Orange Shirt Day commemorates painful history
By: Sydney Umstead, News Editor
On Oct. 2, the ALANA Student Center and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion held Orange Shirt Day, otherwise known as National Truth and Reconciliation Day, which pays homage to those who were forced into residential schools.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (or NCTR) reports that, “For a period of more than 150 years, First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation children were taken from their families and communities to attend schools which were often located far from their homes. More than 150,000 children attended Indian Residential Schools. Many never returned.”
While this is a Canadian holiday, Bennie Williams, the assistant dean of students and director of the Urban Leadership Learning Community spoke on how the day also pertains to Buffalo and the Canisius community.
Williams cited the acronym for ALANA as one of the important factors in his choice to host the day. “We have the ALANA Student Center,” he stated. “Native American or Indigenous individuals are within that acronym, and we kind of have a commitment to support that community.”
As Canisius is a Jesuit institution, Williams stated that part of the importance for holding the event stems from “the history that the Jesuits have with the Indigenous community.” He then elaborated, this is “also a very important reason as to why we should be celebrating Orange Shirt Day and recognizing it.”
Williams spoke about the Jesuit institution Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and noted how the campus has done “a lot of reconciliation work.” Williams continued, “They’ve done some work looking at their history and realizing how … members of their community may have owned or participated in residential schools or somehow been involved with Indigenous or Native American individuals and communities in very negative ways.”
“I think that just goes to show this is not something that we can just put behind us,” Williams said. “It is something that we really need to recognize and really figure out a way that we can move forward with because it is real, it happened to people, [and] it is still impacting people today.”
In an article published in 2018 by The Seattle Times, reporters found that the Jesuit institution Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, had a history of negative relationships with Native communities: “For more than three decades, Cardinal Bea House on Gonzaga’s campus served as a retirement repository for at least 20 Jesuit priests accused of sexual misconduct that predominantly took place in small, isolated Alaska Native villages and on Indian reservations across the Northwest.”
In terms of acknowledging this history at Canisius, William began with the statement, “I think that we have to be aware, and we have to really acknowledge what has happened.” He continued, “It may not be those who are here now [but] people who have come before us.”
“We’ve got to acknowledge that there’s been some wrong, and that’s the first step,” said Williams. Following this, he suggested, “We have to really try to invite members of the community in for conversation so that we’re working on this in a way that is authentic and not just performative.”
Williams went on to say, “It goes beyond just recognizing Orange Shirt Day. We have to think about our policies, our procedures.” This could include “statues and other things that are on campus” and ensuring that past decisions and “the decisions made in the future are being done in a positive, impactful and meaningful way.”
He said his last reason for holding the event was because, “Geographically, where Buffalo is, we are very close to a residential school, and so there’s not only history of it within the United States, within Canada, but very close to our campus.”
On the topic of this residential school, Williams also stated, “I think it’s important for us to be thinking about how we are acknowledging this fact, and then moving towards reconciliation.” This is something that Williams stated is “real and impacting our community.”
While data from 2020 suggests there are no Native American–identifying students on campus, Williams addressed this by saying “that is not accurate,” and he explained that this could be a result of improper data collection or because “sometimes people aren’t sure how to express how they identify in the systems and paperworks that we have.” He went on to say there are a handful of Indigenous/Native students that he personally knows, but there are definitely more going beyond what he knows about Canisius’s demographics and who he knows on campus.
The Orange Shirt Day event ran from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. During that time, participants received an orange shirt to show their support. Over 100 people were in attendance, and as people stopped by documentaries were also being played.
One documentary in particular, “Unseen Tears,” seemed to affect students the most as it “ really went into the history of residential schools, and the impact that it has had,” concluded Williams.