The Story Behind Orange Shirt Day


Hannah Michelle Bussa

Orange Shirt Day is on Sept. 30. Photo courtesy of Orange Shirt Day via Facebook.

Orange Shirt Day is held each year on Sept. 30 to commemorate those who died, as well as honor the survivors of residential boarding schools and their descendants.

Renee Sans Souci, a descendant of a survivor of residential boarding school, first heard about Orange Shirt Day through Facebook while she was still working for the Native American studies program at UNO.

While Orange Shirt Day originated in Canada, it is commemorated in the United States as well.

“For those of us here in the United States, the residential schools are also what we had here,” she said. “Most of us who have grown up with our parents or grandparents being sent away to boarding schools, we’ve grown up hearing the stories about how they were treated, and then what happened, the results, the impacts that we’re still living with today.”

Since its start in 2013, Orange Shirt Day has become more well-known over the years. The mass graves found in Canada over the last year have raised awareness, but Sans Souci said they’ve always known that there are mass graves in the United States too.

“We’ve heard the stories that many of the children that were taken and sent to boarding school did not return home,” she said. “So, we know that they’re there. We don’t always know the causes, we’ve only heard stories, like how they ran away, how they tried to get home and then died in the process. Or they died of diseases, or they died of murder.”

Sans Souci said this is something her community is always living with and it continues to impact them today.

“We still live with that fear that people are going to take our children away,” she said. “Whether that’s through the schooling system, because of the kinds of laws that are in place, through Child Protective Services…all of these government agencies that are in place that separate families have been separating Native families for generations.”

She said they live with that and the process of assimilation. The objective of the residential schools was the “kill the Indian, save the man,” philosophy, which still exists today.

Orange Shirt Day began from the story of one of the survivors of a residential school, Phyllis (Jack) Webstad.

“She was attending the St. Joseph Mission in Williams Lake, British Columbia,” Sans Souci said. “As she recalled that when she was sent to residential school, she was stripped of all her clothing. Her clothing was taken from her, which included the orange shirt that her grandmother had gifted her, and her orange shirt was never returned.”

Webstad is now the Executive Director of the Orange Shirt Society.

“From that story about what happened to Phyllis, this is how the orange shirt became a symbol,” Sans Souci said. “A symbol of the residential boarding school system, which, in effect, stripped children, Indigenous children, of their identity.”

Sans Souci said her identity is important.

“I’ve worked diligently over the years to help others in finding and securing their own identity,” she said.

She has met many Native people who were adopted by white families and did not grow up knowing what their tribe was. She said these individuals have struggled to find their identity, and finding their identity is helpful in the healing process.

As a mother, Sans Souci said she made sure her children knew about the teachings behind who they are. No matter what school they attended, she wanted their identities to remain intact, and she wanted them to have access to everything regarding Native identity, spirituality, ceremonies and cultural activities.

“For we live our lives in the best way that we can as Native people in a contemporary dominant culture,” she said. “And this dominant culture is so, I guess you’d said alienating, in regard to identity. They want to assimilate everybody. When I say ‘they,’ I’m talking about the United States government or the state governments and all of these entities that fall under these governments, [which are] there to ensure that we are stripped of our identity still.”

She said the work she is doing is focused on undoing the damage and always working toward healing.

“That healing is helping Native people to recover from genocide,” she said. “The orange shirt is one of the examples, this is what it symbolizes, and this is why we honor that day across Turtle Island.”

Sans Souci said the investigation needs to be ongoing, because many more mass graves need to be discovered. She doesn’t want people to stop paying attention to this because it is ongoing work.