A mural of Lee Maracle in Toronto. Credit: Artist Tannis Nielson

The outpouring of Lee Maracle stories since she suddenly passed on Remembrance Day is heartwarming and moving. Lee has changed so many of our lives. We count ourselves incredibly fortunate to have been touched and transformed by her in so many ways. Here are some thoughts and memories we would like to share of Lee’s impact on us:

Hiromi Goto remembers Lee:

In the New York Times obituary for Lee Maracle, the headline described her as a, “Combative Indigenous Author.” It is an honour, of a kind, to have your life/work acknowledged in the Times, but there is a problem when whiteness writes the headlines for a culture of whiteness. Combative means that you are eager to fight; Lee fought because she had to. She fought because systems of violence and control embedded in the colonial state continues to oppress Indigenous and Black peoples on these Indigenous lands, especially women.

When I think of Lee I don’t think of her as combative — I think of her as having powerful ki. Her spirit/heart/mind/will burned so bright it spilled out and lit up all around her. Her generosity of spirit created space and ways of thinking that made pathways possible for the young angry Asian woman I was in the 90s. Look to your ancestors, she told us, a group of women of colour, to stay healthy and grounded. Eat from your cultural foods. This is the best food for your bodies. She located us in our bodies. Our hearts. She was a sensei to us, and a friend.

Not everyone born is capable of becoming a fighter. Lee had the strength to fight for those who couldn’t break down the gates on their own. She took on the gatekeepers, she blazed the first trail in the heavy snow, so that people who walked behind her could follow after, more easily.

My memory is not my strongest attribute. Often details and words fade away and I’m left with after-images of feelings and resonances. Some of the teaching Lee shared with me remains with me still, beacons by which I can orientate myself in the toss and tumble of this complicated life. She taught me that before individual rights comes responsibility. Instead of beginning with an accounting of what I think I am owed, I need to look outward and ask: What are my responsibilities (to these Indigenous lands, to my communities, to my ancestors, to the next generation, etc.)? This orientation is the kind of wise and wide thinking that is so necessary for our species to live by if we are to survive late-stage capitalism and climate crisis.

When L’nu/ Mi’kmaq artist and poet Michelle Sylliboy organized an online gathering to honour Lee after her passing, it was shortly after the Fraser Valley had been devastated by floods. She sure left with a bang, Michelle said, and we all laughed with recognition. The kind of ki Lee carried does not disappear. It is shared throughout the communities she was a part of, shared with the many writers and artists she taught and mentored. Her ki crackles in her stories and poems. They spark in the hearts of a new generation of readers. Her ki burns on. Generous. Bright.

Doumo arigatou gozaimasu, Lee Maracle. Sonkei shitemasu. Sekininwo motto susumi masu.

From the pen of Rita Wong:

As a girl of Chinese descent growing up in Calgary in the 70s and 80s, I struggled to see myself in the dominating culture around me. It was not designed for the likes of me, and I knew it. Aside from the refuge of my family, I sought voices who would help me to be able to speak from within my own gut, not as a pale imitation of whatever norm I was supposed to fit myself to. It was writers like Lee who helped me to become a person in my own right, more myself, so that I could better serve my communities from a place of personal grounding.

When my friends and I were fortunate enough to participate in a workshop with Lee in the early 90s organized by the Women of Colour Collective in Calgary, her honesty, wisdom and generosity in sharing her knowledge transformed our lives. She cut through colonial propaganda and power tripping with a frankness, clarity and depth of understanding that has stayed with us ever since. Lee kindly and rigorously let us know that if we were serious about our anti-racist work, we had to first address colonization, the system that used race, gender, class, and more, to divide, devalue and control people of all colours. She shared stories that asserted who the original peoples of these lands were and are, reminding us that this injustice to them, was and is an injustice to all. She opened up our hearts and spirits, reminding us that our minds and bodies work best when aligned with our spirit, not fighting it.

Another time, Betsy Warland and I co-organized a fundraiser for writers harmed by the bankruptcy of Press Gang Publishers, one of whom was Lee. This fundraiser at the Western Front brought together an incredible group of writers, and was a mutual aid event in the spirit of the feminist press that had published us all. I mourn the loss of Press Gang too, but I’m grateful for how it brought together voices like Lee Maracle, Chrystos, SKY Lee, Ivan Coyote and so many more.

Lee introduced me to Dorothy Christian when she organized a gathering called Imagining Asian and Native Women at Western Washington University in 2002. A decade later, Dorothy and I found ourselves organizing a conference, Downstream: Reimagining Water, around the area Lee and her ancestors have always known as Snauq (also Senakw). Lee walked us around what is misnomered as “False” Creek by a colonial explorer who thought he had found a place that was not lost to begin with. She helped us to see where the fish weir had been, where sea asparagus, camas, shellfish and much abundance lived, a mere couple hundred years ago. She shared the enormous pain of this loss as well as unconditional love and deep hope for the future of this place, that its residents would learn to respect Coast Salish knowledges, laws, and people.

Over the years, I had the incredibly good fortune to hear Lee a number of times, including at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, where she basically told the whole audience that if they were on Coast Salish land, they were Coast Salish citizens and had a responsibility to this land and its peoples, whether or not they understood that or had been taught it. This has stayed with me over the years — holding up the land, our relationship with the land and its original peoples, first and foremost.

As told by Larissa Lai:

My earliest memories of Lee are meeting her with Lily Shinde, SKY Lee, jam ismail and other BIPOC feminists and lesbians in East Vancouver in the early 1990s. That was an amazing time for me, as a young Asian woman trying to make sense of my own place in the world at a time when there weren’t places for people like me, certainly not people like me who wanted to write and/or make art. It was incredible to meet Lee and to get connected to a heterogenous community of women writers who were seeking to empower themselves and my generation too, who were trying to work out the tenderest beginnings of their own writing practices while fighting like heck for access to publishing, speaking venues and the right to have a voice. Those were amazing eye-opening days, but they were also hard days– there was a lot of aggression coming, as it still does, from white locations, and there was a lot of contention within and across marginalized communities. Everyone was excited about what was possible, but everyone also wanted to be seen and heard in ways that were not possible with the limited tools we had, carrying all the trauma and damage we carried.

As a nerdy kid with lots of language but insufficient social skills, I struggled a lot. Lee would talk to me. She told me alliances were possible between Indigenous and Asian peoples. She told me about how Sto:lo people respected Chinese people because when a famine hit Sto:lo, and white people would not help, Chinese market gardeners came with rice and fruits and vegetables and made sure the Sto:lo people would not starve. When I was being bullied and gaslit, she said to me: If you don’t stand up for yourself, who will? Don’t give away the store! When I asked for bad gossip, she said: I’m not talking about that! That was at an event that Rita and Dorothy organized for their Downstream project. Afterwards, a few of us Asian women went to Bridges Pub. We had our papers out and were comparing notes. Lee came in with a group of Indigenous women. They sat at a different table talking and laughing. We waved to each other and joked that Asian women have to write everything down, while Indigenous women remember every little detail without the need for notes.

On a different occasion, when I asked her how she could remember so much and so deeply, she drew me a diagram that showed how memories are connected to one another in an endless series of embedded circles. I endlessly regret turning her down for a symposium she organized at the University of Western Washington called Imagining Native and Asian women. Years later, to make it up, I organized an event at TIA House called “The Littoral Contact Zone: Indigenous/Asian Relations from the Salish Sea to Treaty Seven Territory.” Lee gave the keynote. Roy Miki, Iyko Day, Marcia Crosby, Dorothy Christian, Rita Wong, Sarah Ling, Malissa Phung, Szu Shen, Pamela Banting and Rain Prud’homme-Cranford were there and gave wonderful talks and readings. We talked and laughed and argued and ate and had a generally wonderful time, all while talking about the hard histories and the histories of alliance that brought us to that place. The last time she was here in Calgary was the last time I saw her. It was an event organized by the Calgary Distinguished Writers’ Program in late February 2020, and she was here with Leanne Betasamoke Simpson and Gwen Benaway. She was in great spirits on that visit and we talked and ate and hung out. I remember she was just about to tell me a story about Mink in the quiet moments before Gwen’s talk. But then Gwen began, and Lee said “Tell ya later!” Before the talk ended, she had to go and catch her flight. That was the last time I saw her.

The day before she died, I was down on the Bow River, where I’ve been walking a lot during COVID. I sat on a log by the river to rest, and an eagle flew overhead. Shortly after that, I lost a gift that my partner Edward had given me, somewhere on the trail. When Lee passed away, early the next morning, I was down on that trail again, looking for the lost gift. It took me three hours, but I found it. I figure Lee was looking out for me, and drawing me into a story of loss and recovery. Rest well Si’yam, Teacher, Friend. I miss you. I hope your journey to the ancestors is a safe and beautiful one and that you will tell them that Mink story and many others as you visit, laugh, eat and talk with them in that other world.

Rita Wong

Rita Wong is a poet-scholar who has written several books of poetry. She understands natural ecosystems as critical infrastructure that must be protected and cared for in order to survive climate crisis....