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Pope Francis adjusts his headdress after it was given to him by Chief Wilton "Willie" Littlechild on July 25, 2022.TODD KOROL/Reuters

Made of mostly eagle feathers, the type of headdress commonly known as a war bonnet is a sacred, traditional item that has been worn by Prairie First Nations leaders for hundreds of years. The bestowing of a headdress can carry multiple meanings, knowledge keepers and elders say, and there was a purpose to placing it atop Pope Francis after he apologized on Monday for decades of abuses at Catholic-run residential schools.

The headdress was given to the Pope by Chief Wilton Littlechild, a lawyer and former parliamentarian. A member of Ermineskin Cree Nation and survivor of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School, Chief Littlechild was one of three commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and pushed for a papal apology. He was also part of the official delegation of Indigenous representatives to the Vatican this past March, representing Alberta for the Assembly of First Nations.

Chief Littlechild did not respond to attempts to reach him by telephone on Tuesday. His unexpected gesture to the head of the Catholic Church touched off a wave of emotions among Indigenous communities and survivors, angering some.

For Anishinaabe educator and intergenerational residential school survivor Anika Guthrie, who lives in Thunder Bay, the moment took her breath away and left her stunned. She said the Pope 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.” She questioned why he would be gifted a headdress when the Catholic Church was responsible for atrocities at residential schools that are still being unearthed today.

  • Pope Francis waves the the crowd as he makes a lap at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Alberta.Gavin John/The Globe and Mail

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As an educator in the public school system, she said she worries about the impact this moment will have on the work being done to advance Indigenous knowledge and perspectives without appropriating culture.

“It kind of sends some very mixed messages,” she said, not just for Indigenous people but non-Indigenous Canadians. “This person who is clearly outside of our culture and communities wearing such an item of such significance.”

The use of the headdress by non-Indigenous people has caused controversy. It became a trendy part of costumes at music festivals such as Coachella, for example, but festivals across Canada have banned it for cultural appropriation.

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Leroy Little Bear, a professor emeritus at the University of Lethbridge and member of the Kainai Blood Tribe in southern Alberta, said a headdress could be bestowed on an individual for several reasons. In the past, it was often used to honour someone who has “done great deeds” or exhibited bravery. A headdress could also signify someone as a knowledge keeper or illustrate a deep relationship to the earth.

“In many cases, they do bestow the headdress on people as an honour because that person might carry around lots of knowledge and so on, but has never been recognized for it,” Dr. Little Bear said.

Dr. Little Bear thinks that this might be the reason Chief Littlechild gave the headdress to Francis as the head of the global institution. But he said the headdress comes with an important message for the Pope after his apology.

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Chief Littlechild prepares to present the Pope the headdress.Gavin John/The Globe and Mail

“You also have to carry out the legacy and the responsibility that goes with the headdress,” Dr. Little Bear said. “If he ever decides to wear it elsewhere, it’ll remind him about that responsibility that goes with it.”

Pope Francis isn’t the first dignitary to receive the honour of a headdress. Several other leaders, who may also be considered symbols of the colonial systems they represent, have been given headdresses from Prairie Nation chiefs over the years.

In 1977, Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, received a headdress and Blackfoot name from the Kainai Blood Tribe and was given the title of honorary chief for the 100th anniversary of the signing of Treaty 7 with the Crown. In 2011, former prime minister Stephen Harper was also given a headdress and the honorary chief title by the Blood Tribe after his formal apology on behalf of the Canadian government for the Indian Residential School system in 2008. A headdress was bestowed on Alberta premier Rachel Notley by the executive director of the International Peace Powwow, Mary Ann Crow Healy, who expressed gratitude for her attendance at the 20-year celebration of Blackfoot culture.

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In 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau received a headdress from Tsuut’ina Nation in Alberta along with the Tsuut’ina name “Gumistiyi,” which means “the one that keeps trying,” for the commitments he made to Indigenous nations across Canada.

Teri Fiddler, an elder and residential school survivor from Sandy Lake First Nation in Northern Ontario, where the use of headdresses was adapted from nations in Western Canada, said she doesn’t believe the act of giving the Pope a headdress was done in haste, rather on the advice of elders.

Pope Francis spoke of honouring grandparents, the importance of family history and a future where violence and marginalization of Indigenous people is never repeated during an outdoor mass in Edmonton on Tuesday.

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Ms. Fiddler said teachings from her father told of how leaders going to war against other nations were given eagle feathers for their victories, collecting them into war bonnets. She and her late husband Josias, a survivor and spiritual leader, received direction from community elders to present their elected chiefs with the sacred item.

“It’s a sign of honouring somebody that’s going to be a good leader, hoping for good leadership,” she said.

She added that there was also a time when gifting sacred items was done for people who were ill.

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“I think it was a sign for prayers for healing,” she said about Monday’s presentation. “Because the eagle feather carries our prayers to the Creator.”

She said Indigenous people will have their own beliefs and feelings about it, but she sees it as a sign of love.

“I felt happy for the people that they are able to give that gift.”

Pope Francis apologized and asked for forgiveness on his 'penitential pilgrimage' for the abuses suffered by Indigenous people at residential schools in Canada. Watch the full statement the Pope made in Maskwacis, Alta. on Monday.

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Anishinaabe spiritual leader and residential school survivor Fred Kelly said gifting a headdress is one of the highest honours and a conceptual sign of respect.

Mr. Kelly travelled to Rome as the spiritual adviser for the First Nations delegation in the spring with gifts of his own for Pope Francis, who received a pair of moccasins, a white eagle feather and an Anishinaabe name that translates into White Eagle. He said the gifts represent walking together, in a way he envisioned a white eagle descending from the smoke of an Anishinaabe pipe and being met by a dove descending from Christianity to fly together.

He said Chief Littlechild’s presentation of the headdress to the Pope was on behalf of his people and “their own ways.”

“And so I respect their ways in the same ways I respect everybody else’s spirituality and religion, however you do it in the name of the Creator as you understand it,” Mr. Kelly said.

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