Family stories, intergenerational cycles & orange shirts: An Onkwehón:we perspective on the National Day for Truth & Reconciliation (by Wahéhshon Shiann Whitebean)

Our guest blogger this week, Wahéhshon (she/her) “She Walks About,” is a traditional Wolf Clan member of the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) Nation at Kahnawà:ke and mother of three. She is a Vanier Scholar and Tomlinson Fellow, currently a Ph.D. candidate (ABD) in Educational Studies at McGill University’s Department of Integrated Studies in Education. Wahéhshon works on language and culture revitalization initiatives at the Kahnawà:ke Education Center. Her doctoral research examines Indian Day School experiences, centralizing Kanien’kehá:ka life stories about navigating historic, contemporary, and multigenerational colonial traumas while demonstrating identity reclamation and cultural land-based education as pathways to resilience and well-being.

What does Orange Shirt Day or the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation mean to me as an Onkwehón:we? I was asked this question in a recent interview with Global News Montreal, which aired on September 30, 2021. The interview was about my research on Indian Day Schools and my experience as an Onkwehón:we researcher doing this work in my home community, Kahnawà:ke. It was my first news interview with anchor and a great learning experience, but it was too short for me to say everything I need to say about Orange Shirt Day and the legacy behind it. I’m writing this post to share more of my thoughts and experiences about this important day.


First, I’ll briefly explain a bit about who I am and where I’m from. My name is Wahéhshon (She Walks About), I’m of the Wolf Clan which is passed through matrilineal bloodlines in the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation. Both sides of my family are from Kahnawà:ke, including my paternal grandfather, a Scottish/Irish community member whose family moved to Kahnawà:ke when he was six years old. I come from a multigenerational family, with five living generations on my mother’s side. I feel so fortunate to have grown up around people of all ages from different generations, listening to their stories. My first home was with my mom, my great-uncles, and my great-great-grandmother, whom we all called “Ista” (mother). From Ista’s we moved in with my father and paternal grandparents.

I formed a strong bond with my paternal grandma Millie, whom I spent half of my childhood with. She took my siblings and I back to the Longhouse, to learn our history, ceremonies, and cultural teachings. I know what it means to be Kanien’kehá:ka today because of her. Grandma Millie told me about her life and the history of our family and community, including her time at Indian Day School. It was because of Grandma Millie’s stories that I started researching Indian Day Schools in the first place.

The majority of my family went to Day School, but at least one grandparent that I know of went to Indian Residential School, my maternal great-grandma Virginia. Grandma Virginia tragically passed away in her 30s, taking her stories and memories with her. Other than her early death, the most memorable thing I was told about her growing up was that her body was marked with many scars from the abuse at the school. I never saw her face with my own eyes, yet I felt the pain of those scars in other ways. I met a Residential School survivor once who told me those scars meant that Grandma Virginia was strong, that she kept resisting even when they hurt her for it. I could have known her had she lived into her 60s. Like so many others, she never heard the apology, saw a cent from a settlement, or had justice. Still, there were two precious gifts that Grandma Virginia passed on to me and her other descendants, her Clan (Wolf) and her fighting spirit.

For many Indigenous families, speaking about this genocidal history is painful, not just due to the fact that it was all meant to erase our existence, but because we can put names, faces, and memories to these atrocities. At present, I’m in my thirties and people my age went to Indian Residential School and Indian Day School. I myself settled a claim in the Federal Indian Day School lawsuit. We’re not over it yet, we have just started to accept what has happened to us.

Orange Shirt Day was sparked by a gathering of survivors, inspired by Phyllis (Jack) Webstad’s story of the orange shirt her grandmother bought her for her first day at Residential School. Stories work on people in different ways. To me, stripping that shirt off her back also symbolized their attempt to strip her of her grandmother’s love. The love of grandmothers saved many generations of my family. It is powerful ancestral medicine.

Orange Shirt Day is about spreading awareness of the realities of those that survived these institutions created for Indigenous erasure, and challenging false colonial histories. This day will always be “Orange Shirt Day” to me. It was born out of a survivor’s story. We must not forget that fact, when governments and corporations coopt it for their own purposes. After all, it only recently became the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation when thousands of unmarked graves of Indigenous children were finally located across so-called Canada. Many lost children will never be found. We also lost many survivors to addictions, suicide, and violence. The official recognition of this day presents a significant opportunity to have discussions where they weren’t happening before, not just in politics but in places like our homes, offices, and schools. We can’t just talk, or perform grief by wearing an orange shirt. We have to push for systemic change.

How do we move forward? How do we heal? It’s a lot easier to be healthy when you aren’t in survivor mode. Healing would be easier if we all had clean, safe drinking water. Being at peace isn’t possible when your women, girls, and 2SLGTBQIA+ community members are hunted, disappear, or are murdered. Families would be happier and healthier if there weren’t more Indigenous children in child welfare today than at the height of Indian Residential Schools. How can we move forward without justice? For those of us that do escape the crushing grip of poverty that was thrust upon our communities, there is no escaping these other realities. Indigenous peoples are not vulnerable, weak or defenceless. We are targeted. How do you reconcile with your predator? 

In closing, what Orange Shirt Day means to me is the mix of thoughts and emotions in this post. Anger that there’s no justice. Grief for the harm done and lives lost. Gratitude to those that survived. Admiration of the ones who still went on loving, despite the agony. Determination to heal the past by changing the present and controlling our own future. Doing this research and community work helped me to heal on deeper levels by allowing me to recontextualize the pain and traumas in my family. They want us to believe that we are strong and resilient because of the pain they caused us, but it’s not true. I retraced my roots and rediscovered intergenerational cycles of strength and the resilient love of Onkwehón:we matriarchs. When I wear orange on this day, that is what it represents to me, the embrace of ancestral love.

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