Jul 27, 2022 - World

Pope in headdress evokes strong reactions in Indigenous communities

Pope Francis wears a headdress presented to him by Indigenous leaders during a meeting at Muskwa Park in Maskwacis, Alberta, Canada, on July 25.
Pope Francis wears a headdress presented to him by Indigenous leaders during a meeting at Muskwa Park in Maskwacis, Alberta, Canada, on Monday. Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

Pope Francis' wearing of a traditional headdress during his historic apology in Canada this week for the abuse of generations of Indigenous children at Catholic-run Canadian residential schools is being criticized by some leaders in North America.

Why it matters: The headdress, often referred to as a war bonnet, is a sacred, highly regarded traditional item that has for hundreds of years been reserved for Indigenous communities' most respected leaders.

  • Some Indigenous leaders and residential school survivors are questioning why he would be given such an honor when the Catholic Church was behind atrocities that are still being discovered, with hundreds of suspected unmarked graves uncovered in Canada in recent months.

Driving the news: Chief Wilton Littlechild presented the pope with the headdress in Maskwacis, Alberta, on Monday, with Francis kissing the hand of the Ermineskin Cree Nation member and residential school survivor as a mark of respect, AP notes.

  • Samson First Nation elder John Crier, of Maskwacis, Alberta, said presenting the headdress to the pope was "an honouring of the work that he has done and it also is recognizing from the community that here's a man that belongs to our tribe," per CBS News.

The big picture: About 150,000 children from were forced to "assimilate" into white Canadian society by attending the residential schools from the late 19th to late 20th centuries, an operation Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission found to be "cultural genocide."

  • For some Indigenous community members and survivors of the schools, the pope's wearing of the headdress was too much.

What they're saying: Anishinaabe educator Anika Guthrie, an intergenerational residential school survivor from Ontario, said Francis is "a literal figurehead of the colonial systems of oppression that continue to impact Indigenous communities, families and people today, right now, especially here in Thunder Bay," per The Globe and Mail.

  • Russ Diabo, a member of the Kahnawake Mohawk tribe in Canada, dismissed Mondays event as "pageantry" that included a "facile statement" by the pope.
  • Joe Horse Capture, vice president of Native Collections of Native American History and Culture at the Autry Museum and a member of the A'aniiih Nation of Montana, tweeted: "I have so much to say about this, and all of it negative."

Meanwhile, Maka Black Elk, executive director of Truth and Healing at Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, tweeted that the discourse around the headdress was unfortunate.

  • "He did not request that. It wasn't his fault. But it's also clear the givers did not consider how it would make other Indigenous people feel. It was a #toosoon moment," Black Elk said.

Of note: The backlash prompted Keeshon Littlechild to defend his grandfather's headdress presentation to Francis.

  • "Bugs me to see people bashing my grandfather and I understand how much respect is needed to be gifted one but at the end of the day that was him showing the pope respect for coming all the way to maskwacis to apologize," he said in a Facebook post.
Go deeper