First Nations Royalty and Literary Gems: Thomas King and Lee Maracle
On Friday, June 10, the Indigenous Writers’ Gathering partnered with Toronto Public Library to hold an awe-inspiring evening paying tribute to literary gems and First Nations icons Lee Maracle and Thomas King. The master of ceremonies was Giller Prize-winning author, Joseph Boyden. The evening was filled with both laughter and tears as Boyden and many others shared personal anecdotes of the two formidable writers.
By way of a Grand Entry, Maracle and King signalled the start of the celebrations in the Bram & Bluma Appel Salon as four men gathered around a drum, singing and beating a powerful pulse, while four dancers in full regalia danced down the aisle escorting the two icons to the stage. While a Grand Entry is often used as a kick off for a powwow, it is also a high honour and a welcome to all in coming together.
Both Maracle and King have extraordinary careers decorated with many accolades. To their credit, this success stems from building up communities and taking a stand against social injustice, from mentoring younger generations, and from trailblazing the way for Indigenous writers.
The first speakers on stage to honour Thomas King was co-founder of the Ogimaa Mikana Project, Susan Blight, and author and poet Leanne Simpson. “It’s community that’s gathered here to honour these two writers. And the Indigenous community wouldn’t exist without these two brave, rebellious, talented, excellent, artists,” stated Simpson before reading a passage from King’s book of short stories, A Short History of Indians In Canada. Of King’s career, Blight affirmed “Prolific is an understatement. It’s a career that is expansive; a pillar of excellence and is ongoing. And that is why we are all lucky.”
To honour Lee Maracle, author and organizer of the Indigenous Writers Gathering, Cherie Dimaline read a passage from Maracle’s book of essays, Memory Serves. Writer and Cormorant Books publisher Marc Côté, shared an introspective speech that honoured the remarkable kwe. Côté remarked:
“[Lee Maracle] challenges preconceptions and evades expectations… She wants to write and to speak but she demands to be read and to be heard. She is willing to go the extra mile to ensure her stories are true and to ensure they are understood.”
Dr. Carolyn Bennett, Federal Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, took the stage to share personal anecdotes, to explain how embracing Turtle Island’s Indigenous cultures changed her perception of what it means to be a Canadian, and to declare June as Indigenous Book Month. David Zimmer, Provincial Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, and Deborah Richardson, Deputy Minister of Aboriginal Affairs presented both King and Maracle with a letter of gratitude and excellence from Premier Kathleen Wynne.
To conclude the ceremonial part of the evening (and before Maracle and King took the stage themselves), CBC’s Waubgeshig Rice introduced the Snake Islands Drummers to play an honour song.
“[An honour song is meant] to recognize and highlight the important contributions of individual community members and how they enrich our communities and make us stronger, and bolster us… Honour songs take on a lot of different words, a lot of different melodies, a lot different stories, a lot of different rhythms, but the underlying spirit to them all is to hold up these people, these great contributors to our culture,” Rice explained.
I couldn’t imagine a more perfect venue to capture the wisdom, inspiration, and community that Thomas King and Lee Maracle bring with their presence and expertise than the Bram & Bluma Appel Salon, a space dedicated to vibrant literary and cultural commons in the heart of the city. It is a place where writers, thinkers, artists and innovators from around the world gather for conversation and debate. For more information on Lee Maracle, Thomas King, and their protégés Joseph Boyden, Cherie Dimaline, and Leanne Simpson, read on below.
Aboriginal Celebrations is sponsored by TD Bank. For more information on how the library is celebrating First Nations, Inuit, and Métis culture this June, check out these highlights or visit tpl.ca/aboriginal. If you missed the event, or want to enjoy it again, check out the video on YouTube.
More About Lee Maracle and Thomas King
Lee Maracle is a celebrated poet, storyteller, educator and activist. She is published in dozens of anthologies across North America and is the author of the critically acclaimed novels Ravensong, Bobbi Lee: Indian Rebel, Daughters Are Forever, and Celia’s Song which was long-listed for Canada Reads 2015. Born in Vancouver and a member of the Sto:lo Nation, she is the decedent of Mary Agnes Joe Capilano, known as the Princess of Peace of Capilano Reserve, and the granddaughter of the renowned Chief Dan George.
Maracle’s legacy spreads across the country. In addition to being an award winning writer, she is one of the founders of the En’owkin International School of Writing in British Columbia. At the University of Toronto, she is a mentor and teacher for Aboriginal Students and aspiring writers, and the Traditional Cultural Director for the Indigenous Theatre School.
Thomas King is often described as one of the finest contemporary Aboriginal writers in North America. His novels have won many awards including the RBC Taylor Award for The Inconvenient Indian and the Governor General’s Award for The Back of the Turtle. King was a Governor General Award finalist twice prior, for A Coyote Columbus Story in the children’s literature category, and Green Grass, Running Water in the fiction category.
California-born to a Greek mother and Chereokee father, King started out as a photographer and photojournalist in New Zealand and Australia before emigrating to Canada in 1980. During the 1990s, King worked as a screenwriter, editor, and actor, and was involved in CBC’s television show Four Directions and CBC Radio’s Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour. In 2004, he was inducted as a Member of the Order of Canada in recognition for outstanding achievements.
More about authors Joseph Boyden, Cherie Dimaline, and Leanne Simpson:
Joseph Boyden is highly decorated, with honours that include the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year, and 2006 CBC Canada Reads, as well as nominations for the Governor General’s Award and the Scotiabank Giller Prize. In 2015, he was inducted as a Member of the Order of Canada. With a Métis, Scots and Irish background, most of his writing focuses on both historical and contemporary experiences of First Nations people of northern Ontario.
Cherie Dimaline, a member of the Georgian Bay Métis Community in Ontario, was named the Ontario Emerging Artist of the Year for the 2014 Premier’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts. She was appointed as the first Aboriginal Writer in Residence for the Toronto Public Library, and is the coordinator for the Indigenous Writers’ Gathering. Her novel, The Girl Who Grew a Galaxy, was shortlisted for the Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature; her first young adult fiction work The Marrow Thieves is forthcoming in spring 2016.
Leanne Simpson, a member of Alderville First Nation, was nominated by Thomas King for the inaugural RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award in 2014 and was also nominated for a National Magazine Award. She has published fiction and poetry in the The Walrus, Arc Poetry Magazine, Geist, and Kimiwan and is currently on the faculty at the Dechinta Centre for Research & Learning in Denendeh, NWT, at the Indigenous Writing Program at the Banff Centre, and as a Visiting Scholar in Indigenous Studies at McGill for the Winter of 2016. Combining her poetry with music, her new record f(l)light is set to release in the fall of 2016.