Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been given a ceremonial title shared by the likes of Prince Charles and Pope John Paul II — honorary chief of the Blood Tribe in southern Alberta.
"I am deeply grateful for the honour you have bestowed upon me today. It is an experience I will never forget," the newest member of the Kainai Chieftainship said Monday, a headdress of eagle feathers perched on his head and paint smeared on his face.
The prime minister and his wife, Laureen, slowly shuffled along the grassy perimeter of an outdoor amphitheatre in Stand Off, Alta., as tribe members pounded on drums and sang songs. Dancers in bright, fringed clothing twirled and jumped behind the procession.
A key part of the chieftainship ceremony is the "capturing" of the chief-to-be.
"Only warriors get the honour to do it," said Master Cpl. Melissa Whitegrass, who was chosen to capture the prime minister.
Whitegrass was badly wounded by a bomb in Kabul on May 18, 2010. Six NATO soldiers and 18 Afghan civilians were killed. A year to the day later, Whitegrass gave birth to her daughter, Dawni-Rae.
"That's why the creator brought me home and I wish all the people of the Blood Tribe the same luck, the same creator's grace, and I wish the best for you, Mr. Harper," she said.
Harper honoured for residential schools apology
Whitegrass, 27, stepped around a cluster of drummers with a fan of feathers held above her brow, her eyes scanning the crowd for the new chief. After several minutes, her gaze fixed upon the prime minister, and she walked toward him. She grabbed him by the elbow and led him out of his chair.
An elder then pronounced Harper's new name in the Blackfoot language — Chief Speaker — and gave the prime minister a light push on his back, causing him to stumble a few steps forward.
Later, Chief Charles Weasel Head said the title was chosen because Harper "speaks as the chief. His words are words that come from his position."
He said the tribe made Harper a chief because of the residential schools apology he issued in 2008.
"I think it sort of set the direction and the tone of rebuilding the relationship with First Nations," said Weasel Head.
After his name was announced, Harper sat cross-legged in front of a medicine man, who smeared yellow paint on the politician's face and hands and drew bright red lines on either cheek. The medicine man shook the headdress on either side of Harper before affixing it to his head.
Harper is the third sitting prime minister to be bestowed the honour, behind Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker. Jean Chretien was given the title before becoming prime minister.
Former governor general Adrienne Clarkson, environmentalist David Suzuki and former Alberta premiers Ralph Klein and Peter Lougheed have also received the honour.