As US and Canada uncover Indigenous school history, survivors, their children and allies mark Orange Shirt day in Juneau

People holding orange banner that says "every child matters"
A crowd gathered for an early morning wave to traffic along Egan Drive on Thursday in Juneau. Organizers are raising awareness of Orange Shirt Day which honors the Indigenous children who died at residential boarding schools, and those who survived. (Photo courtesy Paige Sparks)

Content warning: This story contains accounts from descendants of boarding school survivors that may be distressing for some readers. 

As the sun rose on Thursday, K’aaxnaa.at Bamby James and the Strong Women singers finished a women’s prayer song. Then they joined dozens of others waving at traffic along Egan Drive. Their bright orange t-shirts popped out against the deep blue shadows of the early morning.

It was chilly, kids were running around wrapped in blankets. But warm coffee and pastries served from the back of a nearby car — and waving signs at traffic — kept people warm.

James, who is Lingít, is surrounded by family. She says she’s waving because she has children.

“And it means a lot to us the fact that we get to keep our kids home, and our ancestors did not. Generations have come. There’s been trauma throughout the generations. I feel like this is our way of showing them that we’re ending the cycle of violence against our people,” James said.

Sept. 30 is a National Day of Remembrance for U.S. Indian Boarding Schools. The day was born in Canada — when a residential school survivor told the story of wearing an orange shirt that her grandmother bought for her, and then having it stripped off of her when she arrived at a boarding school.

A lot of people in Juneau are wearing orange shirts with a formline ovoid blue heart and then in the center is a human face with its mouth open. It’s Mike Kanaagoot’ Kinville’s design.

He said the mouth is open to show that they’re speaking. It reads “Every Child Matters.”

Kinville has 10 children — his youngest is 7 years old. He wears his feelings on the surface when he talks about the remains of 215 children found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.

“Those children didn’t matter, not to the people who threw them into a grave and covered them up,” he said. “But those children matter to somebody. You know, maybe they were treated like garbage at some point, but to their families and to their people. They matter, every child matters.

Kinville said acknowledgment from the rest of the community of the facts of the past are important, that’s a big part of why so many people in bright orange shirts gathered by the side of the highway — to call attention to the buried history and trauma of residential boarding schools.

His mother told him about her experience when she was taken to Mt. Edgecumbe boarding school in Sitka at 14 years old.

“In in the first week, they went through a medical process and the dentist looked at her teeth and decided to pull all of her teeth. So that was their first day in Mt. Edgecumbe. Her second day, when she woke up, her pillow was covered with blood. She had to wait for a month and a half for dentures to be made and sent to her. That’s how she started her high school career. This pretty young lady, a very quiet, shy young woman,” he said.

Kinville and others in the crowd say it’s not just acknowledgment of facts of our shared history that’s needed. It’s also awareness of how that history is still impacting people today.

“You know, that’s her trauma affects me to this day, you know, my trauma that kind of goes through me as affected my children, you know, we try and attenuate it out and make it dampen it and make it go away. But it still lives with us. So you know, it can’t be in the past, it’s in our bones,” he said.

There are a lot of threads that tie Juneau to this trauma. One is that Alaska Native families in Juneau had their children taken from them and sent to other schools, sometimes out of state. Another is that the same order of nuns — The Sisters of Saint Ann — who taught at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia operated schools in Juneau too. There’s a street named after them on Douglas Island and a former hospital downtown.

“I don’t think that people have made that connection,” said Jamiann S’eiltin Hasselquist. She’s an organizer of the events and has been working to teach people about the legacy of residential schools, including the Mayflower School. It’s now the Juneau Montessori School and it stands at the end of Saint Ann’s Avenue.

It overlooks a beach that Hasselquist says should be part of the community conversation around this history. A conversation about tangible steps the community can take, like calling that beach Anax Yaa Andagan Ye’ instead of Sandy Beach.

“If we say we want to change that name back, that’s what gets people a little excited,” she said. “But it’s not changing. It’s restoring its original name and recognizing that there were people and place names here before colonization came to town.”

For more information contact the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. You can call them at 612 354-7700.

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