Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Already Went Home
Several years ago, I learned from an Anishinaabeg Elder that we are beings whose minds and bodies are not separate, and that who we are are spiritual beings having a human experience. When the experience is over, we return to the Spirit World, our home. Sometimes, we go home early. It seems to me that recently, so many of our amazing Indigenous authors and artists have been going home early, even before any pandemic and much of the growing social division that has developed over the past decade. And sometimes people leave so suddenly that it is a major shock. Barely a month ago, Lee Maracle delivered the 2020 Margaret Laurence lecture under the auspices of the Writers' Trust of Canada. Less than a week ago, she returned to the Spirit World. I am just one of many lovers of Lee Maracle's work, and had the incredible good fortune to actually hear her tell stories and speak in person. I'm simply a stranger, after all, and I'm gobsmacked. That is bound to be hardly a reaction in comparison to that of her family, who just lost their beloved sister, mother, grandmother, auntie. So this article is my small contribution of good thoughts and prayers for them, and to honour the forever brilliant and ever amazing Lee Maracle, whose powerful words continue to reverberate everyday in Turtle Island.
Maracle came into the world 2 july 1950, born into the Stó:lō Nation. If that date didn't contribute to her sharp analysis of the settler state of canada and its stories, to be sure her Stó:lō and Métis heritage certainly did. She pursued an extraordinary career in activism, writing, speaking, homebuilding, and family leading. Her determination and hard work has had an incredible positive effect in the world, including on many, many Indigenous writers and artists. From her award winning books, including Conversations With Canadians, Memory Serves, Sun Dogs, and of course the ones everyone hears about, usually out of context, I Am Woman: A Native Perspective on Sociology and Feminism and Bobbi Lee: Struggles of a Native Canadian Woman, to the En'owkin International School of Writing. She had no use for leaving any of us comfortable in complacency. Her speeches in response to the truth and reconciliation commission on residential schools shook people through their ears. I heard and eventually read about her constructive discussion with Anne Cameron, asking Cameron to step aside and no longer allow publishers to use her to block Indigenous women from opportunities to tell and publish their stories. Lee Maracle didn't tiptoe around the uncomfortable for herself anymore than she did for the rest of us. She was a warrior.
In truth, Maracle is no more exerptable than any other great storyteller. No excerpt is enough alone, but that is good. Let me tease you with some wonderful teasers that should encourage you to hurry out and read the full narrative or listen to the full talk yourself. Such as the following from My Conversations With Canadians:
Now some of our own people are repeating the phrase: "Feminism comes from the outside." I want to say, "So do Levi's," but I bite my tongue and opt for reason. I get why men are doing it. Having only one chief is handy. Not having to deal with women leaders is handy. Actually, it is patriarchy that comes from outside, and feminism is its most effective response. Far from being foreign, feminism is homegrown as a result of the relationship between a Seneca woman and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Or how about this, from Memory Serves:
Memory begins with song. Our songs are prayers and these songs precede decisions. These songs remind us of where our loyalties lie. To sing our songs requires that we open up our bodies, and open up our hearts, our minds and or spirit. After song, stories about the beings and the teachings are the means by which we spark the memory of oratorical decisions made in the past affect the conditions we are looking at in the present.
Or this, from her short story The Void:
On the ship I checked out the ones that got away. Only six Blacks and three Asians, the rest of us were all skins. They used to call us Indians. No white guys. We had agreed on that. We never wanted this to happen again. We were clear. We figure there was something in their blood, something in their genetic makeup drove them to effect this meltdown, so no one taught them how to flash.
But for me, this is one of the sections that led me to try to walk home while reading the book at the same time, so that I tried a weird route that involved me less with traffic until I got to my bus stop.
Removal was the object of residential school, and it was not for purposes of assimilation, and it was a crime. It was done to destroy the language, culture, and sensibility of Indigenous people. This is genocide. No academic or English language or mathematics or science courses were taught in the first one hundred years of those schools. Those would be the sort of courses that would justify calling it an assimilation program. Instead only the destruction of Indigenous language and knowledge was offered. Children worked and recited scripture when they were not being beaten, starved, or raped. When are rape and hunger part of an assimilation program? Only when it applies to us. Elsewhere in the world, it is genocide.
But one of the most wonderful stories of all is one that I heard from Lee Maracle, and that she generously shared in a way that those who could remember could retell it. One of the ways it goes, as I learned it from her, and as it helped me survive a very difficult time, is this:
The first person I ever heard this story from is Lee Maracle. It's a starting out sort of story, and it goes like this. You see, there's a clam shell laying there, just on the beach. And if you get close to it, you can hear all sorts of voices in that shell, all these voices all at once, asking questions, complaining a little, you name it. You can imagine some of the questions they're asking – there are lots of voices. Like the Keystone cops I guess! Anyway, these voices, you can hear them asking questions.
"Are we there yet?"
"When can we get out?"
"Should we go out?"
"Do you think Raven will come and get us?"
"Nah, she's got better things to do, anyways, who needs to wait around for a girl?"
This question caused some silence.
"I just mean that one, just Raven! Come on!"
"Wait!" somebody else said. "What's a girl?"
Finally, Raven comes along, and she has a bundle, a good-sized one too. She's been looking around for a good long time, and she's starting to feel impatient. She's got a long list of things to do, getting the world ready. Finally though, she sees that clam shell. She goes right on up, and peers underneath, you know how ravens can do.
"Hey, what are you all doing in there? Isn't it crowded?"
"No, no, it's fine. Anyways, we're just hanging out here, waiting to be people."
"Oh, riiight. Hey, you're just who I came to see! Now it just happens..."
"Never mind that, we're fed up with waiting. We're going to head out and be people, I'm ready to be a man, what about the rest of you?"
Well, there's lots more talking, and in the end, the spirits who are going to be men, they head out in a big hurry. Why, they head out so fast, they just about flip that clam shell wide open. Raven watches them go by, and shakes her head.
"Anyways, I came out this way because I have something for you. Trust me, you'll want them later." Then Raven hands the spirits that bundle.
"Really, what's in here?" Those spirits ask, the ones getting ready to be women.
When I am lucky, I am able to get a big laugh at that question, "Are we there yet?" This is important, because Lee Maracle had a huge, beautiful laugh and a sense of humour as marvellous and pointed as her serious speech. Well, what am I saying. She still does, it's just that she is busy wielding it in the Spirit World. So I do my best to tell the story well when an appropriate opportunity comes for me to tell it, to honour her gift, and her incredible voice and her unforgettable laugh. It took a good while before I learned about how to properly honour people on Stó:lō land, by accident, though I know now that what we do is raise our hands.
I do that now, I raise my hands to you Lee Maracle. Thank you for your generosity, and your example. I still wish you hadn't had to go home so soon!