01/15/2014 12:36 EST | Updated 03/16/2014 05:59 EDT

First Nation Teen Told Not To Wear 'Got Land?' Shirt At School


A Saskatchewan student was told not to wear a sweater in school that has the words "Got Land? Thank an Indian" on it, although officials have since relented.

Tenelle Star, 13, is in Grade 8 and goes to school in Balcarres, about 90 kilometres northeast of Regina. She is a member of the nearby Star Blanket First Nation.

"It supports our treaty and land rights ... It's important." Star told CBC News Tuesday, as the issue over the message on her shirt reverberated at her school and online through her Facebook page.

The front of her shirt, a bright pink sweatshirt, says "Got Land?"  The back says "Thank an Indian". The message references the link between historic treaties and land for what would become Canada.

In Saskatchewan, most First Nations have treaties with the Crown dating to the late 1800s. The so-called Numbered Treaties, which cover all of Saskatchewan, are formal agreements that created a relationship between the Crown and First Nations.

Star said she wore her new sweatshirt to school on the first day of classes after the Christmas break, with no problems.

Since then, however, she was told other students had complained about the message on her sweater and was asked to change.

"They told me to remove my sweater because it was offending other people," she said.

Star added that one of her teachers told her that some people viewed the message as racist.

"I didn't think it was racist," she said, adding she was embarrassed by the request to change. Although she did wear a cousin's shirt on the day she was first asked to change, she wore the sweatshirt again on subsequent school days.

That lead to a meeting with school officials, Star and her mother.

After that, she was told to wear the sweater inside out.

"I didn't really want to," Star said. "I thought, what's the point of wearing it inside out?"

Star said she reminded officials about some of the lessons she had learned.

"We were taught Indians were on this land first," she said. "So why are people offended?"

She later learned that some people in the community had contacted the school to complain about the sweater, although it was not clear how they came to hear about the shirt.

Tenelle said the all the attention has been stressful and she can not understand how the shirt generated such controversy.

"I wear it proudly around the school," she said, even though some students have told her the message is "cheeky" and "rude".

Controversy resolved

Additional meetings between the school and leaders of the Star Blanket First Nation led to an understanding that Star's sweatshirt, and its message, were acceptable after all.

"We're all on the same page," Sheldon Poitras, a council member from the reserve, told CBC News Tuesday night. "They're in full support of the students wearing that type of a T-shirt or sweater and they had no intention of infringing on anything."

Poitras said he believes some parents were reacting to overblown reports, from other students, about the message on Star's sweatshirt.

"They didn't understand what was really going on, or what was meant by the shirts being worn," he said.

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