In a cramped hotel basement room in Rome, First Nations delegates preparing to meet with Pope Francis smudged with a bowl of water sprinkled with sage and other sacred medicines, instead of the traditional burning used to open sacred ceremonies, as rain had moved the ceremonies indoors from the hotel rooftop.
The bowl was passed from delegate to delegate and to others who had packed into the small room to bless items to be presented to the Pope in a private two-hour meeting Thursday morning, including a pair of handmade moccasins, a beaded brooch and eagle feather, a black ash basket, literature and a cradle board. Everyone gently placed their fingertips into the water before touching their hearts and heads in prayer.
Fred Kelly, a residential school survivor and spiritual adviser for the Assembly of First Nations – whose late brother, Peter, met with Pope Benedict in 2009 for the same purpose, to seek reconciliation and healing – led the early morning ceremony with Chief Wilton Littlechild from Alberta.
Next door, a larger meeting room reserved for media briefings and Catholic services sat empty. Mr. Kelly said the irony of being crowded into a small room was not lost on him, comparing it to Indigenous communities with overcrowded housing. Throughout the week, Indigenous leaders and residential school survivors have had to adapt to spaces unfamiliar with their customs.
It didn’t dishearten him, however, as he stressed the importance of acceptance and working together despite differences.
Three delegations representing Métis, Inuit and First Nations peoples have travelled to Rome from Canada for historic meetings with Pope Francis, carrying with them customs, languages, ceremonies, gifts, and regalia, despite attempts by the Canadian government and Christian churches to eradicate their culture through the residential school system.
The groups have shared their prayers and songs and danced in St. Peter’s Square. On Thursday, members from Coast Salish and Squamish First Nations in British Columbia, wearing traditional headwear and regalia, sang honour songs for the First Nations delegation as they left the hotel for the Vatican, then again in St. Peter’s Square as supporters and media waited for their meeting with the Pope to conclude.
“What that song means is it means our spirit is coming back to us. It’s really significant that we share that song at this time because our spirit is coming back to us,” said one of the drummers.
Métis and Inuit delegates met with the Pope separately on Monday. All three groups are seeking, among other things, a papal apology for abuses inflicted on Indigenous children at Catholic Church-run residential schools. They have a final audience with the pontiff on Friday.
They have delivered their messages to him and other Catholic leaders through stories from residential school survivors, in speeches about what is needed to move forward and through music, ceremonies and gifts that tell their history and hopes for the future.
Michelle Schenandoah, a traditional member of the Oneida Wolf Clan, presented the Pope with a cradle board made by Haudenosaunee artist Ian Clute, who is from the Bear Clan. The traditional baby carrier used by many Indigenous nations of North America was adorned with images burned onto the back, including the nine Haudenosaunee clans, a baby, an eagle flying high and the sun and the moon. The front of the board featured designs from traditional pottery.
“We’re bringing in this cradle board to be symbolic of all the children who attended the residential schools, and even for those who survived,” Ms. Schenandoah said before meeting with the Pope. She said she hoped he would reflect on all the lives lost and “all the families that were affected because of this, which is all Indigenous peoples.”
Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty of the Cree First Nation of Waswanipi, Que., said the Holy Father was tasked with caring for the cradle board overnight. Chief Gull-Masty said she told the Pope, “How you treat this cradle board will demonstrate how you treat our people in the future.”
In their final meeting with Pope Francis on Friday, the First Nations delegation will collect the cradle board and take it home with them. Katsitsionni Fox, a Mohawk from the Bear Clan who is helping care for the cradle board in its travels, said the gesture symbolizes “us bringing our children back home.”
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