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Pope Francis apologises for Indigenous residential school system

This week, Pope Francis wore a traditional Indigenous headdress presented to him by Canadian residential school survivors. The statement marked an official apology by the Catholic Church for its involvement in the widespread abuse of Indigenous children. 

When Chief Wilton Littlechild handed Pope Francis a traditional Indigenous headdress on Monday, years of suffering and institutional neglect were finally addressed.

Photographs of the Pope in Native garb have made the rounds on Twitter. It’s a remarkable, humorous image that has stood out amongst depressing political news and climate catastrophe.

But for all its levity, the Pope’s fashion statement held symbolic significance. Littlechild, a residential school survivor, had welcomed Pope Francis to Maskwacis, Alberta, along with an audience of others who have experienced similar trauma.

The visit was part of the Vatican’s apology for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s residential school system, which saw thousands of Indigenous children abused and murdered.

Although the last residential school was closed in 1998, its impact lives on. Under this system, Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families in an effort to systematically wipe out Indigenous culture and language.

As a result, many survivors have had their cultural and ancestral roots ripped from beneath them.

Pope Francis’ visit to Alberta marks the Church’s first acknowledgement of the system as a form of ‘cultural genocide’. He was seen kissing Littlechild’s hands after receiving the headdress, a gesture of respect he has previously given to Holocaust survivors.

Following the apology, the Vatican newspaper released images of Pope Francis and Littlechild on the front page beneath the headline ‘I humbly beg forgiveness’. But the Indigenous American population have had a mixed response.

For many, the Church’s admission of guilt is an emotional turning point. It marks a powerful breakthrough for Indigenous visibility, a population who are grossly mistreated, marginalised, and ignored by both the American government and the international community.

But for others, the Pope’s gesture was ‘incongruous with the past transgressions’ at residential schools that Francis apologised for.

The Indigenous headdress is a symbol of respect and power, earned by chiefs through acts of bravery and compassion. In many tribes, to receive a headdress is a monumental occasion, accompanied by ceremonies of prayer and song.

Despite being gifted the headdress by Littlechild, Pope Francis’ decision to wear it has triggered backlash for its affinity to stereotypical depictions of Indigenous culture. Just as it is a significant cultural symbol, the headdress has been co-opted by the non-Native population for decades.

It is used as a two-dimensional marker of Indigenous identity, and has been absorbed by popular culture as part of offensive Hollywood films, Halloween costumes, and fashion trends.

Despite the controversy of the headdress, Pope Francis’ words in Alberta are sure to spark emotional responses for Canada’s diverse Indigenous population.

He addressed his audience with self-ascribed ‘shame’, apologising for the ‘colonising mentality’ of the residential school system.

Francis even called for a ‘serious’ investigation into the schools to help survivors and their descendants heal, a significant step in addressing the continued pain caused by past abuses of power – which has driven epidemic rates of drug and alcohol abuse in Canada’s Native communities.

‘I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples’ Francis said.

After years of resistance by the Vatican, despite persistent calls for an apology over the Church’s involvement in Indigenous genocide, Francis’ words are a hopeful turning point.


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