By Jan Murphy
Local Journalism Initiative
“A gift from the Creator.”
It’s difficult to accurately and precisely describe David R. Maracle.
Sure, on the surface, it’s easy. He’s a handsome man whose physical appearance defies his age (60), what with his youthful appearance and boundless energy, which he exudes with great passion in a near two-hour long conversation at his LiL Crow Cabin Courtyard
– Eagle Pod Gallery.
The interview on this day was to be to discuss the cabins, which sit nestled along the Bay of Quinte on the Reserve, an inviting experience to say the least.
But as the conversation unfolded, and Maracle’s many gifts presented themselves, world renowed stone carver, a master of more than 30 instruments, innovative entrepreneur and world-class human, Maracle was asked how he became so gifted at so many things, gift being the key word.
He uttered those aforementioned words without hesitation. “A gift from the Creator.”
And while Maracle credits the Lord for his many talents, it isn’t long into a conversation with the man himself before you realize that he himself is the gift from the Creator.
“Before this was here, it used to be a sandbox where the kids would play,” Maracle said of he and his wife’s creation, which features a main cabin, warm and inviting, filled with equal parts culture and class.
A world traveler in every sense of the word, Maracle’s vision for their destination dream came while on the road.
` I was traveling down through the Caribbean and I was going to these resorts that had gated communities and it was so fun to be at the beach, I got thinking I could open up something like that and have an experience like that here in Tyendinaga and offer some cool things,” he said.
Cool things, indeed. Like a main cabin complete with a terrace in the back featuring a hot tub, sauna, private cabana and access to the beautiful Bay of Quinte. Or the private tiny cabins at the back of the property, complete with everything from fireplaces to TVs and private luxury bathrooms. Or the fact that on the property sits Maracle’s own art gallery, featuring the most beautiful artwork your mind could conjure. All nestled in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, itself rich with history and culture.
It would have been easy to spend 30 minutes speaking with Maracle inside the main cabin, which previously was a cafe where he made traditional food and fare, regaling clientele with amazing stories or marvelling them with his world-class art. But that would have been an injustice to a man who could one day be finishing a stone carving for our national broadcaster and the next be featured as a musician at the Olympics or in a tribute to Canadian Indigenous icon Buffy Sainte-Marie.
“Things changed over time,” Maracle said of the decision to convert the cafe into the tourism destination it has become.
“Because I’m an artist, a sculptor, I sculpt statues in stone documenting history and those kinds of things that are going to live on forever. There’s a story and a history behind why I carved those things. As an Indigenous man, I decided to take all these beautiful stories, legends and histories of our past and put them all into my art and music. There’s nothing that I don’t want to do with the arts. It’s all-encompassing of my life.”
As we chatted inside the warm cabin on a rainy day, Maracle spoke passionately about his latest venture, expressing excitement at the new sauna poised to be installed, mapping out visions of private dinners for small groups, followed by an intimate concert, and about the rich culture on the Reserve that guests will be exposed to.
“I decided to switch it (from a cafe to a tourism destination) when I needed that break again to get back into the roots of who I am as an artist and wanting to travel again,” Maracle said. “I wanted to hit the road. I found myself buying a lot of art and filling my gallery with other people’s art and I got thinking I should be just carving my own stones and making my own crafts because that’s what I do. So I sat back and I looked at things and decided to make a small gallery away from this gallery and one that I could fill easily by myself and create things so it just keeps revolving all my art.”
It was then that he and his wife, KimberLee, began to reimagine the property.
“(Over the last eight) years, (we) turned this into a B&B. And we’re very successful at this.”
Not surprising, to say the least. Along with being top rated as a romantic staycation destination regionally, their vision has been listed through AirBnb and Trip Adviser as a superhost and the resort continues to get busier each year.
“I guess we want an experience where people can come in and feel the land and feel the culture and see the people,” Maracle said, before offering a tour of the cabins and many amenities.
As we spoke, Maracle invoked conversations about history and tradition, about his proud Mohawk heritage and about family, an area of great pride.
“My dad and the elders I studied under told me that if I want to learn anything, go to the animals and watch them,” Maracle said.
“They’ll teach you everything you need to know on how to take care of their young, on how to search for food, when to search for food.”
He pointed to sealed boxes hanging on the wall inside his former cafe, still adorned where they always were. Inside one are traditional coffee beans and inside the other, dried corn.
“I’d tell a story when people used to come into my cafe,” he said, pointing to the boxes. “The white corn and the coffee beans:
two of the greatest gifts the Creator gave the world. Simplicity.
The white corn doesn’t spoil. That will keep forever for our people.
The Creator gave us that corncob with eight rows on there. And you know that the silk coming off the top of the corn, you know what that is? That’s the umbilical cord to each kernel of corn coming off there. There’s so much beauty. That corn has never touched any other hands than Indigenous hands. It’s been passed down for generations.
Below that, you have the coffee beans, another Indigenous product that the world survives with.”
Painted on the property are three murals.
“I have three major murals that our people relate to in our culture and teach our children: the one is Sky woman, the one that brought the vegetation from Sky World. Out here, I have the peacemaker and out back, I have the three sisters to show how family comes together.”
As we move outside for a tour, Maracle discusses his visions for live entertainment and traditional Indigenous meals with guests, as well as the possibilities for those who enjoy ice fishing and winter activities as the cabins are open year-round.
“We’re super busy,” he said. “As soon as the season warms up again, we’ll be nonstop. Right now, with everything coming up, Christmas and all of that, people are just getting ready for that.”
As we step through the door into Maracle’s art gallery, which is situated roadside on the property in front of the cabins, it’s as if we’ve entered a new dimension through a portal.
Not because it is any different visually. It’s warm and rich with culture and history just as every other building on the property is, but Maracle himself is transformed. The entrepreneur and historian is replaced by the artist.
The transformation was never more evident than during mid-interview when Maracle picked up two instruments in his gallery and regaled his interviewer with powerful performances on his hand-made flute and didgeridoo, the latter of which he played at the Olympics in Sydney, Australia in 2000.
“I’ve been doing (stone carving) since 1985 and I’ve done work for many big, influential people from around the world,” Maracle said. Perched on a shelf sits meticulously handcarved bald eagle atop the detailed face of an Indigenous woman beside another blacked out face of an Indigenous woman takes one’s breath away when you step inside the gallery. Above it sits a powerful carved head of an Indigenous warrior, complete with authentic bison horns, horse hair and meticulously carved feathers.
“Everything I do in life I never went to school for,” Maracle stated. “I won’t tell students (that) because it’s wise that they get an education,” he said, before the conversation turned to his late father, a man who shaped Maracle into the man he would become, and into the artist he now is.
“My dad spoke all the dialects of the Six Nations fluently,” he said, adding that his father escaped the infamous Indian residential school known as the Mush Hole, leaving a bad taste in his own mouth when it came to school.
“School wasn’t something I really was fond of so I quit school in Grade 9 and I started my journey in my life,” Maracle said.
He points to the carving of the eagle above the women, revealing it was commissioned by a woman from the United Nations.
“She wanted something significant that was talking about missing and murdered women and the children of residential schools. It shows the missing, it shows the child and it shows the ones we never got to see or who never got to grow up, so there’s no face. And the eagle, the messenger bird of the spirit world, taking the spirit of the child to the Creator.”
Maracle recalled more advice his father gave him when asked how long it took him to carve such a beautiful and detailed piece of art.
“No offence when I say this, but my dad said `Once you tell the white man how long it takes you, they’ll sit and do the math and figure out how much they should give you because it’s not worth what you’re asking,’ ” Maracle recalled. “He said he’ll ask how many minutes and seconds and stuff and then he’s going to break it down and he’s going to make you feel less of an artist.”
On the wall inside the art gallery hangs a portrait of Maracle’s father, Andrew, who died in 1999. The portrait shows a proud man, kindness in his eyes but a fire in his spirit.
“My dad was an international lecturer, an historian and also a minister,” David Maracle said, recalling how his father taught him forgiveness through his befriending of a woman who once was his father’s teacher at the residential school he fled from.
At lunch with his father and the woman, Maracle recalled how his father treated this woman, who had once been so unkind to his dad.
“He opened the door, he escorted this teacher down to his car, his Lincoln. He opened the door for her, she got in and I’m sitting in the back thinking to myself `Why? He’s doing everything he can to be that
perfect gentleman,’ ” Maracle recalled. “We get to the restaurant and the waitress comes over and gives us our coffee and my dad reaches over and he grabs her little old arms and he pulls her right over and he looks her right in the face and he says I forgive you for everything you did to me.”
To call it life-changing is an understatement, Maracle said.
“I was taught firsthand the compassion that we have to have and that understanding we have to teach,” Maracle said, adding that his dad explained to her that he understood that she was only doing her job, that she also had a family to provide for and that she herself wasn’t the root of the evil. “We have to go to where that first seed was planted,” Maracle recalled his father saying.
Maracle then paid tribute to the influence his father had not only on his life and the man he would become, but on his career.
“My dad was always encouraging me,” he said. “He took me on the road with him and he’d take me to the Parliament buildings . Dad knew people, different prime ministers, that’s how far up he was in the food chain. He wanted to always inspire me and keep that fire burning in my life, to keep maintaining my culture and the values of the culture.”
During one such trip, Maracle’s dad encouraged his son to bring along one of the stones he’d carved, which his father believed good enough that he could sell it.
“He said `You should bring it and set it on the table beside me and while I’m talking, you should sit there and show it off and see if you can sell it.’ ”
And while it drew a lot of praise and head pats that first trip, it didn’t yield a sale, Maracle said.
“I brought it home and I was like `Dad, I thought you said I’d sell something.’ ”
If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again, his father encouraged, suggesting he build a pedestal to display the work on.
Still no luck.
The third time, however, proved a charm.
“He said `Bring that piece, but put a rabbit fur on top of the pedestal and put a little story about why you carved it.’ ” he recalled. “So I got it there. I had it all set up with a little story and a little price on there and this guy came up and asked how much for that piece? I said $350 and he said, `I’ll take that.’ ”
His first sale. The first of many.
Only 18 years old at the time, Maracle said he remembers the encouraging words his father instilled in him.
“I sold another piece and then went back with Dad again, sold another piece.”
His father then encouraged him to stay home and carve and he would take the work on the road with him and sell it on his son’s behalf. It proved a magical formula.
“Dad would come home after all of his engagements and he’d just be handing me the cash. You know, $4,000 or $5000 and I’m like `Holy crap.’ ”
From there, the confident Maracle began his journey to becoming a world renowned carver, among other things.
His father’s influence in his life was always evident to Maracle, but never moreso than when his hero died.
“When my dad passed away, we all went to the house and mom was crying and she said `You guys can just go through the house and just enjoy your dad’s things,’ ” Maracle recalled, his voice breaking.
As they went through their father’s stuff, Maracle made his way to the attic, where his father’s belief in him never became more evident or powerful.
“I opened the attic door and I looked and there were all (my) carvings,” he said. “Dad broke the bank and he and mom were starving because Dad was trying to inspire me to be this artist. He was buying all the pieces, telling me that he sold them and working overtime to make money to pay me for the pieces.
“I opened the door and there were like eight beautiful pieces in there and dad had been collecting those. I said `Oh my God’ and I started crying.”
That artwork now resides with him and his siblings, a fitting tribute to a man who taught his son to forgive and never forget. And to never stop believing in himself.
A gift from the Creator, indeed.
Jan Murphy is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Belleville Intelligencer. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.