Orange Day honors boarding school survivors
Orange Shirt Day was observed in many places in the U.S. and Canada on Sept. 30, including Nevis School, to increase awareness of the trauma being forcibly sent to boarding schools brought to
Mel Buckholtz is the American Indian Liaison at Nevis School.
“When you talk about students who attended most high schools, you refer to them as graduates or alumni,” he said. “When you talk about American Indian students who attended these boarding schools they are referred to as survivors. They found 4,721 bodies in boarding schools across Canada. It’s genocide. That’s part of the reason it’s not in the history books. “Unfortunately, our country has a grand history of covering up stuff they don’t want people to know. Somewhere along the line someone from the U.S. government needs to say this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to go through all these boarding schools, and we’re going to find these children who were killed or died there and bring them home.”
Buckholtz said boarding schools are not in the distant past, with some operating as late as the 1970s.
“The boarding schools were designed to eradicate the nativeness,” he said. “They would come and take kids from their homes, some as young as 5 years old. Colonel Henry Pratt was the first superintendent of Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, I believe. He said they would ‘kill the Indian and save the man.’ The government started boarding schools and they used the Catholic Church as the teachers to have them find God. They kept them from their culture and their language. They lost their traditions and who they were. For us, a big part of who we are is our language.”
What happened to Indigineous people at boarding schools is something Buckholtz said history books have largely ignored.
“The first step to healing and reconciliation is truth,” he said. “You need to admit this happened in order to start healing. We also have ‘Wear Red Day’ for missing and murdered indigenous people. This is the same thing with Orange Day. It’s about raising awareness and educating.”
Boarding school history
According to information in an MPR news article by Dan Gunderson dated October 26, 2021, a government boarding school first opened at White Earth in 1871. The Benedictine order opened a day school in 1878, and it became a boarding school in 1892. The boarding school closed in 1945, but the Benedictines continued to run a day school for local children until 1969.
To read the in-depth MPR story, "A Reckoning: St. Benadict nuns apologize for Native boarding school," click here:
According to Mike Swan, a spiritual advisor on the White Earth Reservation, nothing remains of the Benedictine school on the White Earth Reservation today. The Circle of Life School now occupies the site.
Swan, who also teaches Ojibwe culture, history and language in the Detroit Lakes schools, said his grandmother and sisters attended a boarding school. He said Orange Day is a remembrance day for all of the children who died in boarding schools and those who are still being searched for.
“I have heard some people say going to a boarding school was a good experience because they learned a trade, like cooking, but the majority say it was a bad experience,” he said. “A lot of times they were shipped hundreds of miles away to a boarding school on another reservation in another state. Students would run away to try and get home. Sometimes they were caught because the people at the school gave farmers nearby money to pick them up.”
Swan said children were often taken from their home and placed in a boarding school without the family’s permission.
Recent studies have shown that trauma can be identified in the DNA many generations later.
“This trauma was happening to whole communities,” Buckholtz said. “You pull every kid out of the community, and it’s not just the kids getting sent to the boarding schools that have trauma, but the parents and grandparents who were left at home. I don’t know if anybody will ever be able to quantify the impact that boarding schools had on the Native nations. It’s huge.”
Connecting with their culture
Nevis School currently has 40 American Indian students. Buckholtz said some of these students know very little about their American Indian heritage.
“A lot of the kids I’m working with haven’t been on reservations and experienced that part of who they are,” he said. “First, we identify that they are native and what that means. We talk about different ceremonies, what it means to go to certain powwows, their connection with their tribe whether they’re enrolled or a descendent. They may have lived in Nevis their whole life, but part of them has come from there. After that, it’s up to them if they want to learn more. If they’re a descendant from White Earth, I can connect them with someone who can help them identify with that tribe. Each tribe is just a little bit different. Even their Ojibwe speaking is a little bit different.”
This year, Nevis students are able to take a class for credit in the Ojibwe language for the first time online through the Mille Lacs band partnership with the Rosetta Stone.
Healing the trauma
Swan said he tells students that it’s important to learn about what happened with boarding schools in the past.
“It’s not in the history books,” he said. “This is part of our history. It really did happen. The idea was to eliminate our native culture and history to ‘save’ the person. They almost succeeded because a lot of people lost their language and their identity.”
He said American Indian youth today are still impacted by what happened to their elders who were taken to boarding schools. “Many of the youth weren’t taught the language and customs,” he said. “They’re looking for their identity. Alcoholism, everything is tied into that.”
Swan said the first step in healing is through acknowledging what happened
“Let us teach our history,” he said. “Our history started before 1492.”
Buckholtz said Orange Day is a reminder to support those survivors of boarding schools and stand against all forms of racism and bullying today.
“I think it is bringing more awareness of what boarding schools were about,” he said. “It’s standing up for the survivors and the ones who didn’t go home. Just sharing the knowledge that this happened. A lot of people think it was our ancestors who were sent. For some of us it was our parents.”
The Minnesota Historical Society has more photos and information about the boarding school in White Earth, including an article “Agents of Cultural Change at White Earth” by Carol J. Berg.