Pope Francis being gifted a headdress by Chief Wilton Littlechild was a powerful and symbolic moment — but the symbolism is not sitting well with everyone.
The Pope was given the headdress on Treaty 6 territory, in the central Alberta First Nations community of Maskwacis, after he apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system on Monday.
The apology came with cheering from the crowd, and some people were weeping. Soon after, Chief Littlechild went on stage and placed a headdress on Pope Francis’ head.
The former member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission attended residential schools for 14 years as a child in Alberta.
It was a stunning image: Francis briefly wearing the full Indigenous headdress, its rows of soft white feathers fastened in place by a colorful, beaded headband.
The Vatican and the pope clearly appreciated the gesture: Francis kissed Littlechild’s hands after receiving the headdress, something he has done in the past as a sign of respect for Holocaust survivors, and has 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 beg forgiveness.”
Headdresses historically are a symbol of respect, worn by Native American war chiefs and warriors.
For many Plains tribes, for example, each feather placed on a headdress has significance and had to be earned through an act of compassion or bravery.
Some modern-day First Nations leaders have been given war bonnets in ceremonies accompanied by prayers and songs.
“It’s honouring a man as a chief, as a honourary chief and leader in the community and in doing that it’s actually adopted him as one of our leaders,” Maskwacis elder Lorne Green said.
“Doing that, it’s actually adopted him as one of our leaders. It is also recognizing from the community that here is a man that belongs in our tribe.”
But many aren’t ready to welcome Pope Francis. Some members of Indigenous tribes said they found the gesture incongruous with the past transgressions at church-run schools that Francis apologized for.
Treaty 8 Grand Chief Arthur Noskey issued a news release decrying the gift.
“That kind of a gift is the one in question, it represents leaders from our culture,” said the grand chief of the First Nations in northern Alberta, northwestern Saskatchewan, the southwest portion of the Northwest Territories.
“The apology is one thing — but that is celebrating this person, so what are you doing? Are you celebrating the atrocities of our people?
“That’s what I thought (when I saw it) — it’s just totally inappropriate.”
Among those coming to Littlechild’s defense was Phil Fontaine, a former Assembly of First Nations chief and a residential school survivor.
“Chief Littlechild followed his protocols,” Fontaine said. “There is a protocol for that kind of gift. He went to the elders, he went to the leadership and requested permission to present that gift. It is entirely consistent with the way they follow their customs and protocol here.”
Cheryl Whiskeyjack is with the Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society in Edmonton and was watching the events live on television.
“My words as I watched him was, ‘No’, but it wasn’t my gift to give,” Whiskeyjack said.
She doesn’t agree with the gift either.
“In our community those are given to a real position of honour. You don’t come and apologize for something so horrible and be gifted something that is so honourable.”
She said she understands it’s complicated.
“Another take I’ve seen online, is that it is an exchange and the person who gifted that headdress had his reason — we may or may not know what his reasons are, and it’s not for us to judge.”
The papal visit has ignited many feelings, and moments like Monday’s exchange resonate with survivors.
Whiskeyjack hopes people understand that there are going to be different feelings and emotions.
“I think this visit is allowing us to see the spectrum of where we are at on this issue. People are all over the place,” Whiskeyjack said.