Indianz.Com > News > Doug George-Kanentiio: Honoring the survivors of Native residential schools
The Walk for Joe begins August 27, 2021, at the site of the Mohawk Institute Residential School in Ontario, Canada.
Why Wear Orange?
Tuesday, August 10, 2021

People ask why the residential boarding school survivors, their respective families and supporters wear orange. Mohawk Nation faith keeper Kevin Deer Kanahsohon told me why.

Orange is the colour of fire, it is the source of heat during the cold season and light in the dark of night. It is what cooks our food, provides us with comfort and in its ashes and flames are the stories of the trees which are its fuel. In former times when we lived in longhouses there were communal fires, kept alive so the people could survive. Our ancestors gathered around fire not only for warmth but to socialize, to remember, to dance and sing.

Our wampum is the symbolic fire of the people and each longhouse has its own council fire. Fire has its own life; it breathes oxygen as we do. The old-timers would always “feed” the fire before they ate by casting a morsel of their meal into the flames. Fire was also emotional and demanded respect, it can be cultivated and spoken to. Fire is a way to reach into the spirit world when tobacco, sage or sweetgrass is given to it. The light given from fire is unlike anything else as its casts shadows across the walls of our homes. It also has a voice as anyone who has been close to a large blaze can tell.

Fire can also rise in anger as seen in the massive scorching in the west part of Anowara:kowa-the Great Turtle. Because humans have failed to use fire to remove the undergrowth resulting from the irresponsible killing of trees massive destruction is now being felt in many states and provinces. A drive along the Adirondacks reveals similar conditions with only a season or two of dry weather before this area is ablaze. The skill and technology of controlled burnings as mastered by Native people has been lost resulting in fire becoming an adversary rather than an ally.

Joe Commanda
Joe Commanda was struck and killed by a train on September 13, 1968, while trying to make it home from the Mohawk Institute Residential School in Ontario, Canada. He was 13 years old. Family photo

Fire set carefully in clearing and atop hills is a beacon of hope. It gives us a direction in which we are to go and can help in finding those who are lost. For the residential schoolssurvivors orange fire scours the memories of the abuse which took place in those schools; it burns away the simmering feelings of abandonment, isolation and fear. Orange means the consumption of the pain and resentments, that the light will banish those days of darkness and despair.

One instance of the wearing of orange will take place from August 27-29 as the National Walk for Joe Commanda takes place, a three day event which follows the trail of a 13 year old Algonquin boy as he fled the terrors of the Mohawk Institute for his Pikwakanagan (Golden Lake) home 400 kilometers away. The walkers will leave Brantford, Ontario to Toronto, 100 (60 miles) kilometers in total.

Joe, or Joey, as we, his Akwesasronon friends called him, had been sent to the Institute because he would not confirm to the school rules in his home community. He was, as we all were, underfed and vulnerable. As a former resident at the Insitiute I knew Joey very well. We gave him protection and shared what we had with Joey and his brother Rocky. As a gang we were involved in many acts of defiance serious enough to have the “St. Regis” boys expelled in June of 1968. Joey and his brother returned to the Institute in September of that year and when they learned we would not return they did what we had done-they ran, following a set of train tracks which they hoped would bring them closer to home.

The brothers reached Hamilton, 50 kilometers east of the Institute’s location in Brantford, before Rocky was arrested and jailed by the Ontario Provincial Police. Joey escaped and continued on another 50 kilometers, reaching the west end of Toronto where he was struck and killed avoiding one train before been hit by another on the four tracks leading to the central rail facility a few kilometers east of the accident.

The subsequent investigation into Joey’s death on September 3, 1968 led to the closure of the Institute in 1971 with Joey being the last recorded death as a result of the conditions there. As residents we were told of others who had died at the Institute, their remains obscured and hidden somewhere on the grounds. The Walk for Joe (posted on Facebook) will leave the Institute after a sunrise ceremony on August 27.

The walkers, wearing orange, will follow the route of the Commanda brothers as closely as possible-30 kilometers one day, 50 the next and another 20 the last day before reaching the exact place where Joey died, on the tracks across from the Queensway and beneath the St. Joseph’s Health Centre. A plaque will be set in place as a memorial for a brave young indigenous boy.

So the flames of memory will be rekindled for Joey and the thousands of Native boys and girls yet to be located, identified and returned to the embrace of their families. Wearing orange affirms the fire of our determination to rise above this national shame.

The Commanda family is extending an invitation across the continent for those who are survivors, their families and everyone who cares for the missing children to join them on the national march. Almost 2,000 Native children have been found on the grounds of the former schools and thousands more have yet to be located. The march will be part of a continental initiative to bring them home.

For more information contact the Walk for Joe on Facebook.

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the vice-president of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge. He has served as a Trustee for the National Museum of the American Indian, is a former land claims negotiator for the Mohawk Nation and is the author of numerous books and articles about the Mohawk people. He may be reached via e-mail at: or by calling 315-415-7288.