It was a stunning photo: Pope Francis briefly wore a full Aboriginal headdress, his rows of soft white feathers held in place by a colorful, beaded headband after he apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s “disastrous” residential school system for Aboriginal children .
Leader Wilton Littlechild, a residential school survivor, gave Francis a headscarf on Monday, putting it on his head to cheers from the audience in Masquashes, Alberta, which included many of the school’s survivors.
The gesture was clearly appreciated by the Vatican and the Pope: Francis kissed Littlechild’s hand after receiving his headdress, which he had done in the past as a sign of respect for Holocaust survivors, and made this journey for residential school survivors.
Apparently the Vatican realized the symbolic significance of this moment, placing the picture on the front page of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano under the headline “I humbly ask forgiveness.”
Headwear is historically a symbol of respect, worn by Native American war leaders and warriors. For many Plains tribes, for example, every feather placed on a headdress has significance and must be earned through an act of mercy or courage. Some modern-day Native American leaders were given war caps in ceremonies accompanied by prayers and songs.
Not everyone was pleased with Littlechild’s work. Some Aboriginal tribesmen said they found the gesture at odds with earlier abuses in church-run schools for which Francis had apologized.
Ross Diabo, a Kanawaki Mohawk member of Canada’s Aboriginal advocate and policy analyst, described the scene as a “festival” and that the pope’s statements were “easy”.
Diabo said on Twitter It was “the Catholic Church and Canada collaborating to create a myth of a common ‘reconciliation’ agenda narrated by notable federal collaborators/boarding school survivors!”
“I have a lot to say about this, and it’s all negative,” he wrote on Twitter. Joe Horse Capture, Vice President of Local Collections and Curator of Native American History and Culture at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles.
“I’m practicing the motto ‘If you can’t say anything positive, don’t say anything at all’. But I’ll be honest, it’s hard!”
Maca Black Elk, executive director of Truth and Healing at Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, described the scene on Twitter. as a “#toosoon moment.”
Black Elk wrote: “The speech about the #PopeFrancis headdress is unfortunate.” It was not asked. It wasn’t his fault. But it is also clear that the donors did not take into account how other Indigenous peoples might feel about it.”
Black Elk later said in a phone interview that the mixed reaction to the headdress that was placed on the pope’s head “reflects the reality of the indigenous population and our need for more dialogue” about the past.
“I think Chief Littlechild felt it was important to honor this moment, and this was an important moment,” he added.
A spokeswoman for Littlechild did not immediately respond on Tuesday to a letter seeking comment.
But Keeshon Littlechild used a Facebook post to defend his grandfather for giving Francis one of his many headdresses.
He wrote: “It bothered me to see people attack my grandfather and I understand how much respect it takes to be a talent but at the end of the day he was showing respect to the Pope to come all the way to the mask to apologize.”
Among those who came to the defense of Littlechild was Phil Fontaine, a former president of the Assembly of First Nations and a boarding 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 leadership and asked permission to give that gift. It completely agrees with the way they follow their customs and protocols here.”
John Cryer, a First Nations senior and school survivor, said during a press conference after the apology that the gesture meant that the tribal leaders “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 an appreciation…This is a man who belongs to our tribe,” Krier said.
Mary Ann Day Walker Pelletier, former president of the Okanese First Nation, told CTV, “I thought it was cool. I think the boss of all presidents now.”
Nicole Winfield and Peter Smith in Masquasis, Alberta, and Rob Gillis in Toronto contributed reporting. Snow reported from Phoenix.
The Associated Press’s religious coverage is supported by an Associated Press collaboration with The Conversation US, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.
“Infuriatingly humble alcohol fanatic. Unapologetic beer practitioner. Analyst.”