Gift of headdress to Pope draws condemnation from some First Nations people in Manitoba
'It's become a thing to recognize political leadership, and it's not meant to be that way': knowledge keeper
Some members of First Nations in Manitoba say they're angry that Pope Francis was given a headdress as a gift following his apology on Monday for the role members of the Catholic Church played in Canada's residential school system.
After the Pope's apology in Maskwacis, Alta., Wilton Littlechild, honorary chief of Ermineskin First Nation, presented the pontiff with a headdress. The Pope wore the regalia over his traditional papal head covering until it was removed shortly after by a member of his staff.
"For them to gift [the Pope] this sacred item was disappointing," said Kevin Tacan, a knowledge keeper and spiritual advisor from Sioux Valley Dakota Nation in western Manitoba.
"It's become a thing to recognize political leadership, and it's not meant to be that way."
Tacan said headdresses are traditionally earned by members who are doing significant work in service of the community.
"[People] have to prove themselves constantly. They have to continue to prove themselves going into the future, that they still deserve to have it."
He also said there are protocols in place for spiritual leaders to take away a headdress if the recipient hasn't upheld their work.
Tacan said because politicians and others like the Pope have been presented with sacred Indigenous items in the past, many people from the Dakota Nation believe the significance of the headdress has been diminished.
"People have started to say that the headdress doesn't mean anything anymore, that it's been tainted — tainted by politicians and people who just give it to anybody."
Followed protocols: Phil Fontaine
Others supported the idea of the gift.
Phil Fontaine, a residential school survivor who has served as both national chief of the Assembly of First Nations and grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said Littlechild followed protocols in requesting permission to present the headdress.
"He went to the elders. He went to the leadership and requested permission to present that gift. So [it was] entirely consistent with the way they followed their customs and protocol," Fontaine said.
Tacan acknowledges some, like Fontaine, support the gift, but he doesn't agree with them.
"I suppose [the Pope is] the leader for them. But I don't believe that the Pope is the leader for the rest of us," he said. "How do we invite the fox into the chicken coop and say, 'OK, you're the head rooster in here?' It doesn't work that way."
Dakota knowledge keeper and Elder Wanbdi Wakita said the type of feathered headdress given to the Pope is sacred, and originated with the Dakota. They are traditionally only made and given in specific circumstances. People have to earn each eagle feather by making notable contributions to the community, he said.
"If somebody has a vision or if the community decides, 'This is a good leader, let's pick him,' they go over and they put a blanket around him, put a headdress on him," he said. "They will decide."
He said medicine men can also decide if someone deserves a headdress.
"He already knows — he got the information from up there," Wakita said.
He doesn't believe many people understand the meaning of the headdress anymore.
"I'm sorry to say that our people, they don't understand the sacredness of this. Not the importance — the sacredness of something that came from Creator."
Chance Paupanekis, who is from the Kinosao Sipi Cree Nation (also known as Norway House) in northern Manitoba, said he was angry when he first saw Littlechild present the Pope with the headdress.
"A lot of those items have to be earned through ceremony, through commitment," said Paupanekis, who is an advocate for cultural reclamation.
He said many young people now don't have access to these sacred or ceremonial items themselves, and they're watching them given away. Paupanekis worries about the effect of their own cultural items becoming inaccessible to them.
"What I'm concerned about the most is how youth, who don't have an in-depth understanding of these complexities, how they're going to interpret this division," Paupanekis said.
"It is division.… That's part of the the Doctrine of Discovery," he said — the 15th-century papal edict that justified colonial expansion by allowing Europeans to claim Indigenous lands as their own.
"That's part of colonialism, to divide and conquer. And we're seeing that. We saw it live."
Tacan said he wished there had been a conversation with the Dakota Nation and traditional leadership about giving the Pope a headdress.
"It's important that we have these discussions, or we'll lose this part of our history," he said.
Tacan is also worried about the impacts on Indigenous youth.
"I hope that our young people in the future would still aspire to earn [a headdress]," he said.
"I hope that our people can rebound from this and remember … the symbolism and what the purpose — the true purpose — of [the headdress] was, and is."