Pope Francis receiving a headdress sparks heated emotions in First Nations communities

Pope Francis being gifted a headdress by Chief Wilton Littlechild was a powerful and symbolic moment – but the symbolism doesn’t go down well with everyone.

The pope received the headdress on Treaty 6 territory in the First Nations community of Maskwacis in central Alberta after apologizing Monday for the Catholic Church’s role in the school system.

The apology was met with cheers from the crowd, and some people cried. Shortly thereafter, Chief Littlechild took the stage and placed a headdress on Pope Francis.

The former member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission attended boarding schools in Alberta for 14 years as a child.

It was a stunning image: Francis briefly wore the full indigenous headdress, its rows of soft white feathers held in place by a colorful, beaded headband.

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Pope Francis adjusts a traditional headdress he received after apologizing to indigenous people during a ceremony in Maskwacis, Alta, as part of his papal visit across Canada on Monday, July 25, 2022.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

The Vatican and Pope clearly appreciated the gesture: Francis kissed Littlechild’s hands after receiving the headdress, something he had done in the past as a show of respect for Holocaust survivors and on this trip did for boarding school survivors would have.

The Vatican apparently understood the symbolic importance of the moment and put the photo on the front page of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano under the heading “I humbly ask for forgiveness”.


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Headgear is historically a symbol of respect worn by war chiefs and Native American warriors.

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For many Plains tribes, for example, each feather on a headdress had meaning and had to be earned through an act of compassion or bravery.

Some modern First Nations leaders have been bestowed war bonnets in ceremonies accompanied by prayer and song.

“It honors a man as a chief, as a volunteer chief and a leader in the community, and in doing so he is actually accepted as one of our leaders,” said Lorne Green, the Maskwacis elder.

“So it actually adopted him as one of our leaders. It also recognizes from the community that here is a man who belongs to our tribe.”

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But many are not ready to welcome Pope Francis. Some members of indigenous tribes said they found the gesture inconsistent with past transgressions at church schools, for which Francis apologized.

Contract 8 Grand Chief Arthur Noskey issued a press release denouncing the gift.

“That kind of gift is the one in question, representing leaders of our culture,” said the Grand Chief of the First Nations of northern Alberta, in northwest Saskatchewan, the southwestern portion of the Northwest Territories.

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“The apology is one thing – but that’s what this person is celebrating, so what do you do? Do you celebrate the atrocities of our people?

“That’s what I thought (when I saw it) — it’s just totally inappropriate.”

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Among those who came to Littlechild’s defense was Phil Fontaine, a former First Nations Assembly leader and boarding school survivor.

“Chief Littlechild followed his protocols,” Fontaine said. “There is a protocol for this type of gift. He went to the elders, he went to the leadership and asked permission to give this gift. It fits perfectly with the way they follow their customs and protocols here.”


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Cheryl Whiskeyjack is with the Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society in Edmonton and was watching the events live on TV.

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“My words as I watched him were ‘no,’ but it wasn’t my gift to give,” Whiskeyjack said.

She doesn’t agree with the gift either.

“They are given a real place of honor in our community. You don’t come and apologize for something so horrible and get something so honorable.”

She said she understands it’s complicated.

“Another take I’ve seen online is that this is an exchange and the person who gifted this headdress had their reason – we may or may not know what their reasons are and it suits us not to judge.”

The Pope’s visit aroused many emotions, and moments like Monday’s exchange resonate with survivors.

Whiskeyjack hopes people understand that there will be different feelings and emotions.

“I think this visit allows us to see the spectrum of where we are on this issue. People are everywhere,” Whiskeyjack said.

“There are people who are ready to see and accept that apology and there are people who are just not ready.”

The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help boarding school survivors and their families who are experiencing trauma brought on by memories of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.

– With files by Anita Snow, Nicole Winfield, Peter Smith, Rob Gillies, The Associated Press

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

https://globalnews.ca/news/9017958/pope-francis-canada-first-nations-headdress/ Pope Francis receiving a headdress sparks heated emotions in First Nations communities

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