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Orange Shirt Day on Sept. 30 recognizes boarding school abuses

The PNC-UCC Dismantling Racism Team recently sent a letter suggesting that churches commemorate Orange Shirt Day on Sept. 30. The letter was signed by Marilyn Burwell from the United Church at Ferndale and Chris Hanson, chair of the team.

During a Lenten study last winter, Marilyn and other members of Ferndale learned about historic abuses within the federal Indian Boarding School system. They joined with members of Christ Lutheran Church in Ferndale and some Lummi Nation members for a book study of Tulalip from my Heart by Harriette Shelton Dover.

Orange shirt banners hanging in the UCC and Christ Lutheran Church in Ferndale.  Photos courtesy of Marilyn Burwell

The author writes about her struggles while attending the Tulalip Indian Boarding School near Marysville. At the age of 9, Harriett was severely beaten by the matron for speaking her native language. She also writes about Indian boys who were beaten by the school’s superintendent and medical doctor.

In her childhood, the author said young girls were warned not to go to the beach alone because madams from brothels routinely searched beaches to capture unwary girls.

“We chose the book because it relates to Whatcom County and many children from the Lummi Nation and Nooksack Tribe attended the Tulalip Indian School,” Marilyn said.

In 2002, it was the second year the two churches and tribal members joined together to do a Lenten study on Zoom.

During their two year study, the Ferndale team became aware of the importance of Orange Shirt Day to tribes and nations of the U.S. and Canada.

“The Orange Shirt is a symbol of the harm done to the indigenous children, who were forced to attend Indian Boarding Schools,” Marilyn explained.

In the U.S., Orange Shirt Day was observed officially for the first time in 2021.  The hope is that Sept. 30 will someday be commemorated as the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, as it is in Canada.    

Marilyn told the story behind the day:

The orange shirt idea grew from the story of six-year-old Phyllis Webstad, a Shuswap native, who began school at St. Joseph Mission Residential School near Williams Lake, British Columbia, in 1973. To ease her fears as she boarded a bus alone, Phyllis’ grandmother gave her a brand-new orange shirt. 

When Phyllis arrived at the school, she was stripped of her clothing, including the new orange shirt. Then she was given a bath, her long hair was cut short, and she was issued a school uniform. 

Phyllis never saw her orange shirt again. 

Even though she attended the school at Williams Lake for only one year, the experience contributed to low self-esteem. 

Phyllis said, “that feeling of worthlessness and insignificance, ingrained in me from my first day at the mission, affected the way I lived my life for many years. Even now, when I know nothing could be further than the truth, I still sometimes feel that I don’t matter.” 

Her story is relatively mild, compared to other indigenous experiences, but her story was traumatizing, Marilyn said.

Other children, who attended boarding schools for longer periods of time, lost their native languages, native cultures, the nurturing presence of their families and sometimes their lives.  They were exposed to cold, hunger, fatal diseases, like tuberculosis, even beatings and rape. 

Many children died at the residential schools. In some cases, parents were not advised of their child’s death, and children were buried in unmarked graveyards on school grounds, Marilyn said.    

In the summer of 2021, and partly as a response to the more than 200 graves discovered at Kamloops in Canada in June 2021, U.S. Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland, announced the creation of an Indian School Initiative to quantify the problems and to create a way for Indigenous people to heal from their boarding school experience. 

The U.S. Department of Interior released the first portion of their promised Indian Boarding School report on May 11, 2022. 

The findings stated: “The investigation found that from 1819 to 1969, the federal Indian boarding school system consisted of 408 federal schools across 37 states, or then territories, including 21 schools in Alaska and 7 schools in Hawaii.”

In addition, about 53 burial sites were identified. The federal investigation will continue, and the number of burial sites is expected to increase. 

The May 2022 report also announced the launch of “The Road to Healing,” a year-long tour across the U.S. to allow American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian survivors of the federal Indian boarding school system to share their stories, connect communities with trauma-informed support and facilitate collection of a permanent oral history of survivors.  

The report lists 14 federal Indian Boarding Schools in Washington: Oakville, Kettle Falls, Tacoma, White Swan, Davenport, Neah Bay, Squaxin Island, Taholah, Olympia, Federal Way, Omak, Tonasket, Tulalip Bay (Priest’s Point). 

Stickney Indian Boarding School in Whatcom County was supported by the Methodist Episcopal Church’s Women’s Home Missionary Society from 1889 to 1913.

Photo courtesy of Whatcom Museum a#1996.10.9889

Marilyn is compiling the story of a small Indian boarding school, Stickney Indian Boarding School, which is not on the current list.

Marilyn’s background includes library research. She feels she has come full circle, because she spent four years as a child in the Four Corners area of New Mexico, where some members of her extended family still live and where she was first exposed to indigenous cultures. 

After graduating from Washington State University in 1967, she worked as a teacher before marrying and starting her family. In 1978, she received a master’s studies in library science at the University of Washington. She worked 22 years as a technical librarian for a sanitary engineering firm in Seattle. After retirement, she and her husband moved to Bend, Ore., where she was active in a ministry in a Hispanic neighborhood with First Presbyterian Church. Marilyn and her husband moved to Ferndale in 2017 to be closer to family.

In Ferndale, Marilyn and her husband joined the United Church of Ferndale. Bobbi Virta, who was pastor until 2021, became acquainted with some members of the Lummi Nation.

Joel Asoved, a Methodist, who is now pastor, continues those ties, along with the Christ Lutheran pastor, Jana Schofield.

Marilyn co-led the 2022 Lenten program with Robin Ogmundson and Pastor Joel from her church, with Pastor Jana and Nancy Tupper of Christ Lutheran, and with Renee Swan Waite, Cynthia Wilson and Shirley Williams from the Lummi Nation.

Nancy Tupper, Jana Schofield and Bobbi Virta, back row, Marilyn Burwell, Renee Swan-Waite and Cynthia Wilson.Photo courtesy of the United Church of Ferndale

“It is important to commemorate Orange Shirt Day because many people in our congregations and communities have no knowledge of the Indian Boarding School era,” said Marilyn. “It’s time for this history to become broadly known.
 “What better place to seek the truth and reconciliation than through our churches?” she challenged. 

“Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is doing a tremendous job of keeping the federal boarding school initiative in the headlines. She will not be interior secretary forever, so we have a small window of time to tell the truth about the boarding school era and to give survivors the means to heal. Churches commemorating Orange Shirt Day is one way to help with a Truth and Reconciliation process.”

She offered links to various resources:

• A prayer written by an Anglican Church in Canada: Remembering the Children Prayer

• A PBS NewsHour account of the release of the May 2022 Interior Department Report at

• An article on the boarding schools in The Economist at

• A Department of the Interior Releases Investigative Report on Next Steps in Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative at

• A Washington Post article at

• The Orange Shirt Day Proclamation at

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Pacific NW Conference United Church of Christ News © August 2022


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