WARNING: This story has disturbing details about residential and boarding schools. If you are feeling triggered, here is a resource list for trauma responses from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition in the U.S. The National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline in Canada can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.
LAC STE. ANNE, Alberta, Canada — She is glowing as she stands near the shores of Lac Ste. Anne, wearing the same white buckskin dress and beaded headband that captivated the world.
But this time Si Pih Ko didn’t break into song in Cree as she did Monday in Maskwacis, with tears streaming down her face — a symbol of protest at Pope Francis’ first public appearance on what he calls a “penitence pilgrimage” across Canada.
Instead, on Tuesday, she stood beaming as the sun sparkled on her beadwork and her smiles at the sacred waters of Lac Ste. Anne. It was as though the weight of the world had been lifted from her shoulders.
“I'm on my healing journey,” she told ICT.
Her emotional rendition of “Our Village,” in Cree, which was mistaken for the Canadian National Anthem, “O Canada,” drew an explosion of comments on Facebook and other social media.
“Indigenous rising, listen to this call!” one woman posted on Facebook.
“Give ‘em hell, lady,” another posted.
The song is yet another example of cultural elements stolen from Indigenous peoples and corrupted by colonizers, she said.
“They use that,” she told ICT. “They tried to translate that song and use it for their anthem. It doesn't belong to them.”
On a mission
Si Pih Ko, who is Cree, traveled to Alberta from the remote mining town of Thompson, Manitoba, to come face to face with the Pope and deliver a message to him and to the world.
She delivered the song in such a powerful way that it will likely be interpreted for years to come.
She told ICT she came for her brother, who died in police custody in unknown circumstances.
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“Holding my brother's jacket with me, he would have been right beside me too, yesterday and today,” she said Tuesday. “Still to this day, there's no answers. And I'm here actually to heal for that.”
On a six-day swing through Canada, the Pope made his first public appearance Monday in Maskwacis, delivering an historic apology for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s ugly residential school system that forced Indigenous children into boarding schools where they were isolated from their families, culture and language.
Their hair was cut and they were beaten if they spoke their Native language. Many suffered physical and sexual abuse, or died at the school, never to be returned to their families.
—Apology at last in Canada
—Pressure mounts for papal apology
—Pope takes first step toward apology
—Reaction to apology: 'It's going to take a long time'+
—Pope speaks of healing at Lac Ste. Anne
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called the system “cultural genocide” in its 2015 report on the residential school system. The issue drew international attention in May 2021 with the announcement that 215 remains of children had been found in unmarked graves at the former site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
On Monday, Si Pih Ko stepped into the international spotlight in Maskwacis — singing in a language that would have been forbidden in residential schools — after the Pope issued his apology and received a ceremonial headdress.
She walked directly to the front of the stage, with the Pope seated just a few feet away, and began to sing a song that sounded very much like “O Canada.” But it wasn’t.
“It’s “Our Village,’” she told ICT Tuesday, then proceeded to break down the song word-for-word, translating carefully from Cree to English.
For the love of your children.
You have made the people of the North proud.
Capturing the pain
The images and sounds of Si Pih Ko singing with so much emotion captured the pain and anger that many Indigenous peoples felt about the Pope’s visit.
For some, the visit and apology represented an opportunity for healing and reconciliation, a message the Pope has continued to voice at additional appearances. For others, watching the head of the Catholic Church receive a traditional headdress from chiefs was unacceptable.
“I seen them chiefs behind him and not behind me,” Si Pih Ko told ICT. “That’s pure evil you're standing behind and you won't stand by me.”
She said she wanted to send a message to the chiefs as well as the Pope.
“I said, ‘I know who I am. You need to be reminded who you are and not bow down. We're looking for a place to heal, not to kneel,” she said.
She also delivered a final message of taking back power.
“In order for us to heal you need to remove what you brought here,” she said. “That law. Because it doesn’t belong on these territories – our law does.”
A message in song
Si Pih Ko was at peace on Tuesday at Lac Ste. Anne, where hundreds gathered to hear the Pope speak of healing at the Feast of Saint Anne.
As the words of the Pope echoed across the lands and the sacred water — his words also spoken in a language that few in the audience could understand — Si Pih Ko stood far from the gathering crowd and smiled.
People around the world, she realized, were beginning to understand what she had said.
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