I took the opportunity this week to watch the entire video (see below) of the ceremony in Alberta during which the Pope offered his apology to tribal representatives for the harm done during the not distant past when indigenous children were taken from their families to be “integrated” in the dominant culture through forced attendance at “Indian" boarding schools. I found the whole ceremony to be an extraordinary pageant presenting a dramatic interface between the dignity and grace of tribal culture and one of the most powerful institutions in the western world, personified by one of the most power leaders of it.
To recap the two hour event: the Pope, dressed in white and seated in a wheelchair, was escorted into a huge, round stadium by a small group of black suited attendants, and then seated at a small stage where he sat solemnly for nearly an hour while the tribal community took center stage. The stadium then filled with a long procession, amid nearly constant drumming and ceremonial dancing, with a series of perhaps fifty or more tribal leaders in full, colorful eagle feather headdresses, accompanied by various groups of supporters, children, and many older, often tearful people who I assumed had survived the boarding school trauma. (There was no commentary per se on the video, only introductions, so I was left to make my own assumptions, but the processional drama itself was sufficient to hold my rapt attention.) A powerful, moving, solemn speech by one of the tribal chiefs warmly welcomed the Pope but also spoke bluntly about the tragedy of childhood abuse that was the purpose of the occasion. More dancing and recognition of the Four Directions followed before the Pope delivered his speech (see below).
I am aware my brief description does not do the event justice, and I hope some of you will take the time to watch at least part of the video, especially the exuberance of the drumming, dancing as well as the solemnity of so many present. The impact of the experience for me was to feel deeply the sacred moment of truth and reconciliation the apology ceremony offered. The dignity and pain of the occasion in the face of many of the participants was striking as the trauma of those who had survived the multiple levels of sexual, cultural, and personal abuse led them to relive much of the horror of their childhoods. And numerous mention was made of those who not present, those who died at the schools and those who survived the schools only to later succumb to trauma induced drug and alcohol abuse and suicide. As the leader of the powerful Roman Catholic Church, he became the representative of the abuse of that power. It is historically critical that the Pope was able to offer his remorse and apology for what had occurred under the cover and support of the institutional church for which his office assumes such extraordinary power. I couldn’t help noting how small and humble (appropriately) the Pope had become in contrast to the regalia and spiritual power of triumph over such evil represented by the assembled tribal representatives
The courageous willingness and vulnerability of the Pope to travel to meet with tribal leaders on their land, in recognition of their sovereignty, was a historical moment to be cherished. And to be matched by the courage and respect expressed by acceptance of the apology by the tribes. Obviously the apology was not enough to erase the egregious crimes committed on innocent children, and much more must be done to offer emotional support and some form of recompense, but it was a start, and I want to deeply recognize and celebrate the significance of the Pope’s apology and the willingness of the people to accept it.
Apologies are tricky stuff. Simply put they are a regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure. But human nature hypes this all up with pride, insatiable resentments and hatreds that often can never be addressed, especially when we do not have the skills and rituals that may make that possible. But an apology for those who can offer an apology, and those who can receive it, is first step in healing. Acknowledging the harm done is a start. True remorse needs to follow with true regret for what has occurred (and ideally a commitment to not commit the harm done again). Then an apology has real meaning. Healing can begin.
How have each of us been harmed for which we have never received acknowledgement and an apology and thus have not had the opportunity to accept the apology? Where and how can we muster the courage to try to revisit the source of the harm as a means of at least trying to work toward healing the harm done? The Pope and the tribal representatives are modeling that this process is possible.
Following is the video of the Pope’s visit to Alberta to offer his apology. It is from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition Reuters video and the text of the apology.