The Next Chapter

'Words have power': Remembering Lee Maracle's legacy as one of Canada's most influential Indigenous authors

In this 2014 interview, Lee Maracle spoke with Shelagh Rogers about her approach to life and literature. Maracle died on Nov. 11, 2021 at the age of 71.

'Writing made me a very powerful person in myself, inside myself'

Lee Maracle was a Sto:lo writer, poet, author, activist and instructor. (Jason D'Souza/CBC)

The Sto:lo writer Lee Maracle was a teacher, a lifelong activist, expert on First Nations culture and history, and a celebrated writer. Maracle died on Nov. 11, 2021, at the age of 71.

Maracle helped many emerging Indigenous writers and writers of colour believe in the importance of their writing. She was profoundly respected and deeply loved. She was gregarious, caring and eager to speak up when Indigenous writers and literatures were not respected.

Maracle published her first book in 1975, the autobiographical novel Bobbie Lee Indian Rebeland it was among the first Indigenous novels published in Canada. Her novel Celia's Song, was a nominee for the 2020 Neustadt International Prize

Her other acclaimed books include I Am WomanMy Conversations with Canadians and Ravensong. Maracle was named to the Order of Canada in 2018.

Maracle, a former University of Toronto professor and elder in residence, had recently returned to B.C., where she had accepted a position at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey and began teaching in September, according to her family.

In 2014, Maracle spoke to The Next Chapter host Shelagh Rogers when Celia's Song was first published.

Retelling the sea serpent story

"Two of my ancestors, Chief Joseph Capilano and Mary Agnes, the princess of peace, worked with Pauline Johnson, who's a poet of Mohawk and British descent. In the 1900s, they put a collection of stories together called Legends of Vancouver.

"He told the sea serpent story as though it were happening right there. I decided that's what I wanted to do too. But I wanted to do mine from a very different perspective and I knew it would take a long time to figure out how I was going to do that.

Words have power. They have impact. Breath is wind, wind is voice and voice is power.

"[The sea serpent story begins with] a catastrophe. There was this tremendous flood that came across the prairie when the glaciers melted really quickly and then volcanoes went off and earthquakes occurred. There was a flood that killed almost all of us on the west coast. Those two floods together became this natural catastrophe and people became desperate. A lot of internalized violence developed along the west coast, right from Alaska down to California.

"Fighting ensued and people say this serpent with two heads came into the villages and terrorized them. The serpent swallowed everybody's conscience and that's how we developed split minds. I decided to use it as the backdrop to deal with some of the internal unseen violence in our community toward women and children."

LISTEN | Lee Maracle on Unreserved:

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.

The beautiful lie

"I lied to my granddad one day and he stared at me for a long time. My granddad had this emotional face and you could see every emotion he was going through as he was looking at me, but there was also something in him that was studying me very carefully.

"I remember thinking, 'Oh God, I want to die because I just lied to my granddad and he deserved better.' But then at the end he said, 'That's a good story. Now I'm going to tell you another one.' So he did. Then he said, 'Now tell it back to me different, but the same.'

I wanted to write those stories. I really did.

"He got me to make up all these stories based on original stories of ours over the course of a summer. At the end of it he said, 'You know, white people pay a lot of money for you to lie like that.' 

"I said, 'Really?' He said, 'Yeah, but you gotta learn to write. I'm happy with that, but don't you ever lie to me again.' It made a difference between a beautiful lie, which is a story, and lying to hornswoggle someone. I wanted to write those stories. I really did. I wanted to be able to put books together."

Lee Maracle's legacy

"We have a saying: 'Words have power. They have impact. Breath is wind, wind is voice and voice is power.' Writing made me a very powerful person in myself, inside myself. But it also influenced a new direction for Canada.

"I'm not the only one, though. Native writers generally have influenced Canadians to start building the bridge toward us and some of the new Canadian attitude is to make sure the street crosses both ways, instead of constantly pillaging Native lands and Native territory and not giving something back and seeing us as parasites.

We lost a continent and we're still subsidizing Canada with the wealth from that continent.

"We lost a continent and we're still subsidizing Canada with the wealth from that continent. Laws made not by us have prohibited us from being part of that in any way, shape or form. But I think things are changing now because there's people saying, 'It's a colonial country and we're settlers and we have to rearrange things. We have to get a sharing arrangement.'

"I think that's a very powerful influence I've had on this country."

Lee Maracle's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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