BOS 08 04 2022 doublesize
"It was a big pow wow, a really big, expensive pow wow," said an indigenous man commenting on the context of Pope Francis' first address on Canadian soil. He talked about the Grand Entry, the songs that were sung, the sound of jingle dress dancers. He argued that the pope's apology was given in a context that affirmed indigenous culture and identity, an atmosphere where he felt at home and in community.  

I had watched some of the preparations for the pope's address, then had to go to town and listened to what was happening on the radio. I was hoping to hear the pope speak, but instead, I got to listen to the indigenous M.C. talk about which songs were being sung, the meaning of the eagle staffs and why they were arranged in a certain way. I wondered if the pope was getting impatient, or if he was able to accept the ceremony unfolding around him. As I got out of the car, I did not mind at all that I had not heard the pope's speech--I knew I'd be able to watch it later--because what I heard was indigenous people setting the context in their own way.

After the pope spoke at a church on the first evening, an indigenous woman described his talk as aimed at people inside the church. The themes did not really address her thinking as she had taken herself out of the church years earlier. But she thought that his words would likely have been comforting to those who still found the church a place where they belonged. Then she added, "I'm not going to tell anyone that they are surviving colonialism wrong." I found that statement to be a powerful affirmation that indigenous people are working through their journeys in different ways.

There were moments like the masses that the pope lead where the church set the context. But there were important events where indigenous culture and identity--First Nations, Metis, and Inuit--were front and centre, not just on display, but setting the context. The pope's words were given in places where he did not control the ceremony.

One of the ways the pope's visit was honoured was in the ritual of gift giving. It was lovely to watch people approach to give something important to them and to receive a gift in return. I did not see the giving of a headdress when it happened the first day, but it was an event that was shown repeatedly because it was controversial.

I heard Phil Fontaine defend the gift, saying that the giver had followed protocol, consulting elders in advance. When it was given, however, a woman came forward to sing her anger and pain at the sight of the pope wearing, for a moment, that symbol.

Wilton Littlechild explained that he gave his grandfather's headdress in recognition of the pope's decision to come to their community. Four or five years ago, he had personally asked the pope to come to Canada. When he chose Wilton's own community, he and the people of his community felt it right to honour that decision.

For others who had not had the personal relationship with the pope, the gift felt wrong. The headdress is a symbol of honour and authority which many feel the pope had not earned. For me, the controversy feels legitimate. There were traditional reasons for the gift, and there are current reasons for people to distance themselves from the leader of a church which caused specific and systemic abuses.

While there was approval for the apologies that the pope did make, many voices spoke of what was not in them. He said nothing about the Doctrine of Discovery, though the Vatican has said a statement is coming. Some Indigenous people pointed out that until that doctrine is removed, the colonial foundation remains, and an equal relationship is not yet possible.

In an interview on the way back to Italy, the pope said that during the trip he again felt indignation at the abuses and the system of Residential Schools. When prompted, he agreed that the system was a form of genocide.

It Is hard to know what went on behind the careful face he wore as ceremony unfolded in front of him, but he was indeed immersed in First Nations, Metis, and Inuit cultures during his time in Canada. These identities were affirmed for the world that was watching, and Indigenous people gave him a lot to think about. Gave us all a lot to think about.

Cathy Hird lives on the traditional territory of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation


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