Lee Maracle, combative Indigenous author, dies at 71
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Lee Maracle, combative Indigenous author, dies at 71
She collected signatures to persuade publishers that people would buy her books. She became a foundational figure in Indigenous literature.

by Alex Traub

NEW YORK, NY.- Lee Maracle, a writer who chronicled the effect of Canadian settlement on the land’s Indigenous people and the persistence of discrimination, only to find herself in recent years championed by the very cultural and political establishment she had spent her career attacking, died Thursday in Surrey, British Columbia. She was 71.

Her son, Sid Bobb, said the cause was complications of heart failure.

Maracle was an early figure in the modern literary canon of Canada’s First Nations. “Bobbi Lee: Indian Rebel,” an autobiographical novel, was published in 1975, years before the first books of Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich and other prominent North American Indigenous writers.

Publishers rejected an earlier manuscript by Maracle; she said they told her, “Indians can’t read.” After writing “Bobbi Lee,” she collected signatures from 3,500 Indigenous people who said they would buy the book, since she had heard that 3,500 sales constituted a bestseller in Canada. A small press agreed to print it.

Her work came to include books of essays, volumes of poetry and several more novels. She tried to capture, in writing, the oral traditions of the Sto:lo, Squamish and Métis people she descended from, while at the same time describing how a history of brutality shaped her emotional life and outlook.

Her fiction took a symbolic approach. In “Celia’s Song” (2014), the bygone Indigenous world is recalled more vividly by a shape-shifting, storytelling mink than by living humans. Passing details convey a sense of loss. One character comments that scientists had once believed only humans had language and scorned native people who said they could converse with orcas. By the time scientists realized orcas do communicate in language, those who claimed to speak orca had died.

Maracle’s nonfiction writing bristled with explicit polemics. The “common thread” of her nonfiction collection “I Am Woman” (1988), Maracle wrote, was that “for us racism is not an ideology in the abstract but a very real and practical part of our lives. The pain, the effect, the shame are tangible, measurable and murderous.”

After the Vancouver Writers Festival declined her request to launch “I Am Woman” at the event, Maracle jumped onstage and began reading anyway.

“The festival officials were horrified,” she said in a 2019 profile in The Globe and Mail. But, she added, “leadership changed and Indigenous writers began getting invitations to the festival.”

That sort of change has begun to take place across Canada. In recent years, the government has established an official investigation into missing or murdered Indigenous women and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission focused on the estimated 150,000 Indigenous children who were separated from their families to attend assimilationist residential schools, the last of which closed in the late 1990s.

Maracle “was before the reckoning,” Daniel Justice, a professor of Indigenous literature at the University of British Columbia, said. “She was one of the voices that helped herald the reckoning and was ceaseless in her commitment to that.”

Waubgeshig Rice, an Indigenous Canadian journalist and author who co-hosts a podcast about Indigenous writing, said that Maracle was among the first writers about Indigenous life he had ever read, and that the experience made a lasting impact.

“She carried stories of her people very responsibly and very effectively and proudly, and it inspired me to explore that way to tell stories,” Rice said. “I can’t think of anybody who hasn’t been influenced by her in some way.”

Marguerite Aline Carter was born on July 2, 1950, in North Vancouver. (“Lee” was a nickname derived from Aline.) She was raised primarily by her mother, Jean (Croutze) Carter, a nurse and social worker. She grew up with a stepfather, Phillip Carter.

Her father, Bob George, came from a socially prominent family — he was the son of Oscar-nominated actor Chief Dan George — but George did not acknowledge that he was her father until she was an adult.

She wrote in “I Am Woman” that though her mother could not always give her enough to eat, she was brought up with “national pride, social conscience, fairness and a tenacious will.” As a girl, she spent time with local luminaries like legal activist Andrew Paull and the carrier of ancient Indigenous traditions Chief August Jack Khahtsahlano.

She was married twice, to Raymond Bobb in the 1970s and Dennis Maracle in the early 1980s. In addition to her son, she is survived by two daughters from her first marriage, Columpa Bobb and Tania Carter; a stepson from her second marriage, Jaret Maracle; and many siblings, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She lived in Surrey.

By the end of her life, Maracle no longer needed to whip up a petition or jump onstage to get attention. In the Globe and Mail profile, she said that she had begun earning enough from her writing to quit a part-time teaching job. In 2017, the Canadian government awarded her its highest honor, the Order of Canada, describing her as “one of the most influential Indigenous voices in Canada’s literary landscape.”

In an interview the next year with North Shore News, a Canadian newspaper, Maracle reflected that “to accept something from Canada for the work that I do with decolonization struck me as a bit odd.”

She was still the figure of principle who would debate whether or not to accept a prize from authorities she opposed. But she was now also a successful author who had recently published a new book. “It’s timely,” she told her interviewer about the prize, “and probably going to help my book sales.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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