Indigenous Student Association’s Vigil in Honor of Residential School Victims

By Henry Fisher | October 10, 2022


Display at the Parents Fountain, where the candlelight vigil was held

Photo Credit: Henry Fisher (ASP)


On Sept. 30, observed as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada, the newly-founded University at Albany Indigenous Student Association (ISA) held a candlelight vigil in honor of the victims of residential schools – a system of government schools seeking to continue the eradication of Native American culture by assimilating them into euro-centric American ideals.


During the vigil, the ISA presented a speech and held a moment of silence “in honor of the children who never made it home and the survivors who did.” Those participating wore orange.


“Residential schools were government-sponsored, religious-based schools established to assimilate indigenous children into, but their motto being ‘Kill the Indian, Save the Man.’ They operated in both the United States and Canada with a combined total of 550+ schools, and the last one closed in 1996. Indigenous children were stolen from their homes and sent away to the schools to become more civilized by learning Christianity and English. What actually took place at these schools was brutal physical, psychological, and sexual abuse of children – ages from 4 to 16. Many children did not make it home and deaths were often covered up by burying them in unmarked graves,” said ISA members in a speech at the event.


The eight-member club started last spring, and includes members of the Seneca, Mohawk, and Onondaga Nations.


“We want to spread awareness, especially on this campus, considering that we are on Mohawk land. I think most people just don’t know, because it's not really taught in public schools,” UAlbany ISA President Jillian Benedict said.


“There are lots of clubs for other groups and I think it’s really part of a sense of belonging,” ISA faculty advisor and Associate Director of the Academic Support Center Vanesssa Borum said. “In March, a former student’s mom reached out about a group of students coming from Onondaga Nation, and that was really the start of it. From there, it was like, ‘let’s do more!’ They ran with it.”


Members of the Indigenous Student Association spreading awareness in the UAlbany Campus Center prior to the candlelight vigil.

Photo Credit: Henry Fisher


The event is intended to be held annually. This year, it was held at the Parents Fountain, outside of the Science Library. Posters were set up around the courtyard, with children’s shoes, representing the victims of residential schools, laid out around the fountain. A raffle for t-shirts was held, and the members of the ISA read a speech which addressed both the creation of the club, its future goals and the history of the residential schools. Included in the speech was a reading of Rebecca Thomas’s poem, “We are gathered.”


The speech started with the “Thanksgiving Address,” a traditional ceremony of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, also known by the French title Iroquois Confederacy. The ISA has created a petition to add this address to the UAlbany commencement. A physical copy of the petition was passed around for participants to sign.


According to the ISA and UAlbany Multicultural Resource Center’s National Native American Heritage Month toolkit, the address is said to be used when nations within the Haudenosaunee Confederacy have meetings or ceremonies, or anything of importance. This opening gives thanks to all of creation starting with us, or the people, and continuing upwards from the earth to the waters, the trees, the birds, the thunder, etc., and ultimately the creator.


“Today there have been over 10,000 unmarked graves of children found on schools’ grounds, and the search is still underway – with a long way to go,” the ISA’s speech read. “We stand here as products of everlasting resiliency. Many of our nations are working on revitalization efforts, and this group is our effort here in the UAlbany community.”


Two UAlbany students that attended the event, Steven Jimenz and Karlee Tracy, shared their thoughts on the ISA’s on-campus importance.


“This [indigenous experiences] is something we should be looking into more,” UAlbany student and attendee Steven Jimenz said. “I am here to support one of my friends, who is a part of the indigenous community.”


“I came here to support my roommate, Ryleigh John, who is the Vice President of ISA, and all that she stands for,” said UAlbany student Karlee Tracy. “I think it's really good to bring awareness to this, because a lot of people don’t know about what happened in the schools.”


For more information and updates on future events, visit the Indigenous Student Association Instagram.

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