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It’s not about a headdress, it’s about healing

Updated: Apr 17

In late July Pope Francis visited the Maskwacis people in Canada to apologize for the dark history of residential schools. The federally funded, church-run schools removed indigenous children from their families against their will and engaged in a process of aggressive assimilation. Entire generations were deprived of their culture and traditions.

But when head Chief Willie Littlechild, honorary chief of Ermineskin Cree First Nation, decided to give the Pope a war bonnet many people were offended, saying the pope did not deserve it.

“The large-scale criticism that chief Willy Littlechild has received over offering the war bonnet to Pope Francis is one that is difficult to weigh in on; that was the decision of him, from his nation,” said Dr. Samuel Torres, Deputy CEO of The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition in Minnesota.

“With that being said we know that the war bonnet carries enormous significance across Indian countries, from American Indian, and Alaska Natives people in the United States, to First Nation folks in Canada.

Dr. Torres pointed out that this is not the first time the pope has received a headdress from Indigenous people.

“This isn’t to say that this is a pattern that should continue. I think it’s important to listen to the critiques of the leaders of those nations and to understand where they're coming from,” he said. “What the pope represents is something that many are going to have a really hard time making peace with, so that symbol - the pope wearing one of the most sacred elements from a nation - is an image that people are not ready to see.”

Dr. Torres says it’s important to stay focused on the reason for the Pope’s visit - to apologize.

“For some people hearing those words from the pope of the Catholic church, the leader of an institution that had a strong hand in the residential school system and I know that there are folks that reach out to us, that said to us that these words were healing for them,” said Dr. Torres. “We received a lot of feedback from folks that said ‘This is a good start, this is a really good beginning of a conversation.’ We also received feedback from folks that were not interested in hearing the words: they were interested in seeing the actions and seeing what was the plan moving forward; that an apology without any changed behavior or actions to address intergenerational trauma is really just empty. And there were even some folks that reached out to us that didn’t even agree with him coming to Canada in the first place. I think all of those reactions are hundred percent valid.”

Dr. Torres has his own thoughts on the Pope’s apology. He says it didn’t go far enough.

“In the official apology itself, the Pope neglected to use the word genocide, neglected to refer to sexual violence, did not refer to the rape of children, the impact of that,” he said. “Also the apology that was issued was not on behalf of the Catholic Church… It would have been a lot stronger had he said that this was the result of the catholic church at large but rather shifted the blame to some Christian missionaries and I think that is a gross misstep because to me that is a total evasion of accountability.”

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