As Utah begins to uncover its Indigenous school history, survivors use Orange Shirt Day to remember

The American day of remembrance aligns with Canada’s Orange Shirt Day.

(Panguitch Utah History) Pictured are the students at the boarding school for Native Americans just north of Panguitch, Utah, that ran from 1904 to about 1909.

Boarding school survivor Davina Smith, who is Navajo (Diné), recently ran over 330 miles from Bears Ears National Monument to Salt Lake City during her Spirit In Motion Unity Prayer Run for Native American Boarding School survivors.

Her run, held Sept. 4 to 19, was not only an effort to bring awareness to boarding schools but also a spiritual campaign to end the violence of missing and murdered Indigenous peoples and the exploitation of natural resources on ancestral Indigenous lands like Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

“It’s all connected,” says Smith, who is originally from Oljato. She says the forced removal of Indigenous peoples from their lands by federal policies like boarding schools is the reason for the deep trauma that exists across Indigenous communities.

Smith’s run also helped bring attention to the Sept. 30 National Day of Remembrance for U.S. Indian Boarding Schools, a campaign by The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS), which offers healing resources to boarding school survivors.

During her route, Smith detoured to the former grounds of the Panguitch Boarding School, which operated from 1904 to 1909. There, she felt the presence of old triggers she experienced from attending the Tuba City Boarding School and the Holbrook Indian School.

“I just had the chills,” said Smith, who also helped produce the Public Broadcasting Service series Unspoken: America’s Native American Boarding Schools. “I saw there in Panguitch how many times there was a young child looking through that window hoping someone would come take them home.”

To honor the lives of the Paiute children who were forced to attend the school — many of whom are believed to be buried there — she issued prayers and left herbal medicines she’d gathered at Bears Ears with Diné medicine healer Jonah Yellowman.

“Going to boarding school, you’re taught not to have expression, show expression, not to talk,” Smith said, adding that it’s a “military form of lifestyle.”

“So these emotions that you want to share, again it’s generational, like ‘don’t talk about it, you can’t, I don’t want to hear it (survivors say),’” she explained. “You know all these things that you’ve been repressed to express.”

The NABS Healing Coalition has identified over 367 schools operated by 14 different church denominations, and countless numbers of Indigenous children are still being unearthed from mass burial graves.

Thursday’s observance aligns with Canada’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which honors residential school survivors.

“Along with our relatives in Canada, we will be honoring Sept. 30 as a National Day of Remembrance for Indian Boarding Schools,” the NABS Healing Coalition wrote in a news release. “We must acknowledge the ongoing trauma of the Federal Indian Boarding School Policies so that we can heal. We are encouraging Native communities, as well as non-Native allies, to hold healing-informed events honoring boarding school survivors and call for accountability of the Federal Indian Boarding School policies.”

Dena Ned, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma and who was recently featured as an expert on The Salt Lake Tribune’s Indigenous boarding schools panel, said the National Day of Remembrance is a time to start the long-term healing of boarding schools across Native American and Alaska Native communities.

Ned is also an expert in the Indian Child Welfare Act and explores the topics of social justice, health, and policy from the perspective of urban Native populations.

Ned said the remembrance, known as Orange Shirt Day, is a way to honor the story of one girl whose treasured orange shirt, given to her by her grandmother, was taken away from her at residential school. “You know that happiness that came to you, ‘Well I’m going to something new,’ was taken away from her on that first day, and that’s why First Nations adopted the orange shirt as a symbol that ‘All children matter,” she said.

Ned added that she knows not everyone will acknowledge the tragedy of the boarding schools “because there’s so much happening in our lives now in the 21st century” and that many may ask, “What am I supposed to do about it?”

But it is important to remember and to learn our history, she continued.

“Understand it, be educated about it, to try to put it in perspective of the larger society. And why policies, why institutions and systems really need to look at who are members of their community, and how do they respond to them.”