Red Brother Red Sister

SteveBellMusicianA reflection by Steve Bell

I honestly didn’t know it was so bad. All I could do, really, was cry with her.

I WAS EIGHT OR NINE YEARS OLD the day I just came out and asked my dad if there was something wrong with Indians. He stopped what he was doing, looked at me for a few seconds and then said, “Now why on earth would you ask that question?” My dad was a prison chaplain at Drumheller Federal Penitentiary at the time, and it was common for my sisters and I to go into the chapel with him and mom for weekly services and other social events. In fact, it was there that I learned to play the guitar as a group of inmates who used the chapel for jam sessions noticed I had some musical capacity, and invited me into their circle. I loved those guys. Most were First Nations.

I explained to Dad that I noticed there were a disproportionate amount of First Nations men on the inside of prison than on the outside and wondered why that would be. My dad just looked at me and eventually responded with, “You need to be asking questions like that for the rest of your life.”

Only a few months ago I had coffee with my foster daughter. She came to us when she was six and is now 32 and the mother of three. There is a whole lot of story in between those years. Jenny is First Nations. It wasn’t long into our conversation before she suddenly began to weep saying she didn’t know how she could continue to manage, to push down the trauma and pain of racism she constantly faces. She then listed a litany of recent situations, some cruel, some frightening, many that happened on the street and in front of her young daughters, that no one of white skin ever has to deal with. I honestly didn’t know it was so bad. All I could do, really, was cry with her.

More recently, my young friend Christy and I were having coffee. The fresh, red cut marks – newly added to the ones that run up and down her arms like railway ties – indicated she had come off of a few bad days. The previous night she had been with friends who started cutting together; a fellowship of sorts. Yes…First Nations. I’m not sure just how aware she is of the legacy of dehumanizing cruelty that exists between settler and First Nations people. But she sure knows its legacy in her body.

Honestly? I don’t know what to say. “Woe is me… for I am a man of unclean lips, and come from a people of unclean lips,” (Is: 6:5) comes to mind. As does “Lord, have mercy.”

The lyrics of Bruce Cockburn’s haunting song Red Brother Red Sister also come to mind; an aching lament from a man who knows in his bones what Andy Reimer (Biblical Studies Professor, NAIITS) has written so succinctly: “While the [European] invaders may have had crosses on their shields, the one who actually hung on that cross was the Creator experiencing the worst of what it means to be human, not a conquering war hero.”

article in mosaic magazine, spring 2016