Friday Focus: Truth and reconciliation

woman in orange t-shirt
Photo courtesy of Charlene Stern
Charlene Stern wears orange to honor Native children sent to boarding schools. Stern is UAF's interim vice chancellor for rural, community and Native education.

Oct. 1, 2021

— by Charlene Stern, interim vice chancellor for rural, community and Native education

Yesterday, Sept. 30, was a day of remembrance for all those whose lives were impacted by boarding schools in both the United States and Canada designed to assimilate Native children.

Generations of Alaska Native children, including my own mother, were sent to boarding schools, namely Mount Edgecumbe, Wrangell Institute, Chemawa Indian School (in Oregon), and others. While individual experiences varied, common practices of board schools included forbidding Indigenous languages and expressions of culture; stripping of Indigenous identity through the cutting of hair; renaming children by using numbers or English names; and replacing traditional clothing with uniforms. In many of these government-sanctioned schools, instances of physical, sexual, verbal, mental and  emotional abuse of children were rampant. 

In many cases, children who survived the boarding school experience returned home to families and communities that had little knowledge and understanding of the trauma that they endured. Such generations often struggled with the loss of their language and cultural identity while also coping with the effects of trauma.

Many children also never made it home at all. Earlier this year, a horrifying discovery of 215 unmarked graves was made at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. Some of the children buried at the site were found to be as young as 3 years old. Since then, hundreds more remains have been found at various former residential school sites across Canada. These tragic discoveries have shined a renewed light on the history of boarding schools and the importance of acknowledging both survivors and victims.   

This year marks the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. Reconciliation is the process of healing relationships that begins with acknowledging the truths and addressing the wrongs of the past. On Wednesday, the chancellor encouraged the UAF community to wear orange on Sept. 30, in solidarity with the orange shirt movement, which was started by Phyllis Webstad of the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, who arrived on her first day of residential school dressed in a new orange shirt that was promptly taken from her and replaced with a uniform.  

As the child of a boarding school survivor, I am deeply honored to join the UAF community in wearing orange and amplifying the message that #EveryChildMatters.   

Friday Focus is a column written by a different member of UAF’s leadership team every week.