The traditional Secwepemc Deer Song could be heard across the fields of 100 Mile Elementary Wednesday.
Students of the school were gifted the song by Bonaparte First Nations member Mike Retasket and his partner Cheryl Chapman, of the Xat’sull First Nation, during an Orange Shirt Day celebration Wednesday, Sept. 29. While shy at first, the students soon joined in with the elders, smiling widely as they did.
“It’s so beautiful to see so many orange shirts and orange handprints out there,” Retasket said.
This singing lesson followed a march with Retasket and Chapman around their playfield as they sang the Scwempec Honour Song. Each class bore a banner with their handprints and signs reading “Every Child Matters.” Retasket and Chapman then shared stories in front of the school’s outdoor learning structure.
Retasket thanked the Canim Lake Band for welcoming him onto their ancestral land and commended 100 Mile Elementary for keeping its flags at half-mast in recognition of what has happened to First Nations children in residential schools.
Orange Shirt Day is now a national day of recognition for the survivors of residential schools, including three generations of his own family. A new National Day for Truth and Reconciliation also honours the lost children and survivors of residential schools, their families and communities. Both events are held on Sept. 30.
“We are here. We are the evidence that we have survived as Indian people. Our plants, our water, our air, our ceremonies, our language and our songs have survived,” Retasket said. “807 generations, that’s how long we’ve occupied this territory and this territory has looked after us, keeping us healthy and strong so we can look after one another.”
Chapman echoed Retasket’s sentiments. With hearts and minds opened by education, she said she was confident both First Nations and non-First Nations communities will be able to work together towards reconciliation.
“I’ve known about residential schools my whole life. My mom went to St. Joseph’s Mission for nine years and Kamloops Indian Residental School for two years,” Chapman shared. “She first went when she was four years old and she’s taught me the legacy of the things she saw and lived through.”
For Chapman, the 215 unmarked graves that were found in Kamloops illustrate the importance of taking opportunities like Orange Shirt Day to share and listen to the stories of residential school survivors and Indigenous people.
After speaking to the students, Retasket and Chapman ended the celebration with a performance of Retasket’s self-written song Heavy Wood, followed by the Scwempec Prayer.
Penny Reid, the school’s First Nations classroom support worker, found the ceremony to be a perfect culmination of what the students have been learning. Over the week leading up to National Truth and Reconciliation Day, teachers have been teaching students about residential schools and bringing in presenters like Retasket and Chapman.
“We’re just keeping the conversation going through what kids are learning. If they learn it every year they’re going to retain a little bit more every year,” Reid said. “On the 30th of every month, we’re going to try and wear our orange shirts to keep it going the whole school year.”