In 1973 at 6-years-old, Phyllis Webstad picked out a shiny orange shirt for her first day at residential school. Upon arrival, she was stripped of this shirt, her culture and dignity.
“Her story inspired the whole organization that is now well known,” president of the Native American Student Association Winona Williams said.
Orange Shirt Day, held annually Sept. 30, brings awareness to the thousands of Indigenous children alongside Webstad who attended residential boarding schools, many of whom never returned home.
“The orange shirt is a symbol of that cultural genocide that they were trying to simulate onto Native people,” vice president of the Native American Student Association Ayasha Williams said.
Minnesota State brought Orange Shirt Day to campus Friday with the help of MSU sophomores Winona and Ayasha Williams, twin sisters with Native heritage from the Ojibwe nation in Wisconsin.
“When we came here last year on Orange Shirt Day it was just us two wearing our orange shirts,” Winona Williams said. “There was nobody else – that’s only because nobody knew about it, and we wanted to change that for this year.”
From the efforts of the Native American Student Association, displays of orange and the phrase, “Every Child Matters,” were present on MSU’s campus, paired with flags by the water fountain. Members passed out orange shirts to willing students, who participated in a group photo in commemoration for the young victims.
“These kids were going to these schools expecting to learn and instead got stripped of all these things that made them who they are,” Winona Williams said. “These events that occurred and what these children had to go through at school should have never been a thing, and it’s just emphasizing that these children did matter and they still do.”
Orange Shirt Day was created with the purpose to reveal truth, and to witness and honor the healing journey of survivors.
“It’s a bit of closure for these families, especially since the majority of Indigenous people are either a residential boarding school survivor themselves, or grandchild, or all of the above,” Ayasha Williams said.
Although residential schools have since been shut down, Native children today continue to face discrimination in American schools.
“A lot of these children will wear their hair long for those that could not, and I think it’s important that people know why these children have their hair long, so we can prevent that bullying,” Ayasha Williams said.
With success in reaching their own college campus, the Williams sisters strive to extend the display beyond Minnesota schools and colleges; with more education, more change will follow.
“The phrase ‘Every Child Matters’ strongly emphasizes that every indigenous child’s body that’s found does matter,” Ayasha Williams said.
As awareness surrounding Orange Shirt Day continues to grow, so does the search for indigenous children lost to residential boarding schools.
“They’re still searching. They’re still searching open landfills, underneath churches, in grave sites,” Winona Williams said. There’s so many that they’re still recovering. Our display out there just only represents some of those bodies that were found, not all of them.”
Write to Mercedes Kauphusman at email@example.com
Header Photo: MSU students and faculty gathered near the fountain to take a group photo in orange shirts Friday in order to represent Indegenous children lost to boarding schools. (Brice Nyiringabo/The Reporter)