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Unlearning Racism: Orange Shirt Day in the USA

I live in a place that has historically been on the front lines of racism. I am only a few miles north of the Mason Dixon line – the invisible boundary between slaves and free people in the USA that spans much of Pennsylvania and Maryland. South of that line continued to permit slavery for nearly 100 years.

My home city of Chambersburg was burned to the ground as both armies marched 25 miles west to Gettysburg. Rebels demanded provisions and money or face destruction. The Rebel troops went on to Gettysburg with no additional support and ultimately lost the battle. USA Civil War covered many issues and was not a battle intended to end slavery, but it did put in motion addition events that would result in freeing slaves.

History is all around me. Yet there’s one area I really hadn’t explored. I remember in 10th grade learning about the Carlisle Indian School, located about 20 miles north from my home.

Just a year ago, a coworker shared with me about Orange Shirt Day. While primarily a Canadian observance, it seemed fitting that I take a day to visit the historical exhibits nearby and learn more about this part of my local history.

Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the school, believed “that to ‘civilize’ the Indian would be to turn him into a copy of his God-fearing, soil-tilling, white brother”.

It seemed to me that the efforts of the school were to remove the culture of its students and to replace generations of identity with an American approach, largely of European descent. Students from the school graduated with hopes of taking newly learned trades back to their reservations, but found little opportunity there.

It was such a somber experience to take in all this exhibit offered.

An odd contrast to the work of taking captive the Indigenous children by celebrating in the very same years that this region was a safe space for those fleeing slavery and an exhibit about housing prisoners of war.

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