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Orange Shirt Day: Creative Use of Cree Engages Learners

Orange Shirt Day* has special meaning on reserves. It’s not usually a happy celebration; so many who suffered abuse in residential schools would rather forget the humiliation and pain that speaking Cree or any other First Nations language would incur. Only recently have many of the descendants of these survivors discovered that their grandparents suffered, so especially on that day, MANS teachers try to fill in some of the history gaps and go above and beyond their usual day-to-day incorporation of Cree language and culture.

This fall, as Grade 5 teacher Suzann Self thought about Orange Shirt Day, she got an idea that’s become part of every day. This fall, after reading I Am Not a Number, a short book, with her class, Suzann proposed an experiment: the class would simulate the banning experience on a small scale for an extended time. Few of Suzann’s students spoke any Cree; what if they banned one English word a week and “forced” them to use the Cree word?

The students were enthusiastic, and Suzann began researching Cree words to substitute. It was the beginning of rewarding journey. Suzann discovered perspectives on the world she’d not realized until she investigated the Cree language.

“The language has so much depth,” says Suzann. “In Cree, the word for ‘child’ translates as ‘On loan from the Creator.’ Isn’t that beautiful? And so meaningful!”

Not only did students want to know more of their language, they became teachers themselves, correcting each other and Suzann when slips were made. As the tables turned and roles switched, Suzann was kindly corrected when she mispronounced a Cree word or slipped in an English word that had been banned. The language of her students came alive for all as they shared its meaning and the cultural ideas behind it. On spelling tests, the bonus point words are the Cree words—a motivator to write as well as speak their language.

By being open to the experience of her students and their culture, both Suzann and her students are learning more in so many areas, including the priceless value of each child as a gift.


*September 30 is Orange Shirt Day—an event inspired by the story of residential school survivor Phyllis Jack Webstad, who as a six-year-old girl was gifted an orange shirt by her grandmother before being taken away to a BC residential school. On the first day of class the orange shirt was confiscated and destroyed by her teacher. Orange Shirt Day acknowledges Phyllis story as well as the colonial assimilation goals of residential schools and their lasting impact on Indigenous communities nationwide.

Established in 2013, the date was selected because it was the time of year when children were taken from their homes to residential schools, and “because it sets the stage for anti-racism and anti-bullying policies for the coming school year.”[1] It is an opportunity for communities to come together, to listen, and remember those that did not make it home.

[1] “About Us.” Orange Shirt Day: Every Child Matters, 2013, www.orangeshirtday.org/about-us.html.