Lee Maracle stormed CanLit stages to make sure her story was heard

With a career spanning four decades, Lee Maracle is one of the most prolific and respected Indigenous writers in Canada. But when she began her writing career in the 1970s, her voice and her stories were not recognized in the CanLit scene.
Lee Maracle is a poet, author, activist and instructor. (Jason D'Souza/CBC)
Listen9:16

This piece originally aired March 18, 2018.

With a career spanning four decades, Lee Maracle is one of the most prolific and respected Indigenous writers in Canada. But when she began her writing career in the 1970s, her voice and her stories were not recognized in the CanLit scene.

"There was just Maria Campbell, all alone out in the world with her book," she recalled.

Maria Campbell's memoir was one of the first books written by an Indigenous writer to be published in Canada in 1973. (Formac Publishing Company)
The Mé​tis author published Half-Breed in 1973, two years before Maracle's first book Bobbi Lee: Indian Rebel came out.

"I really saw Maria's book as an oral storytelling and Bobbi Lee for sure was. It was told orally and then I transcribed it and someone else edited it," she said.

"Publishers were telling me they don't publish Indians — that's what they called us at the time — because Indians can't read or write."

Maracle responded by conducting an informal survey of Indigenous people living in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside to find out how many could read and write. She said that two-thirds could not, most of whom were residential school survivors.

"So we decided to run projects teaching Indigenous people to read and write."

Beginning a revolution

Her grassroots action is indicative of her approach to literacy and literature. Maracle, who is Sto:Lo, also founded the En'owkin International School of Writing in Penticton, B.C. and has taught courses about Indigenous literature and storytelling at several universities across Canada .

Lee Maracle's first book was published in 1975. (Women's Press)

Maracle said the publishing business was a confusing one for a first time author. When her publisher told her that she had to tour with the book and read from her work, she wasn't sure what that meant.

"Do you really think people who can't read are going to buy a book just because I read it to them?" she recalled, laughing. "He says, 'No they can read.' Well, why don't they just buy the damn book and read it themselves?"

In those early days Maracle said lots of Native people showed up at her readings and were just thrilled to see an Indigenous woman sharing her story.

"I think we were afraid to pick our bundles up in the '70s. We'd just come out of residential school,  boarding school and we were afraid of our own cultures. We were afraid of our own languages, afraid of our own our own stories," she said.

"It was like a revolution."

Not welcome on the stage

But for Lee, the CanLit community was not as welcoming.

"They didn't want to put me on the podium at all," she said.

When I am Woman was published in 1988, she asked to be included in the Vancouver Writers Festival to launch her book of essays, but was denied an invitation.

"So I went there and got up on stage and grabbed the mic and I did a reading," she said. "I said, 'Right now you are in my village, this is my original village and I am going to read here.'"

Lee Maracle is one of the most prolific and respected Indigenous writers in Canada. But when she began her writing career in the 1970s, her voice and her stories were not recognized in the CanLit scene. 1:08

Maracle said attendees were horrified but sat quietly as she read from her book. She has since been invited back to the festival with each of her following books.

Maracle said the new wave of Indigenous writers that includes Cherie Dimaline, Katherena Vermette and Nathan Niigan Noodin Adler are far more literary and well-read because they have been able to study those that came before them.

"It's a bigger wave. It's like a mini tsunami, you know. The first wave was like a little blip in the ocean but now there's a lot of younger writers," she said. "They have this sensibility that's really really powerful."


Click the Listen button above to hear the full conversation with Rosanna Deerchild.