Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 725
Maria Campbell 1940–
(Born June Stifle) Canadian autobiographer, author of children's books, playwright, scriptwriter, editor, and essayist.
The following entry provides an overview of Campbell's career through 1993.
Campbell is best known for her autobiography Halfbreed (1973), which relates her struggles as a Métis woman in Canadian society. A best-seller in her homeland, the book has been described by Hartmut Lutz as "the most important and seminal book authored by a Native person from Canada."
Of Scottish, Indian, and French descent, Campbell, the eldest daughter of seven children, was born in northern Saskatchewan. She was shunned by both whites and full-blooded Natives due to her Métis, or half-breed, heritage. When Campbell was twelve, her mother died. Forced to quit school and take care of her younger siblings, Campbell was then compelled to marry at age fifteen in order to prevent her brothers and sisters from being placed in an orphanage. Her attempt to keep her family united, however, was unsuccessful; her husband, an abusive, alcoholic white man, reported her to the welfare authorities, and her siblings were placed in foster care. After moving to Vancouver, where her husband deserted her, Campbell became a prostitute and drug addict. After two suicide attempts and a nervous breakdown, she was hospitalized and entered Alcoholics Anonymous. She began writing Halfbreed in an attempt to deal with her anger, frustration, loneliness, and the pressure to return to a life of drugs and prostitution: "I had no money, and I was on the verge of being kicked out of my house, had no food, and I decided to go back out in the street and work. I went out one night and sat in a bar. And I just couldn't, because I knew if I went back to that, I'd be back on drugs again…. I started writing a letter [to myself] because I had to have somebody to talk to, and there was nobody to talk to. And that was how I wrote Halfbreed." Campbell has since become an ardent supporter of the Native Rights movement and ran for president of the Métis community in the 1980s.
Relating the first thirty-three years of Campbell's life, Halfbreed recounts on a personal level the discrimination and racism to which the Métis have historically been sub-ject from all sectors of Canadian society. Infused with a strong undercurrent of anger and bitterness, the book documents Campbell's search for self-identity, her attempts to overcome the poverty, prejudice, and harshness of Métis life, and finally, albeit briefly, her work as a political activist. The volume is also known for its humor, its documentation of Métis patois and rituals, and its tender portrait of Campbell's loving relationship with her grandmother, Cheechum. Campbell has noted that Halfbreed was intended to inform readers "what it is like to be a Halfbreed woman in our country. I want to tell you about the joys and sorrows, the oppressing poverty, the frustrations and the dreams." Campbell is additionally known for such children's works as People of the Buffalo (1976) and Riel's People (1978), which relate Métis traditions and history, and for Jessica (1982), the stage adaptation of Halfbreed. The Book of Jessica (1989) is a nonfiction account of Campbell's professional relationship with actress and playwright Linda Griffiths, with whom she collaborated on Jessica. The partnership was a source of consternation for both individuals, and The Book of Jessica is considered a testament to the aesthetic problems posed by collaboration, colonialism, and cross-cultural appropriation.
Campbell's reputation was established with and, for the most part, rests on Halfbreed. It has been both praised as a sociological tract of the Métis community and extolled as a moving historical account of the nationally sponsored and endorsed racism that has been inflicted upon the Métis people. Agnes Grant observes: "Though the book was written for non-Natives Maria keeps them at a distance. She writes of things she knows, which she believes her readers do not know. The humor and irony are very effective in pointing out to the readers that, indeed, Maria is right. There are things that we did not know. Until she wrote the book, 'halfbreed' was nothing but a common derogatory term; now it means a person living between two cultures. The ultimate irony is that her book has never been taken seriously as literature."