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Orange Shirt Day: Stories of Survival

Content Warning: Discussing trauma can be a sensitive topic for some people. Please make time to take care of yourself and reach out to a trusted peer, a family member, or the Employee Assistance Program if you need support. (Offering a content warning is Trauma-informed care!)

Jo-el's story

Jo-el's story: Processing the Trauma of our Family HistoryWe’ve grown to associate historical trauma with the lived experiences of Native people throughout Indian Country. This creates many opportunities as a young Native person to be exposed to “living trauma”. Stories from Tribal elders become embedded in your memory as part of your lived experience. It can make it challenging to separate your own experience from what happened in the past. At young age, we are challenged with processing these traumas while on a path of creation. So these embedded stories will impact us throughout our lives.

Sometimes trauma can create a withdrawal from existence. A cycle of pain creates a frozen response. It freezes your mind. It can freeze your words, your emotions, even your concept of time. You might seek different ways to unfreeze yourself, and for a young Native person, we learn all too well, at a very young age, the ways in which to freeze or unfreeze our feelings when they get overbearing.

There weren’t many stories about boarding schools growing up in our home. There weren’t stories about the schools the grandparents were forced to go. There wasn’t someone pointing out, “that’s the school where I had to cut my hair. Where I was forced to learn English. Where I was beaten for everything I did wrong.” “That’s where I met your grandma…” “that’s where your great aunt passed away…” “That’s the last place where I saw my little brother…”

There didn’t have to be. There was an experience and history that was part of our everyday existence. Growing up far away from where most of my relatives grew up, it sometimes seemed like a far-off place in my memory that never existed but haunted me and my family like a trapped spirit. Each morning there was a language that filled our home foreign and familiar but not our own. The bible sat quietly on a nightstand in their room waiting to be opened in times of despair. Smoke of many different plants ruminating and binding into unique odors. Times of prayer confused young people who heard Jesus, Creator and Maheo’o all in one sitting. The questioning of which spirit filled your home was based on the way people were behaving. And of course, the learning of why a rod must not be spared or a child be spoiled left us wanting to keep our parents anger frozen.

We lived with a confusion of trying to walk in one way of life and reclaim one that was forcibly taken from us for generations. We were told Indians didn’t exist anymore, and we were told that we were not white. The older I became, the more real this trauma became. I learned about the many histories that connected each of us, not just my family, but other Natives I have met professionally or throughout Tribal communities.

Orange Shirt Day is called the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation because its about owning the truth. Taking back that trauma and empowering our generations to reconcile what happened and regain the things we lost. We honor survivors, pray for the victims, and help heal those impacted from Indian Boarding Schools. If you’re an ODHS employee, wearing orange on September 29th, 2023, I hope you reach out to a co-worker, a Tribal partner, or a Native friend or family and have a conversation that is honest, inclusive, and educational regarding this history that many of us live with daily and that most of us have engrained in who we are.

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Older stories

Tony Aaron Fuller, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation ODHS Tribal Affairs Communications Specialist​I am one of many Native employees here at OOHS with a close connection to the impacts of the federal Indian boarding school system Some may think this history is in the distant past but, for my family and other Native families, we are not far removed from the trauma - and the healing - that continues throughout our communities.

Over the years I have heard many stories about the boarding school on my Indian Reservation, St. Mary's Mission. I am an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation. St. Mary's was the school all my aunties and uncles attended. It is also the same Mission my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and her siblings attended.

When I was young, everyone in the community called it "The Mission." The Mission held Catholic Church ​services and various community events, including funerals. The funerals are what I remember best. Most of my ancestors are buried at The Mission's cemetery on the hill. The first funeral I remember attending was my great-grandfather's His service was a combination Native traditional ceremony and a full Catholic Mass. Even though I was young, I remember reciting the Lord's Prayer and singing our traditional prayer songs.

Years later I realized that my great grandpa's funeral was so memorable because the traditional elements stood out. The funerals I attended before were Catholic services led by a White priest where parishioners held beaded rosaries and took communion. That all happened at my great grandpa's funeral too, but I distinctly remember his casket being taken to the cemetery for the Tribal cultural services. At the funeral, a Tribal elder led us in traditional song, prayer and culminated with my great grandpa's burial. But what struck me was the traditional part of the service seemed very short.

The combination of these two cultural practices can be directly tied to generations of people from my reservation forced to attend boarding school at St. Mary's Mission. Family and friends were made to learn Catholic prayer, follow the church's strict belief system, and kept from speaking our Tri​​bal language or holding any cultural ceremonies​.

It felt uncomfortable to look around a memorial service during the Catholic portion and realize nearly everyone in my family had attended The Mission. Younger people in our Tribe always questioned why we still followed Catholic practices. In our Tribal culture, it is a show of respect for our Elders.

My aunties would tell us stories about what happened to them at the school. Physical abuse, sexual victimization and corporal punishment was not just the norm, it was the expectation The long-term effects on the generations of families who attended St. Mary's Mission are widely known on my reservation. Small things like hugging and showing love has always been missing. People drink to hide the trauma of attending the school, parents don't know how to show their affection as they r​eceived none at The Mission, and elders are re-learning ceremonial practices and our language because that was all taken away.

My aunty once told me when she was in the fourth and fifth grade dorms, the children knew which priests liked little boys and which priests liked little girls. The children pushed their beds together, tying each other together with their shoelaces so if a priest came to take a child in the middle of the night, the activity would wake up lots of children in the dorm. The hope being that the priest would leave the child behind. She said it didn't always work, but they were united to protect​ each other.

A group of strong Native women raised me, including my mom and aunties. Women who were friends, cousins, and siblings, but always referred to each other as sisters. Native women with a long-shared history of uniting in order to protect their loved ones. The quick, adaptive behavior the women developed in these horrific boarding schools are gifts to my generation. Their experiences helped them teach us the right way. We stand up for ourselves, we ask outside communities to reconcile what has happened to our people and we are proud of where we have come from.

When the Colville Confederated Tribes took over St. Mary's in 1973, the school was closed and stayed shuttered for decades until it reopened as the Paschal Sherman Indian School. The private school reflects Colville Tribal heritage where Tribal traditions and practices are promoted, honored and embraced.

Tony Aaron Fuller - Enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation and the Tribal Affairs Communications Specialist with the Oregon Department of Human Services

Our Culture is Our Hair, Marcos BrisenoWhen you hear about discrimination within our school system, we sometimes think it is a thing of the past. The sad truth is that it is still happening today. The Discrimination that originated in our histories of boarding schools still plays out every day.

My experience began when I first arrived here in Oregon from California. I attended school in Keizer back in the late 90’s, and at that time there were not very many people of color in that school. It didn’t take long before I noticed the teachers would focus more on the white kids and give them more help when needed, often overlooking the needs of the other kids. I wish I could say that was the end of it, but unfortunately these discriminations carried on to my children.

My son Tlaloc started his education at Siletz Tribal Head Start in Salem. He loved it there and was always so excited to go to school! He was always happy to see other little boys that looked like him, and he got to learn about cultural traditions. Sadly, that all changed when he joined public school. He was bullied and kids would ask why he had long hair. Of course, the usual stigma that long hair is only for girls was always taunted. It happened for a while until I told my son, “Stand up for yourself!”. Then it became an issue when he confronted the bullies. I pulled him out of public school and began the research into private schools in my area. After searching for a while, we decided on a Catholic school just down the street from our home. It did not take too long before the school called me and ask to have a sit down meeting with the principal of the school and the priest to discuss the school’s h​air policy. I remember after the call my son was so scared because he thought he was in trouble. According to the school’s dress code, little boys have short hair and little girls have long hair. The day had come when I found myself in front of an elderly white priest and an elderly devout Catholic woman having to explain the important significance of our hair in our culture all while I am sitting in front of them with my long braid and a room full of long-haired Jesus paintings and statues.​

I explained how cutting Native people’s hair was one of the first steps in trying to take our culture away. After about an hour-long meeting explaining that my child was not trying to be rebellious, and that this would not lead to piercings and tattoos, they allowed him to keep his hair as long as it was kept in a braid. It didn’t take long before they started to complain that he had some hairs in his face and that he had broken the rubber band in his hair. All this negative attention led my son to ask me to cut his hair. I explained to him that this was permanent and that he should not have​ to cut his hair to make​ grown people happy. I would always fight for him. At the end of the conversation, he asked me to cut his hair. With sadness in my heart and my eyes, I braided his hair for the final time before I took the scissors to his braid. I will never forget the sou​nd of the scissors, or the sadness is his eyes as he stared at me, holding his braid. He said to me " Dad, I don’t even care about that school anymore... I just want my hair back!" I hugged him and tried to comfort him as much as I could. It did not help much. It broke my heart as a parent to see my son in so much pain that I handed him the same scissors and offered him to cut my braid and told him, “We will grow it back together.” We all know how hard it is to manage hair that is growing back, and it saddens me to say that he never grew his hair back.

I have another son, Quetzalcoatl, and when it was time for him to attend the same school, I was happy to hear that the policy had changed, and he was allowed to keep his long hair with no issues.

Yet as we fast forward a few years when he graduated from elementary school, he would have to attend another private Catholic school. And we quickly found out, they also have a dress code and policy that states boys should have short hair and girls should have long hair.

I found myself in the same sad and ​uncomfortable situation of having to schedule a meeting with the school’s principals. This time, I started off the meeting by telling them the story of my son Tlaloc and how traumatic that experience was, not for just him, but for his whole family, all while getting a bit choked up. At the end of my story, I found myself with a couple tears in my eyes staring at a couple elder men, also with tears in their eyes. They apologized for the past experiences we had to endure and explained they would never ask us to cut my son’s hair. They even asked for books with stories and pictures of Native people with long hair to share with the other children.

Orange Shirt Day reminds me of this experience and how it has impacted our family. I can only imagine the thousands of families during the boarding school era that experienced the loss of their cultural ties and were forced to cut their hair. I can’t help but to think about the generational impact to the thousands of families that still experience this. It is our job as parents to advocate and speak up for our children and even more so, our culture. I am proud of my sons and what they’ve taught non-Native educators about our culture.

​Marcos Briseno is Indigenous Mexican and Chichimeca and his kids are both descendants of the Chinook bands of Oregon and Washington. Briseno and his sons all dance with a Mexica Aztec Group called Mexica Tiahui. He works as a specialist at the Oregon Eligibility Partnership Customer Service Center within the Oregon Department of Human Services.

Marie Hill: A cemetary nobody talks about​In ​Keizer, Oregon, from Interstate-5 you can see a group of giant fir trees standing watch over the children of Chemawa Indian School. Children who never made it back home. Laid to rest in small plots of land they never asked to come to. Far away from their parents and communities. Victims of forced assimilation, some laid to rest without headstones or grave markers. The ones who do have headstones are merely marked with a name and date of death.

The cemetery is isolated from the current Chemawa Indian School campus, tucked away along a road named “Old Indian School Road”. The land where the cemetery sits is among the previous Chemawa school property, not far from the current campus. The old school buildings have been torn down, but the pain of what happened there remains. Children were forcibly removed from everything they knew, their families, their communities, their culture, to attend schools that would “Kill the Indian, save the man”. You can see the freeway from the cemetery, hundreds of cars passing by, unsuspecting witnesses of unspeakable atrocities.

My sister lays alongside these children, next to my grandparents. Though they were not victims of the boarding school era they rest among it’s torn remnants. As a child I frequently went to Chemawa for Powwows and health care. It was not until I was older that I became aware of what boarding schools did to my community. It was not until my own family was buried in the cemetery that I truly understood the gravity of what had happened at boarding schools. Every time I go to the cemetery to visit my sister and my grandparents I am reminded of the crimes and abuse that were committed against these children. The suffering they endured so far from home. The silent pain is palpable.

Poison oak grows throughout the cemetery, especially among the old graves. I like to think that mother earth is protecting the children who never made it home. She is holding them close like their parents once did. Keeping those away who might bring them harm.

​Though this cemetery holds so much pain, it has also become a cemetery that Natives can be buried among other Natives and Ancestors. Where pray ties and medicine offerings can be left and understood by those who visit there. We can have a piece of our own culture without judgment. It is Native people who care for the cemetery now. Cutting the grass when it needs mowed. Clearing it of any garbage that has been left outside it’s gates. This is how we heal those old wounds, we care for those who have been forgotten by a government and society that wanted them to disappear. To some the boarding school era feels so far away from today’s world, but it’s impacts are closer than you think, you just have to know where to look.

It has been said that every Native person is either the grandchild of boarding school survivors, the child of survivors, or a survivor themselves. In some cases, a Native person you know could be all three. I hope wearing Orange Shirts this week isn’t about a celebration or an opportunity for a casual Friday. I hope it makes you think about the next work trip you take, that when you pass that exit on Interstate 5, that you have co-workers, Native employees at ODHS, that have family and relatives in a small cemetery tucked away so ​people are not reminded of the painful truth and how the Native community is reconciling and healing by taking care of the ancestors buried ther​e.

Below is a picture of my son bringing flowers to our family at the Chemawa Cemetery.​​

Marie's son carrying flowers at a cemetary

Grandma's Story: Strong Native WomanOver the years I would randomly hear stories from friends, family, cousins, and elders that attended Indian Boarding Schools. For the most part, the stories were often negative, triggered sadness and anger, and when I was younger, were scary.

As a child, my Grandma spent her whole life healing from the trauma experienced attending Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon. At the time, most children who attended the school were sent there after state agencies would convince Tribal communities that this was the best way to get children an education. What most communities were not told was the school was part of a larger assimilation effort by the federal government. With no standards for the child’s living conditions, nutrition, or s​afety, the government just wanted to take the children away from their culture.

Grandma would often times describe the food from the boarding school. Mostly while we were in the kitchen, she would talk about how she learned to cook and who taught her how to make certain things. In those moments, she would remember how unhealthy and awful the food was at Chemawa. She wouldn’t know till s​he was much older, but she was later convinced that most of the food was spoiled, expired, or inedible. She told us stories of how it would make her and the other children vomit and as a punishment, school officials would force the children to eat their own vomit because there was not an alternative for other food.

That story has been engrained in my memory. Grandma would also speak of it in a way that described the shock she had that other adults would treat them like that and it opened her eyes into realizing that the only reason they were treated that way was because they were Indian.

As I learned more about the experience of my Grandmother and other Native people who attended schools like Chemawa, I found myself identifying with all of the things that scared my Grandma when she was a child. The low self-worth, the neglect, the lack of confidence, and the pride in my heritage has always had to overcome Grandma’s story. I exist to make her proud and re-write the legacy of how the people at that school made her feel.

Often times in Indian Country, we talk about “Strong Native Women”. My Grandma was and she continues to be through me. My work, my parenting, my culture always goes back to what Grandma taught us despite the trauma she experienced. I wear Orange on Orange Shirt Day, but I am in a constant state of emotional reconciliation. To be a Strong Native Woman, I always think about Grandma’s story of survival, healing, and pride. Orange Shirt Day is just one day where her story is honored, but my children and I, are a symbol of her survival and that reconciling her experience is a life-long effort.