Imagining Community Resurgence: Lee Maracle’s Celia’s Song revisions a West Before and After the West
Employing Leanne Simpson’s theorizing stories of “Nishnaabeg re-creation, resurgence and a new emergence,” this paper discusses how Lee Maracle’s Celia’s Song imagines one Indigenous community’s path toward resurgence. Many contemporary Indigenous writers are opening up alternative ways of representing time beyond linear chronologies to write from within the contexts of their own epistemologies and ontologies, implicitly enacting decolonization through drawing on their mobile traditional creation stories to situate colonial contact as a brief interruption within the longer timespan of their own occupation of their traditional lands. I think Lee Maracle’s fiction works well within these contexts, enacting the difficult decisions and complicated emotions they entail.
In this paper, I provide an exploratory reading of Lee Maracle’s Celia’s Song to show how her approach to decolonization refuses to situate the decolonizing project within the categories established by colonialism, including its linear view of history. I then consider some of the potential consequences of such a decision for re-imagining the future. Maracle, who refers to herself as “Squamish by birth, Stó:lõ by marriage” (Ferguson fn 8: 564), writes out of these traditions and their histories. For Maracle, the past lives in the present in at least two ways.
Firstly, because colonialism is a structure and not an event (as Australian theorist Patrick Wolfe reminds us), colonial structures remain, sometimes in adaptive ways, to organize people’s lives. In her collection of essays, Memory Serves, Maracle expresses this insight when she argues that “In order to resolve this colonial condition in literature we need to have Canada recognize, first, that this is our condition and that, second, Canada needs to view this condition as unacceptable” (113). This first point is about duration and ethics, one underlined firmly in the recent Truth and Reconciliation Report on Residential Schools.
My second point concerns Maracle’s insistence on an understanding of law, space and time that challenges those installed by Euro-Canadian systems of governance. She claims that “Canadians need to understand Indigenous law more than they need to understand Indigenous people” (MS:115). She adds: “Land is space and access to that space creates a place in time. … space is spiritual in the sense that it is there to establish relationship between ourselves and other beings so that we can sustain ourselves and augment our sense of the good life” (MS:121). By beginning with her own culture’s understanding of law, space, and time, rather than accepting the Eurocentric view, Maracle can show how the past lives in the present through ancestral voices, visions, and dreams and mythic incarnations. Maracle inscribes alternative understandings of time and ontology in which the dead are neither powerless nor ghosts but rather ancestors whose spirits survive into the present and continue to make claims on the present.
An earlier version of this paper was delivered at a conference on “The West Before (and After) the West. That theme inspired me to think about the complicated designations of West in postcolonial and global imaginaries. In global contexts, the West is a relational category constructed out of imperial power relations, a category that has become naturalized as a neutral geographical descriptor and an ideological stand-in for the civilizational and now globalizing power of capitalist humanism and imperialism. As such a complex geopolitical category, the West generated a cognitive framework through which the world was viewed. There are at least four distinctive, concurrent, and interlinked elements of Celia’s Song that serve productively to start decolonizing the assumptions built into that cognitive framework. One is the novel’s insistence on redefining beginnings and orientations to start with indigenous namings, stories, and theorizings, moving out into the world from there. Another is the route it chooses for decolonization through a focus on the embodiment of visions, dreams and “song”. Because there is always a danger that such a strategy risks recuperation into inappropriate categories derived from other experiences, the novel resists recuperation into the “postcolonial exotic” (Huggan) or depoliticized versions of magic realism by highlighting the cognitive dissonance that this fiction insists separates Indigenous from non-indigenous readers. Finally, there is a grim recognition of the very real and horrific damages wrought by the colonial system that is accompanied by the insistence that the best way forward for Indigenous communities will be to take responsibility for dealing with these damages on their own and in their own way. Maracle’s insistence on Indigenous autonomy is the most interesting and potentially most troubling dimension of her work for a non-indigenous reader, a reader she names in colonial, racialized terms as white. Through highlighting moments of cognitive dissonance, when alternative ideas about rules and consequences clash, Celia’s Song reminds its readers that decolonization has barely begun and will not be easy.
Maracle’s essay, “Sharing Space and Time,” included in her book Memory Serves, articulates a vision I see enacted in Celia’s Song. She asserts: “We are all severely damaged goods: on the one hand, Canadians are damaged by their history of plunder, the constant rationalization of their preponderant super-sized entitlement over space, and their control of time; on the other, Indigenous people are damaged by the absence of entitlement, so damaged that sorting this out will be a nightmare. But do it we must” (127). Balancing this grim realism, she offers hope. Universities “need to open the doors and invite all knowledge in” (127). That process offers roles for everyone. She claims: “I believe that the knowledge of Indigenous people—resurrected, fleshed out and reconsidered in our new context—has a valuable role to play. I believe that, granted access and authority over space, we could rebuild our nations without anyone’s assistance. I believe we are all personally responsible for resurrecting, reclaiming and reshaping the very notions of time and space that will invite the knowledge of others into our fields of study, so that a genuine sharing can occur” (127). This is the vision enacted in Celia’s Song.
The novel takes history seriously but it does not approach it in Western terms. In The Truth about Stories, Tom King suggests that indigenous writers have usually avoided historical fiction, largely turning instead to the present and the future to articulate their visions of an alternative and indigenous world view. He speculates that given the dominant negative stereotypes promoted by colonialism, indigenous writers have felt themselves lacking access to a usable discursive past capable of forming a basis for an indigenous-centred historical fiction. Since King’s lectures, Joseph Boyden has attempted historical fiction in The Orenda to mixed reviews. I hypothesize in this paper that options for engaging the past in alternative ways are opening up beyond those prescribed by a Eurocentric focus. If history as a discipline and particular orientation to the past has been contaminated by the biases of colonialism, then the more viable solution may be to turn, as King himself does, to the creation stories for an alternative starting point. In Green Grass Running Water, he pairs this approach with a deconstruction of the mythic stories told by the colonizing Europeans and their colonial descendents. Yet King has also criticized postcolonial theory for beginning its critique of colonialism with first encounters rather than recognizing the long histories of indigenous occupation and theorizing through stories that preceded that encounter. This paper is interested in the alternative approach to those pre-encounter worldviews as enacted in Celia’s Song, Maracle’s sequel to Ravensong.
In these novels, Lee Maracle moves one step beyond King, bracketing the colonial period as an interlude in a much longer understanding of deep time beyond that of the human Anthropocene. The two-headed serpent protecting an abandoned house front in Celia’s Song, asks itself: “How long in human time have we been here?? (10). The novel slips back and forth between the carved serpents’ time, and significant moments in human time, with the conversations and actions of all participants, human and non-human, witnessed by the shape-shifter mink, whose voice opens and concludes the novel. If readers still think of British Columbia as the West, then Maracle writes this West as a West simultaneously both before and after the West of the colonial imaginary.
My interest in these novels comes from my thinking about the inter-related violences of colonialism, particularly colonial/modernity’s epistemic and cognitive injustices and the ways they connect to humanism’s ontologies, now being questioned by the nonhuman and posthuman turns across the disciplines. Juanita Sundberg summarizes this diverse body of work as refusing “to treat the human as 1) an ontological given … and 2) disembodied and autonomous” (34). While lauding this work for its contestation of “dualist ontologies in Anglo/European political philosophy by showing how a multiplicity of beings cast as human and nonhuman—people, plants, animals, energies, technological objects—participate in the coproduction of socio-political collectives” (33), Sundberg is troubled, as am I, by “their silence about location and silence about Indigenous epistemes” (35). We have so much to learn from Indigenous theorizings of what U.S.-based critic Jane Bennett calls “vibrant matter,” yet to date there has been almost no conversation between these new materialisms and indigenous studies.
For a reader like myself, wondering what cognitive justice might look like and how it might be achieved, Celia’s Song reads like an experiment in imagining some answers. Why talk about cognitive justice instead of justice pure and simple? For at least two reasons. Understandings of what justice is can be culture-specific, so that to move toward achieving any kind of full justice, it will be essential first of all to understand the kinds of cognitive justice that came with settler colonialism and the kinds they ignored and repressed within a knowledge system that continues within institutional structures today.
Taiaiaike Alfred asserts “Without a substantial change in the circumstances of colonization, there is no basis for considering the historical injustice. The crime of colonialism is present today, as are its perpetrators, and there is yet no moral or legal basis for indigenous peoples to seek reconciliation with Canada” (170). That basis must come, he argues, from a recognition of the fundamentally different models of governance and value generated by indigenous worldviews, and by subsequent moves toward restitution for the destruction of the economic and cultural logics of those alternative systems. In arguing against reconciliation, Alfred argues that “restitution is the real pathway to justice for indigenous peoples” (165). But the case for restitution can only be made once indigenous peoples free themselves, through resurgence, from what Leanne Simpson describes as the prison of cognitive imperialism.
In Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back, Simpson explains that indigenous peoples, because they are “cognitively locked” into “the lens of colonial thought and cognitive imperialism,…are often unable to see our Ancestors” (15). This is the situation dramatized in sections of Ravensong and Celia’s Song. Simpson describes cognitive imperialism as a vat in which indigenous peoples are immersed, a box in which they are trapped, and a poison for which they need to seek the antitidote. For Simpson, the key task is to create “free cognitive spaces” (34) through reclaiming, transforming, and rebuilding inherited and inherent indigenous imaginaries through story and ceremony (17). Maracle actualizes this process, enabling her readers to hear the ancestors (through the grumbling of their bones, some recent and some ancient), through the efforts of natural forces such as cedar to communicate, and through the witnessing of mink, whose words are italicized to distinguish his perspective from that of the narrator. Mink is gendered male, although named as a shape-shifter (5) and Raven female (269) as a way, I think, of insisting upon their sentience and personhood, not in any anthropomorphizing way, but in recognition of their integrity in themselves. The two-headed snake emerges from the gateposts of the house to take corporeal form in the shape of two quarrelling heads, Restless and Loyal, each seeking recognition from the community in their individual ways. Maracle only allows her hereditary seer, Celia, fleeting intuitions and glimpses of the presence of these claimants to her attention. Celia sees in fragmentary flashes, but as mink observes, she is not a listener. In a similar fashion, Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen enables the brothers Okimasis, not to see, but at least to hear echoes of the shaman ancestor Chachagathoo, who remains in their northern lands long past her physical death, but of whom they are ashamed and afraid until late in their story when they have finally begun to learn how to re-see Chachagathoo for the powerful, decolonizing challenge she embodies.
Maracle’s vision, like Alfred’s, is more uncompromising than that provided by King or Highway. By uncompromising, I mean that she is less interested in explaining her culture to others than in mourning what was lost and regenerating what can heal. This is a question of emphasis and address. Like Simpson, she returns to the original creation stories of her people to theorize resurgence from within her own cultural paradigms rather than in dialogue with the colonizing forces. Like Alfred and Simpson, she is wary of the potential power imbalances in ideas about reconciliation if it is defined from the abuser’s perspective alone, with an eye to moving on without truly addressing what is at stake in this current moment within the long history of settler colonial structures. Celia’s Song is “Dedicated to all those children who were removed from our homes and who did not survive residential school.”
In Celia’s Song, the structure of settler colonialism is inscribed in the institutions (legal, medical, civic, educational, and business) that organize people’s lives, perpetuate forms of cultural genocide, and impose themselves on the land through the demarcation of lived space that physically separates the two communities (the Indigenous village and “white town”) and through the transformation of a lifestyle based on wood into one organized around electricity and oil. Traffic moves both ways across the bridge over the water that divides the village where the action takes place from the city of Vancouver but accommodation is difficult for members of both groups because those colonial structures are also inscribed in their minds and even their bodies. Ravensong focusses on Celia’s older sister Stacey and her movement out from the village into the world of white schooling, a movement offset in that novel by a devastating epidemic that came from that world into her own. Celia’s Song is still dealing with the destructive impact of that epidemic, including the impact of the suicide of Celia’s son, Jimmy. Julia Emberley explains the temporal framing of these two texts as “more circular or spiral than linear. It is only in the epilogue [of Ravensong] that the reader learns that the central narrative occurred in 1954 and yet it is being told some twenty-five years later, in the ‘present time’ of the epilogue” (174). That is in 1979. It is only in the Epilogue we learn that the story we have just read in Ravensong had begun in answer to Stacey’s son, Jacob’s question: why did Celia’s son Jimmy kill himself? At the end of Ravensong, Jacob knows the story is not over. In Chapter 7 of Celia’s Song, the women of the family are still gathering as they did all winter to tell the story. Even though they believe they have now told the story, Celia feels it still hanging in the air and mink explains “the entire story has not been told” (41). It takes the rest of the book for the full story to be revealed and the healing begun.
Celia’s village is a fairly closed society into which some whites have moved through the establishment of affective and affiliative relations with individual indigenous people, but whose acceptance there remains uneasy. There is a character always named through her place of origin as “German Judy.” Like Judy, Stacey’s partner, the doctor Steve, needs to continually earn her trust and that of her family. Stacey’s difficulties when he proposes (in Celia’s Song) show the huge gap that separates them, as they move back and forth between an un-crossable distance and the promise of some kind of nascent understanding. Stacey thinks: “Living with him would require extra care; he’s white, different. She has no way to frame that difference without offending him and jeopardizing the future of the relationship…. There would have to be a separate world and a together world, which means life with him would be complicated. He has no idea that it would be this complicated, and she is not sure she can deal with it” (186). Nonetheless, as the text proceeds, together they do start to deal with it, Steve risks his career to help her family deal with a crisis their way, and there is some fragile hope they can learn to live with their differences. Helen Hoy has sensitively documented the destabilizing impact that Ravensong exerts on non-indigenous readers. She explains: “Making white culture marked and Native culture the standard foregrounds and calls into question the very naturalizing of normative cultures” (136). Celia’s Song continues that process.
In Celia’s Song, challenges to the structural incarnations of the settler colonial system take form on two fronts: the institutional and the mythic. Institutionally, Celia and her family refuse the aid of the Canadian medical and legal establishments when confronted with the child who has been violently sexually abused by one of their own. They determine to keep her at home and heal her themselves, despite the severity of her injuries, and they decide to judge and deal with the perpetrator, Amos, themselves, according to their banned pre-contact rituals. Amos, initially uncomprehending, appears to have at least implicitly assented to this procedure. The process of his dancing to his death is described as profoundly liberating for him, as he relives and then sheds his own experience of sexual abuse at the residual school and its toxic aftermath (254-255). The reader is told that eventually “Redemption comes as his ancestors reach for his dancing body” (255).
Nonetheless, this communally sanctioned death, presented here as a voluntary, ritual suicide, challenges not only the rule of law which recognizes only that legal system determined by the colonial state, but also Canadian rejections of capital punishment. The willingness of white doctor Steve to condone these decisions as an act of respect for the autonomy of Stacey and her community is the price he must pay for their acceptance of him, and, it is implied, such respect must be the pre-condition for any kind of reconciliation between the two cultures. The novel thus raises the important question: what are and should be the limits to indigenous autonomy and self-governance at the communal level? Could these incompatible systems function concurrently within the same state without the secrecy necessitated by the current state of affairs as depicted in Celia’s Song?
The novel recognizes that the Indigenous community is itself now divided over how best to address such questions but presents these actions as important steps toward regained self-confidence and agency among the Indigenous community actors. Through mink’s witnessing and access to the internal thoughts of each of the main characters, the reader is immersed in their worldview and our sympathies are engaged. Much of the story involves the destructive aftermath of the Canadian government’s banning of ceremonies meant to honour the dead and thereby meet their communal contractual obligations to the two-headed snake. These entities demand their due: respect and ceremony from the people. The refusal of Western mindsets to understand such relations and to acknowledge such presences is mocked in the single scene set outside the village. Four scientists who “don’t know their lab is smack dab in the middle of Musqueam territory” (14) debate how to interpret a mysterious shadow that mars their film. They cannot accept that it might depict the two-headed snake that mink has already seen slip its moorings. Only one of the three is ready to admit that “’We aren’t the only people who know things’” (18). But mink and the reader hear this lesson.
My original idea for this paper involved comparing these experimental dimensions of Maracle’s text with those employed by Australian Waanyi writer Alexis Wright in Carpentaria and The Swan Book, to situate their respective turns to alternative space-time imaginaries derived from local place within concurrent turns within Western theory toward nonhuman and critical posthuman imaginaries. This move will be important because I see Maracle and Wright’s texts as important theoretical and aesthetic interventions into current Western theoretical discussions too often deaf to indigenous alternatives. Parallel discussions about how to inhabit the world are occurring among mainstream academics and among indigenous writers but there is little interaction between these two epistemic communities as yet. Texts such as Dancing on our Turtle’s Back or Celia’s Song, when classified as Native Studies or Fiction, are not recognized for the full extent of the challenges they pose to the entrenched cognitive imperialism of the academy, which includes the ways in which it infiltrates disciplines and shapes the kind of stories that resonate with different audiences. Through highlighting moments of cognitive dissonance, when alternative ideas about rules and consequences clash, Celia’s Song reminds its readers that decolonization has barely begun and will not be easy for anyone.
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