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Understanding Indigenous Culture in North Dakota Series: Truth and Reconciliation Day

Truth and Reconciliation Day (or Orange Shirt Day) is a national holiday in Canada and has seeped over into many indigenous communities in the United States. The Canadian statutory holiday honors the indigenous victims who were killed or abused at residential schools.

Residential schools were created in the late 19th century by the Canadian and United States governments, to assimilate Indigenous children into the mainstream culture through forced North American education. The concept was to isolate indigenous children from their native culture, language, and religion: “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” Indigenous students were taught to hate their own culture.

In the U.S., the Native American assimilation era was given funding by the U.S. Congress when they passed The Civilization Fund Act in 1819. The act encouraged American education to be provided to Indigenous societies and therefore enforced the “civilization process.”

The passing of this act eventually led to the creation of federally funded Native American Boarding Schools and initiated the beginning of the Indian Boarding School era. By 1926 in the U.S., 80% of Indigenous children were attending boarding schools. The duration of this government and Catholic residential school era ran from 1801 until 1978, when the schools were turned back over to the tribes. Approximately 408 boarding schools with 431 specific sites, operated across 37 states during this era both on and off reservations and housed over 60,000 native children. Many of these boarding schools were operated by Christian missionaries, Catholic churches, as well as members of the federal government.

Indigenous students were forbidden to speak their traditional language. They were only allowed to speak English regardless of their fluency and would face severe punishment if they did not. Punishments were wide-ranging to include privilege restrictions, diet restrictions, corporal punishment, arduous forced labor, and confinement including solitary confinement. Most students experienced significant and severe physical, psychological, cultural, spiritual, and sexual abuse. Many indigenous kids never returned and there are unmarked graves that are still being discovered to this day. Causes of death have ranged from infectious diseases, malnutrition, medical neglect, and beatings. Parents were typically NOT informed of their children’s deaths, and those that survived the merciless conditions were forever traumatized from their residential school experiences.

In Canada, to document the history and traumatizing impact of residential schools, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was established in 2008 with a final report produced in 2015. In 2013, residential school survivor Phyllis Jack Webstad launched the Orange Shirt Day campaign to raise awareness of the lasting impact of residential schools on indigenous students and generations of families.

In May of 2021, the remains of 215 children, considered undocumented deaths, were found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School on the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation in Kamloops, British Columbia. This residential school, opened in 1890 by the Roman Catholic Church, was the largest in the Canadian system and closed in 1978. Since this finding, many other remains have been found at residential schools throughout Canada.

As a result of the above finding in Canada, United States Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (Pueblo), created the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative and activated an investigation in June 2021 of the US residential schools including accounting for all the indigenous children who were ripped from their families and forced to assimilate in these schools. Since most US residential schools were government-run, they were subject to more inspections than that of their Canadian counterparts. The first report of the investigation was provided in April 2022 and was authored by Indian Affairs Assistant Secretary Bryan Newland. There have been many ceremonies to repatriate, or “bring home” the remains of children who have been found on many residential school grounds.

Classroom activity from Red Basket- “We are more alike than we are different”

For grades 4-8 Introduce the book by first asking students what they know about boarding schools. Read the book “Fatty Legs,” students will identify and empathize with the character in the story by listing the hardships she endured in school. Students will compare the school climate past and present. What policies are in place today to support students from diverse backgrounds?

Interpersonal Skills – Have students brainstorm and chart their responses to the following questions:

  • When was there a time when you were treated kindly by another student or teacher? How did it make you feel?

  • What does kindness look like? Draw a picture showing an act of kindness. (teacher will display the drawings with permission from students)

For grades 3-5 The teacher will read the book “Home to Medicine Mountain “by Santiago

Children's Story: Home to Medicine Mountain

Teachers can use ideas and pre-reading and post reading questions found in the guide.

For more detailed and historical information, visit:

The U.S. and Canada share a troubling history with residential schools | CBC News

The U.S. history of Native American Boarding Schools — The Indigenous Foundation

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