Community News

Unsettling pasts still pain Native Americans

November 12, 2021 | Submitted by Lafayette Williams | By John D’Agostino | Jamestown Post Journal & Dunkirk OBSERVER | Source:

Photo: Lafayette Williams, right, poses for a picture with Grace Perez de la Garza, who was in attendance for his talk. Photo credit: OBSERVER

SILVER CREEK — Lafayette Williams asked for a moment of silence Tuesday night while speaking to a gathering of some 30 people in the Anderson-Lee Library. As a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, his heart was heavy when discussing a dark past that both the United States and Canada are struggling to deal with and accept.

Williams began referring to a gruesome May discovery. The remains of 215 Indigenous children were found– some as young as 3 — in Kamloops, British Columbia, at a residential school that attempted to force assimilation of these individuals. It was a disturbing and cruel reminder for far too many Native Americans of what has happened over nearly 300 years.

“This is a cultural awareness thing,” he said. “We have to remember … to grow and learn and heal from this. I don’t know if this is ever going to happen.”

In the United States, between 1869 and the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Native American children were removed from their homes and families, then placed in boarding schools operated by the federal government and churches, the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition notes on its website.

One of those boarding schools, the Thomas Indian School, was open until 1957 and located on the Cattaraugus Reservation in Irving.

Locally, school districts in Silver Creek and Gowanda took part on Sept. 30 in orange shirt day, which acknowledges the trauma that occurred decades ago in those complexes. “The U.S. native children who were voluntarily or forcibly removed from their homes, families, and communities during this time were taken to schools far away where they were punished for speaking their native language, banned from acting in any way that might be seen to represent traditional or cultural practices, stripped of traditional clothing, hair and personal belongings and behaviors reflective of their native culture,” the coalition website said.

For two significant nations that champion freedom, it is an embarrassing and tragic history that must never be forgotten. For Williams and other natives to attempt to come to terms with something as heinous as deaths of youths in Canada in boarding schools that were also maintained throughout the United States, it is an extraordinary sentiment to look ahead.

Williams’ comments came as part of the series at the library that spotlights November as Native American Heritage Month. Christine Huff of the library said in introducing the speaker the facility has a mission that “promotes cross-culture dialogue, research opportunities and stronger appreciation for Native American leadership and innovation.”

As part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Senecas — who are known as Keepers of the Western Door — are an important part of our regional economy. Their territories surround Chautauqua County to the north in Erie County and east in Cattaraugus County.

While noting some other fairly recent Western New York history, Williams touched on these items:

  • In 1924, Native Americans were given the right to vote and their lands were made sovereign. “(We) have no political relationship with U.S. government … but we do try to cooperate with them,” he said.
  • The Kinzua Dam on the Allegheny River near Salamanca was built in 1965 displacing about 600 Seneca members and submerging 1,000 acres — one-third of Seneca Nation territory.
  • In 2015, there were three major happenings. Lancaster changed the name of its school mascot from the Redskins to the Legends. Squaw Island was renamed Unity Island in Buffalo under Mayor Byron Brown’s leadership and Columbus Day was renamed Indigenous People Day.

Williams also mentioned a special role he had as an actor in the documentary “The War That Made America,” which tells the story of the French and Indian War and how it impacted the American Revolution. It was filmed near Latrobe, Pa., and broadcast on the PBS network in 2006.

“When I was younger, I was always fascinated with the film industry … I always wanted to be on the big screen,” he said. “I just kind of followed that passion.”

Today, Williams is employed by New York Connects and assists those on the nation with long-term services and support.

All presentations/talks can be viewed on the library’s Facebook page.