Lisa Raven’s first reaction to hearing Pope Francis apologize on Indigenous land in Canada this summer was: “Wow. That was really powerful.” She did not expect to be moved to tears. Thirty-six years ago, Raven was a student at Saskatchewan’s Marieval Indian Residential School run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. When she first heard an apology from that order back in 1991, she was too angry to receive it.
I sat down with Raven, now Executive Director of Returning to Spirit, to find out what has changed in the past 30 years and how her recent experiences in Rome and Maskwacis, Alberta brought reconciliation home.
CC: Would you like to share a bit about how you became a Catholic and a Christian, and what faith means to you?
Lisa Raven: I’m from Hollow Water First Nation and I live there still. I guess I’m kind of a wayward Catholic, a soul that found their way back. I was angry at the Catholic Church for most of my life, probably until I was 30 years old. I was sexually abused by my grandfather who attended residential school, and it doesn’t take long to unfold what might have happened to him there. We lived in a small community and my grandfather was still very much part of my life. My mother is a faithful Catholic, so even when we were dealing with sexual abuse that’s where she went for guidance, for support. That really tore at the fabric of our relationship. I thought she was choosing the church over me. We were estranged for like 15 years. So for a long time, I didn’t want to have anything to do with reconciliation.
In the Walking Together documentary, you mention the Oblates of Mary Immaculate who ran most of the Catholic residential schools in Canada. How did it feel back in 1991 to hear an apology that you weren’t ready for?
I remember picking it apart, looking for what was wrong or what was left out. Where they were lacking in taking responsibility. So today when I see people on social media or when I talk to them about the Pope’s apology and it angers them, I totally get it. Oftentimes, we think of reconciliation as linear and it’s not. Western culture says, “if we check off these boxes then we’ll get there.” I think that is why it feels sometimes like we’re not making any progress, because reconciliation is actually experiential. It’s spiritual and it’s fluid.
Walking Together doc
Lisa Raven went to the Vatican in March and April 2022 to meet with the Pope and other members of the Catholic church. You can hear more of her story and the experiences of other delegates in the Walking Together documentary from Salt + Light Media.
I was really struck by what you said about how reconciliation is for yourself and it’s for future generations, but it’s also for the past. What did you mean by that?
For me I really experienced that when I was in Rome because I stayed at the general house of the Missionary Oblates. I was like, “okay do I really want to do this? That’s kind of like going into the belly of the beast.”
That sounds like a trigger.
Yeah, I was afraid at first. But the opposite actually happened. I felt so welcome and accepted there. I took my pipe and my bundle and every day we would do a pipe ceremony praying for what’s happening at the time with the delegation and praying for reconciliation. The [Missionary Oblates] were so accommodating, but they were curious too. They wanted to know: “What are you doing? What does this mean for you? What are these things?” So they asked if I would share a little bit about them and so it was all arranged and over 50 [priests and seminarians] from all over the world showed up. I was really blown away by that. Their curiosity and interest was genuine. In my grandfather’s time, that never would have been possible.
To go from outlawing and destroying those ceremonial items to now being curious about them and wanting to learn, that’s a huge shift.
Even being welcomed into their house as an Indigenous woman. That for me, that’s a real measure of how far the church has come. Institutions like the church tend to move really slowly; change always takes a long time.
Was it healing for you to be in Rome together with so many other delegates?
The best part of it was the relational aspect of the trip. The delegates ate together, they celebrated mass together, they did all these tours together. They all stayed in the same hotel. They traveled on the same bus. Often the church and Indigenous people don’t really know each other. We think we do, but we have lots of biases and assumptions. We don’t really know each other as human beings.
A lot of what the public sees are events in institutional settings, like the big apology ceremony in the Vatican on April 1st. But in the Walking Together documentary I noticed there was a mixer where delegates were talking with cardinals, clergy and priests, having a drink together and laughing.
Yeah, those are actually the moments of reconciliation. Not to be flippant or anything, the Pope’s apology was “yeah okay great,” but it wasn’t about that. To me reconciliation is those [relationship-building] moments. My goal is not to come to a place of reconciliation, but it’s to gather as many of those moments as I can in my life. Hopefully those moments start to outweigh the bad ones. To get those experiences you have to be in partnership with the ones that you’re in conflict with, the ones who are on the opposite side.
So it makes sense to you then when people feel like the Pope’s apology didn’t do enough or when they’re offended by his visit?
Yeah, but you can’t discount it, either; you have to look at the whole picture. The big upset at Maskwacis was around that headdress, but the media left out so much crucial information.
Can you explain for our readers what the headdress meant to you? What was the missing backstory?
The way I saw it, Chief Willie Littlechild, he was one of the Truth and Reconciliation commissioners and so he listened to thousands of residential school student stories. He must have heard the worst of the worst. Listening to that almost every day for three years for any normal person would harden your heart and spirit. Willie Littlechild was also a part of the first delegation way back with Pope Benedict and Phil Fontaine. [Littlechild and Pope Francis] are around the same age. He’s been to the Pope’s house and so the Pope comes to his home and it’s in our custom that when somebody you know comes to your home, you give them a gift. It’s a part of who we are. We don’t just give any gift; we have to give what is the most special to us. When I do a round of fasting, there’s a giveaway ceremony at the end. Last time, I gave away my drum, my rattle, everything from my bundle. Those are things I spent years accumulating. It was hard to give those up, but I had to because that is the teaching of humility and it’s the teaching of faith too. Give all that away and trust that if you’re meant to have it, it’ll come back to you. That headdress wasn’t made for the Pope; it belonged to Willie Littlechild’s grandfather. So when Littlechild gifted that to him, it wasn’t like nation to nation or head of state to head of state. It was man to man. And you know what, he’s allowed. He’s allowed to give anything he wants. Willie Littlechild is in his 80s; he doesn’t know how many more years he has on this earth and he wants to spend the rest of the time that he has in a place of peace. God bless him. He deserves that.
Do you think there are people who will never be able to accept an apology until the Doctrine of Discovery is rescinded?
Yeah, or they get the land back. That kind of makes me sad because that could take a lifetime. For so many people they are going to be hanging on to that stuff until then. No matter the system, there’s always going to be unfairness; there’s always going to be injustice in this world; there’s always going to be inequality. But I find that I’m more effective and powerful if I can interact with those systems from a place of peace and being reconciled.
Returning to Spirit
During our conversation, Lisa Raven walked me through a few examples from Returning to Spirit workshops. She explained how unaddressed relational problems create barriers, unhelpful narratives and lead to deep divides in our communities. Identifying the stereotypes we hold and taking ownership for the damage they cause is the first step in reconciliation. Visit returningtospirit.org to learn more.