The Roots of Horizon's New Orange Shirt Design
by Dan Mullins
During the Spring and Fall of 2023, 10 students from Horizon High School were deeply involved in a project which touched aspects of the social studies and ethics curricula, and which resulted in the creation of an original orange t-shirt design for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and beyond.
The core group of students included Issa Rodney, Sean Martino, Maddox Slaney, Cassandre André, Hailey Leggo, along with Gwendolyn Jakobi and Kaeden Michlick, who have since graduated. Several other students provided feedback and ideas. The project was guided by Leadership Teacher Louise Pion, and was well-supported by First Nation, Inuit and Métis Liaison Sue Simatos.
In March 2023, the students participated in three workshops with a Kanienʼkehá:ka (Mohawk) artist. During the workshops, they discussed Orange Shirt Day, residential schools, how Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can work together to create a design, and why such collaboration is important. They heard medicine wheel teachings and participated in a sharing circle discussion.
Participation in the workshops clearly had an effect on many of the students. During one session, they created tobacco ties. Having consciously associated emotion with the small tobacco pouches as a way to process it, students agreed that the ritual had been beneficial and cathartic.
“When it’s done, you can do different things to release the emotion,” said Mr. Rodney.
“I held onto it for months – a lot of things I was dealing with went into that,” agreed Mr. Slaney.
Later, they learned about Kanienkeha:ka symbols and how they could be incorporated to create a meaningful design with lasting impact, and the importance of a social justice perspective.
They then collaborated on bringing their learnings into a unified t-shirt design.
Symbols chosen during the workshop sessions include the White Pine, the eagle and eagle feathers, the white roots, a war club, and the medicine wheel. The Eagle is described as a messenger to the Creator, and the protector of peace. The White Pine Tree is a symbol of peace and the unity of the nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) confederacy. It is also referred to as the Great Tree of Peace because warring nations once came together to bury their weapons of war, such as the war club, underneath it. The Four White Roots of the Great Tree of Peace represent north, south, east and west, directions from which other nations can find the Great Tree of Peace.
The orange shirt itself is also an increasingly well-known symbol. It stands in for the orange shirt that Phyllis Webstad’s grandmother gave her, which was stripped from her on the first day of residential school, never to be returned. Horizon students said they thought it represented how the residential school system attempted to take away the Indigenous identities of children.
The students fluently discussed intergenerational trauma.
Grade 11 student Cassandre André affirmed she had gained a deeper understanding of what had taken place at residential schools and their cultural significance. Past lessons had been “vague about what happened,” she said. “They just say that they were taken from their homes, put into schools and abused.”
“They had their language stripped from them, they had to speak English, they had to change their names,” noted Mr. Martino, “we try to respect that, it’s horrible to think of.”
Coming out of the final workshop, the students had a number of different designs. The group collaborated with Martin Gould from Promo 21, a neuro-diverse printing company, for the making of the t-shirts. “He came to look over the sketches with them, put together a mock-up and sent it to us,” explained Ms. Pion.
“It went through a couple of stages,” said Mr. Rodney, describing the exchange between the students and the printing firm.
The t-shirts are now on sale in children’s sizes through Adult Small to 5XL. All proceeds go to the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal. The students chose the beneficiary, as per their learning, through consultation with members of the Indigenous community.
“Money doesn’t give back the time that they lost, but I wasn’t there, so I can’t change what happened. Even though it didn’t happen to me, I don’t want it happening to someone else,” said Mr. Martino.
To order orange shirts, contact Ms. Louise Pion via email at email@example.com.