Cradleboard Influences Papal Apology:

Haudenosaunee Women Carry Empty Cradleboard to the Pope and Back Home on a Journey to Rematriate the Vatican

By Rachel A. R. Porter

Katsitsionni Fox (Kanien’kehá:ka, Bear Clan) and Kaluhyanu:wes Michelle Schenandoah (Onʌyota’:aka, Wolf Clan) newly returned home from the Vatican stand with our future generation, Tekorawahawi Avaia Sanford Roy Kanien’kehá:ka Bear Clan member, as she holds the cradleboard. Photo Credit: Kahentoretha Danielle Oakes

Kanien’kehá:ka Bear Clan Mother Wakerahkáhtste Louise McDonald Herne welcomes the cradleboard home to Turtle Island. Photo Credit: Katsitsionni Fox

On March 31, 2022, Kaluhyanu:wes Michelle Schenandoah, a traditional member of the Onʌyota’:aka (Oneida) Wolf Clan delivered the closing during the private audience for the First Nations Delegation to the Vatican. She carried an empty Mohawk cradleboard on her back. Sent to the Vatican by Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) Clan Mother Wakerahkáhtste Louise Herne, along with Kanien’kehá:ka Bear Clan member Katsitsionni Fox, arrived prepared to deliver a message held together by the prayers of Indigenous children, mothers and families across Turtle Island. She planned to ask for a total revocation and repudiation of the Papal Bulls that make up the Doctrine of Discovery and an apology for the abuse of Indigenous children in Catholic-run residential schools.

Kaluhyanu:wes Michelle Schenandoah (Onʌyota’:ak , Wolf Clan) at the Vatican carrying an empty cradleboard on her back. Photo Credit: Katsitsionni Fox

When Michelle approached Pope Francis with the cradleboard, she noticed his eyes lit up. She said, “It did make me wonder if he thought it was a gift.” The empty cradleboard signified the thousands of Indigenous children who died in Residential Schools, the children who lived and future generations.

Michelle made clear to Pope Francis that the cradleboard would be returning to Turtle Island with her and that she was offering him a single night to reflect on all that was presented and shared throughout the week by the Métis, Inuit and First Nations Delegations.  She said to the Pope: 

“I am leaving this board with you overnight. This is a symbol of every Indigenous child who went to a residential boarding school across Turtle Island […] How you treat this cradleboard tonight will be how you come to treat our people in the future. When the sun rises, I ask for their spirits to be rematriated, restored to a high place of sacredness, because you will have decided to make things right.”

Reflecting back on what she was feeling in that moment, Michelle said, “This was us being able to trace it right back to the source and say no more. This ends here. This is it. This is now.”

Bringing the cradleboard to the Pope was significant because of what it represented, but also because of the specific prayers it carried. Months before Wakerahkáhtste Louise Herne (affectionately known as Mommabear) received the invitation to serve as the female spiritual advisor to the delegation to the Vatican, she guided the same cradleboard in travel from Akwesasne to Ottawa to deliver a message in response to the hundreds of unmarked graves being discovered at Residential School sites across Canada. 

On July 1, 2021, runners from Akwesasne arrived in Ottawa and Kanien’kehá:ka Wolf Clan member Jonel Beauvais delivered the Empty Cradleboard Mandate to Canadian Indigenous Minister Marc Miller. The Empty Cradleboard Mandate called for:

A national unveiling of the truth that will bring justice and healing to the enormous pain and suffering our people have and continue to endure. All mothers of the Earth: Join Indigenous mothers as we echo this call for total and complete information and justice for the innocent children who died in your hands, all out of disdain and cold-hearted carelessness, and outright violence. We must continue to know and to teach this history, in all its detail. The legacy of the policy makers, and of the main managers of the most offensive institutions must be judged.

Mommabear sent “a powerful prayer into the universe about bringing justice” and although the trip to the Vatican brought about mixed feelings within the community, she felt that seeking the revocation of the Papal Bulls and an apology would allow the children who never came home to, “feel loved and wanted and cared for by a community that never got to meet them.” Unable to travel herself, she sent Katsitisionni Fox and Michelle Schenandoah to fulfill the role of female spiritual advisor to the delegation. 

Katsitsionni reflects on the opulence and wealth of the Vatican and how it felt to be in what Mommabear refers to as “the house of the abuser.” She remarks, “I felt that anger come up and it came out in tears and I think that a lot of our people feel that and it is even more intense when you are right there.”

When Mommabear received the invitation from the Assembly of First Nations she hesitated before agreeing to send two of the mothers of her community with the delegation. She wondered if visiting the Vatican would lead to more healing for her people or simply more grief and pain. Ultimately though, she thought of the future of her great, great grandchildren and what they would want and she decided that this was a moment where we as Haudenosaunee people needed to show up. 

On April 1, 2022, after the spending the night reflecting on an empty cradleboard, Pope Francis delivered the first-ever Papal apology for the abuse that occured in Catholic-run Residential Schools. 

To Michelle’s surprise, the Pope did not personally return the cradleboard in the general audience when he apologized. The Assembly ended and the cradleboard was not in sight. Moments later a Canadian Bishop emerged from the room where the Pope had exited. He was carrying the cradleboard inside a white shopping bag, creating a moment that Michelle describes as the most difficult part of the trip. Michelle watched as he floated across the room of people getting up to leave and made his way toward the Bishops, at which point he motioned for her to join them. 

Witnessing how this return was occurring, without the level of respect the cradleboard deserved, Michelle realized that this was another moment for which she had been sent. 

The Canadian Bishop carrying the cradleboard proudly revealed that the Pope had spent time in meditation and prayer with the cradleboard and had requested the board be present during his upcoming visit to Canada. Michelle assured him the cradleboard would be present and delivered by the Clan Mother who sent it, Wakerahkáhtste, so that she could share words with the Pope directly. 

While the Canadian Bishop was still holding the cradleboard, Michelle personally expressed to him that the Papal Bulls that form the Doctrine of Discovery must be revoked and repudiated. She also made clear that our Haudenosaunee leadership has been requesting an audience with the Pope to discuss this issue. The Canadian Bishops agreed that they would personally have these conversations with First Nations leaders when they returned to Canada. Michelle confirmed that the Canadian Bishops agreed to meeting with our Turtle Island Indigenous leaders when they returned to Canada to which they said, “yes.”

Canadian Bishops return the cradleboard to the care of Kaluhyanu:wes Michelle Schenandoah (Onʌyota’:aka, Wolf Clan), an experience Michelle embodied as “bringing our children home.” Photo Credit: Katsitsionni Fox

The Canadian Bishop who returned the cradleboard handed the board back to Michelle and then tried to bless the board. Michelle spoke up and reminded him, “we have our ways, please respect that.” She also recalls the same Bishop trying to help her reposition the cradleboard on her back. She declined, reminding him again, “I got it, as Indigenous women we are really strong.” 

Michelle thanked the Bishop for returning the cradleboard. 

Kanien’kehá:ka community members gather in Mommabear’s yurt to unbundle Katsitsionni Fox (Kanien’kehá:ka, Bear Clan) and Kaluhyanu:wes Michelle Schenandoah (Onʌyota’:aka, Wolf Clan) from their journey and to welcome the cradleboard home. Photo Credit: Katsitsionni Fox

Upon returning home with the cradleboard, Mommabear shared, “both ladies were unbundled from their mission with loving words, gifts and songs from our leadership, elders, women and youth.”

Listen to the song that welcomed home the cradleboard

(Video posted to Facebook via Mommabear’s personal page)

Even across saltwaters, Michelle and Katsitsionni were never alone. As Michelle says, “We didn’t go in as individuals, we were so much with all of our people and all of our ancestors and all those children. You could feel it, you could feel it everywhere.”