The catholic church has played a major role in the pain and suffering of Indigenous people. The boarding school era was meant to erase Indigenous culture from the minds of Native children and they almost succeeded. That is why Indigenous people’s languages are under threat of extinction and that there are so many cultural programs in place to re-teach Native people about their traditions and cultural practices. This is also why Native identity is constantly challenged even by people within tribal communities because almost an entire generation had their cultural identity taken away from them.
Every community and individual wants to have a sense of belonging and identity. Ideally people want to feel like they are a part of a legacy that is greater than themselves, and connected to their ancestors. The actions of the catholic church over centuries aimed to take that rich history away from Native people, often with the excuse of “killing the Indian and saving the man.” Evangelism and the idea that the Christian purpose is to convert other people to their way of thinking, is damaging because it undermines the thoughts and beliefs of other people and wipes them of their current worldview, and traditions.
My own grandfather was not brought up learning Tlingit culture because his mother wanted to make sure her children had a viable chance in this world. She told him to get educated and ‘learn the ways of the white man’ (to survive) and that was something that was carried down even to my generation, as my cousins and siblings have also by and large got an education in western institutions. Even as I interview people for Culture Stories: Goldbelt, that is the common story, depending on their age, either they or their grandparents stopped engaging with their culture out of a sense of survival.
I think an apology from the Pope is a starting point, and it acknowledges to the world and to Native people that atrocities were committed and the boarding school era existed. But, I do not think an apology is enough. It needs to be backed up with action. Some actions that could be taken are a major donation to Native organizations that are working to re-teach language and culture to their people. Another action could be major donations to Indigenous schools so as to directly correct the wrong of putting Indigenous youth into catholic/ christian learning institutions. Investments in mental health and historical trauma recovery is another action that could be taken. These are just some of the ideas that come to mind in terms of ways that the church could start to make some amends.
It was completely unacceptable for the Pope to wear a war bonnet headdress that is reserved for chiefs and people in positions of power in tribal society. I do not understand the circumstances of giving a sacred headdress to the Pope, let alone letting him wear it. I do know that it is uncomfortable to see because regalia has a lot of meaning and prestige to it. That said, it is the Native way to give gifts and do things that show the value of reciprocity, as in the act of giving and taking. We also give status symbols and gifts to people of authority, and he is the Pope, a very high ranking person of authority. Regardless of my belief that this gift was inappropriate, I do think an apology was a step in the right direction even though the execution of what took place was flawed.