Maria Campbell Essay - Critical Essays

Campbell, Maria


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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

Halfbreed (autobiography) 1973
People of the Buffalo (juvenilia) 1976
Little Badger and the Fire Spirit (juvenilia) 1977
The Red Dress (screenplay) 1977
Riel's People (juvenilia) 1978
Jessica [with Linda Griffiths and Paul Thompson] (drama) 1982
Achimoona [editor] (short fiction) 1985
The Book of Jessica: A Theatrical Transformation [with Griffiths] (nonfiction) 1989

∗A revised version of Jessica premiered in 1986 as Jessica: A Transformation.


Valerie Miner Johnson (review date August 1973)

SOURCE: "Dad Was Always Drunk, Mom Always Pregnant," in Saturday Night, Vol. 88, No. 8, August, 1973, pp. 31-2.

[In the mixed review below, Johnson praises Halfbreed as a moving tale, but laments the volume's lack of detail concerning Campbell's adult life.]

The cover is haunting—a strong, dark face half-cast in shadows. The title, Halfbreed is proud—an arrogant acceptance of the epithet by which her people are called. The text is spirited—a resolute testimony to Maria Campbell's faith in her race and herself.

Campbell started this book about the Métis struggle as a history; she surrendered that format for a much more piquant story—her autobiography. Halfbreed is the daring account of a strong-willed woman who defeated poverty, racism, alcoholism and drug addiction by the age of thirty-three. The book is called radical by Métis working within government programmes; it challenges the compromises they have made. The author is as outspoken about her oppression as a woman among the halfbreeds as she is critical of prejudice from whites and Indians.

Maria Campbell, whose real name is June Stifle, was born in a tent in northern Saskatchewan during a spring blizzard in 1940. Her Scottish, Indian and French great grandparents were defeated with Louis Riel in 1885. Since then her family has survived on the edge of despair, too often releasing their frustration within the community. "Our men would become angry, but instead of fighting the white men they beat their wives. They ripped clothes off the women, hit them with fists or whips, knocked them down and kicked them until they were senseless."

Campbell grew up in a settlement of Indian and European traditions—Sundances and Midnight Masses. Her family were "awp-pee-kow-kossons" (half people) to the Indians and "breeds" to the whites. Her descriptions of the bigotry and hypocrisy of priests, politicians, police, teachers and social workers are clichés only to those of us who don't have to suffer through them. She is brutally honest about the joy and pain of a prairie home where spontaneity led to parties and brawls. As she grew older her father always seemed drunk and her mother always seemed pregnant. She was able to attend school regularly from age nine to age twelve, when her mother died. Afterwards, she managed to attend intermittently while taking care of the six younger children, gardening, cooking, canning, laundering and unravelling tattered socks to knit new ones.

She finally quit school and got married at fifteen in a desperate effort to save her brothers and sisters from the orphanage. Married life was bearable for the first two months until her groom began to drink. He lost his job, beat her up, and by the time she...

(The entire section is 1157 words.)

Cornelia Holbert (review date 1 November 1973)

SOURCE: A review of Halfbreed, in Best Sellers, Vol. 33, No. 15, November 1, 1973, p. 344.

[In the following, Holbert favorably assesses Halfbreed.]

Two little Indian boys came in … about four and eight years old. In order to reach the bathroom they had to walk the length of the restaurant … As they started down the aisle one of the men yelled "Watch it! The bows and arrows are coming." The older child stopped for a second when everyone started to laugh, put up his arm around his little brother … the younger boy started to cry and they ran the rest of the way.

To what are we driving our fellow men, our...

(The entire section is 614 words.)

Irma McDonough (review date November 1976)

SOURCE: A review of People of the Buffalo, in Saturday Night, Vol. 91, No. 8, November, 1976, p. 72.

[In the following, the critic offers a favorable assessment of People of the Buffalo.]

Maria Campbell has given children a revealing, convincing portrait of the Plains Indians in People of the Buffalo. Their way of life can probably best be communicated by a member of that community, and she is a half-white, half-Indian writer who told her own story in Halfbreed, published in 1973. The new book documents with pride and pleasure the life of her native ancestors. It's a corrective for children whose ordinary connection with Indians has been through...

(The entire section is 203 words.)

Mark Czarnecki (review date 15 November 1982)

SOURCE: "Cultural Schizophrenia," in Maclean's Magazine, Vol. 95, No. 46, November 15, 1982, p. 78.

[In the following review of Jessica, Czarnecki discusses the play's focus on the marginalization of Native North Americans and the protagonist's subsequent search for self-acceptance and integration.]

Jessica (Linda Griffiths) is a Métis born with the shamanistic powers of mind-reading and prophecy. As the play, [Jessica] opens she returns to her mentor on the reserve, despairing because mysterious, uncontrollable forces are driving her mad. She throws open her suitcase crammed with the paraphernalia of white culture (Sally Ann clothing, a tape recorder, a...

(The entire section is 625 words.)

Gretchen M. Bataille and Kathleen Mullen Sands (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "The Long Road Back: Maria Campbell," in American Indian Women: Telling Their Lives, University of Nebraska Press, 1984, pp. 113-26.

[An American critic, educator, and editor who specializes in English and Native American studies, Bataille has authored and edited numerous works about Amerindians. Sands is an American educator, critic, and editor who also specializes in Native literature and culture. They have collaborated on the critically acclaimed American Indian Women: Telling Their Lives, from which this excerpt is taken, and on the 1991. American Indian Women: A Research Guide. In the following, they argue that there are two types of autobiographies: the life...

(The entire section is 4658 words.)

Kate Vangen (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Making Faces: Defiance and Humour in Campbell's Halfbreed and Welch's Winter in the Blood," in The Native in Literature, Thomas King, Cheryl Calver, Helen Hoy, eds., ECW Press, 1987, pp. 188-205.

[Vangen is a member of the Assiniboine tribe. In the excerpt below, which was originally presented at the "Native in Literature" conference held at the University of Lethridge in 1984, she examines Campbell's use of humor in Halfbreed.]

Maria Campbell's Halfbreed is an autobiographical account of growing up Métis in Saskatchewan. By Campbell's own admission, the book was written out of "frustration and a lot of anger." Perhaps this is why its...

(The entire section is 1867 words.)

Rebecca Tsosie (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Changing Women: The Cross-Currents of American Indian Feminine Identity," in American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1988, pp. 1-37.

[Tsosie writes on cultural and social topics. In the following excerpt, she briefly examines the themes of prejudice, discrimination, and oppression in Halfbreed.]

Maria Campbell's [Halfbreed] centers around conflicts of identity and "place" which are far more severe than those experienced by the women of previous generations. Campbell, a Metis or mixed-blood Cree, was born into the Canadian society of the 1940s, arguably even more racist than American society at this time. As a Metis woman, Campbell...

(The entire section is 710 words.)

Maria Campbell with Hartmut Lutz and Konrad Gross (interview date 23 September 1989)

SOURCE: An interview in Contemporary Challenges: Conversations with Canadian Native Authors by Hartmut Lutz, Fifth House Publishers, 1991, pp. 41-65.

[In the following excerpt from an interview originally conducted in 1989, Campbell discusses her background and heritage, her new works, the role of the Métis in Canadian society, the writing process, and the composition, publication, and reception of Halfbreed.]

[Campbell]: I don't think of myself as a writer. My work is in the community. Writing is just one of the tools that I use in my work as an organizer. If I think that something else would work better, then I do it. So it's multimedia kinds of things! I do video,...

(The entire section is 7915 words.)

Diane Bessai (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Collective Theatre and the Playwright: Jessica, by Linda Griffiths and Maria Campbell," in Writing Saskatchewan: 20 Critical Essays, edited by Kenneth G. Probert, University of Regina, 1989, pp. 100-10.

[In the essay below, Bessai relates the composition and structure of Jessica, arguing that the play is representative of the collaborative efforts in regional, collective theater which were popular in Canada in the 1970s and 1980s.]

If a main strength in the new Canadian drama of the past fifteen years lies in its specific rendering of regional experience, the collective creations of the 1970s did much to set that pattern of regionality. Thus in...

(The entire section is 4498 words.)

Agnes Grant (essay date Spring-Summer 1990)

SOURCE: "Contemporary Native Women's Voices in Literature," in Canadian Literature, Nos. 124-25, Spring-Summer, 1990, pp. 124-32.

[In the following excerpt, Grant provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Halfbreed, arguing that Campbell's intent is to communicate the half-breed experience to non-Natives.]

Campbell's autobiography [Halfbreed] is dedicated to "my Cheechum's children"; the introduction says, "I write this for all of you, to tell you what it is like to be a Halfbreed woman in our country." It soon becomes evident that Campbell is not writing for other Métis; she is preoccupied with telling non-Natives what it is like to be a...

(The entire section is 952 words.)

Penny Petrone (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "1970–1979," in Native Literature in Canada: From the Oral Tradition to the Present, Oxford University Press Canada, 1990, pp. 113-37.

[In the excerpt below, Petrone provides a brief thematic analysis of Halfbreed.]

[The 1970s'] most acclaimed native autobiography was Halfbreed (1973) by Maria Campbell. Campbell (b. 1940) recalls her childhood spent in a strong, vibrant, and closeknit Métis community that was forced to live a marginal existence in shanties on crown land along the roads north of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Despite her extreme poverty and the terrible racism of white people in the area, Campbell recalls some happy times in family and...

(The entire section is 817 words.)

Helen Hoy (essay date Spring 1993)

SOURCE: "'When You Admit You're a Thief, Then You Can Be Honourable': Native/Non-Native Collaboration in The Book of Jessica," in Canadian Literature, No. 136, Spring, 1993, pp. 24-39.

[Hoy is one of the editors of The Native in Literature: Canadian and Comparative Perspectives (1987). In the excerpt below, she discusses the authorship of The Book of Jessica, examining the text as a testament to the problems posed by imperialism, cross-cultural communication, and collaborative writing efforts.]

A subject much bruited about just now in Canadian literary circles is the question of the appropriation of Native materials by non-Native authors. This...

(The entire section is 3117 words.)