It was a stunning image: Pope Francis briefly wore a full native headdress, its rows of soft white feathers secured by a colorful, beaded headband after he apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in the ‘disastrous’ residential school system. of Canada for Aboriginal children.
Chief Wilton Littlechild, himself a residential school survivor, presented the headdress to Francis on Monday, placing it on his head to the cheers of an audience in Maskwacis, Alta., that included many school survivors.
The Vatican and the Pope clearly appreciated the gesture: Francis kissed Littlechild’s hands after receiving the headdress, which he has done in the past as a sign of respect for Holocaust survivors, and that he done on this trip for residential school survivors.
The Vatican obviously understood the symbolic significance of the moment, putting the photo on the front page of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano under the headline “I humbly ask for forgiveness”.
Headdresses are historically a symbol of respect, worn by Native American warlords and warriors. For many Plains tribes, for example, each feather placed on a headdress has significance and must be earned through an act of compassion or bravery. Some modern Native American leaders have received war bonnets in ceremonies accompanied by prayers and chanting.
Not everyone was happy with Littlechild’s action. Some native tribesmen said they found the gesture incongruous with past transgressions at church-run schools for which Francis had apologized.
Russ Diabo, a member of the Kahnawake Mohawk tribe in Canada and an Indigenous advocate and policy analyst, called the scene “pageantry” and the pope’s statements “easy.”
Diabo said Twitter it was “the Catholic Church and Canada collaborating to create a mythology for a common agenda of ‘reconciliation’ told by prominent federal collaborators/residential school survivors!” »
“I have so much to say about it, and it’s all negative,” tweeted Joe Horse Capture, Vice President of Native Collections and Curator of Native American History and Culture at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles.
“I practice the mantra ‘If you can’t say anything positive, don’t say anything at all. But I’ll be honest, it’s hard! added Horse Capture, a member of the A’aniiih Nation.
Maka Black Elk, executive director of Truth and Healing at Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, described the scene on Twitter like “a #toosoon moment”.
“The talk around the #PopeFrancis headdress is unfortunate,” Black Elk wrote. “He didn’t ask for this. It wasn’t his fault. But it’s also clear that the donors didn’t think about how it would make other indigenous people feel.
Black Elk later said in a phone interview that the mixed reaction to the hairstyle placed on the pope’s head “reflects the reality of native people and our need for more dialogue” about the past.
“I think Chief Littlechild felt it was important to honor that moment, and it was an important moment,” he added.
A spokeswoman for Littlechild did not immediately respond to a message Tuesday seeking comment.
But Keeshon Littlechild used a Facebook post to defend his grandfather for giving Francis one of his many headpieces.
“It bothers me to see people talk down to my grandfather and I understand how much respect it takes to be gifted, but at the end of the day he was the one who showed respect to the pope for coming all the way to maskwacis to apologize,” he wrote.
Among those who came to Littlechild’s defense was Phil Fontaine, a former chief of the Assembly of First Nations and residential school survivor.
“Chief Littlechild followed his protocols,” Fontaine said. “There is a protocol for this kind of gift. He went to the elders, he went to the leaders and asked permission to present this gift. It’s completely consistent with how they follow their customs and protocol here.
Jon Crier, a First Nations elder and survivor of the school, told a news conference after the apology that the gesture meant tribal leaders “have adopted him as one of our leaders in the community. .
“It’s a tribute to the man, it’s a tribute to the work he’s done and it’s also recognition… here’s a man who belongs to our tribe,” Crier said.
Marie-Anne Day Walker Pelletier, former chief of the Okanese First Nation, told CTV, “I thought that was pretty cool. The leader of all leaders now, I suppose.
Nicole Winfield and Peter Smith in Maskwacis, Alberta, and Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed reporting. Snow reported in Phoenix.
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