My last conversation with Lee Maracle, the author and my friend, took place on Halloween evening, a little more than a week before she died. I was in Mexico and Lee was in Vancouver. We were on a Zoom session promoting a book I edited and compiled, called Me Tomorrow: Indigenous Views on the Future. Lee contributed an essay on how she saw the Indigenous world developing in the coming decades.
The essay was typical of Lee, for she saw the future as being just as important as our past. Lee’s appearance was also typical in another way: She was late and laughing up a storm. And she spoke profoundly. This was Lee Maracle. On Nov. 11, she died at a Surrey, B.C., hospital at the age of 71.
Novelist, poet, academic and an old-fashioned storyteller, she would probably say there was no difference between the four. All involve honesty and the ability to take the audience by the hand (sometimes forcibly) and show them something they did not know.
Lee’s professional career began before most current Canadians were born. She was part of the boom in First Nation and Métis literature and storytelling in the 1970s and 80s that came to define a generation. Some call it the contemporary Indigenous literary renaissance. She, along with Maria Campbell, Jeannette Armstrong and others, lit the fuse that resulted in the explosion of Indigenous literature we all enjoy today. Her first book, a semi-autobiographical novel titled Bobbi Lee: Indian Rebel came out in 1975.
“I was told, at the time I wrote Bobbi Lee that they didn’t publish books by Indians and that we couldn’t write,” Lee told CBC Books. “A leftist publishing house, part of the Liberation Support Movement, actually published it initially. Then it gained notoriety and people liked it.”
Soon, numerous fiction and non-fiction volumes followed, with such titles as Ravensong, I Am Woman: A Native Perspective on Sociology and Feminism, Celia’s Song and My Conversations With Canadians.
It has become a cliché how people frequently say someone was an inspiration to others, but that was truly the case with Lee. So many contemporary Aboriginal writers, perhaps an entire generation, were encouraged in their careers by her directly or by her example as a successful writer. She had the unique ability to make them believe success was attainable, even their right.
“I will never forget her raising me up … into a space where I had a voice, where I could be as queer as I damn well pleased, and that never took away from my Indigeneity. In fact, they were symbiotic,” acclaimed writer Joshua Whitehead said. “She raised me into a space where I could partake in ceremony and community.”
Lee could also be critical and eviscerate you if she felt it was necessary. Author Waubgeshig Rice likes telling the story where, at an author’s festival, “Lee, Rosanna [Deerchild] and Tanya [Talaga] were talking about the evils of colonialism in their Q&A, and an older white lady with a British accent in the audience straight up said ‘I feel attacked.’ So Lee just threw up her hands and said, ‘I’m done with people like you’ and left the panel.”
Long an advocate for women and Indigenous rights, Lee was known to fight many a battle, regardless of her opponents.
“Although I’m grateful for an opportunity to speak, I am still aware of how irrelevant you have made us in order to believe in your pursuit of religious freedom, raison d’être that masks colonialism,“ Lee said in her 2020 Margaret Laurence lecture, wrestling with how the prestigious speaking series previously excluded voices like hers. “I am invited into your space in an honouring way despite the continued murder of Indigenous women, some of whom are my relations,” she went on to say.
Writers in her own community would also feel her wrath if she saw laziness or dishonesty in their work. For example, she and I argued for 15 years over the logic of a single line in my play Someday. She always had a problem with the line “Second is good,” although it would take too long to explain her reasoning here. She always said that saying the line in a production was the hardest thing she ever did as an actor. Oh yeah, she also occasionally trod the boards. Multitalented, thy name is Lee.
A proud member of the Sto:lo Nation in southwestern B.C., Lee was born on July 2, 1950, to a Métis mother and Salish father. She was raised in the North Shore mud flats, a poor neighbourhood in North Vancouver, east of the Second Narrows Bridge. She endured what she called “hard times” as a child.
The granddaughter of poet, actor and activist Chief Dan George, Lee raised four talented children of her own, two of whom – Columpa Bobb and Sid Bobb – found success in theatre and television. Her two daughters, Columpa and Tania Carter, joined her in writing Hope Matters, a book about the journey of Indigenous people from colonial beginnings to reconciliation. Lee said the book “is also about the journey of myself and my two daughters.”
A month before her death, Lee had returned to the Vancouver area after accepting a position at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. Prior to that she had taught at universities in Washington State, Toronto and at the En’owkin International School of Writing in Penticton, B.C.
A household name in the Indigenous community, Lee was also known to non-Indigenous Canadians for her creative brilliance. Her many accolades include Ontario’s Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal and induction as an officer of the Order of Canada.
But one of the most amazing things Lee Maracle was known for was her laugh. It was loud. It was distinctive. It was highly recognizable. Just like Lee. You could be in the middle of a raging hurricane surrounded by a thousand people, and just by listening, easily find her at a moment’s notice.
That laugh, above and beyond her talent, is what I will remember her for. And miss.
Drew Hayden Taylor is an award-winning playwright, author, columnist, filmmaker and lecturer