As the traditional teacher at U of T’s First Nations House, Lee Maracle doesn’t stand up at the front of a classroom and lecture. She doesn’t teach a course. Instead, she helps individual students – some of whom are struggling with the issues that can arise with moving from a reserve to a metropolitan city.
Maracle, who grew up on a reserve in North Vancouver, was one of the first native children to attend an off-reserve school. It was an onerous trail for a six-year-old to blaze. “At school I was a ‘dirty little Indian’,” she recalls. Maracle and her 22 siblings had lots of love in their family, but no electricity, no running water and little food.
When a childhood suicide attempt failed, Maracle began to believe her ancestors must have a plan for her. Her ancestors were right. In 1975, Maracle became one of the first Aboriginal authors in Canada to be published. She followed her memoir Bobbi Lee: Indian Rebel with six novels, a poetry collection and countless short stories. In her writings, she takes the reader inside Aboriginal family life for an intimate view of ancient native beliefs colliding head-on with Canada’s dominant culture.
Maracle, who is a member of the Stó:Lō Nation, has made numerous contributions to the University of Toronto. She is an instructor in the Aboriginal Studies program, and has served as a visiting professor with U of T’s Women’s Studies program. And previous to her appointment as First Nations House’s traditional teacher in 2008, she was its inaugural writer-in-residence.
The ability to communicate ideas in essay format is integral to success in most post-secondary education programs. Since Aboriginal stories are spoken or sung, as writer-in-residence Maracle encouraged the students to find their writing voice by asking them to first speak the story they want to set down in their essay.
In her current role, Maracle’s office door is always open and students wander in to ask her advice about academic, traditional knowledge or personal problems. Sometimes, she performs an ancient smudging ceremony for students. “Smudging is one way we communicate with our higher power, our ancestors,” explains Maracle. “The ceremony reminds us that we are magnificent in our near-relevance, but we’re part of something huge.”
Maracle is magnanimous with her counsel. “I’m willing to help anyone – native or non-native, student, staff, faculty,” she says. “There’s not many of us who escape the business of trauma.”