Red Brothers, Red Sisters — Mosaic Magazine

This article was written by Steve Bell for Mosaic Magazine Spring 2016
Published June 11, 2016 by Canadian Baptist Ministries
2017 Word Award Nominee for Best Column — Single

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 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 quite 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 a group of inmates who used the chapel on Saturday afternoons for jam sessions that noticed I had some musical capacity, and invited me into their circle where I learned to play the guitar. I loved those guys. Most were First Nations and had such easy, gentle dispositions and ready humor—although the many crude and almost cruel looking tattoos and scars betrayed a life more painful than surface demeanor might indicate.

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 lunch with my foster daughter. She came to us when she was six and is now thirty-two and the mother of three. There is a whole lot of story in between those years. Ruby Lynne is First Nations. In the middle of lunch she suddenly burst into tears saying she didn’t know how she could continue to manage and push down the pain of racism she weekly, if not daily, 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 as bad as she has experienced. All I could do, really, was cry with her.

More recently, my young friend Christy and I were having coffee. The red, fresh cut marks added to the ones that run up and down her arms like railway ties indicated she had had come off of a few bad days. The previous night she was with friends who started cutting together. Apparently this is a thing; 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,” comes to mind. As does “Lord, have mercy.

Listen to the song “Red Brother Red Sister” on SoundCloud

Red Brother Red Sister

written by Bruce Cockburn
performed by Steve Bell on his album My Dinner with Bruce

Went to the museum, red brother
Saw your ancient bloom cut, pressed and dried
A sign said wasn’t it clever what they used to do
But it never did say how they died

Hey hey hey
Hey hey hey

Went to Regina, red sister
Heard a cab driver say what he’d seen
“There’s a grand place to eat out on Number One
All white ladies if you know what I mean”

Hey hey hey
Hey hey hey

Went to a pow wow, red brother
Felt the people’s love/joy flow around
It left me crying just thinking about it
How they used my saviour’s name to keep you down

Hey hey hey
Hey hey hey