In the historic meeting between the Pope and Indigenous leaders from Canada on April 1, Pope Francis apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in the abuse against Indigenous children in residential schools that operated from the 1880s to the 1990s. According to the New York Times, the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission approximates that “4,100 children went missing nationwide” from these residential schools, while some believe that the number is much higher. Pope Francis’ apology follows last year’s discoveries of more than 1,000 unmarked graves at former residential school sites across Canada.
A Tufts alumnus, Natan Obed (LA‘01), led the Inuit delegation for this historic meeting as the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. Obed, who graduated from Tufts with a degree in English and American studies, is committed to bringing about reconciliation between Inuit and the Crown in Canada.
In his interview with the Daily, Obed explained his roles and responsibilities as president of ITK.
“I’ve been the president [of] Canada’s national representational organization [since 2015]. We represent the roughly 65,000 Inuit who live in Canada,” Obed said. “I’ve had an incredible opportunity to influence the way in which Canada thinks about Inuit and how we chart a path of reconciliation in Canada.”
At its core, ITK is about bridging differences and building connections among Inuit across Canada, Obed noted, a mission that has resonated with him personally.
“At the heart of our organization is a sense that there are different regions of Inuit in Canada with different land claim agreements [and] different colonial histories, but we are all the same people, … and we want to make our way together at the national level to implement our own self-determination,” Obed said.
When Obed ran for the organization’s presidency in 2015, he was the youngest candidate and had to prove himself to those who doubted his leadership. It was particularly challenging for Obed to withstand the criticism that he was somehow not ‘Inuk enough’ during the election process.
“We don’t choose our childhoods. We don’t choose where we end up living, … but we have identities and we have connections to cultures and societies where our parents are from,” Obed said. “I still don’t speak Inuktitut fluently, [and] I may not be the best hunter, but it doesn’t necessarily make me any less of an Inuk.”
Obed added that while his father is an Inuk from Nunatsiavut, his mom is from Maine, and she is not Indigenous. Even as Obed shuttled back and forth between Maine and Canada growing up, he thinks of Nain, in the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador, whenever he hears the word ‘home.’
“When I close my eyes [and] I think of [where] home is, I think of Nain. I might not have lived there very long in my life, but that is where I find the most connection. It’s where I feel at peace, and it’s also where I think I draw my strength from,” Obed said.
Obed further elaborated on his philosophical view of identity in light of his personal journey.
“Too often, we feel forced to say, ‘This is where I am from,’ or [someone else] looks at you and says, ‘This is where you are from.’ I think that is detrimental to our mental health and detrimental to our sense of belonging in the world, if we feel like we have to conform to other people’s perceptions of who we are,” Obed said. “It takes a long time to be comfortable with yourself enough to just discard the things that people want you to be and to hold onto the things that you know you are.”
In his journey of self-discovery, it was his independent study at Tufts that brought him back to his home in Nain. Obed won the Shapiro Award within the American studies department to study the Labrador Inuit land claims during his junior year.
“That particular project reconnected me with my community. I hadn’t been back to Nain since I was, I believe, six years old. So me coming back at [the age of] 22 or 23, a lot of my family still lived there … but people didn’t really know me. … Some people didn’t even think that my father had kids,” Obed said. “So that was really tough, [but] that was something that was necessary for personal growth.”
Based on his independent study project and presentation, Obed formulated and wrote his senior honors thesis on the Labrador Inuit land claims and, by extension, on the Inuit across Canada in general.
“I thought of [my thesis] in an academic way when I dreamed it up, but it ended up being much more of a personal journey … [with] some associated academic components to it,” Obed said. “It ended up being all-consuming during my senior year. I did not expect for it to be as large as it became, [but] it was something like 130 pages.”
Through it all, Obed noted that his advisors, Joan Lester, who taught Indigenous studies courses at Tufts, and Ronna Johnson, a lecturer in the Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora, helped him find his voice as a scholar and a leader.
In hindsight, Obed also sees how his studies at Tufts turned out to be his lifelong journey and passion.
“[My first independent study] is kind of the basis of what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years or so now. It is first and foremost talking about who Inuit are, providing an empathetic and inclusive lens on identity, … talking about land claims and Inuit rights,” Obed said.
Indeed, Obed has grappled with the truth of history — in its fullness and totality — as an extension of his senior thesis, an ongoing journey that ultimately took him to the Vatican. Obed contextualized the salience of Pope Francis’s apology in this process of reconciliation and healing.
“Many people are completely ignorant of what’s happened to Indigenous peoples and not by their own lack of trying. … It has not been in textbooks in school; it’s not something that is [a part of] a large political discourse every single day,” Obed said. “No matter what, we want everyone to understand what happened, the truth of what happened, and then work with us on reconciliation. And part of the journey to Rome and [to] the Catholic Church is … that journey where an apology by the Pope to the Indigenous peoples in Canada makes all of this real, in a way that it wasn’t last week, to millions of people.”
Ultimately, Obed hopes that raising awareness around issues such as residential schools in Canada can foster greater understanding toward the Indigenous people in North America, thereby inspiring more people to act for social justice and reconciliation efforts.
“I want to bring people into a conversation, but once [people] know this, then I would hope that people will not forget it and won’t be on the sidelines moving forward,” Obed said.
In light of his personal journey that started at Tufts, Obed added that there is much an individual can do for the movement toward reconciliation.
“For an individual, it could mean just knowing where you stand [in] the world, where you’re located [and] what Indigenous peoples’ land you are living on. Also [by] understanding how to be supportive of larger societal change, we all can play a role in reconciliation with First Nations, Inuit and Métis in Canada, and in the [United] States for Native Americans,” Obed said. “It’s possible — we just have to … understand the influence that we do have and then utilize it to the best of our ability.”