The legendary Indigenous storyteller Lee Maracle was a powerful writer – poet, novelist, essayist. She was also a fierce activist with an indomitable presence. If you spent time with Maracle – listening to her, talking to her, even just reading her words – you would never forget it: Her laugh, her spirit, her wisdom.
But perhaps Maracle’s greatest legacy will be not only in the words she wrote, but in the writers she lifted up. Maracle taught and mentored countless others, including people who would attribute their success today at least in part to the help they received from her – and from the doors she blew open. She was “one of the matriarchs of Indigenous literature,” as one of her publishers, B.C.-based Indigenous publishing house Theytus Books, called her on Thursday.
A member of the Stó:lō nation, Maracle was born in Vancouver in 1950 and died on Thursday. She was 71.
She was prolific. Her books include Bobbi Lee: Indian Rebel; I Am Woman: A Native Perspective on Sociology and Feminism; Ravensong and her 2014 novel Celia’s Song, which she dedicated “to all those children who were removed from our homes and who did not survive residential school.”
Maracle received many awards and honours in her lifetime, including the Order of Canada. But perhaps the greatest recognition lies in the words peers and admirers in the literary community had for Maracle on Thursday upon learning of her death.
Katherena Vermette – Métis author, poet, filmmaker
“She is and always will be my mentor and I would not be where I am without her.
“Lee was our Auntie. She looked out for us and fought for us. Always. This woman stormed the stage to be heard. She insisted on her place, and brought us all along behind her, whether we wanted to or not – no one said no to Auntie.
“That she will be missed is an understatement; I don’t think there’s any one of us not influenced – if not directly mentored or led – by Lee.”
Hazel Millar and Jay Millar – publishers, Book*hug Press
Jay: “My first encounter with Lee was at a conference at Brock University [in 2014] where she was the keynote speaker. She arrived in a flurry, as Lee often does, and barged into the place. She took the stage and talked for an hour-and-a-half. It just blew my mind.
“We had just started our essay series at Book*hug Press and I thought this was a really important voice. I knew who she was, but I had never heard her speak before, and to hear that was just so powerful. So I e-mailed her and said I’d love to talk to you about a book project. I met Lee at her office and she asked me: “What are you talking about?” And I explained that she would have free rein to write whatever she wanted. And she put her finger at the side of her nose and said, ‘I have an idea.’ And that became My Conversations with Canadians.”
Hazel: “[She] wrote that book entirely on her phone, because she wrote it mostly during flights. She flew a lot – she was invited to speak all over. It’s tremendous, the legacy that Lee leaves behind … and her work will live on forever in her beautiful words.”
Jesse Wente – Anishinaabe writer, author, broadcaster and chair of the Canada Council for the Arts
“Maybe the most important thing she taught me was to fiercely be myself in the face of demands for me to be someone else. She was a gift to so many. She was my Auntie, as she was for so many. I will miss her and I will always be grateful that I had the opportunity to know her.”
Margaret Atwood – author and poet
“She was strong. She was very inspirational for younger Indigenous writers. I think she was a very generous person. She was a trailblazer – and once one of those doors is opened, then it makes it much more possible for other people to go through that door.”
Shannon Webb-Campbell – mixed Indigenous (Mi’kmaq) author of the poetry collection I Am a Body of Land (with an introduction by Maracle, who also edited the book)
“She left us so much – she left us a path forward. Lee had a tremendous impact on my life – she changed my entire writing career and the way I think about poetry and what belongs to me and what doesn’t. Her lessons are something I’ve brought into the classroom, into my writing and my relationships.
“When my book Who Took My Sister? was pulled from distribution, my publishers wrote me saying that Lee Maracle wants to talk to you. And I thought I was really in trouble. Lee and I had multiple phone calls. She sussed out what were my intentions behind that collection. And she could read that I didn’t have ill intentions, but I certainly should have consulted with [people] before I published the book.
“She talked about how Bobbi Lee: Indian Rebel was a book that was very complicated for her, and her family was very unhappy about it. She didn’t consult with anybody and since then she always did.
“We probably talked on the phone three or four times. I sent her the manuscript. She said, ‘Just come to my house.’ I sat on the porch for a morning into the late afternoon. We had coffee and berries and nuts. And we talked through the entire book, line-by-line. And she would question: What did I mean? What was this line serving?
“I just fully trusted Lee to help me unpack what I had done wrong. Not only had she taught me that I had breached Indigenous protocol, but also what poetics belong to me and what doesn’t.
“She made the poems much stronger. She’s made me a better poet, a better thinker, a better human being all around.”
“Lee Maracle was a fierce and proud Indigenous woman who wrote from her heart. She was one of the founders of the En’owkin International School of Writing in Penticton, B.C. She shared so much of herself in helping many young and emerging authors take their place on the international stage as storytellers of their own Nations. Lee was a gifted speaker who raised her voice on many issues close to her heart. Her tireless dedication to Indigenous rights and Indigenous literature was boundless – educating thousands on Canada’s dishonourable history and attempted genocide of Indigenous people, through the workshops she led.
“Lee told a good yarn and could beguile the reader to deeply experience the worlds she created deftly with her wit, character and intelligence. Lee seamlessly infused the metaphysical and spiritual worlds into her work. Her first novel Bobbie Lee: Indian Rebel lit a spark, as Lee was one of the first Indigenous women to be published. A trailblazer for many authors to be brave and have the courage to tell their stories too, [through] mentoring some of the best and brightest authors in Indigenous country today. Her influence on Indigenous literature is immeasurable.”
These interviews and statements have been condensed and edited.
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