‘Orange Shirt Day’ is a chance to confront and learn from the history of residential schools

Eagle feathers stuck in a law in front of a white building
In 2021 mourners placed 215 feathers on the lawn of the former Sheldon Jackson College in remembrance of the 215 children whose bodies were discovered at Canadian residential schools. (Tash Kimmell/KCAW)

Many Sitkans on Friday are joining an annual observance that began in Canada, but has significant meaning for Alaskans.

“Orange Shirt Day” started as a day of remembrance for Indigenous children who were separated from their families and sent to residential schools in Canada, but the event now encompasses First Nations across the United States.

Lillian Young, with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, said Orange Shirt Day commemorates surprisingly recent history.

“In 1973, when Phyllis Jack Webstad was 6 years old, she was sent to the Mission School near Williams Lake, British Columbia,” Young said. “Her first memory of her first day at the Mission School was that of having her own clothes taken away, including a brand new orange shirt given to her by her grandmother.” 

Nationwide, the theme for Orange Shirt Day is “Every Child Matters.” The color is a reminder of the shirt Phyllis Jack Webstad had taken from her on her first day at the St. Joseph Mission School in British Columbia.

Young said Webstad attended a reunion of the St. Joseph Mission School in 2013 and shared this story, and “Orange Shirt Day” was born.

According to the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Cultural Survival, around 150,000 Indigenous children attended 130 boarding schools across Canada, the last of which closed only 27 years ago, in 1996.

From the 1800s to the 1960s, the United States operated more boarding schools than Canada, but with fewer students overall. Cultural Survival reports that 35,000 children attended boarding schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and 15,000 attended BIA day schools.

Phyllis Jack Webstad’s story is now considered emblematic of the cultural erasure that took place in residential schools in both countries, along with other physical and emotional abuses — including the undocumented death and burial of students.

Lillian Young said the only way to learn from this history is to face it.

“As hard as it may be for some people to learn about residential schools and our shared colonial history, it’s critical to acknowledge and recognize these topics in a spirit of ongoing learning and reconciliation,” she said.

Orange Shirt Day is officially Saturday, Sept. 30, but Sitka will observe it at noon on Friday with a parade through downtown. Organizers have created a custom orange shirt for the event, which will be distributed to the first 100 people who assemble for the parade.

Chuck Miller, cultural liaison with the Sitka Tribe, said the shirt has significance for the community. A local student designed the artwork. On the front, he said, they say X’atulitseen Haa Yatx’i, “We cherish our children,” and underneath that they say Haa Ani — “The Land of Our People, The Land of the Lingít.”

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