Nelson Mandela, or Madiba as he is known, will be laid to rest with a First Nations eagle feather, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo said on December 11.
Atleo attended both the memorial service on December 10 and the human rights leader’s lying in state on the 11th. After the latter event he conducted a ceremony with the Canadian delegation, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and presented one eagle feather to the South African High Commissioner for Mandela and another for the commissioner himself, Atleo said.
“I offered a Nuu-chah-nulth ceremony on behalf of all First Nations from coast to coast to coast,” Atleo said in a statement, whose remarks were conveyed to AFN chiefs gathered in Gatineau, Quebec, for the annual Special Chiefs Assembly. “We gathered the full Canadian delegation in a circle and presented the South African High Commissioner with an Eagle Feather and, in full respect, passed to him the sacred responsibility to carry it with him to Madiba’s ancestral homeland to be buried with Madiba. I presented a second Eagle Feather to the High Commissioner in friendship and as a reminder of the participation of First Nations in the memorial events.”
Atleo said he also took the opportunity to point out ways in which Mandela’s work and message could be transferred to Turtle Island.
“Following the ceremony I reminded the entire delegation, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, that we must take home with us Madiba’s spirit of reconciliation, that reconciliation requires respect on behalf of all parties, including respect for Indigenous rights and recognition of Indigenous peoples,” Atleo said. “But as Madiba demonstrated through his life and work, reconciliation is possible.”
It was a pointed and poignant reminder, given that some academics say that in the 1940s, Canadian officials actually schooled South Africa’s leadership in how to implement apartheid, based on the Indian Act, according to The Globe and Mail.
“Is it not rich with irony that South Africa imposed its legislation on those peoples, those tribes, in 1948 and they learned from the Indian Act of the government of Canada, that they built their apartheid system on the Indian Act in Canada?” said Grand Chief Doug Kelly, president of the Sto:lo Tribal Council in British Columbia, to the newspaper.
Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus, who is also chief of the AFN's Northwest Territories region, emphasized that Atleo was in South Africa representing First Nations, not as part of the Canadian delegation, The Globe and Mail noted.
Two years ago Atleo offered an indigenous blessing at the funeral of Jack Layton, Canada’s opposition leader and head of the New Democratic Party, whose death of cancer at age 61 prompted an national outpouring of mourning. Layton, too, had championed indigenous issues.
Layton was not indigenous, but Mandela was a hereditary leader of the Thembu people, according to his biography at the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Mandela will be laid to rest on Sunday December 15 in a state funeral combined with traditional burial ceremonies of his clan “to ensure he has an easy transition into the afterworld,” Reuters reported.
Ovide Mercredi, a former AFN national chief, delivered Atleo’s message to the gathering, according to the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN).
“Our national chief was given the opportunity to perform a particular ceremony while Mandela was lying in state,” Mercredi said. “Our national chief said his prayer and also sang a song that is particular to his nation, a song that they used to recognize leadership and in particular hereditary chiefs, and the name as you know, that Mandela has been given is Madiba which is in recognition of his status within his nation, with his own people as a hereditary leader.”