record. Since then, the TRC’s estimate has increased to over 4,100 and is expected to keep rising. The former chair of the TRC Murray Sinclair said that approximately 6,000 children could have died at the residential schools.” (Xue Luo).
Orange Shirt Day begins in Canada; however, it doesn’t end there. The United States had many American Indian Residential Boarding Schools stretching across the country as well. Recently, Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, has made many statements to bring this issue to light and worked on a report known as the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to discuss cultural genocide occurring in the United States. Tribes across the US are participating in demonstrations and engaging through ceremonials to honor those children who have gone missing or murdered from these Residential Schools.
“Through the federal Indian boarding school system, the U.S. government forcibly removed Indigenous children from their families, aiming to eradicate Indigenous cultures and languages and seize Native territorial lands. Systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies were used in their attempts to assimilate American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children through education. Enforcement of rules was often brutal, abuse was rampant, children were killed, and many other children’s lives were destroyed due to the boarding school system.” (ECT).
It is important that this holiday doesn’t go unnoticed and that it is more than just wearing an orange t-shirt. This is a day in which Indigenous People all across “Turtle Island” (Avant) come to honor and remember the children who went missing and even unfortunately were murdered. Staying true to the themes of social justice, truth, and reconciliation; telling the truth isn’t always pretty but is needed for the victims and their families to begin their stages of healing and to bring awareness to these atrocities, so that they may never happen again.
“An education capable of saving humanity is no small undertaking; it involves the spiritual development of man, the enhancement of his value as an individual, and the preparation of young people to understand the times in which they live.” (Dr. Maria Montessori, Education and Peace).
This week, I sit and bead tiny orange felt cut-ups in the shapes of small orange t-shirts. These beaded orange t-shirts will be turned into pins for my students to wear in honor of the children who were murdered and went missing from Residential Schools across Turtle Island. My students have heard the story of Residential Schools and the negative impacts they have had on individuals, families, and nations collectively. By telling my students why we are celebrating Orange Shirt Day, I am hoping that through these teachings, generations can begin to heal and protect our sacred teachings that have survived generational trauma. I hope that by teaching my indigenous students, loving them, and providing them with tools for success, I am breaking the cycle the matriarch of my family had to endure. I am standing up to the systems that wanted to erase language and culture by stealing Indigenous children from their homes. By walking on our land and traveling through waterways, the children are reconnecting their spirits to the most sacred beings on our Earth, they are returning to their ways of traditional teachings and being.
About Our Writer
Tia Marie Pocknett (Mi’kmaq, Wôpanâak) is a member of the teaching team at Weetumuw School in Mashpee, MA where she lives with her family on Wôpanâak lands. She is a graduate of Goddard College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Indigenous American Studies. After earning her Primary Certification from Teresa Noble of the Institute for Guided Studies, Tia and the team opened the first Wôpanâak language and culture school using a Montessori pedagogy in service to reclamation and decolonization. Her work with Indigenous children includes her love of language, the land, her awesome beadwork and her loving family.
Garicia, N. (September 29, 2021) “Orange Shirt Day: Uncovering the Dark History of Residential Schools in Canada.” Cultural Survival. Retrieved from Cultural Survival on September 29, 2022.
Xue Luo, C. (September, 2022). “Missing Children of Indian Residential Schools.” Leddy Library, University of Windsor. Retrieved from Leddy Library, University of Windsor on September 29, 2022
Every Child Thrives (ECT). (July 6, 2022) “Recovering Stolen Lives and Histories from the Federal Indian Boarding School System” Retrieved from Every Child Thrives on September 29, 2022
Avant, JT. (September 11, 2020). North America Known as Turtle Island to Indigenous Tribes.
Retrieved from The Enterprise on September 29, 2022
Montessori, M. Education and Peace (2019) Montessori-Pierson Publishing. Amsterdam, The Netherlands.