A hidden piece of Native American history will be brought to light Friday through “Orange Shirt Day,” a day of recognition observed by Ohio State’s Multicultural Center.
Students and faculty will be wearing orange shirts in honor of the survivors and victims of Native American residential schools. The event — fully named “Orange Shirt Day: Every Child Matters” — was first celebrated in Canada in 2013 in honor of residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad, who, at age 6, was taken to a residential school in Ontario, Canada.
Upon her arrival, the orange shirt she was wearing was forcibly taken from her, in exchange for a uniform.
“She decided to create this day of recognition in order to remember residential school and residential school experiences,” said Melissa Beard Jacob, intercultural specialist for American Indian/Indigenous students.
These residential schools, referred to as boarding schools in the United States, were first established toward the end of the 19th century and aimed to erase the traditional customs of Native Americans by forcing assimilation into European culture.
Students in these schools were often subject to cruel treatment, Jacob said. This, in addition to the adverse physical conditions of the schools, caused many children to die while in attendance.
“There were hundreds and hundreds of kids that died while they were there, and a lot of times they didn’t report the deaths,” Jacob said.
Jacob said the tagline “Every Child Matters” serves to honor the resiliency of the surviving students and remember the students who didn’t survive.
Jacob first brought the event to Ohio State in 2014. She said wearing the orange shirts further educates and brings awareness to the topic.
“I think having the visibility and getting the conversation started if somebody’s like, ‘What is Orange Shirt Day?’ then they can Google it and find out about boarding school history,” Jacob said. “So I think awareness is probably key to that.”
The event also rings a personal note for Jacob. Her grandmother was a survivor of the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School — a school established in Michigan that operated from 1893 to 1934.
“I’m looking to reclaim our history because none of us knew that my family attended until my grandmother died, and we found photographs of her at the school,” Jacob said.
Nicole Doran, a third-year in biology and president of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, said “Orange Shirt Day” is about educating the general population about the brutal history of Native Americans often not disclosed in textbooks.
“We’ve all gone through U.S. History courses, and Native American history is brushed over, all the tragedy, all the horrors are brushed over,” Doran said. “They’ll talk about the Trail of Tears and stop there, when it goes so much further than that.”
Doran hopes “Orange Shirt Day” will bring further visibility to the endurance of the Native American population.
“It’s about recognizing that we’re still here, and that we’re a resilient people,” Doran said.
Students who wish to stand in solidarity and remembrance of the Native American boarding schools on “Orange Shirt Day” can visit the Multicultural Center to pick up an orange t-shirt and ask for Melissa Beard Jacob to learn more.