It wasn’t yellow flags that dotted the dry, brownish Whittaker pitch Friday morning.
Instead, it was the orange shirts worn by La Conner students and staff that colored the school district’s football field Sept. 30 in honor of young Native Americans who, over generations, have suffered cultural trauma as ‘they attended residential campuses in the United States and Canada.
Conner Schools is one of the first districts in western Washington to observe Orange Shirt Day, which in Canada is a national day of truth and reconciliation.
La Conner’s school family gathered at Whittaker Field for an aerial photo, moving song and dance performance by the Swinomish Canoe family and guest speaker remarks.
Superintendent Will Nelson opened the ceremony with a bilingual message — alternating between his native language Blackfoot and English — that underscored the Orange Shirt Day movement’s commitment to valuing all children.
“It’s an important day for me,” Nelson noted. “My mother, my grandmother and my great-grandmother all went to boarding schools. My family members are the people we are talking about. I could write a book about it.
Jae Jefferson, assistant director of cultural events for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, said support for Orange Shirt Day has grown since the discovery in 2021 of more than 200 graves of Indigenous children who died while attending a boarding school in Kamloops, Great Britain. Colombia.
Dr. Kisha Supernant, a former La Conner High School student who teaches at the University of Alberta, is leading efforts to locate the unmarked graves of other residential school students to help reunite their families.
Jefferson told La Conner students and staff that thousands of Indigenous children did not return from the boarding schools where they were placed.
“We honor those who survived and those who did not return from residential schools,” Jefferson said. “It is an honor to be here today to begin the healing process for our people. We do this in honor of those who did not return and those who suffered the trauma.
Boarding schools sought to assimilate indigenous youth into white culture, a campaign that had many unintended consequences.
“The history of this day is one of suffering and fostering awareness that can help us take more steps to build community and cooperation,” said Clarissa Williams, Community and Culture Liaison for the district, which coordinated Orange Shirt Day activities.
Williams credited British Columbia’s Phyllis Webstad as the founder of Orange Shirt Day.
“In 1973, when she was six years old,” Williams said of Webstad, “she was sent to a missionary school near Williams Lake, British Columbia. She was thrilled to wear her shiny new orange shirt. because she was to attend school for the first time. But her first day at St. Joseph Mission boarding school was nothing like what she expected. Her orange shirt was taken off her, never to be rendered.
Williams said Sept. 30 has been designated across Canada and in various U.S. locations as a day of truth and reconciliation because it was the time of year when children were taken from their homes and placed in boarding schools.
“Phyllis emphasized the importance of continuing the conversation so that no one forgets the suffering endured by Indigenous peoples due to racism and discrimination,” Williams said.
“Today’s remembrance and celebration,” she added, “is an opportunity for Indigenous peoples, local governments, schools and communities to come together in the spirit of reconciliation and hope. for future generations of children.
“It’s a day,” Williams said, “to reaffirm that every child matters.”
Jefferson, who drummed with the canoe tribal family, expressed his gratitude, “We thank the La Conner School District for honoring these children and our people.”
While the canoe family drummed, the Swinomish youths performed two dances around the cheers on the stadium track. Most wore orange shirts designed by Marcus Joe bearing the message “Every Child Matters”.
Joe said the shirt design “was inspired by the many Indigenous children who were stolen from their families and placed in residential schools. This shirt is meant to honor the survivors of these horrific circumstances that cast a shadow over our indigenous history in the United States and Canada.
The program also included students reading sections of an official school board proclamation recognizing Orange Shirt Day.
Nelson ended with two poetry readings. A play was written in 1933 by an anonymous writer lamenting the boarding school experience. The other was composed by Pawnee poet Abigail Echo-Hawk last year.
“I wrote this for our people,” Nelson quoted Echo-Hawk as saying. “I wrote it because I couldn’t stop crying reading the newspaper articles about this genocide against the indigenous peoples. I wrote it because my heart cried out for justice for which my tongue could not form words, so my hand did.