How Do We Hold Our Heroes?
A Personal Essay on Lessons From Lee Maracle
I, like many people, first heard that Lee had begun her journey to the spirit world from social media. As condolences and expressions of grief and loss poured in, I read them all in disbelief. So many people had stories to share highlighting her impact and legacy. I already knew some of the stories and sat in amazement hearing others for the first time: how she bulldozed space for Indigenous women in the North American literary world, storming the stage of the Vancouver Writer’s Festival in 1988 to demand that her work be read on her homelands; her involvement in the Native Alliance for Red Power (NARP) organizing and global anti-colonial movements. She lived a life of influence that is nothing short of astounding. Her giant presence has rippled across borders and boundaries.
It was only a few months earlier that I had spent hours every week with Lee. She had been my professor the previous semester, telling us stories of how she was gardening, writing, and knitting: keeping in good spirits. As a young Anishinaabe writer, I had long heard about Lee before meeting her. My mentors and elders from across Nations described her as a pioneer, a matriarch, whose work paved the way for all Indigenous authors, particularly Indigenous women, who came after her. I was recommended I am Woman and Ravensong again and again as foundational texts of Indigenous literature. I heard many stories of her standing up to voices of power and authority; I’d listen, slack-jawed, imagining a time when I might be so sure of myself, so brave. She seemed to be held with reverence wherever she went.
With this in mind, you can imagine the admiration and intimidation I felt the first time I met her. I remember sheepishly approaching her in the halls before I was ever her student and asking, “are you Lee Maracle?” even though I was already sure she was. I told her I loved her work and thanked her for being “a true badass.” She laughed—a laugh that seemed famous among those that knew her, a laugh that could fill a room—and she simply said, “you’re welcome.” I admired that she knew how powerful she was. I told her I had just turned 18, and wanted to be a writer one day. She looked serious, and very firmly, almost scoldingly, told me not to say that I wanted to be a writer. After all, I must already write to know that I see it in my future. Instead, I should focus on what I want my writing to do. Do I want it to be read? By who? Every Indigenous person has stories inside them, she said, only some people figure out how to tell them. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the first of many instances where she would suddenly drop wisdom for me to collect, offering me a new perspective to carry and contend with.
When I did finally make it to her lectures, it was during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each week Lee would talk for at least an hour on Zoom. She was incredibly generous with her knowl edge and stories. She was also funny. One time, when she found out there was going to be a new governor general, she stopped the class and made a phone call to Senator Murray Sinclair: “Murray, it’s Lee”, she said. “Do you want to be the governor general? I should nom inate you! Call me back!” “You’re not on mute, Lee!” the teaching assistant reminded her. We all laughed.
Beyond her humour, I was amazed by the number of teachings she carried from across Nations: Anishinaabe, Stó:lō, Haudenosaunee, Squamish, and so many more. We discovered she knew my late uncle and she told me fond memories about their interactions that I had never known. It was a gift to be able to connect our lives that way. Lee also taught me many other things: that being well alive would take constant personal vigilance; to avoid phrases of self-deprecation such as “I lost my language,” that it still lives in my body and was just silenced; that singing is some of the best medicine we have. 1 These lessons and others let me see glimpses into just how expansive her wisdom was, collected from decades of conversations and activism.
Truly, there was so much that I gained directly from those dis cussions, and even more that I am left with to consider now. This is where I would like to share the hardest, and perhaps most important question Lee has left me with: How can we hold our elders and leaders, our pioneers and giants, with reverence, compassion, and also, account ability? You see, I struggle with how to reconcile the contributions from her remarkable life, ones that I surely benefit from and feel deep gratitude for, with instances where I would leave classes distressed, wondering how I could discuss with her that what she said earlier that day didn’t sit well with me.
I was nervous. Afraid that if I broached our discussion the wrong way we might find ourselves in conflict: this was the last thing I wanted to do with someone I admired and who was an authority in my life. At the same time, I knew if we could have a generative conversation, if we could learn from one another and each come to new understandings, it would be worthwhile. I thought about how just a month earlier Lee had told the class that, “the greatest gift the Earth gave us was to give us conflict so that we can grow new things and be bound together by them.” 2 With this in mind, I took the plunge. Lee, the class, and I spoke for hours. I was glad that the computer camera cut me off at the chest because my hands shook the whole time with nerves. Lee said she felt that being overly careful about how we talk about subjects like oppression, privilege, and relationality would be a disservice to the truth. These ideas are inherently difficult and we have to be able to face them head-on, even laugh at them at times. She thought that perhaps we were also experiencing a generational divide. She noted that she loves young rebels but that today, we use language to discuss issues in our movements differently than when she was first introduced to them, but that everyone would do well to try and see the value in both approaches.
Our weekly sessions ended shortly after, and news that she had begun her journey came not long after that. I wish there had been more time for so many conversations, but I especially wonder what would have come about if we were able to dig further into these unsettled tensions. I have to believe that Lee and I would agree on the necessity of facing tension, that this is how our communities become better. We must do the hard work to work through our responsibilities to one another and our kin. Lee wrote extensively about this necessity in her reflections on solidarity. She says, “whatever decisions we make must be made with the interest of our struggle at heart. This means that we participate and promote solidarity work… solidarity work isn’t a fad. It’s a vital part of our survival.” 3 I take this to heart, both intellectually and as practice. Remembering that time with Lee highlights how vulnerable it can be to wade through inter-community discord. Taking a magnifying glass to my nerves from that day, I realize now that they stemmed from a fear that she would reject me. Dismiss my concerns or ideas. Rejection and conflict from within community stings and I think many people are naturally inclined to avoid that. In a world that demands we must always be fighting, rest and ease often feel like it can only be found from within our close relationships, and in the safety of teachers like Lee. It takes a lot of conviction and practice to disrupt those ideals. This is one reason why ‘calling in’—the practice of centring intimate conversations around faults and giving people chances to learn and be accountable as a first response— is some of the most difficult but necessary work we can undertake within our communities. It is clear that whatever approach we take, it must be done with care. As Lee told us, how people work through conflict “can be empowering or disempowering, depending on how attentive they are to their relationships and relative power and privilege.” 4 There is likely no universal model that we can apply to instances of confrontation: it will be different from person to person and instance to instance. But despite my lack of certainty, I know that transformative practices of accountability are possible. I hear increasing stories from friends who challenged elders and found ways to learn from one another, making a situation safer for everyone going forward; stories of sweat lodges that are more inclusive of gender diversity and relatives with addictions; teachings that have shaken the lingering influence of Christianity and missionization; a growing understanding of how we need to protect and centre Afro-Indigenous, Indigiqueer, and Indigenous people globally; the development of trauma-informed care. All of these instances give me hope that we are collectively becoming better at pursuing the lifelong project that is being a good relative. It is work that is messy and non-romanticizable; it doesn’t yield recognition or material gain under capitalist, individualist, structures. However, it is work that current and future generations surely thank us for. It is work that I know Lee helped pave the way for as she demanded liberation for oppressed peoples globally, dedicating her life to upholding Stó:lō law and writing against gendered oppression and homophobia in such a forthright way that it surely inspired generations of Indigenous peoples to try and be better relatives.
As I write this, a worry runs through the back of my mind: that folks will think I am trying to ring the bells of a supposed cancel culture. I want to be clear that I share these reflections not to disparage the memory of a hero among Indigenous peoples or to call into question peoples’ very real mourning. Instead, I want to recognize that our heroes have limitations: that denying people their faults is just as much a form of dehumanization as idolization; that we need to have tough conversations about these things to build truly transformative, loving relationships within and among our communities. I think Lee is such an important person to have brought me to these reflections because it was her own challenging of patriarchy and internalized colonialism in her Nation and in Indigenous movements like NARP and the American Indian Movement (AIM) that made her so revolutionary to so many people: she loved her people enough to demand that they be better. I believe it is a similar love that makes me feel so badly that we must have conversations about inter-community harm, even though having them is sometimes immeasurably difficult or intimidating. I know I must embody the same bravery I first admired in Lee all those years ago, and have them anyway. Even if my hands shake each time. In recognition of her legacy, and in memory of my time as her student, that is a commitment I make here.
To end, I want to return to the motivating question of this essay: How do we hold our heroes? As I write, I am reminded of a quote from the incredible Black feminist bell hooks, another hero to many who passed in 2021, who also asks this question, “For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” 5
bell first asked this question before I was even born. Looking to her and Lee, I find answers. I believe they would say the answer is: with love. Lee wrote in I Am Woman that “love defines our humanity.” 6 I hope to be able to love our heroes enough to acknowledge their shortcomings, mistakes, and experiences in the world; to love our kin enough that we are willing to challenge even the most admired voices to ensure they’re being taken care of and honoured; to love future generations enough that we have the tough conversations so their communities might be more compassionate and accountable places to grow up in. There is no roadmap for these questions, but I have to believe if we are rooted in that place of love, that we are off to a good start. *