Reading, Writing, and Thinking Alongside Lee Maracle
When Lee Maracle passed into the spirit world on November 11, 2021, the loss was felt throughout activist, academic, and artistic communities in North America and beyond. 1 There was an outpouring of tributes and honourings reflecting on five decades of organizing, writing, speaking, and community-building. Maracle had a remarkable impact on our generation of Indigenous writers and thinkers. Her fiction and poetry were unapologetically rooted in Stó:lō storytelling and her writing detonated the idea of genre. Her political work rejected white feminism alongside patriarchy and set the course for Indigenous feminisms for the next two decades. She introduced a generation to what solidarity with Palestinians and other anti-colonial peoples could mean, and by embracing the Two-Spirit, queer, and trans community, she inspired the tremen dous contributions we’re seeing from this artistic, intellectual, and political community in the present. She went to our protests, our plays and performances, and every one of our book launches. She was fearless, unapologetic, and hilarious. She spoke her mind, and heard us when we did the same back.
A week or so after her passing, the RCMP attacked and arrested members of the Gidimt’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en nation, who had renewed blockades earlier in the month to stop Coastal GasLink from constructing a natural gas pipeline in northwest British Columbia. As land defenders organized solidarity actions across Canada, we thought of Maracle and the organizing she did in the late 1960s and early 1970s with her comrades in the Native Alliance for Red Power (NARP) and the Native Study Group (NSG). The convergence of her passing and these renewed land-based sites of resistance are not only a reminder of how little has changed over the course of her life, but they are also echoes of the sorts of Indigenous resistances Lee was involved in as a young person.
The NARP was established in Vancouver in the late fall of 1967 after a meeting was called by Indigenous women in response to a controversial trial involving the rape and murder of a Native teen ager, Rose Marie Roper, by three wrongfully acquitted white men near Williams Lake, BC. 2 According to NARP founding members, Henry Jack and Geraldine Larkin (hereafter Gerry Ambers), NARP members included a cross-section of the growing urban Indigenous population, formerly incarcerated people, those that had abandoned high school, a few academics and university students, as well as Native working class folks who either lived in or had recently migrated to the city from more rural communities. 3
While active, NARP would grow to include chapters in most major Native urban centres across BC: Vancouver, Port Alberni, Ashcroft, Kamloops, Victoria, and Duncan. 4 In its early days, members would meet weekly in the form of small discussion-groups anywhere that space could be found: at members’ apartments, in bars, diners, Indian Friendship Centres, and the offices of leftist and communist organizations. NARP was formed explicitly as a “direct action” group to press the needs of grassroots Indigenous peoples living in cities. 5
One of NARP’s first gestures of solidarity was directed at the newly formed Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party for Self Defence. Kwakwaka’wakw Elder and artist Gerry Ambers and another NARP member, the late Tony Antoine, felt it important to reach out to the organization to inform them of NARP and offer to sell the Panther newsletter, The Black Panther, to help raise money and support the Black liberation struggle in the United States. In response, their Seattle contact suggested that representatives of the two organizations get together to discuss a basis of unity. Following the meeting, Ambers and Antoine returned to Vancouver and, along with other core NARP members—Ray Bobb, Lee Maracle (at the time Lee Bobb), Willie Dunn, David Hanuse, Henry Jack, and Joan Carter (Lee’s sister, now Joan Stewart)—established their own political platform, expressed in its “eight-point program,” which was borrowed and adapted from the Panther’s “ten-point program” with Party consent. 6
Similar to the Panthers, members of NARP worked to address the material needs of the communities they were a part of. They supported strikes led by students attending residential or boarding schools. They formed a Vancouver inner-city patrol squad called the “Beothuk Patrol” that intervened in the rampant anti-Indigenous settler and police violence that is still well documented in the neighbourhood. They self-published a newsletter with a readership of over 5,000 people that covered topics ranging from recruitment for land based direct actions, general articles pertaining to the Indigenous freedom struggle, Native projects with anti-capitalist forms of economic development, news regarding the successes and failures of national liberation efforts in the Third World, as well as suggested reading lists for its young, radical readership. 7
Lee and her comrades at NARP also read. They read the works of Third World theorists like Mao Zedong, Frantz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah, and Albert Memmi, and in 1971, they formed a socialist study group to read and discuss and plan. The NSG had a sister organization in San Francisco formed by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Robert Mendoza, to apply “Marxian analysis and national liberation theory to the history of colonization of Native Americans in North America.” 8 In 1975, Maracle helped organize the Native Peoples’ Friendship Delegation, which was composed of 18 First Nations and Métis people who travelled to the Peoples Republic of China, paid for in part by the Chinese Communist Party, to learn about Maoism, the Cultural Revolution, and China’s treatment of national minorities. 9 Upon their return to Canada they organized several events to share what they had learned, including applying the possibilities of what they had learned to their own peoples’ experiences of colonization and decolonization in North America.
NARP and the NSG were part of Maracle’s early political edu cation and the influence of those experiences is threaded throughout her body of work. She would go on to write Bobbie Lee: Indian Rebel, I am Woman, and a long list of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry: works that refused colonialism and capitalism alongside heteropatriarchy, embraced Indigenous ways of thinking and being, and demanded solidarity with a host of anti-colonial movements. She would go on to mother and grandmother her own family alongside nurturing Indigenous theatre and writing communities in Canada and beyond. She would teach, lecture, write, dance, protest, and laugh her way through the tangle of colonialism.
In reflecting on her influence on our own practices, these early years of her life remind us of the sheer hard work of struggle and movement-building. She taught us the importance of reaching beyond one’s own experience, and of engaging with revolutionary texts and movements from around the world. She and her comrades practiced care for the community that extends beyond oneself, and centred gender in their analysis and organizing from the beginning.
Lee Maracle’s lived life reminds us that revolution means we must transform ourselves, and that, as she wrote at the end of I am Woman, “the road to freedom is paved with intimate knowledge of the oppressed.” 10 We hope to carry these politics forward in our own as a way of honouring the resistance of Maracle and her comrades in NARP and the NSG. Travel well Lee, we’ll miss you. *