Jonathan Sims is a media producer and former appointed official at the Pueblo of Acoma. He covers news and writes a column on Indigenous People's issues for The Paper.


In honor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and to recognize a growing movement that examines our past trauma, it’s important to acknowledge a colorful global trend. September 30 is “Orange Shirt Day” in Canada, a day to remember the history and legacies of the residential school system for First Nations people. This has been a day of remembrance in Canada for several years now. The movement is growing in the U.S.—especially this year, as Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has called for a federal investigation into the history of Indian Boarding schools in the U.S. Our own reporting at The Paper. has focused on the history of Albuquerque Indian School and the Menaul School and the unmarked graves of students who attended those schools.

Why Orange?

Using orange as a color to represent the movement comes from a residential school survivor. Author Phyllis Webstad of the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nations People of British Columbia shared her story about entering a residential school at a Commemoration Project and Reunion Event held in Williams Lake, British Columbia, in the spring of 2013. Her experience propelled her to speak out against the atrocities that had happened in the Saint Joseph Mission Residential School’s past.

“I went to the Mission for one school year in 1973 to 1974. I had just turned 6 years old. I lived with my grandmother on the Dog Creek Reserve. We never had very much money, but somehow my granny managed to buy me a new outfit to go to the Mission school. I remember going to Robinson’s store and picking out a shiny orange shirt. It had string laced up in front, and was so bright and exciting—just like I felt to be going to school!”

But soon, that exciting time was gone. As Mrs. Webstad puts it, ”When I got to the Mission, they stripped me and took away my clothes, including the orange shirt! I never wore it again. I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give it back to me, it was mine! The color orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying, and no one cared.”

Orange. Often associated with caution. And it’s hard to miss. In some ways orange is the perfect color to bring attention. Pink has become the color of cancer; red for missing and murdered Indigenous women, heart health and others; and yellow for suicide awareness, troops, etc. Even more fitting is that some of the ’60s Albuquerque Indian School’s memorabilia were orange and black. 

As the nation opens its eyes to what happened to our children during the boarding school era, we use things like orange flags and shirts to further that awareness. But it is also important to understand where this comes from. It came from one woman’s story and her resilience to share it with the world. It goes to show us how important even one voice is and that one person can start a movement. 

The City of Albuquerque and the City Council have acknowledged the history and trauma that the Indian boarding school system had on Indigenous people in New Mexico. The city has also pledged to work with tribal nations and Native peoples to advise what the next steps are for 4-H Park where students from AIS are buried. A meeting scheduled for Friday, October 8 was postponed by the city. In a press release, the city said, “As part of being responsive to feedback during the 4-H Park process, we would like to continue efforts to find families who are directly impacted by the burial site and ensure they are aware of and invited to participate in the next stage of the input process. This will allow the Office of Native American Affairs to be intentional and thoughtful in our consultation process and work in cooperation with tribal nations, community stakeholders and, most importantly, Native American individuals and families.”