My friend Darrell Little Black Bear Phillips died this summer. He left behind his beloved Charlene and ten strong and beautiful sons and daughters. He was a massive personality. He was an organizer and a facilitator, passionate for justice, eager to see people live well together in this land. He could bring a moose home from the bush as capably as he could bring home a grant and a program plan from the halls of power. He picked a mean guitar and crooned big-hearted songs, classic country & folk covers, worship songs, as well as songs of his own creation. The last two he shared with me expressed the two great griefs of his devoutly Catholic, fully Anishnaabe heart - a song for residential school survivors and a song for the aborted unborn. Darrell had a spirituality that seamlessly married the drum and the sweat lodge to the rosary and the daily prayers of the missalette. I was attracted to the integration he embodied. Hanging around with Darrell, I could imagine what a healthy, vibrant coming together of our two cultures could look like.
I first got to know Darrell in the "Chretien Come Clean Car Wash" - a shamelessly corny bit of activist street theatre that I scripted for an Aboriginal National Day of Action, held on the one year anniversary of the release of the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RRCAP). Darrell hammed the thing up with characteristic enthusiasm and conviction, caking his family's mini-van with mud and chasing a local actor in a Jean Chretien mask, demanding that Prime Minister Chretien follow through on promises to implement the RRCAP recommendations.
Darrell took out all the event planners to Red Lobster after the protest, and it was then that Jenn and I saw that Darrell and Char were interested in us not just as political allies in the fight for Indigenous rights, but as friends. Jenn and I had children whose ages landed them right in the middle of the growing Phillips "brood." We loved getting together to cook and to visit. The kids would pile downstairs into the basement, with one or the other always lingering or returning to sit on a lap, taddle on a sibling or beg a foretaste of supper, which always took us well past 6pm to prepare together. Jenn and I would bring fresh vegetables from the garden, Darrell would bring out wild meat from up north, he would tell big stories that Char would whittle down to size with one lift of her eyebrow. We would cook and then we would feast, crowding around their kitchen table with Darrell always at the noisy centre of a storm that swirled with small children, big hugs, minor squabbles, threats of "The Manigotogan Mitt!", jokes, spiritual counsel, greasy chins and diaper wipes.
Most of the time we visited at Darrell and Char's place. Their sizeable family had a kind of gravitational force field that attracted others into itself. But they came our way too. They came out to the farm once in the early days, when it was hardly a farm yet at all: just a garden and a trailer and an outdoor bucket toilet. They came to swim with us in the Brokenhead River and see what we were up to.
I felt like the land was happy to feel the footprints of an Indigenous family again. I think I probably told Darrell the story I had heard of how the Brokenhead got its name, a tragic story of a Cree tribe wiped out by the Lakota in a war over access to guns and trading opportunities with the new pale-faced people in the land. The Cree never settled along this river again.
I do know that I asked Darrell what advice he had for me about how to live in this place in a good way, because I still remember his words that day. His answer was simple and definitive: "I would listen to the land."
A man and a piece of advice not to be forgotten.
Travel well, Little Black Bear, travel well.