Conversation with Lee Maracle

Order of Canada honour caught author by surprise

“Not long after the first smallpox epidemic all but decimated the Tsleil-Waututh people, the Squamish people came down from their river homes where the snow fell deep all winter to establish a permanent home at False Creek. Chief George – Chipkayim – built the big Longhouse. Khahtsahlano was a young man then. His son, Khahtsahlano was born there. Khahtsahlano grew up and married Swanamia there. Their children were born there ...”

“Raven has never left this place, but sometimes it feels like she has been negligent, maybe even a little dense. Raven shaped us; we are built for transformation. Our stories prepare us for it. Find freedom in the context you inherit; every context is different; discover consequences and change from within, that is the challenge. Still, there is horror in having had change foisted upon you from outside. Raven did not prepare us for what has happened over the past 150 years. She must have fallen asleep some time around the first smallpox epidemic when the Tsleil-Waututh Nation nearly perished, and I am not sure she ever woke up.” – Lee Maracle: “Goodbye Snauq”

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Lee Maracle answers the phone laughing with a TV playing in the background. She excuses herself momentarily to turn down the sound.

For many years she has been a Mentor for Aboriginal Students at the University of Toronto teaching at the Centre for Indigenous Studies.

Just after Christmas, Maracle was named to the Order of Canada. Initially the honour surprised her as she doesn’t consider herself a Canadian. Raised on the North Vancouver waterfront, the granddaughter of Tsleil-Waututh Chief Dan George, she has spent most of her life critiquing the very idea of a Canadian identity.

From her first autobiographical work, Bobbi Lee: Indian Rebel, on through to more recent titles such as, First Wives Club: Coast Salish Style and Memory Serves, Maracle has never strayed from telling it like it is. Even while embracing concepts such as feminism and Marxism her writing is rooted in a tradition that remains entirely alien to a European perspective.

She spoke to the North Shore News about the Order of Canada appointment and its ironic significance to her as an author/activist/scholar devoted to Indigenous issues.

 

North Shore News: Congratulations on the Order of Canada appointment. How did you hear about it?

Lee Maracle: They actually got hold of me before they announced it to see if I would stand to make sure I was not going to get up there and say, ‘No thanks.’ Just before Christmas, I think, and I was allowed to tell my family which is like 3,000 people. They have no idea how big my family is: I have 22 siblings and they all have grandchildren and great-grandchildren and then there’s the Maracles over at Six Nations. Everybody was very proud of me.

I had to think about standing, you know, because I’m really an advocate for decolonization and so to accept something from Canada for the work that I do with decolonization struck me as a bit odd but my publisher helped me to accept it by saying why don’t you accept it to honour the people who nominated you and thought you deserved it. I don’t think it’s that unusual that I don’t consider myself a Canadian to get recognition from Canada.

North Shore News:  It’s also fitting because your latest book is My Conversations with Canadians.

Lee Maracle: Exactly. I think it’s timely and probably going to help my book sales (she laughs). I never thought of that though when I said yes. It seems interesting that it happened at the same time but people have told me it’s because they love me and I thought that was interesting. I try to be a nice person on top of everything. I’ve always been the person who notices the elephant in the room and says so. I think somebody once told me they were surprised I was such a good person because I Am Woman seems so angry and I said, ‘I wasn’t angry when I wrote it, I was just pointing out all the elephants.’

I seemed to be surrounded, I could hardly breathe. It was such a number of things chasing us: the murdered and missing women, the whole business of how we treat Indigenous women was a big one for me. I think we were catching hell from all sides and it was relentless, there didn’t seem to be any let-up.

 

North Shore News: What are you teaching this semester at the University of Toronto?

Lee Maracle: I’m teaching the same thing I started in September which is the world view of Indigenous peoples and I use the Cree, Ojibway, Haudenosaunee and Salish people – those are the big four in Canada. I teach it as a cross-cultural course because there’s a lot of differences between West Coast Indigenous people and everybody else.

Even though the Haudenosaunee and ourselves on the West Coast have a lot of the same origin stories and a lot of the same governing stories because we separated at a certain point my people stayed with the notion of slavery and the Haudenosaunee did not. They went in the direction of democracy which is very interesting in their teachings and in some of their messengers that came after about 2,000 years ago. They had messengers that came to them and didn’t come to us. We didn’t get into an internecine war on the West Coast, we warred with other nations like the Haida so that’s where the slaves came from.

We were active slavers, except the Wolf Clan, which is my clan, we tend to be the justice crew to try to get everybody not to do stuff but nobody listens to us. There was a lot of conflict on the West Coast, a lot of hierarchy and all those things. Our objection to colonialism is different then say for the Cree and the Ojibway who have this kind of absolute democracy. In all their treaty negotiations everybody over seven was there to vote so if you can sort of imagine that thousands of people gathering together to make a treaty it drove England nuts.

In the Haudenosaunee tradition it’s 50 clan heads but the clans have to consult with their members. Where I’m from the clan heads can make decisions but nobody has to follow it so if you don’t do the consultation work then nobody will follow you. We’re responsible for ourselves but nobody’s in charge of us. It’s a strange kind of governing system. More chaos then governance but anyway we have to teach all of these things.

The other thing I like about doing the course is relying on our oral memory. (There is no) comparison with Western world views which initially the students had a great deal of difficulty with because they want to talk about racism and colonization and all of that and I say, ‘No that’s another course.’ We have questions like that in Indigenous studies but this one isn’t.

There are only two courses in our whole program that don’t focus on Canada. I don’t want to be part of the focus on Canada because I prefer that people have a solid grounding in who we all are and that we’re different nation to nation and know what those differences are.

The stuff I teach is from different people, from different Indigenous books and most of it’s oral. We are thinking of taping it though so we have an oral library. We are going to have an oral library at the Centre for Indigenous Studies and we’re going to use that as a library of oratory as well as books.

Memory Serves is the book I’ve done of my oratories. Even a lot of I Am Woman is oral and a lot of the stuff in Conversations is pretty oratorical. They’re not essays, you can’t call them essays, although there are references and so on because I’ve said things that need references to verify.

 

North Shore News: In a video of a lecture you gave at an Indigenous Peoples’ Solidarity Movement Ottawa seminar they introduce you jokingly as ‘an import to the University of Toronto.’

Lee Maracle:  (laughing) Did they say that? It is kind of true.

 

North Shore News: In “Goodbye Snauq” you say Khahtsahlano dreamed of being buried at False Creek and you dreamt of living there – is that still true?

Lee Maracle: Yes, but I probably won’t because it’s so expensive. I consider myself a guest in this territory and I came here because my mother originates from this end of the country. I wasn’t exactly raised by her although I lived with her. She worked a lot. I got to know her as an older teenager. I was mostly influenced by the Tsleil-Waututh which is where my father’s family is from. When she died I decided to go back east here where the Métis trail starts and try and discover her roots but I found out I had to discover the Ojibways who really are the roots of the Métis in many ways and the Crees and then the Haudenosaunee people are also part of the Métis origins. That occurred and then I was offered a job at the university.

 

North Shore News: Your childhood seems full of characters that are larger than life. Can you talk about Khahtsahlano? During his lifetime he is often seen in the historical photographs of Vancouver’s civic life.

Lee Maracle: He was very dignified and old when I met him but I do remember having conversations with him. I was such a snot-nosed brat, well that’s what the old people called me when they weren’t calling me sweetheart – it volleyed back and forth between brat and sweetheart. His thing is this: everybody here is Squamish that’s in Vancouver because this is the territory, the name of the country. We’re all Squamish it’s just that some of us are no good at it. All these people belong here.

When I was really young I didn’t think that, of course, I was only six, you know, it was just ‘us and them’ but I remember him saying, because he couldn’t convince me, he said, ‘The world is yours child, go get it,’ and that was a chilling thing. His voice was chilling because it was insistent and he believed I could do it. I realized that I was on a journey that at that point was too big for me. It awed me that he could have faith in me. Because I was arguing with him and he wasn’t going to argue with me. I realized, OK, he’s not asking me to go conquer the world he’s telling me to get humble so I went back and had more conversations with him.

I think I was 17 or so when he died but I had quite a number of conversations with him. I was still awed by him. He was a very dignified, very tall gentleman. He was also very white because he had that disease where you lose your pigment and he had to wear black sunglasses all the time and I remember he had a cane. He never forgot who I was.

The other thing that awed me about him was his memory. I really tried to develop my memory and I would ask him about it all the time. He would say it’s not about the memory it’s about your special commitment to things. If you commit to something with the deepest spiritual part of yourself you will remember everything about it.

 

North Shore News: Why was he so insistent on Squamish over, for example, Stó:lo or Tsleil-Waututh or Musqueam?

Lee Maracle: Tsleil-Waututh is a village. Squamish goes from the north down to Oregon over to Montana. It’s the whole territory and half of Vancouver Island. It’s everybody. The Squamish band is a small village that was actually not called Squamish and he was not called Squamish – in his mind he was Snauq. He’s from Snauq which is a village of the Squamish territory.

Tsleil-Waututh is a village inside the Squamish territory, even the Stó:lo are inside the Squamish territory. We don’t have that sensibility anymore. That was a sensibility that existed 150 years ago and we’ve been fractured and broken up and we don’t even know who we are anymore.

But when he explained it to me he said, ‘They call this British Columbia and they have Vancouver and Kelowna and Chilliwack in there. We called this same territory Squamish.’ Everybody we have agreements with – and there are 11 different tribes going down to Oregon over to Montana, the Salish Flatheads, including the Okanagan and the Secwepemc, and the Lillooet and Nlaka’pamux peoples – all of these people we had agreements with and relations with. They were for all intents and purposes, for us, inside the Squamish territory.

(Everyone) in Washington and the same with people on the island, all were part of a larger confederacy and had relations with each other – this was the business centre, that was the ceremonial centre and this other thing was where the whale hunting was done. Snauq was the garden where all the plants came from. All these things occurred in each village but a village doesn’t make a nation and that’s what I got from him – yea, we were a nation once and we can be again. What he talked about a lot was the common law that bound us together, the common story that bound us together and the common sensibilities. In Celia’s Song the sensibility is a sea serpent: clean mind, clean heart, clean spirit. 

Lee Maracle is in Montréal this weekend to participate in panel discussions and accept the 2018 Blue Metropolis First Peoples Literary Prize at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival.

 

Lee Maracle Bibliography:

Fiction

Sojourner’s Truth and Other Stories, 1990

Sundogs, 1991

Ravensong, 1993

Daughters are Forever, 2002

Will’s Garden, 2002

First Wives Club: Coast Salish Style, 2010

Celia’s Song, 2014

 

Non-fiction

Bobbi Lee: Indian Rebel, 1975 (revised 1990)

I am Woman: A Native Perspective on Sociology and Feminism, 1996

Oratory: Coming to Theory, 1990

My Conversations with Canadians, 2017

 

Poetry

Bent Box, 2000

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