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5,000 Metis, Inuit, Indian gather


Dianne Meili







Page 12

Nature and people's devout faith combined to welcome "Yahtita"

As the waves of the Red Sea parted for Moses, so did the clouds divide to let the sun shine on Fort Simpson for the visit of Pope John Paul II.

Steady rain had fallen upon worshippers early in the morning as they waited to greet the Pontiff. Everywhere people huddled under large sheets of plastic. Young people struggled to keep the Elders warm.

But minutes before the Pontiff arrived at the site, the rain stopped, the clouds began to thin and a rainbow stretched across the McKenzie River and Fort Simpson. It was as though the Creator had summoned the forces of nature to welcome this man called "Yahtita" (priest of priests) by the Dene.

As the Pope stepped out of his limousine, many in the crowd of nearly 5,000 surged toward him. Everyone wanted to shake his hand and receive his blessing. After three years of waiting, the joy in finally seeing him was on every face. Children were hoisted up onto parents' shoulders and Elders were led toward the man in white.

A troupe beating caribou-skin drums and singing traditional songs greeted the Pope. From a stone monument, which was designed according to Elders' instructions, the Pope spoke of the wonder of God's creations, earth, fire, water and wind. He faced the four directions and kissed the monument before stepping down.

As he made his way toward the 17-metre (55 foot) high "tipi" in which he would meet with Indian leaders and celebrate mass, he delighted people by stopping to chat and give blessings. As the sun steadily gained strength, he grasped the grizzled old hands of Elders and kissed the tops of babies' heads as they wiggled in their mothers' arms. Tears flowed down cheeks and teenagers pushed forward to get a closer look.

Once on the open-faced tipi podium, the Pope settled into a specially-made chair. It was constructed of two moose antlers carved with flowers and crosses and bolted together with a woven birchwood seat in between. A cushion made of tanned beaver hide covered the wooden seat.

Following a 20-minute meeting with national Aboriginal leaders, the Pope stood and addressed the crowd, saying he supported Native Canadians' struggle in gaining self-government and a land base. The crowd enthusiastically cheered his remarks and later the leaders would tell reporters the Pope's speech was all they'd hoped it would be.

With the political portion of the visit over, the Pope donned a white caribou skin robe to celebrate mass. The silk-embroidered garment featured stitches made by Native women from five northern communities, Fort Rae, Rae Lakes, Lac la Marte, Snare Lakes and Dettah.

Accompanied by 23 priests and four northern bishops, the Pope conducted mass. Catholic rites were intermingled with Indian chants and songs and parts of the gospel were translated for the audience into the languages of Cree, Slavey and Dene. The Pope praised his audience for their deeply rooted faith in the Creator and also urged young people to enter the work of the church, especially as priests.

Communion was served from porcupine-quill decorated birchbark baskets to many of the gathered people. One hundred Elders had been chosen to receive communion from the Pope and many were helped from their seats by friends and family. To the far side of the Pope's podium, an Elder held his tape recorder in front of giant loudspeakers so he could take the Pope's words home with him.

Following mass, the Pope said some final words to the crowd and stepped toward his waiting limousine as the crowd surged forward to get a last glimpse. The yellow-jacketed security staff, who had struggled all day to keep people from crowding in on the Pope, gave up. After spending a few more minutes with his audience, the Pope was whisked away to the airport on the first leg of his trip back to Rome.

An hour after the Pope had left, only a few stragglers remained at the grassy Papal site. The rays of the sinking afternoon sun bounced off the snowy white canvas sides of the tipi podium. The tipi will stand for generations to come as a reminder of the day the faith of many people was renewed. The day when Yahtita, the priest of priests, returned to fulfill his promise.

Traditional singers please dancers the night before the Pope's visit.

Dozens of people crowd together; each steps to the fast beat of the hand drummers as they sing the ancient Dogrib songs. The fire flickers across the excited faces as they laugh and sing along with the song. This is the traditional tea-dance, one of the strongest traditions of the people of northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories.

Assumption Elder Alphonse SchaSees watched the dancing and spoke of the significance of this special celebration. Through an interpreter SchaSees said that some of the tea-dances have religious significance although he felt this aspect was dying among many northern Natives. "But it is alive in Assumption," he says.

A religious tea-dance is celebrated about three times a year in Assumption, usually in April, August and October, but they can be held more often if necessary.

The dances are a prayer to the Almighty, a prayer of thanks. Tobacco is thrown onto the fire as an offering for help from the Almighty. The fire burns the offering, sending it into the air.

The songs are also very special. They come to the singers in dreams and are very religious. The song the dreamer hears must be sung at the next tea-dance, but if he cannot be at the dance, the song can be offered for him by other singers.

However, SchaSees fears that the religious significance of the tea-dances may be dying in the Northwest Territories as he felt the Fort Simpson celebrations lacked the true religious prayer he sees at Assumption.

"Many of the Dogribs have lost something ... something of the ceremony passed them by," he says sadly.

Drummers from Fort Rae sang and drummed songs for a crowd of approximately 500 the night before the Pope arrived. Before each song the drummers warmed their drums on the open fire to improve the sound.