TRAVERSE CITY — The national Day of Remembrance for Indian Boarding Schools known as Orange Shirt Day is observed today to honor survivors and remember those who did not make it back home.In the United States, 367 boarding schools operated in 29 states to assimilate Indigenous children.
Several boarding schools operated in Michigan during the assimilation era, including the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School and Holy Childhood Boarding School in Harbor Springs and the Holy Name of Jesus Indian Mission in the Upper Peninsula.
Beginning with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, the U.S. government enacted laws and policies to establish and support Indian Boarding schools across the nations. For more than 150 years, children were forcefully taken from their communities and put into boarding schools with the intention of eradicating language, culture and identity.
Carlisle Indian Industrial School was the first government-run boarding school for Native American children, built in 1879 in Pennsylvania by Civil War veteran, Lt. Col. Richard Henry Pratt.Pratt spearheaded the effort to create an off-reservation boarding school and based the school on an education program he developed in a prison for Native Americans. Native American children were, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, subjected to sexual abuse, starvation, beatings, and brutalized in ways that constitute as torture for speaking their language, or displaying acts considered “Indian.”
They also state that many children did not make it home to their families, and that “their fates have yet to be accounted for by the federal government.”
The exact number of children taken is not known, but the coalition states that, by 1926, more than 80 percent of Indigenous school-age children were attending boarding schools run by the federal government or religious organizations.
It wasn’t until 1978 with the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act that Native American parents gained the legal right to deny their children’s placement in off-reservation schools.
Observance of Orange Shirt Day takes place on Sept. 30 in both Canada and the United States, during the time of the year when children were taken to the schools. Its observance began in 2013 and was inspired by a 6-year-old Phyllis Webstad, who proudly wore an orange shirt on her first day of school in British Columbia in 1973. There, all of her possessions were taken from her, including her new orange shirt. Canada, in 2021, elevated the statutory holiday, encouraging people to wear orange in solidarity. In Harbor Springs, a vigil will take place at 6 p.m. in front of the Holy Childhood Church for remembrance and healing of survivors and those who did not make it home.
Three hundred shoes will be placed in front of the church, outlined in chalk foot-steps, and adorned with the names of children that attended.
Meredith Kennedy, Waganakising (land of the crooked trees) Odawa, said each shoe represents “every child that walked through those doors.”
The vigil is a continuation of events by the Zagaswe’iwe: Council to address Holy Childhood, formed this summer after community members of the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians called for an action plan to address the church and its involvement in the schools.
The rediscovery of the remains of children at former residential boarding school sites prompted the community-based organization to help facilitate the healing process and address the generational trauma the residential boarding schools created.
“We’re taking action into our own hands,” Kennedy said.
Council meets once a month in front of the church to inform the general public about the history of these schools and to advocate for their involvement in community healing.
The council is also working on generational trauma by organizing programs, like community parenting classes to help heal the gaps of traditional parenting, Kennedy said.
Classes will focus on the seven Grandfather Teachings of the Anishinaabek, which were stripped during assimilation, Kennedy said.
“The council is looking at how we can make this better for the next generation,” she said.
Kennedy said that she will not rely on the federal government or the churches to take action anytime soon.
“It has been the community all along,” she said. “True systems are changed when you include the people.”