People avoid the ugly parts of history because they are hard. There isn’t a simple solution to right the wrongs, so we don’t talk about it. But not talking about them isn’t the solution. Let’s raise our kids to be better!

Orange Shirt Day is a Canadian Day that was started to remember specifically the wrongs done by residential schools. It has been renamed the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The push to think of the US’ Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, it’s a big topic to cover.

Native American history deserves to be learned. While driving through Lawton, Oklahoma last summer, I saw a sign pointing to the remains of the local Indian School. History is in front of us; we just have to open our eyes to see it. Only several decades ago – with the closing of the last Residential School – that the Canadian government started working to acknowledge the grievances against the First Peoples. This is not distant, foreign history.

Of note: It’s a historical fact that these school existed. Let’s leave it at that and learn how to not repeat.

  1. What Were Residential Schools?
  2. What is Orange Shirt Day?
  3. “But I’m from the United States…”
  4. When I Was Eight
  5. Not My Girl
  6. Shi-shi-etko
  7. I Am Not a Number
  8. Unstoppable: How Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team Defeated Army
  9. The Orange Shirt Story
  10. Fatty Legs: A True Story
  11. What If I Can’t Find These Books?
  12. Online Resources

What Were Residential Schools?

For over a century, approximately 150,000 First Nations children were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to live at government funded schools across Canada. In an effort to “save” them, these church-staffed schools harshly robbed the kids of their traditions, language, and families. Under harsh conditions, infectious disease thrived and many children died. With many stories of the abuse and neglect kept quiet from shame, it wasn’t until the last several decades that the church and government of Canada began issuing apologies and working toward a more positive relationship between Indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians. With more survivors coming forward, we are now understanding the full extent of the damage that had been done to the Indigenous families.

The Reconciliation Commission of Canada, tasked to uncover the truth, has estimated that 2% of these children would perish while in the school. In 2021, after the discovery of more than 200 bodies in a mass grave at a residential school in Canada, it was renamed the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. This day is set aside to commemorate this national tragedy as well as to make strides toward healing and reparations for the Indigenous Peoples. The last residential school in Canada did not close until 1997.

What is Orange Shirt Day?

Started in 2013 as a day of observance, Orange Shirt Day has been is now observed as a national government holiday a decade later. This national day of remembrance in Canada all started with the book Phyllis and the Orange Shirt. The orange shirt symbolizes how, like the shirt, the school system worked to remove the indigenous identities, culture, and language of the children, and they have never recovered. It is celebrated every year on September 30th across Canada to raise awareness of these residential schools.

“But I’m from the United States…”

In the US, these school existed under a different name: Indian boarding schools. Look it up. Check out this list of the hundreds of Indian Boarding Schools in the US. 367 boarding schools in 29 states. Note there aren’t but a handful from the eastern US – that’s a whole discussion of the Trail of Tears, isn’t it. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition has plenty of resources including first-hand stories for you look through.

Even though we do not recognize this holiday in the United States, I believe we should be taking strides toward doing so as there were residential schools in our country. Let’s educate ourselves and the kids. If nothing else, my kids will remember that day in fall when mom read them the same books and wore orange. And choose to be remember and be kind. 

When I Was Eight

Written by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton; Illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard

Written by the same author combination as Fatty Legs, this takes the longer story down to picture book level to tell of her experience at the residential school as she was treated harshly during her education. 

Not My Girl

Written by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton; Illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard

As a continuation of the When I Was Eight story, this shorter book tells of her return home after two years away at a residential school. Not having heard her Inuit name for two years, Olemaun, now Margaret, has a hard time adjusting back to life with her forgotten native language, foods, and skills. In this, she relearns her life while learning to care for a team of dogsled pups.

Shi-shi-etko

Written by Nicola I. Campbell; Illustrated by Kim LaFave

With brightly colored illustrations, this poem-like short picture book tells the story of a little girl as she wanders her natural world during her last four days before leaving her family for a residential school. With sweet interaction with her streams and plants, she says goodbye to her land, trying to remember it as she moves forward to leave for school. The author is of Interior Salish and Métish ancestry and grew up in British Columbia.

I Am Not a Number

Written by Jenny Kay Dupius and Kathy Kacer, Illustrated by Gillian Newland

Based on the true story of the author’s grandmother, this longer picture book tells the story of her childhood as she was taken along with her two brothers from their Anishanabe First Nation community to live at Spanish Indian Residential School. Stripped of her name, she was given a number to identify herself and contact with her parents was refused. After a year, her father hid her from the Indian agent, so she wouldn’t have to return and her story was kept quiet until telling her full story to her granddaughter, the author of this book. Make sure you read the back pages of I Am Not a Number for additional information. Grab the edition written in English and Ojibwe if you can find it.

Unstoppable: How Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team Defeated Army

Written by Art Coulson, Illustrated by Nick Hardcastle

While most of this longer picture book covers the story of Jim’s rise to athletic ability and fame, the first section talks about how he, the descendant of a Sauk warrior, was taken from his home in Indian Territory in Oklahoma and sent away to Carlisle Industrial School. Although willingly sent by his family, he was forbidden to speak his native tongue and practice his religion at the school. This book takes the story of Canadian residential schools to make it more relevant to our United States history.

Also check out Jim Thorpe’s Bright Path and Bright Path: Young Jim Thorpe for more detail about his upbringing.

The Orange Shirt Story

Written by Phyllis Webstad, Illustrated by Brock Nicol

This is the book that started Orange Shirt Day. This national day of remembrance in Canada all started with the book Phyllis and the Orange Shirt. In this children’s picture book, Phyllis, a one year resident of a Canadian Residential School, tells the story of her first day at the boarding house when her orange shirt was taken from her and her traditional long hair was cut. She never saw her orange shirt again and was lucky to not have to go back after one year. Continue the story with Beyond the Orange Shirt Story with survivor stories told in their own voices.

Fatty Legs: A True Story

Written by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, Illustrated by Liz Amino Holmes

This more than one-hundred page book tells the biographical story of Margaret who was relocated from her Inuit home in the Arctic Circle as a child to be taken to the Catholic residential school in the Northwest Territories. Fatty Legs is a good book for older students who are ready for more detail about Residential Schools.


What If I Can’t Find These Books?

Have you ever looked online to have the books read to you and your family? Many, if not all, of these books are available on YouTube. If you don’t yet have the book in your hands, remember this is an option. As this day becomes more acknowledged, I hope that more of these books will be more readily available.


Online Resources

Thanks to @learninghappenseverywhere and @diyteach for drawing my attention to Orange Shirt Day several years ago.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s