Stories contain all knowledge, according to Sto:lo elder Lee Maracle. The performance artist, author, and activist returns to her hometown for the Vancouver Writers Fest to celebrate a lifetime of reclaiming and exalting Indigenous knowledge through storytelling. Last year, Maracle was named an officer of the Order of Canada for her efforts empowering Indigenous perspectives as both a writer and a mentor. Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction blend mythology with modern life to address contemporary symptoms of systemic racism.
Over the course of her career, Maracle has established herself as a staunch critic of Canada’s colonial apparatus and devoted defendant of Indigenous self-determination. Her 2017 collection of essays My Conversations With Canadians speaks incisively and without decoration to the settlers occupying stolen land. She covers cultural appropriation, science as an ideology, and reactionary politics with dizzying honesty. (On marginalization she writes: “In order for me to be marginalized in your mind you must be further convinced that you are at the centre of the universe.”)
Maracle speaks to the Straight with the same candour. Over the phone from Toronto, she delves into Canada’s history of separating Indigenous people from their knowledge and how she imagines returning displaced stories to their rightful communities in the future.
Whether about medicine, morality, or moving through the land, “story contains that knowledge and is the key to even further knowledge,” Maracle says. But when colonists landed in Canada, they dismissed some local beliefs as “old wives’ tales” and appropriated the rest.
“All oral knowledge is folk knowledge and belongs to everybody,” Maracle explains. “Only written knowledge—that is their [colonial] knowledge—belongs to anyone. There are no legal protections for appropriating Indigenous knowledge.” Over time, colonizers co-opted that knowledge, claimed it as their own, and kept it as archives in universities only accessible to themselves. “Now most of us don’t even know what knowledge is in those stories, or where they are, or what archives.”
For millennia elders passed their wisdom on whenever they saw a need to learn arise among the younger generations. The elders in Maracle’s life, for example, emboldened her burgeoning interest in storytelling. “The role of elders and parents is to feed a child whatever they need to realize their path. But they were only looking
after this one little child,” Maracle says, referring to herself. “All the rest of the children were at residential school. So the variety of knowledge the elders held did not necessarily get transmitted.” Canada’s residential schools left a crater in the Indigenous body of knowledge that Maracle has toiled a lifetime trying to fill.
Maracle’s 2014 novel Celia’s Song, recently nominated for the 2020 Neustadt Prize, folds the Sto:lo myth of a two-headed serpent into a modern family drama. In it she writes “remembering is about the context but the context has changed.” Maracle offers three suggestions to Indigenous people for remembering life before colonization and the centuries of ethnocide that have eroded their traditional practices and the natural landscapes from which those practices arose. First, read the archives. Second, share the fractured knowledge across Indigenous nations. And lastly, find and talk to elders. That’s what Maracle did.
“I visited 40 or 50 communities and ended up with the knowledge of about 100 different elders in the Salish Territory,” she recalls. “That was my job, as far as I was concerned. Before I went to work for anybody I had to do that. And I took my kids with me.”
Most recently, Maracle teamed up with her daughters Columpa Bobb and Tania Carter to write Hope Matters. This collection of poems published in April weaves their three distinct voices into a chorus of courage, outrage, and love. It is an egoless affair. The matriarchs stare down the darkness to learn from it, to give their optimism grit. With language both intimate and inclusive they traverse an imagined path towards decolonization. The path requires true justice, reconnecting with the land, and, time and time again, hope. In a poem titled “Justice Is an Ember”, Maracle writes “Let our songs ring out/Let our fire burn/Let our humanity/sing songs of hope.” She sees plenty of reasons to sing such songs.
“My young people are getting me to sit around in a circle every few months to tell them a story and then talk about the story,” she recounts. “They’re all women who are going to pass on that story and they’re all young. I’m not worried about anything. Because if anybody else is doing that—and sure they are—then we’re going to be okay.”
Lee Maracle will discuss her work at two events in this year’s edition of the Vancouver Writers Fest, which runs from October 21 to 27. See the festival's website for complete details.