Maria Campbell

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Valerie Miner Johnson (review date August 1973)

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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 was sixteen gave her a baby of her own. Predictably "the welfare" caught up with her. "The wagon drove away with six little faces pressed to the windows, crying for me to help them. I walked around in a daze. Everything went to pieces inside. Dad found me lying on the bed while my baby screamed in hunger."

When her husband finally deserted her in a fetid, mouldy Vancouver apartment, she was drained of self-respect and money. She fell into prostitution and from there into pills, heroin, smuggling. She went through heroin withdrawal twice. She tried various exits back to dignity—a job cooking for ranch hands, a term in beauty school, waitress work. Then she had another baby and was forced into the most humiliating position of all. "I looked like a Whitefish Lake Squaw, and that's exactly what the social worker thought. He insisted that I go to the Department...

(This entire section contains 1157 words.)

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of Indian Affairs, and when I said I was not a Treaty Indian but a Halfbreed, he said if that was the case I was eligible, but added, 'I can't see the difference—part Indian, all Indian. You're all the same.' I nearly bit my tongue off sitting there trying to look timid and ignorant."

After her third child, several more attempts to settle down and a nearly successful suicide, she wound up in the Alberta Hospital. When she awoke two weeks later she was told she had swallowed too many pills and had suffered a nervous breakdown. Before she could be released from the hospital, she had to join Alcoholics Anonymous. There she met other Métis and got involved in the native movement.

And now she abruptly ends the book, "The years of searching and loneliness and pain are over for me. I have brothers and sisters, all over the country. I no longer need my blanket to survive." She remains active in the native movement, although her involvement as a woman is not completely welcomed by her brothers, who are too incensed by racism to recognize their own sexism.

This last section is short and sketchy, although it is supposed to reveal the dimension of Maria Campbell's despair and the tremendous strength of her will. She devotes only a third of her book to the last half of her life. Certainly it was humiliating to write about the years of prostitution, drugs and welfare, but she could have dealt more deeply with this struggle for dignity. She also could have been more specific about her current involvement in the native movement and her criticisms of government programmes. Unfortunately, this most recent part of her story reads like a series of too-quickly-timed slides; we wish for the fluid film she showed us of her childhood.

Halfbreed is bound together by the spirit of Cheechum, her Cree great-grandmother who spied on her husband for Louis Riel and outlived him three generations. While Campbell's father taught her to set traps, shoot a rifle and fight like a boy and her mother taught her to cook, sew and knit like a lady, Cheechum taught her all she knew about life. Cheechum's strength became her confidence. Although Cheechum died seven years ago at the age of 104, her words continue to sustain her great-granddaughter and provide the theme for the book.

"Cheechum and I spent the whole day talking. I told her how desperately I wanted to finish school and take everyone away; how I longed for something different for us; how I didn't want to be like our women who had nothing but kids, black eyes and never had enough of anything; that I didn't want my brothers to be like the men around us, who just lived each day with nothing to look forward to but the weekend drunks."

Cheechum smiled and answered, "Don't let anyone tell you that anything is impossible, because if you believe honestly in your heart that there's something better for you, then it will all come true. Go out there and find what you want and take it, but always remember who you are and why you want it." Maria Campbell knows who she is—a Canadian halfbreed—and she knows what she wants. The only question left is our response.

Cornelia Holbert (review date 1 November 1973)

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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 fellow children? Half-Breed, which gives us one answer, is shocking, not because of what Maria Campbell has been (yes, a fifteen-year-old bride; yes, a prostitute; yes, a narcotics addict, a twice-attempted suicide), but because the hand that holds the book trembles at what it has done.

In Canada, the Half-Breeds (as they characterize themselves) were driven west before European settlers. Too poor to make good on their land claims, they became trappers, Road Allowance people, were forced ultimately in many cases to Welfare, even to the ultimate indignity of posing for white tourists. As Marie Campbell saw them in the Forties, the men were depression-driven to drink, the women preserving and conserving, but later "the gentle mothers of my childhood were drunkards now, and neglect was evident everywhere, most of all in the faces of the children."

The poor but reasonably happy pre-school years of the author and her brothers and sisters began a downward arc with taunts by fellow students and even some teachers: "Look at her! She is so stupid she can't stand up and say 'this' instead of 'dis.' She would make Peggie stand up at the front of the room for an hour, without moving. Peggie grew so afraid of school that she would cry and wet her bed at night."

At their mother's death, Maria, who at twelve was the eldest of eight children, gardened, canned, baked, cooked, made lye soap, washed clothes on a scrub board, unravelled old socks and sweaters to knit new ones in a desperate effort to keep the family from being placed in foster homes by Welfare.

The author has little respect for organized religion ("even today I think of Christians and old clothes together"), but finally she reached for the hand which Michelangelo saw extended to awaken Adam, and which has never been withdrawn from any man or woman, and her last report is of the establishment of a halfway house for street girls, activism for the poor, for women and for all those within her reach who are dying of discrimination. Perhaps most touching is her involvement with AA inmates at Prince Albert Penitentiary.

The prison story, which is complete on one page, is an example of Miss Campbell's economy of style; the book includes at least a dozen perfect short stories which could stand independently. Among the other credits accruing to her are a Greek-drama simplicity, honesty neither shamed nor exhibitionist, and sensitivity. In chapter 16, which is a fair example, she uses full color for the sounds and sights of Vancouver, of slum-scene alienation, of the disintegration of marriage, whereas the start of her life as a prostitute is merely etched.

Campbell's last words reaffirm both the abuse of power and the hope of Teilhard: "… an armed revolution of Native people will never come about; even if such a thing were possible what would we achieve? We would only end up oppressing someone else. I believe that one day, very soon, people will set aside their differences and come together as one."

Irma McDonough (review date November 1976)

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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 chauvinistic portrayals. Where else would nine and ten year olds see this categorical statement: "Before the coming of the white man, violence was not common, and tribes did not declare war on each other." Where would they see: "Boys and girls were treated equally and were not criticized if they chose work that was unusual for their sex: some women hunted and rode in battle, and some men cooked and tanned hides." This is no romantic picture but a straightforward description of a vanished way of life. This is the way social history should be written for children.

Mark Czarnecki (review date 15 November 1982)

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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 copy of Maclean's), protesting against her Indian heritage. But the old woman, Vitaline (Tantoo Martin), decides that these items must be incorporated in a ritual invocation of spirits intended to integrate Jessica's soul: her high heels serve as stakes on the four corners of a blanket, and Vitaline's son drums away with Walkman headphones and native beads draped around his neck. Jessica's guardian spirit, a crow (Thomas Hauff), appears as a guide to her memories, and the play traces her life from childhood to the present.

Based on an autobiographical novel by Maria Campbell, this production by Saskatoon's 25th Street Theatre marks the first collaboration of Griffiths and Paul Thompson since their hugely successful Maggie and Pierre. Drawing on extensive research among Saskatchewan's Métis by both Campbell and Griffiths, the play is an ambitious attempt to portray the two cultures that have moulded Jessica. Inevitably, in present-day Canada, these become polarized into good and evil: Jessica is raped by Mounties, forced into prostitution to support her child and betrayed by her militant boyfriend, Sam (Graham Greene), who ends up playing the white man's grant-application games in return for creature comforts. Jessica also represents the female intuitive force subverted in native culture by the white man's murderous masculinity. But, as the opening scene demonstrates, her path to transcendence does not deny her whiteness; instead, it is used to reestablish her natural powers.

When Jessica operates in the white man's mode, the writing and staging are trite and unconvincing. Because he initial dilemma is not stated strongly enough, the first act recounts a familiar tale of native oppression without indicating why this story should be of special interest. Only Hauff's crow, tiptoeing about in a black baseball cap and fretting wittily about Jessica's fate, relieves the tedium. But the second act takes off when Jessica begins to use her powers to help her nation and a hilarious council of animal spirits decides she should be guided by a coyote. There are confrontations with Sam and a sympathetic white lawyer (Hauff again), who helps her run a halfway house. Griffiths forcefully portrays the torment of a woman who yearns for a happy home and a fridge, complete with message pad and stick-on pencil, but whose soul is no longer her own. Although sensitively styled lighting and special effects heighten her psychic struggle, the ghosts of Maggie and Pierre haunt Griffiths' quick cuts back and forth between agonized frames of mind. Native audiences may not have heard of Linda Griffiths, but to white theatre audiences she is a star: the integrity of her interpretation is indisputable, but her performance is not sufficiently of a piece with its complex text to make them forget that fact.

Eventually, a wolverine enters Jessica, her sudden viciousness alienates everyone around her, and the play comes full circle as she returns to Vitaline. The final, ecstatic dance celebrating Jessica's acceptance of herself is not as powerful as it might have been because the play attempts too much and only partially succeeds. Perhaps it is impossible to dramatize adequately the schizophrenic cultural dilemma of the Métis, but Jessica shows that the effort in itself yields rich, if erratic, rewards.

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

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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 history, which emphasizes the needs of the individual, and the life passage, which focuses on the individual's relationship to societal needs and rituals. Maintaining that Halfbreed is a life history, they analyze the book's themes, styles, and literary qualities.]

In ["The Study of Life History: Gandhi," Current Anthropology 14 (June 1973)], an essay on anthropological life histories, anthropologist David G. Mandelbaum makes a distinction between life-passage studies and life-history studies. Life-passage (or life-cycle) studies, he says, "emphasize the requirements of society, showing how the people of a group socialize and enculturate their young in order to make them into viable members of society." Life histories, however, "emphasize the experiences and requirements of the individual—how the person copes with society rather than how society copes with the stream of individuals." This distinction can clearly be seen in the autobiographies of American Indian women and may account for the literary or nonliterary qualities as well. In early recorded life stories, such as those published by Michelson and other anthropologists, the emphasis was on enculturation and socialization. The prescribed roles were stressed, and the narrator followed the patterns set by the tribe, or at least dictated the story in such a way as to reflect tribal expectations. The account revealed the desired role of all women within a given tribal culture.

The difference between the two types of studies appears to be determined by the amount of control the narrator has over the material. In some autobiographies recorded by an editor, for example, Mountain Wolf Woman, the narrator retained control over the material and shaped it into a life history, a story of an individual. This becomes even more true with autobiographies free of extensive editorial intrusion.

Whereas life-passage stories bring out the similarities in a culture but do not concern themselves with the individual's choices and the relationship of those decisions to the larger culture or to cultural change, life histories stress the individual's relationship to the culture, to political movements, and to the significance of personal decisions in her life. Autobiographies in which there is no recorder-editor are far more reflective of the life-history category, for there is not an outsider shaping the story to reflect preconceived notions of cultural expectations….

[Maria Campbell's Halfbreed, a written autobiography,] reflects the evolution of style and theme in life histories. Sarah Winnemucca in 1883 published the story of her life, an autobiography heavily influenced by Christianity and her involvement with the United States government. At the turn of the century Gertrude Bonnin (Zitkala Sa) published a series of magazine articles reflecting on her own dilemma as an Indian woman who was educated in white schools and yet retained a strong sense of identity as a Sioux. Maria Campbell is thus carrying on a well-established tradition with her own account of growing up as a Canadian Métis woman influenced strongly, and often negatively, by the non-Indian world around her. Not only does Campbell's work carry on traditional themes of earlier written autobiographies, it serves as further proof that the two modes of autobiography, written and oral, continue to exist simultaneously.

Maria Campbell's story is that of one individual Indian woman in Canada and, although she generalizes that she is telling "what it is like to be a Halfbreed woman," clearly her story is that of one woman who has struggled to survive the prejudice and poverty in her life. Although one learns a great deal about the life of Halfbreed women in Canada from Campbell's story, it is the individual story of her life that is at the center of the narrative. The dramatic moments, the frustrations, and the fears are clearly hers, and the concern is with her life, not with the larger group of Indian women who might share similar experiences.

Although the book has been called radical by Métis working within the government, it lacks the strident voice of Bobbi Lee: Indian Rebel, another book by a young Canadian Indian woman that reflects the political struggles of her people. Campbell was born in 1940 in northern Saskatchewan and grew up in western Canada somewhere west of Prince Albert National Park. The most striking aspect of this autobiography, written by the subject and not processed through a recorder-editor, is the sense of identity the author assumed. Both in the title and the text, Maria Campbell identifies herself as a Halfbreed.

Métis, mixed-blood, and the more perjorative term half-breed have been used in the United States and Canada to define an individual of mixed Indian and white ancestry. During the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century the label half-breed was applied most often to those Indian males suspected of being particularly evil. The fictional figure of the half-breed mirrored society's attitude toward the group. William J. Scheick, in his study of the half-blood in fiction [The Half-Blood: A Cultural Symbol in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction, 1979], writes, "By his very nature the half-blood epitomized the integration (whether successful or unsuccessful) of the red and the white races, provided a dramatic symbol of the benign possibilities or malign probabilities inherent in this encounter."…

[Today] the number of Indians with only American Indian ancestors continues to dwindle. Identity for most American Indians is not measured by blood quantum. Gerald Vizenor, in the Preface to Earth-divers: Tribal Narratives on Mixed Descent, defines the mixed-blood in a way that is meaningful to many American Indians: "The words Métis and mixedblood possess no social or scientific validation, because blood mixture is not a measurement of consciousness, culture, or human experiences; but the word Métis is a source of notable and radical identification."

Although Vizenor's definition makes good philosophical sense, in Canada, and to a lesser extent in the United States, it does not make good legal sense. Canadian law strictly defines the native population; there are registered treaty Indians and registered nontreaty Indians, classifications that depend on past legal relationships with the Crown. In another group are nonregistered Indians, persons who may be biologically and culturally Indian, but who are not legally defined as such. In this group are Indian women who have lost their Indian status by marrying non-Indians. The last major group is classified as Métis, those people and their descendants who have mixed ancestry, usually Indian and French, and who between 1870 and 1875 were given land and for whom the government set up colonies. In 1940 the Indian Affairs branch of the Canadian government refused to acknowledge the Métis as a legally defined group. The Métis have continued to fight for legal recognition, and it is this struggle that provides both the frustration and the motivation for Maria Campbell's life….

[This] autobiography is a life story that was written by the subject for publication. Throughout the book the author is aware of her audience, and, although she is informal in her relationship with that audience, the persona remains constant. The reader is drawn into the life being narrated and becomes an intimate of the writer, sharing the pain and celebrating the small victories.

There is a circular pattern to Maria Campbell's autobiography, for it begins with her return to her childhood home. The description in the Introduction is one of desolation and of emptiness; there is little left of the physical past:

The house where I grew up is tumbled down and overgrown with brush. The pine tree beside the east window is dried and withered…. The graveyard down the hill is a tangle of wild roses, tiger lilies and thistle…. The blacksmith shop and cheese factory across the road have long since been torn down and only an old black steam-engine and forgotten horseshoes mark the place where they once stood…. The French owners who came from Quebec are dead and their families have gone. It is as if they were never there…. The old people who were so much a part of my childhood have all died.

Seventeen years have passed, and Maria Campbell has returned home; but what of those seventeen years and what of the years before that, the years she spent growing up on this land? She tells in the Introduction why she is writing her autobiography: "I write this for all of you, to tell you 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."

To fulfill that purpose she must go back and record the realities and the dreams of her childhood. Her autobiography is the culmination of her personal search: "If I was to know peace I would have to search within myself," she writes.

Maria Campbell's life story is one of poverty, of deprivation, of alcoholism and prostitution, and finally it is a story of the strength in knowing who she is. Through her search she came to understand the message her great-grandmother Cheechum had been trying to communicate. The autobiography of Maria Campbell is clearly a product of contemporary experience. It is frank, and the pain of Campbell's life comes through clearly. The events of her life might be unique, except that the status of Indian people in Canada has been well documented, particularly the deplorable conditions of the Métis, or Halfbreeds, who do not have treaty rights with the government. Maria Campbell is a Halfbreed, and she is only too aware of what that means in her country.

The arbitrary labels of Halfbreed, Métis, Indian, status Indian, nonstatus Indian, and Eskimo continue to work their evil, just as Cheechum told her granddaughter they would: "The white man saw that that was a more powerful weapon than anything else with which to beat the Halfbreeds, and he used it and still does today. Already they are using it on you. They try to make you hate your people." Conflict among the groups is inflamed by the different ways in which they are treated by the government and the Indian Act of 1951. Labels are legal in nature and do not reflect blood quantum, parentage, or cultural identification. An Indian woman loses her Indian status if she marries a white; a white woman can gain Indian status and a place on the reserve if she marries an Indian. Indian men do not face the same restrictions, adding another internal conflict.

Although Campbell's book is written as autobiography, it incorporates urban and rural sociology, a study of ethnic relations in Canada, and a historical account of the political situation; but primarily it is literature. She is aware of the need to develop her plot, to use suspense, and to end the narrative neatly when the protagonist is about to set out on a new and more promising venture. Having experienced the most negative aspects of life, she has rehabilitated herself, has written the story of her life up to that point, and has ended the narrative on a note of resolution and promise that allows us to speculate on her future.

Central to Campbell's development of her personal search for identity is the character of Cheechum, a guiding force in the narrator's life and a unifying force in the narrative structure of the text. It is the advice and counsel of this woman, old already when we meet her, that is important. When Campbell writes of her integration into the family and community, she says: "As far back as I can remember Daddy taught me how to set traps, shoot a rifle, and fight like a boy. Mom did her best to turn me into a lady, showing me how to cook, sew and knit, while Cheechum, my best friend and confidante, tried to teach me all she knew about living."

When Cheechum dies in an accident at the age of 104, Campbell has reached a climax in her life. Will Cheechum's advice have been in vain, or will Campbell finally understand it? The story is dramatic and moving. Her Cree great-grandmother has been very important, and now that Campbell must make some crucial decisions, she will have to follow the advice of the wise old woman. Cheechum, then, is a literary device, although no less real for that fact, and she serves to direct the thoughts and actions of the narrator as she develops her story, which she tells deliberately and, at times, quite self-consciously.

Maria Campbell can speak to the reader as an intimate friend, relating the pain and misery of her life. Early in the narrative she makes an obvious reference to her audience as non-Indian, yet it is clear that the events she is about to relate are not meant as an indictment against her reader:

I am not bitter. I have passed that stage. I only want to say: this is what it was like; this is what it is still like. I know that poverty is not ours alone. Your people have it too, but in those earlier days you at least had dreams, you had a tomorrow. My parents and I never shared any aspirations for a future.

Clearly she is making an attempt to communicate to the non-Indian audience what her experiences as an Indian have been. Through the story of her family, Campbell explains how poverty and prejudice can destroy a people. It is a personal story which she has edited herself, changing some names and places to protect identities. As a narrative that reveals the essence of her life, the story meets most critical criteria for autobiography.

Life changes for everyone, but Maria Campbell knew early that for her people the future held no hope. Her worst fears were confirmed when she returned to Spring River, for the deterioration had been almost complete. Her descriptions expose her pain—lonely, dilapidated, desolate, dried-up, ruins; it was not a pretty picture. And of the people: "I saw people whom I had known as a child, now with such empty, despairing faces." The changes were all negative—more drunkards, more children being neglected. Campbell's emotions are reflected in the landscape.

Despite the hopelessness of her people, there is one hope for Maria Campbell—to hold on to the advice of her great-grandmother Cheechum, her most important teacher. Cheechum had seen the "little people" and had the gift of second sight. When Maria Campbell was rejected by white storekeepers, it was Cheechum who said, "You always walk with your head up and if anyone says something then put out your chin and hold it higher." Cheechum understood the philosophy of divide and conquer that the whites had used against the native people and recognized that the enemy was greater than individuals. The government, the missionaries, and the shopkeepers had worked together to destroy the spirit of her people. As she often does in the course of her story, Campbell recalls her great-grandmother's words:

My Cheechum used to tell me that when the government gives you something, they take all that you have in return—your pride, your dignity, all the things that make you a living soul. When they are sure they have everything they give you a blanket to cover your shame. She said that the churches with their talk about God, the Devil, heaven and hell, and schools that taught children to be ashamed, were all part of that government…. She used to say that all our people wore blankets, each in his own way.

By the end of the narrative, Campbell proudly asserts: "I no longer need my blanket to survive." She finally learns what Cheechum meant when she told her, "The blanket only destroys, it doesn't give warmth."

The blanket metaphor is effective. Indians and blankets are inextricably linked in textbooks, picture postcards, and the movies. Shedding the blanket is synonymous with throwing off an image that has fostered dependence and encouraged prejudice. Only when Campbell realizes that her warmth can come in other ways can she get rid of the heavy baggage of her youth. She is not destroying the positive parts; she is, in fact, building on the strength of that oldest and wisest family member, Cheechum. But she is getting rid of all the negative self-images that were fostered by those around her as she was growing up, images of herself and her people as they had become. Their faces had molded to fit the masks made by outsiders, and many of them no longer knew their own images. It was the false face that had to be abandoned.

One of the ways in which a people are destroyed is by their believing the labels given to them. The Halfbreeds were constant victims of labeling. "Indian," "Halfbreed," "white," "Métis," "nigger," "owl eyes," "road-allowance people," and "awp-pee-tow-kooson" ("half-people")—at one time or another Campbell and her family were called all these things. Who defines a people? That dilemma exists for many groups, but for the Halfbreeds of Canada, and Campbell in particular, it has been especially disastrous. Stereotypes abound. Even Campbell writes:

They (the Indian relatives on the reserves) were completely different from us—quiet when we were noisy, dignified even at dances and get-togethers. Indians were very passive—they would get angry at things done to them but they would never fight back, whereas Halfbreeds were quick-tempered—quick to fight, but quick to forgive and forget.

There were real differences to remind the Halfbreeds that even if they were not like the Indians, neither were they white. At school the white children brought bread, eggs, fruit, and sweets. The Halfbreed children had bannock, lard, and wild meat or cold potatoes. The whites teased them because of their gopher meat and patched clothes. Maria later was to meet Stan Daniels, president of the Alberta Métis League, who justified his involvement with the political actions of his people by his own childhood experiences, explaining that where he grew up the favorite sport was "kicking the asses of the half breeds all the way to school." Because Maria had dark skin and blue eyes, she was caught even tighter in the web of identity confusion.

Maria Campbell presents a compelling picture of her own life as a Halfbreed. As a Métis woman she is subject to the general stereotypes produced by the cultural mix of Canada. She is outspoken, and this is attributed to her "white" blood by Treaty Indians: "'It's the white in her.' Treaty Indian women don't express their opinions; Halfbreed women do."

Her story is a sequence of conflicts: Indian and white, status and nonstatus Indians, males and females. After her devastating experiences with marriage and unsatisfactory relationships with men, she analyzes the attitudes of native men toward women: "The missionaries had impressed upon us the feeling that women were a source of evil. This belief, combined with the ancient Indian recognition of the power of women, is still holding back the progress of our people today."

The missionaries had not been charitable. Her memories of them include the day her mother was asked to leave the church and the night the priest came to dinner and ate all the food. Her father burned the Christmas packages distributed to the "poor Indians" each year. They all resisted and resented the missionaries, but it was Cheechum who recognized clearly what the churches were doing: "Cheechum would often say scornfully of this God that he took more money from us than the Hudson's Bay store." As a final irony, Campbell's mother, who died when Maria was twelve, was denied a funeral Mass because, although she had never missed church, she had not been given the Last Sacrament. The irony was not missed by Cheechum, who provided the young Maria with a different explanation of God:

She taught me to see beauty in all things around me; that inside each thing a spirit lived, that it was vital too, regardless of whether it was only a leaf or a blade of grass, and by recognizing its life and beauty I was accepting God. She said that each time I did something it was a prayer, regardless of whether it was good or bad; that heaven and hell were man-made and here on earth; that there was no death, only that the body becomes old from life on earth and that the soul must be reborn, because it is young; that when my body became old my spirit would leave and I'd come back and live again. She said God lives in you and looks like you, and not to worry about him floating around in a beard and white cloak; that the Devil lives in you and all things, and that he looks like you and not like a cow…. Her explanation made much more sense than anything Christianity had ever taught me.

Campbell presents the cycle of poverty, the despair generation after generation, as a downward spiral. The only escape from the dismal existence is with alcohol and fighting; violence is an outlet for the frustrations of the people. The fights were an accepted and expected part of the social scene: "We never had a dance without a good fight and we enjoyed and looked forward to it as much as the dancing."

The patterns of social interaction and the reality of poverty limited severely the possibilities for escape. Although Campbell was exposed early to good literature by her mother and knew she wanted an education, she admitted that making it through high school was a "daydream." Indeed, she was a dreamer, but her dreams were always turning into nightmares. Her dream of Vancouver being a place of "toothbrushes and pretty dresses, oranges and apples, and a happy family sitting around the kitchen table talking about their tomorrow" was destroyed by the reality of a dirty and grimy neighborhood and garbage-littered stairs in her apartment building. The urban ghetto was not any better than the rural poverty she had escaped. Her entry into the world of prostitution promised yet another dream-life—fine clothes, styled hair, and moneyed men. But this life was not to be any better than what she had left: "Something inside of me died." It was only in her involvement with the political action of her people that Campbell could begin to exchange fanciful dreams for realistic expectations:

I've stopped being the idealistic shiny eyed young woman I once was…. I believe that one day, very soon, people will set aside their differences and come together as one. Maybe not because we love one another, but because we will need each other to survive. Then together we will fight our common enemies. Change will come because this time we won't give up.

This too is a dream, but it is a dream Campbell seems determined to translate into reality. She has come to terms with dreaming: "Dreams are so important in one's life, yet when followed blindly they can lead to the disintegration of one's soul."

Throughout her life Campbell wrestled with the question of her own identity. To identify herself as Indian, or Halfbreed, meant to accept the stereotypes, to expose herself to prejudice and discrimination. To reject the label, however, meant to turn her back on the love and warmth of her family, the traditions of the culture. The conflict was always with her, and Indian men did not escape the wrath of her frustrations:

I loved my people so much and missed them if I couldn't see them often. I felt alive when I went to their parties, and I overflowed with happiness when we would all sit down and share a meal, yet I hated all of it as much as I loved it…. The drunken Indians I saw would fill me with a blinding hatred. I blamed them for what had happened to me, to the little girl who had died from an overdose of drugs, and for all the girls who were on the city streets. If they had only fought back, instead of giving up, these things would never have happened. It's hard to explain how I felt. I hated our men, and yet I loved them.

This confessional and personal account by Maria Campbell marks a dramatic change in the autobiographies of American Indian women. Her life story is more like those of other contemporary women writers than those of previous Indian writers. Halfbreed reflects the period in which it was written, a time of personal searching and a time of political action by Indian groups in North America. A major difference is that, whereas many contemporary women writers have found a place for themselves in feminist philosophy or the women's movement. Maria Campbell has found her niche in the politics of her people. Her struggle is a communal one. Having survived the personal struggle, she is ready to work to make life better for all her people.

Campbell has seen the worst aspects of white politics. As a child she watched her father taken to jail for hunting to feed his family, and she hid her brothers and sisters to prevent the government from taking them away. As a prostitute she had businessmen and government leaders among her clients. She is not convinced that political clout will cause positive change, for she has experienced the powerlessness of poverty:

When I think back to that time and those people, I realize now that poor people, both white and Native, who are trapped within a certain kind of life, can never look to the business and political leaders of this country for help. Regardless of what they promise, they'll never change things, because they are involved in and perpetuate in private the very things that they condemn in public.

She distrusted power and was used by the powerful, but ultimately, Campbell realized that it would be only through sharing the power that Indian people could change the laws that govern their lives. To change the laws the people must unite. Campbell and others are only too aware that "bitterness is perhaps the only bond linking the natives of Canada." The law doesn't consider poverty or individual circumstances in meting out justice, and new powers in government can change the status and benefits of the natives simply by passing new laws. To be a people whose identity is defined by law rather than by themselves is to be in a hopeless struggle that can finally exhaust dreams and energy. Maria had seen these forces at work on her own family and on herself, but she is not ready to give up.

Although she does not emphasize the strength of her people, probably because she experienced the harsh results of their weaknesses, that strength is there. Cheechum is the Indian great-grandmother, the source of life and the teacher of the next generations. Indeed, it is Cheechum's advice from which Maria draws her strength and her hope. When Cheechum dies, it is as if Maria Campbell is born to carry on, to provide a model for the succeeding generations.

One generation of her people had been beaten by the Riel Rebellion, another generation had failed as farmers. Her father's entry into politics had resulted only in more poverty and ridicule for the family. Yet, at the end of her narrative Maria Campbell is taking her place in the circle, ready to carry on in a new way, a different way, but in a way which she hopes will guarantee survival.

Kate Vangen (essay date 1984)

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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 strength rests more with its power as the gutsy testimony of a life lived than as a polished narrative. Campbell's humour takes the form of humorous anecdote and situational irony. Nevertheless, what she chooses to highlight indicates a defiance controlled, yet fuelled by frustration and anger. In [Jon C. Stott's "A Conversation with Maria Campbell," in Canadian Children's Literature/Littérature Canadienne pour la jeunesse, Nos. 31-32 (1983)], Campbell explains her belief that writing enables a kind of introspection and intimacy that leads to greater understanding:

Well, I tried being the militant speaker and the activist. But once when I was speaking to a fairly large group of people and really putting my soul into what I was trying to tell them, I found as I was watching people, something happened to me. I was entertaining them…. I probably didn't touch more than two or three people there…. That's when I realized that … writing was the best way to reach people, because writing is a really personal thing between me and the reader.

Moreover, as Campbell declares her reasons for writing the book, she also betrays an awareness that her audience is Euro-Canadian: "I write this for all of you, to tell you 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." The implication in such a statement is that what Campbell knows, her readership does not. By telling her people's history as she knows it to be, Campbell tells a history for which her readership must, historically, be held accountable:

I am not bitter. I have passed that stage. I only want to say: this is what it was like; this is what it is still like. I know that poverty is not ours alone. Your people have it too, but in those earlier days you at least had dreams, you had a tomorrow. My parents and I never shared any aspirations for a future.

Yet, as she begins her story, keeping a safe distance from bitterness, the enemy within, her people become more than statistics of poverty. The rich cultural heritage that is the half-breeds' resists reductive or cathartic readings precisely because, while readers are invited to participate in the narrative, made both palatable and realistic with humour, they nonetheless remain the outsiders.

The readership Campbell addresses above is, by extension, like the children who taunted her for being a half-breed when she was a child. In the process of re-creating her experience at the "mixed" school she and her siblings attended, Campbell shows how the term "half-breed" can become a feared but respected word, turning the tables on the white community's humour:

On the way home from school we often chased and tormented them. In the winter they drove to school in a small caboose warmed by a wood heater…. We would hide by the side of the road and scare their old horse so badly it would run away, tipping over the caboose…. Next morning the teacher would receive a letter from the parents and we would be whipped in front of the class, but in the afternoon we would make it just as bad for them until they learned to shut up…. They gave us their lunches as bribes. They could have had ours but they never did develop a taste for gophers or lard.

The anecdote turns the irony back on the children who began as tormentors, but her troubles with the children in school do not end there. Later, when her father gets involved in politics, she "fought every white kid in that school" and also failed her grades.

Fighting to defend one's pride, as Campbell tells it, is a trait of her people, an heroic yet humble gesture signifying cultural pride and solidarity—all the more heroic in the face of almost certain defeat. When the efforts to mobilize the people towards political action fail, Cheechum, her great-grandmother, affirms the importance of continued struggle to the young Maria by reminding her that, when they killed Riel, they did not kill all the half-breeds and by reassuring her that "It will come, my girl, it will come." In retrospect, the incidents in the lives of the gopher-and-lard-eating half-breeds seem like slapstick humour. Yet each one, as it is told, makes "no good Halfbreed" fighting words.

As the title of the book suggests, Campbell is reclaiming the previously pejorative term, "half-breed," to reflect the proud and distinct (as opposed to neither-nor) cultural heritage that is her people's, the Métis'. Historically, the term "half-breed" has been used (rather sloppily) to refer to almost any kind of racial mixture. In other contexts [as Jacqueline Peterson notes in "Prelude to Red River: A Social Portrait of the Great Lake Métis," Ethnohistory 25, No. 1 (Winter 1978)], the term half-breed typically suggests those between two worlds—the "economic middlemen, intercultural brokers, and interpreters." However, as Harold Beaver notes [in "On the Racial Frontier," Times Literary Supplement (30 May 1980)], the non-Native travellers and agents of the previous century vituperate in their assessments of "half-bloods as 'designing,' 'fickle', 'credulous'—in a word, as mischievous bastards." To the non-Native, then, the person who is said to be caught "between two worlds" is illegitimate to both. To the Native people, on the other hand, to people like Campbell's Cree relatives, half-breeds are simply allowed half-status—they are "awp-pee-tow-koosons" or "half people." As the many connotations of the term unfold, they intimate a history of its humorous use against the people whom it designates; Campbell calls upon her own sense of humour to redeem the term for her own uses. Making fun—laughing with rather than at—then becomes a way of living with difference.

The need to romanticize or highlight cultural difference, while simultaneously melting it down to its most usable element as defined by the dominant culture, is part of the North American colonizer's enterprise. To reduce all peoples to the "Homo universalis," as Ariel Dorfman terms it [in his 1983 The Empire's Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Minds], results in shrinking "the bubbling variety of human oral tradition down to 'quotable quotes,'" thereby raising the common man to a mythic level in hopes of compensating him for his failed dreams. As Campbell states in the beginning of the book, she has unflinchingly faced the historical facts regarding the losses of her people. She refuses to be compensated, to romanticize, or to melt away difference. The blend of cultural influences that has made the Métis a culture unto themselves preserves them precisely because they are able to accept change.

Speaking of her mother's influence on the Campbell children, Campbell juxtaposes the backwoods Canadian life with European "culture." In this instance, she uses the humour of the situation to point out the irony of what has influenced her own writing:

I grew up on Shakespeare, Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, and Longfellow.

My imagination was stirred by the stories in Mom's books. In good weather my brothers and sisters and I gathered our cousins behind the house and organized plays. The house was our Roman Empire, the two pine trees were the gates of Rome. I was Julius Caesar….

Oh, how I wanted to be Cleopatra, but my brother Jamie said, "Maria, you're too black and your hair is like a nigger's." So, I'd have to be Caesar instead.

Ironically, the historic Cleopatra had hair and skin like the young Maria's. It is not surprising, though, that the children would associate power with the physical characteristics of the English. Canadians, in general, have struggled against an Anglophilia that considers all indigenous and non-Anglo-Saxon immigrant Canadian art-forms regional, quaint, or naïve, thus making the Métis' struggle against invisibility multi-layered. Nevertheless, to the townspeople and to Campbell, in retrospect, the half-breeds playing at Rome in "the backwoods of northern Saskatchewan" is comical. What is more, Catholic nuns with their flowing skirts remind her of the Lady of Shallot; the young Maria cannot distinguish between religious piety and pining away for love—she is not sufficiently "cultured" to do so. Even as a child, she nevertheless senses that a strange ethos dominates the geographical and cultural "territory" as well. She is able to make it a laughing matter despite its absurd and abusive elements.

The many faces Campbell re-creates from memory comprise an unforgettable cast of half-breed characters: Cheechum, in all her bear-grease grooming and extraordinary spirituality and wisdom; her mother, in all her suffering and devotion; her father, when he "dies inside" and becomes abusive; Grandma Campbell, with her "son of a bitch in a sack" pudding; Great Grandpa Campbell, who is called "Chee-pie-hoos," "Evil-spirit-jumping-up-and-down," because of his nasty temper; Old Cadieux, who sees the Virgin Mary in a bottle of home brew; Qua Chich, with her Bennett buggy and her two black Clydesdales; Mushroom, Campbell's grandfather, chief of his band of Cree; and even Grandpa Sing, the elderly Chinese man who give her a jade necklace for her daughter and a home when she has no place to go. Each portrayal carries with it aspects of humour, pathos, defiance, and courage. Most of all, she has re-created her own history and a heritage.

The "Road Allowance People" (as the half-breeds came to be called when, through a series of government usurpations of their land, they were forced literally to live on the sides of roads) come to life for the Euro-Canadian readership. As a result, contemporary concerns cannot (or should not) be as easily ignored. Campbell's book is written as if in answer to the question: How did those people come to be as they are? "You sometimes see that generation today," she intuitively replies,

The crippled, bent old grandfathers and grandmothers on town and city skid rows; you find them in the bush waiting to die; or baby-sitting grandchildren while the parents are drunk. And there was some who even after a hundred years continue to struggle for equality and justice for their people. The road for them is never-ending and full of frustrations and heart-break.

The world the half-breeds inhabit is the same world in which Euro-Canadians live; yet, the frustrations and heart-breaks they experience, even today, arise from the invisibility which is culturally and legally imposed upon them. By owning the term "half-breed" and defiantly claiming its full history and sprinkling it with a good measure of humour, Campbell becomes one of the leaders of her people who Cheechum predicted would one day come.

Rebecca Tsosie (essay date 1988)

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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 suffered from both racial and gender-directed oppression. The Metis were victims of discrimination from Canadian whites, as well as from their full-blood Treaty Indian kin, who referred to their mixed-blood relatives as the "Awp-pee-tow-kooson," the "half-people." The Metis held no treaty rights under Canadian law, and were forced to eke out a marginal existence poaching wildlife from Government parks, and "squatting" on strips of rocky, muskeg-covered land.

As a child, Maria Campbell was teased by white classmates for eating roasted gophers at lunch, and for dressing in old, mended clothes. For respite, Campbell dreamed of living in a big city like Vancouver, a place of "toothbrushes and pretty dresses, oranges and apples." And eventually she did go to Vancouver as the wife of a young white man who left her there, battered and penniless and with a baby daughter to support. Too proud to return home to her great-grandmother, Cheechum, and her widowed father, Campbell plunged ahead in her dream of wealth and success; she became a high-priced call girl in a house of prostitution. She had money, satin dresses and jewels, and rich white men paid to "keep" her, but Campbell admits "Something inside of me died … I had married to escape from what I'd thought was an ugly world, only to find a worse one." Failing to gain an identity which would answer her need for recognition and self-respect, Campbell turned to alcohol and heroin.

Campbell finally realized that by running away from what she was—a halfbreed—she was helping to destroy herself. She turned her anger away from herself and toward the society which had labeled Native people in opposing categories. "Metis/Treaty Indian" to further divide and weaken them. Canadian society has done its best to reduce the number of Native "wards" under its care. And too often, the Indian woman has borne the major burden in this process. For example, under the "Indian Act" of Canada, a Treaty Indian woman loses her status if she marries a white, while a white woman gains Indian status and land if she marries an Indian. The patriarchal biases of white bureaucrats together with the androcentric Christianity of the missionaries have dramatically altered traditional Indian perceptions of women. Campbell summarizes, "The missionaries had impressed upon us the feeling that women were a source of evil. This belief, combined with the ancient Indian recognition of the power of women, is still holding back the progress of our people today."

Although, in a sense, Maria Campbell returns "home" to her ancestral past, embarking on a critical reunion trip to see her Cree great-grandmother, she realizes that for the Metis there is no "traditional past" with one set of values, rituals and attitudes. Years of colonial oppression and miscegenation have fragmented the Metis, and the only unity that remains, aside from certain shared cultural attitudes, is a modern politically-centered manifestation of Native solidarity. In the larger sense, then, Maria Campbell's "Indian" identity is created largely from the shared bitterness, frustration and poverty of Canada's diverse Native population. This sense of "Indianness" parallels the "pan-Indianism" that is apparent in large urban centers such as Los Angeles today, characterized by the unified "social consciousness" of Indian people from various tribes and regions, and with varying degrees of "Indian blood." But on a more personal level, Campbell seems to merge her identity with that of her Cree great-grandmother, assuming Cheechum's dreams for the rebirth of the Cree people in her own efforts as a political activist. Although the two women are separated by many years and several "worlds" of experience, they unite in a single spiritual current more ancient than tribal memory or "degree of blood."

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

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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, I do film, and I do oral storytelling. I do a lot of teaching. Well, I don't like calling it "teaching," it's facilitating. And I work a lot with elders.

So, I am not a writer, bumping around all over reading and talking about "great literature." I don't think of myself as an authority on that. I get quite embarrassed when I have to speak from the point of view of a writer, because I really don't know what that is.

I know what a storyteller is. A storyteller is a community healer and teacher. There's lots of work in my community, which is important.

[Gross]: When you say "your community," where is that?

Wherever there are Native people. I don't make a distinction when I am working as to who is Indian and who is Métis. But my really hard core work is within my own community, and that is with Métis people.

We have no money, we have no land base, we have nothing! And so, those of us who are involved have the responsibility to give back to the community. And if anybody else has any money, then they have to pay us.

[Lutz]: You say you don't see yourself as a writer, but with Halfbreed you really started something.

Well, I'd never written anything before. That was a letter I wrote to myself.

[Lutz]: I understand that a large section of the original manuscript never got published?

Originally, the handwritten manuscript was over 2,000 pages long. So, part of the decision not to publish all of it was a good one, because I didn't know anything about writing.

I started out writing everything that was bad in my life. When I had finished writing everything that was bad in my life, I thought, "Good gracious, there must have been something good, too!" And that was when I started to write about my growing up. So, the decision to cut a lot of the stuff was good because it wouldn't help anybody.

However, a whole section was taken out of the book that was really important, and I had insisted it stay there. And that was something incriminating the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police].

[Lutz]: Who decided to take it out?

The decision was made by the publisher—without consulting me!

[Lutz:] So you didn't know until it came out?

It was in the galley proofs. And when the book came, it was gone.

It was the 100th anniversary of the RCMP that year. The only proof I had to support that part, if the publisher or myself were sued, was my great-grandmother, and she had passed away. So they felt that, if there was a law suit, they wouldn't be able to substantiate it. So they went ahead and took it out.

That whole section makes all of the other stuff make sense. And you can almost tell at what point it was pulled out. Because there is a gap.

[Lutz:] Do you think there is any chance of you ever getting that out, or getting out a complete version?

Some day I would like to re-do the whole. I said it in the book that some day when I was a grandmother I'd write more. Now I am a grandmother, but I am not ready to do it yet.

[Lutz]: Maybe you have to become like Cheechum, become a great-grandmother first.

That's quite possible; my grandson is 15! (LAUGHS) …

[Lutz]: Where are you from, originally?

Originally I am from about 80 miles northwest of Prince Albert. That's where I grew up.

The village isn't there any more. It was a road allowance community. But our church and our graveyard are still there, and we still use them. There are no people left there, no Métis people.

[Lutz]: What happened instead with the plots, or the land that the Métis people had? Is it privately owned?

It's owned by people that came in and bought the land for farming.

[Lutz]: From the government?

Yes! And they also built a road in there. I don't know if you understand what a road allowance is.

[Lutz]: It's a strip of land set aside on either side of a planned road, and it is crown land.

But when there is no road, it's quite a large piece. Well, it's set aside to build roads. And then we would use the land that wasn't occupied around us. But as the farmers came, we ended up squeezed into that narrow piece of land, about the size of this building. And then, eventually, if you don't move, they come and move you out.

[Lutz]: Who does that? The RCMP?

Usually the priest comes and gets the people ready. And then, if the people refuse to leave, then the RCMP come, but they have to get a court order.

I have just finished working on a four-part television series. I finished a script called The Road Allowance People. It's dramatized. It's the story of Métis people in Saskatchewan, but I have used one community where this actually happened. And it's a community probably about 60 miles outside of Regina, and this was in 1948. The priest came and told the people that they had to move, and prepared them for the move. And he convinced most of them that they should go, because the government was giving them land in Green Lake, Saskatchewan. I don't know if you have heard about the Green Lake farms, or the Métis farms in Saskatchewan? There were five farms set aside in Saskatchewan in the 1940s, and the people were told it was a land settlement for them.

[Lutz]: Oh yes, Howard [Adams] spoke about that.

Cumberland House, Ile-á-la-Crosse, Green Lake, and Lebrett—I mean, in the Lebrett area.

So the people believed it, and they were prepared to move. But the priest convinced them that it was going to be their land, all 22 townships of it. And so, a train came with box cars, actually cattle cars, and the people were loaded up with all of their bags and stuff, their bedding, whatever! And as they were driving away, as the train pulled out, their village was burned behind them.

They were taken to Green Lake, well, actually to Meadow Lake, about 40 miles from where Green Lake is, because there were no roads during the 1940s. They were not allowed off the train that whole trip, and there were no facilities for them, or anything. And it was November, so it was cold. Some of the people got pneumonia and were really sick. Some babies died. When they got to Meadow Lake, they were loaded on to big trucks that would take them to Green Lake, and they were left there.

And they were told that there would be houses when they arrived, but there were no houses. And so, a lot of the people lived in tents all winter, with their families. There were some people who already had houses there, and they shared their log cabins with them. A lot of people got sick and died, just from flu, and pneumonia, and other diseases. In the spring a lot of them moved back by wagon, back to some of their communities, and then tried to rebuild again. But they were scattered. The communities were never the same again.

The story, the script that I wrote, is based on those communities, but I use the oral stories of all the people, and all the dispersals, and give it to one community, and particularly one family.

The last dispersal was in 1963. It was just outside of Yorkton, Saskatchewan. See, you can't convince Canadian people that these things happen. They don't want to listen to it, and in particular in Saskatchewan. Most people don't even know that history. There were no communications of any kind.

And we didn't have people that were educated. We're quite different from treaty Indian people in that Indian people were forced to go to school, we weren't. And so we had no spokespeople, other than a handful, and nobody would listen to them because they were considered political agitators. So, most people don't know that history.

That's what this four-part series is about. Each part is two hours long. And right now I am working with a producer who is trying to raise the money. I don't know, it's an ugly story. But the story of the people itself is very beautiful and powerful.

It's a story of survival. And no matter what happened, the people never lost. They should have been wasted with that last dispersal in 1963, but they weren't. Throughout our whole history, we have been packing and moving, and everybody would say, "Well, here we go again!"

[Gross]: You say you're looking for a producer. Does it mean that you have also approached CBC?

No, but when you work with CBC, there's a lot of major changes. And I don't want the changes.

[Gross]: You mean in the story?

Yes, because they say, "Well, it couldn't have been that bad!" Nobody ever believes that things are that bad. I have an independent producer, and we are looking for people to invest. I don't mind the rewrites if it's to make the story stronger, but not to cut key parts of the story out because they might upset somebody! It might take a while, but we'll get the money!

I have a good instinct! I believe in the Grandmothers! And I know it'll be okay. It might take us a while, but I know that we'll tell the story. I feel that way about books, about projects—I know when this is the right one. I think we'll find the people to do it! I also know a lot more about looking for money. More than I did 10 years ago, because I've been involved in film production for the last five years. And I know more people.

[Lutz]: And more people know you.

More people who are courageous film makers and investors. So I feel like it'll happen. Who will air it, I don't know. It's a television film, it's not a big screen movie. And the reason I want it for television is the video part. I want that to be accessible to the people in the communities.

CBC was interested, and other producers wanted it, but they wanted me to do a 90-minute feature. And you can't tell that story in 90 minutes. I mean, you probably could if you wanted to do a commercial film, but it's not a commercial film.

[Gross]: But even commercial films can be quite effective, you know, and they probably get more publicity than television series.

Yes, but it's really hard in Canada, unless you can go to Warner Brothers or somebody. Canadian films just don't go anywhere. You might see them in a little theatre for two nights, and that's it. There is no distribution because the distribution is owned by the big film companies. A television film has longer life, and has more impact for what I want to do, than a feature. Not all our people can go to a movie. And there are no movie theatres. But everybody gets video tapes.

[Lutz]: I was going to say, you go to St. Louis

[Gross]: … and it's got a video library.

[Lutz]: But there is no cinema anywhere!

I come from a family that is involved in film, video, and television. My adopted brother has been a film maker for a long time. Films and books are the way to go. And newspapers.

One of the things I am really excited about is the job that I just started with New Breed. I'd never have taken it, because I am used to free-lancing, but everybody reads the newspaper, and you can do so many things with a newspaper. I am not thinking in terms of a newspaper, like the city papers which cover the news, but you can do all of the other things: you can develop writers, you can really educate and inform people.

[Lutz]: So you would include poetry, etc., as well?

Oh yes! Poetry, creative writing. That was never done before in New Breed.

[Gross]: Coming back to The Road Allowance People, what is so incredible in the story that you told us is that the people seem to believe the powers that be, just by word of mouth! We are living in a society in which everything has to be testified and documented on a piece of paper. But then, your community believed just what the priest said!

Right up until about 20 years ago, the priest had total power in the community. In the last few years that had been getting shaky, and now the priest has very little power. It is still there, but not the kind of influence they had before. That's been our history—with Métis people, it's our priest.

[Lutz]: I don't know, but to me it seems as if that is the dilemma of Métis people, compared to the Indian people, who have got their own traditions, their own religion, and not somebody who tells them.

But you have to remember, when it comes to traditional and Indian spiritual things, that's been more alive in the Métis communities in the North than it has on the reserves. We were never forced to go to school, so we never lost the language. It was almost as if we were the keepers of a lot of things that were our Grandmothers'.

Mind you, Indian people get really upset with me for saying that, but it's true. The language is almost pure in some Métis communities, where you don't find that on Indian reserves. Because there you had the power of the church, you had Indian Affairs. With us, we always had political activity, always a conflict between the church leaders and the political leaders, and no one bothered us. We were forgotten people.

My personal opinion is that when it comes to Aboriginal people in Canada, we have the church to "thank" in all areas, whether we are Métis, non-status or whatever, for the dilemma that we are in now! Certainly the church has always been the "man coming in front of" the oppressor, the colonizer.

The interesting thing in the last five years is that what the church was responsible for outlawing, the church is now incorporating into its own ceremonies. You have the priests doing ceremonies, they are going to sweat lodges.

But that's the history of Christianity. When you can't completely oppress a people, if you are losing them, then you incorporate their spiritual beliefs. And that's even uglier than the other way, because then people think "Oh, well, now it's okay, because the priest is now doing our ceremonies."

So the priest ends up becoming the shaman in the community. And then we have a whole other battle to take on. And it's hard because our old people have been conditioned.

[Lutz]: Would you like to rewrite Halfbreed sometime?

Yes, some day. I don't think I'd make changes. What I would do with the book is, I would only put in that piece that was taken out. I wouldn't want to touch what's there, because that was the way I was writing then, and I think that it's important it stays that way, because that's where I was at. And now, a lot of my thoughts have changed. I don't think that I've changed as to where I was at, but my vision has changed quite a bit! I think I have more tolerance—not tolerance, but more patience than I had then. And I really fooled myself when I was writing that. When I look at my ending I say: "I am no longer idealistic," but really, I was still idealistic when I wrote that.

Like I said, my grandmother was 104, and goodness knows, I might be 104 …

[Lutz]: I realized that Native writers, and particularly Native women writers who are also politically active, seem to talk with each other a lot. There's a lot of webbing and connections.

Writing from Native women has always been very exciting, right from the beginning, because that's where the political writing, and the really analytical writing, is.

[Lutz]: That's true!

The writing that's coming from men is still stuff like, "There's Wesakeechak wandering through the forest, and this is how his coat turned red"—that kind of thing! Men are not prepared to be vulnerable in their writing. Part of it is the kind of oppression that we've been under.

But I am certainly excited about the stuff that women have been doing. There are some really powerful women writers, young women. The kind of writing I do can hardly be put in the same category. I am constantly struggling with the language. I am articulate enough when I am sitting here talking, but when I am writing, it's another thing.

I've been working with dialect for about 10 years, and a lot of my writing now is in very broken English. I find that I can express myself better that way. I can't write in our language, because who would understand it? So I've been using the way that I spoke when I was at home, rather than the way I speak today. And the way I spoke when I was at home was what linguists call "village English"—you know, very broken English. It's very beautiful, but it took me a long time to realize that. Very lyrical, and I can express myself much better. I can also express my community better than I can in "good" English. It's more like oral tradition, and I am able to work as a storyteller with that.

[Lutz]: There's so much good writing done by women. That's not just Native women but

All over!

[Lutz]: All women, and all minority women certainly! Black women, Chicanos, who are really writing. And again they also use their own language, "Spanglish," or they switch codes, and all that is very powerful.

Jeannette Armstrong was talking about that, too. To use in literature the English that Native people speak, if they speak English, which is not the Queen's! That's a new development in Native literature.

Each time I wrote a book, it had to come, there had to be a reason why I was writing it. The two books that I wrote for children, I wrote for my children, because they were at school, and there was no material for them.

The last book that I wrote, Little Badger and Fire Spirit, was written because my grandson wanted to know where we got fire.

After that I couldn't write. I tried and tried, I mean I had lots that I wanted to say, but when I put it down on paper it sounded as if I was lecturing. There was something missing. And I went around for four, five years, really frustrated. I could articulate it, but it had no spirit in it! I blamed the English language, because I felt that the language was manipulating me.

So I went to the old man who's been my mentor, my teacher, my grandfather, whatever you want to call him. It was the first time I'd ever talked to him about the struggle I had. I had talked to him about storytelling, but I never talked to him about what I felt the language was doing to me; going to him as a writer to another writer.

And he just laughed, probably thinking, "Why didn't she come here a long time ago!" "It's really simple," he said, "why you have trouble with the English language, it's because the language has no Mother. This language lost its Mother a long time ago, and what you have to do is, put the Mother back in the language!"

And then I went away, and I thought, "Now, how am I going to put the Mother back in the language?" Because, in our language, and in our culture, as well as Indian people's culture, Mother is the land.

So I tried, but what I ended up sounding like was an evangelist minister. Talking about the Mother, the Mother, constantly. So that still didn't do it.

And then, one day, my dad came to stay with me for a weekend. And my father is always telling me something. He'll be making something, and then he'll say, "You know, I just remembered." He has an association, and it reminds him of something. So he told me a story and I listened to him that night. I woke up about two o'clock in the morning. I had this most incredible inspiration that I had something I wanted to say. So, I went to the typewriter, and I started working. This was the first time that I've been struck with total inspiration—when they say "the muses," I call it "Grandmothers" coming. I really know what that means. I worked about five hours, and it felt like an hour.

I had the story in my father's voice, or somebody's voice. It was all there. I could smell the community, I could smell the old people, all those familiar things were there. And what I had been trying to say, over and over again, in rewriting and everything else, I said in this broken English. And it was eloquent, it was full of humour, it was full of love, and yet it was hard. It was all there. And that was when I understood what the old man said about the Mother in the language.

My father is very close to the land. If you asked him about Mother Earth he wouldn't know how to answer you, because he doesn't know how to say it. But he lives off the land, he's been a hunter and trapper all his life. He respects the land. He's one of those old people who puts tobacco out before he goes out in the morning, sings his song in the morning. But if I asked my father, "What's our culture?" he'd say, "We don't have one," because he doesn't know what "culture" means. And he wouldn't understand if I tried to explain it to him.

[Gross]: It's too analytic!

Yes! And I had never thought of it. When I'd say, "Dad, don't we have any stories? I mean, don't we have any stories about culture?" Even when I said it in his language, he'd say "No, I don't know any!" I've been deaf to him. All these years he had been telling me stories, but I was expecting something profound.

You see what happened to me was that I was thinking English. It's really hard to explain what that is. So now I have the old man's voice. Sometimes, when I am doing a story, or sometimes when I'm doing a poem, I think, "I'll write it in English, the way I talk." But I can't get it. And then all of a sudden I'll start to type. And the poem will come, I almost never have to rewrite, because it all comes. And sometimes it's just saying something in real broken English, like, "Boy, you know, that man, he talks to the eagles, too." That will say what I would spend an hour and 10 pages trying to explain, just saying that man looks like he talks to eagles, that will tell everything.

But I can't control it. This voice is really inspired. And it doesn't, he doesn't, always want to come. I'll think "Gee, this will make a good story, me sitting, having dinner with these people who are German, and I am exchanging this. I'm going to go home, and I am going to write it in the old man's voice." There is no way! He won't come in! He decides what he is going to talk about, and I can't manipulate him at all. And he's a man, but his voice is the Mother.

I have another voice, that's the old lady. But the old lady is very masculine. She tells the men's stories. I can't get her to tell the women's stories, and I can't get him to tell the men's stories! So it's like opposites, the contrary, or whatever. So I don't question it any more! I just know it works.

[Gross]: When you say "my language" does it mean Cree or …?

Both, Cree and Mitchif. I speak both fluently.

[Gross]: French?

The old lady's voice is Indian. And his voice has got lots of French in it, but it's Mitchif.

[Gross]: And do the young people still speak both, Mitchif and Cree?

Not exactly the way the old people spoke it, because there's a lot of new things. It's like on Indian reserves—nobody speaks Cree the way the old people spoke it, because there are new things. You know, cultures and words change. When I do the rewrite, if there is too much French, I take it out and I reword it in broken English, or else I just put a little dictionary in one.

[Gross]: What about writing in Mitchif?

It's not taught, and so my readership would be limited.

[Gross]: I know! But would you say that the older generation has also read your book?

The older generation doesn't read and write. It's only my generation that reads and writes. With the exception of a few people like Medrig.

You know, Indian people went to school, my people didn't because we weren't allowed to go to school until 1951. We couldn't go to Indian schools, and we couldn't go to white people's schools, because we didn't pay taxes, we weren't landowners.

We had well-educated people until the Resistance in 1885. We had people that had university degrees, but then after that—it was like when they use the words "Forgotten People," we really were. Until the late 1800s and early 1900s, our people didn't say very much, because they really believed that the soldiers were still out looking for them. You know, it wasn't till the 1920s and 1930s that political leadership started to emerge again. But my great-grandmother's and my grandmother's generation were always afraid of the police, because they felt that the police would still charge us for the fighting that the grandparents did. We were all people that had run away from the soldiers.

[Lutz]: We were amazed or even saddened by a lot of people who obviously were Métis people, and the first thing they would tell us is, "I'm French!"

Yes, but you don't find that in too many places! You find some of that around Batoche and St. Louis.

[Gross]: But for what reason?

The church again. In order for the people to be able to survive, they had to pretend that they were French. And the church encouraged that, because they wanted them to let their culture go. Because with our history, if we hang on, if we believe in nationalism, or we believe in ourselves as a race of people, there is no way that we cannot be political. You know, our lives, every day of our lives is political, just being alive is political. And so, in places like St. Louis, part of it is, the people suffered so much discrimination that they didn't want their children to suffer that.

But in communities like where I came from, there were so many villages, and the people lived off the land, and they were hunters and trappers, and so they were real nationalists. But in places like Batoche and St. Louis, the people pretended they were farmers, they tried to farm, they learned to speak French fluently and tried to get rid of all of the Mitchif. They talk more French, and change the spellings of their names so that they would sound French, or would sound more English.

[Gross]: It's a pity, really.

It is a pity. But that's part of the colonizer's way of doing things. It was very disturbing for the priest in the 1960s when Métis people in Batoche and St. Louis started to get political. When they started to have a sense of nationalism. That's when the priest started to lose them! At that point people like myself, people like Howard [Adams], became enemies of the church. There is certainly no love for us among the priests in that area, because they have always seen us as a threat. For every Métis person, young or old, who says, "we read your book," as far as the priest is concerned, that's, you know …

[Gross]: That's a deadly sin, isn't it?

It's a deadly sin. I'm sure that if he could get away with burning our books, he'd do it. But you can't get away with things like that any more. So he has to pretend, and he says, "You know, you're lucky, you have some people that can do this." But, at one time he would have told them not to read it. In the last 20 years that doesn't work any more, so he finds other ways of doing it.

The priest has never openly attacked me or said anything to the people, because people are very protective of me.

Maybe it sounds egotistical, but whenever a book is coming out, like now, I'm really afraid. I think, "Maybe the people will be angry this time." And the same with Howard. But the people look after us. They wouldn't allow anybody from the outside to attack us. I really believe that. Even if they agreed. It's like, "It's okay if we say that, but don't you come and say that. Because these people belong to us." And the priest knows that. We are social with one another. But I am the enemy as far as he is concerned, and as far as I am concerned, he is the enemy, too.

[Lutz]: Would you mind telling us roughly what you've been up to since the end of Halfbreed? Where that leaves off?

What have I been up to? I've been raising kids, writing, studying. Studying with old people, with the community. I work with women's groups, with kids. A lot of work with women in conflict with the law. Mostly with women coming out of prison, women working on the street. I couldn't even tell you how many workshops I've done, in communities, working with young writers. Not teaching them, but trying to help them feel good about the place that they come from. And not to be afraid to use that. Oh I don't know, I really don't know what I have done.

The last three years I've been politically involved for the first time. You know, where I've actually taken part in Métis politics again. I ran for president in February. I decided at the annual meeting that I was going to run for president. I had three weeks before the elections. So, my campaign came together in three weeks, but I came in third, and that really quite surprised everybody. It surprised the men who were running against me.

[Lutz]: And the editorship of New Breed is your first regular job?

This is the first time that I am getting paid enough money that I don't have to worry about whether I am going to starve or not. It's always been free-lance money.

When I say I really believe that the Grandmothers look after people: about 1972, 1971, I had a dream. And this voice told me that if I listen to them I would never be without food, that I would always have a good place to live, and that my children would be okay, and I would have good health. They told me I would work with people who would write, and paint, and sing songs. And I said, "Come on, I don't know how to do any of these things!" And that was when they told me not to worry. That if I did what they wanted me to do, they would look after me, and that this was my work. And they have.

When I started to write Halfbreed I didn't know I was going to write a book. I was very angry, very frustrated.

I wrote the book after I had the dream! 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 that if I went back to that, I'd be back on drugs again.

I always carry paper in my bag, and I started writing a letter because I had to have somebody to talk to, and there was nobody to talk to. And that was how I wrote Halfbreed. Two thousand pages later, friends of mine who just came back from studying in England stayed at my house, and they used my bedroom. He's now practising law in Vancouver, and she teaches. And all of this, piles and pounds of paper, handwritten, was sitting there. He got up in the morning, he had it all in a big bundle, and he said, "I want to take this with me, you've got a book." And I thought, "Oh, sure I do."

Anyway, about three weeks later I got a phone call from Jack McClelland, asking me if he could publish the book. And that was when I remembered what I had been told in the dream. Without my knowing it, they had created the situation for that to happen. The book was a bestseller, and I think that they decided that. And so that's what I've done with my life. I might be going this way, I might be going over there with you, but on the way out the door, if they tell me to go this way, then I listen to them. And maybe it sounds crazy, but my kids have always had lots to eat, we've always had a home, just like they promised.

My direction to go to the Crossing was the same thing. [The critics add in a footnote: "Maria Campbell owns a small property at Gabriel's Crossing, the exact place where Gabriel Dumont, general of the Resistance of 1885, operated a ferry across the South Saskatchewan River, South of Batoche."] I dreamed that I was to have that land, and that it would be a place where Native people would be together, and create things. That it would really be a crossing. And so I got the place. I didn't have any money. I put a deposit on it. And they told me not to worry about it, the money would come. And it did.

[Lutz]: The previous owner wasn't in the Dumont family?

No, it hadn't been in the family since after the Resistance. It had been burned to the ground, and Gabriel never came back there to live.

[Lutz]: And that little house there?

The little house is about 80 years old, it's not the original house. A part of it was the house that was built after. And it was used as a ferry.

But what have I been doing? I don't know!

[Lutz]: A lot!

I've been writing. I write a lot. I like working in collectives, with other people. I write poetry, but I am not a poet where I sit down and I write poetry every day. And it's writing that I don't always like to show people, because I don't always understand it. But I work with the one language. And then I do other writing that's contemporary. It's very different. One is me the single mother, the contemporary woman, fighting male structures and stuff. The other voice is somebody who is very protective of men and tries to see that part.

There was a time when I used to think I was schizophrenic. Maybe I am crazy.

[Gross]: Who were the storytellers in your community? Everybody, or just the family?

Just about everybody. Everybody was a different kind of storyteller. My dad was a storyteller. There was a young man when I was growing up, and he was a hunting-story teller. Then there were particular stories that were told only by certain people and at certain times of the year. Stories belong in their season, you know.

My great auntie and my grandmother were midwives, so there were certain kinds of stories they told. And then there was the fiddle player who was a storyteller. There was a sort of village fool or idiot, whatever you might call him, who was also a storyteller, who had his kinds of stories. I never really appreciated or saw those things until I was much older. Really, until I started to work with the old man, and with the language, that's when I began to think, "My god, this guy was a storyteller," because these stories they told were a part of our everyday life.

And when you come out here, everybody has special words for things. Nobody started to use the word "storyteller" until a few years ago, then it became fashionable. You were either a writer or a poet. Well, we never had writers and poets in our community.

One of the things that I try to do when I work with young people, or with anybody in the community, when it comes to writing or any of the arts, is not to let them get caught up in "the mystery." Because the mystery makes you powerless. You don't have to be educated to write, you don't have to be any of those things. But we think we have to be, because we are conditioned to believe that there have to be experts. That there has to be somebody always at the top, who knows, who will give us the information, and then you'll have the power to teach everybody. It was never like that. Even today in communities it's not like that.

I just came back from La Ronge last night, and all the way home in the car, all through our workshops, having dinner last night with the family, the storytelling, it's just rich. And yet, if I asked any of those people, told any of those people, "you are a writer," or "you are a storyteller," they would say "no, not me." But there's so much richness. The way they use the language, the way they say things. Writers would kill to be able to do that.

[Gross]: There must have been a lot of "gossip," too.

That's all part of it! My people are the world's worst gossips. We've been called that in history. But we're not gossips. When you look at the history of Métis people that's been written by other people, they say that we're very sociable, we're very idle, we love to gossip, we love to dance. It's like we never did anything else.

[Gross]: But this is also a stereotype, it crops up in literature as well!

I know, and yet on the other hand all of that is true.

[Gross]: It's only part of the whole!

That's right. In fact, Howard and I laugh about this sometimes. It's the two of us who are the two worst gossips in the world. We visit, and then somebody else will join us, they will bring a whole bunch, and the next thing we've been sitting there for hours. But we've been storytelling, we are just having a really good time. Even Indian people think that we're very irresponsible, yet we get lots of work done.

[Gross]: And what about the stories in the book Achimoona? Who are the tellers? I mean, what kind of people are they?

The people that are in the book are young Native people—when I say "young," I mean between the ages of 19 and 35, 38.

All of them have incredible storytelling abilities. They don't speak their language, with the exception of one, and one other speaks a little bit of it, but that doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if you speak your language or not, because your spirit speaks the language. You just have to find the way to touch it.

I'm excited about En'owkin Centre, the School of International Writing for Native students in Penticton, and about the kinds of workshops that I've been involved in, and what other people are doing. It will help the young writers to feel good about where they come from, because for many Native people it's been a struggle to reclaim that. It doesn't matter how educated you are, you have to make a journey in yourself to reclaim your own language, even if you don't speak it, so that the manipulation will stop. Sometimes, the more education somebody has, the harder it seems to be to overcome that.

Am I making sense?

[Lutz]: Yes! Definitely!

The road home isn't easy. You don't have to come through the kinds of things I did to have a hard road home. There are different kinds of pain and struggle.

I believe that all of them will be great storytellers. They just have to decide that's what they want to do. Maybe they want to do something else. In our community everybody is a storyteller, but not everybody would choose that as an occupation.

[Lutz]: The way I understand the oral tradition is that it tells people who they are, and where they are headed, where they come from. If you read about it, or if storytellers are asked, that is more or less what it seems to come down to: the oral tradition tells people who they are, gives them identity.

And I know also that some people who are very traditional and who know their own language say, "The oral tradition is oral only! The stories are only to be told orally, and in the language." On the other hand, you have creative writers, or you have people who publish stories from the tradition, like the book by Alexander Wolfe, which I think is a wonderful book

Yes, he's a wonderful man.

[Lutz]: Oh, I'm sure he must be, yes. I see that as within the tradition as well. So, how do you deal with that? What is your opinion?

I would love to be able to preserve the stories in the language. But that's not possible, and if we don't start to record the stories, and find a way to be able to do that without the language manipulating us, we are going to lose them, and if we lose the stories, we've lost the people.

[Lutz]: The identity. That's what keeps the essence. But it also means that if you write the stories down and publish them, you've got to share it with other people, because anybody can buy the book, right?

I also believe that culture constantly changes. It doesn't stay in one place. We didn't have horses, then the horse came, and became a part of our tradition. So much so, that we have horse spirits and horse dances. We didn't have beads. The beads came, they're now a part of our culture.

We have to understand that the new tools for our young people are writing, painting, dancing, singing in English. There'll always be, I think, some people like myself. I'm probably getting to be one of the people who will be the storytellers one day, because I have the language.

The stories have to be written down, they have to be recorded, but not all the elders agree with me. For younger Aboriginal people, this is the real struggle, because when you decide to do that, you really are being a warrior. You might not have the support of your community, but you have to do what you believe is right. And, certainly, the elders don't always agree, they say, "That's not to be recorded, that's sacred!" And I say, "Well, a dog was sacred once, too, but you accepted the horse."

And then it's, "Don't question what the elders say!" And I say, "We have to question what the elders say, if we don't, our generations are going to lose!"

I don't believe that those stories should be recorded by anybody except us. I don't think that you have any right to come into my community and tell my stories for me. I can speak for myself. I share them with you, and you can read them. And if you come into my circle, and I tell you the stories, then you should respect that you're invited into the circle.

You know, when you go to visit somebody, and they make you tea, you don't walk off with the tea-set—the stories are the same thing. Either you are a friend of the people, or you're not. And if you're a friend of the people, you don't steal….

[My book with Linda Griffiths, The Book of Jessica,] is all about that. Because, you see, I did that! I worked with a non-Native writer, and I'll never do it again. On a play. And what ended up happening is that I had to take her on a journey with me. And maybe that was meant to happen, must have been, otherwise I wouldn't have ended up in this eight-year relationship with this woman. The story is that very thing. And it's been very painful. There was no respect for the place that I came from. You don't go walking into somebody's personal places and pick through their stuff and decide what you're going to walk off with! It doesn't matter what culture you come from, it's bad manners to do that!

But people in the world are hungry for truth and for spiritual things. And there are some people that exploit.

I believe that in your culture, there are the same beautiful things that are in mine, and that we should be sharing those things. And as artists, writers, if we really are healers and teachers, and we're committed to that, then we have to be responsible for the things that we give back to our community. Otherwise, why are we talking about trying to create a better world for ourselves?

That's no different than having uranium mines and building reactors and stuff. It's the same thing. The change has to come from respect. It means respecting Mother Earth. It means sharing. Being able to be honest with each other, and to say, "Well, there are some things in the culture, in our way of life, that are not always good." But the way we can change that is to have a dialogue that's meaningful and honest.

Diane Bessai (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4498

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 1980s we are seeing a variety of types of new play emerging from that regional-collective tradition. These are plays written by former actors in collectives which reflect, although not necessarily imitate, the collective creation and its particular kind of playmaking techniques. One result is an experimental non-naturalistic drama, of which Jessica, a collaboration by Linda Griffiths and Saskatchewan writer Maria Campbell, is an exciting example. The revised play of 1986 was an outstanding critical success in eastern Canada, but as the audiences of Saskatoon's 25th Street Theatre will recall, the play had its premiere there in November, 1982.

The audience might also recall that one of the most talented collective performers at 25th Street in the 1970s was Linda Griffiths: in the first theatrically ground-breaking version of Paper Wheat, for example, and before that in artistic director Andras Tahn's first collective creation If You're so Great Why are You in Saskatoon? and later in Generation and 1/2. In these plays, with her gift for comedy, her vivid idiomatic language and her talent for turning a tidy dramatic parable, the writer hidden within the performer was already apparent. A turning point in her career came in the summer of 1978 when she joined the Theatre Passe Muraille collective, under the direction of Paul Thompson (the initiator of collective creation at 25th Street), for Les Maudits Anglais, a Quebec touring show, for which poet Gary Geddes was the writer. Although her main character was Myrna Potash, a Ukrainian-Canadian reporter in search of Quebec separatists, the seeds for a later success were sown in that play, with Griffiths also playing Pierre Trudeau behind a cut-out figure of the prime minister. It was Thompson's idea from this that she create a show in which she play both Trudeau and his wife Margaret. In the late autumn of 1979, Maggie and Pierre had its previews in Toronto, a successful run in the new year at Theatre Passe Muraille, followed by a western tour in which Saskatoon was the first stop. The play was an outstanding success (except in New York) for nearly two more years, with actress Patricia Oatman taking on its multiple role-playing in the autumn of 1981. Meanwhile another idea for a different kind of play, O. D. on Paradise, in collaboration with actor Patrick Brymer, was already in the works, to premiere at 25th Street Theatre in cooperation with Theatre Passe Muraille in the winter of 1982. The first version of Jessica was premiered at 25th Street the following autumn, again under the direction of Paul Thompson.

In case this account is starting to sound like an eastern takeover of supposedly prairie regional drama in Saskatchewan, let me hasten to introduce a less parochial way of looking at these matters. It has much to do with the real nature of the Canadian theatre enterprise in its status as an emergent art form. At their most creative, Canadian theatre and drama have depended on a network of gifted people, country-wide, whose commitment to alternative theatre—which is to say, Canadian theatre—as a principle has been a shaping force of the individual regional strengths. The chief of these has been the discovery and performance of regional stories, for which the collective creation is a seminal influence in the alternative theatre movement. In the words of Linda Griffiths, collective creation "aimed at capturing the perspectives that mainstream culture was likely to ignore" [From an interview with Alice Klein, "Griffiths' Collective Works," Now (14-23 February 1983)]. This is the general context in which I feel free to discuss Jessica. It was made possible as a play because of a creative network that includes 25th Street Theatre, its performers and audiences, as well as others, like Passe Muraille director Paul Thompson, writer Maria Campbell and performer-writer Linda Griffiths, for a time resident in Saskatoon via Montreal and Toronto.

Jessica is a vivid and concretely rendered feminine journey of self-discovery and spiritual growth. On its simplest narrative level of flashback it recovers crucial highlights of Jessica's story from broken childhood and marital desertion to the traumas of prostitution, drug addiction, and later to native activism and concurrent spiritual discontents. However, this material, in its naturalistic dimension drawn from Maria Campbell's autobiographic Halfbreed (1973), goes well beyond the "familiar tale of native oppression" and "cultural schizophrenia" noted by the Macleans's reviewer at the time of the 25th Street premiere [Mark Czarnecki, "Cultural Schizophrenia," Maclean's (15 November 1982)]. Rather, the material from Halfbreed provides the points of departure for something far more complex in theme and more radical in dramaturgy than, for example, the sociology of oppression in George Ryga's The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. Maria Campbell's later interests in the spiritual traditions of the Plains Indians are testimony to the thematic complexity in Jessica: in Griffiths's words [from the CBC interview "State of the Arts" (3 May 1987)], "the stories are hers and the sibyl is from her, while the writing and structure are mine."

The play is structured on a "mixed blood ceremony" that provides the basis for flashbacks, which are actually Jessica's dream visions of her past, not their naturalistic reconstruction. For several years she has been visiting an old medicine woman, Vitaline, who is trying to teach her how to accept the spirit forces, the "animals" she has the gift to see but has been rejecting since childhood. That she is half white creates particular conflicts in the mystical journey, but in Indian terms, Jessica is struggling to summon the visionary power to "sing her own song." The ceremony is Vitaline's evocation of the animal spirits, Crow, Bear, Coyote, Wolverine and Unicorn, each of whom embodies an important character element in Jessica, also manifest in the special people in her past and present. The animal spirits, in agreeing to take her back through her life, do so through a series of interventions by which they openly transform themselves into the people of the dream vision as appropriate to their own particular forms of power. The idea is not merely naturalistic flashback, therefore, although many such scenes are played naturalistically; the human guise of the animal spirits is part of the ceremony, the intention to provide Jessica with clear parables of meaning to certain key moments of her life. Thus Coyote becomes Vitaline; Bear transforms into Sam, who is Jessica's Red Power lover; Unicorn becomes Liz, her prostitute friend; and Wolverine becomes certain white men in her life. The comical Crow, Jessica's feckless childhood guardian spirit, with a passion for poolhalls and racetracks, is mostly, but not always, himself.

Since the animal spirits are a full and continuing presence in the play, the audience is always privy to their actions and their views on the actions of others. As masked figures they occupy an upper level of the stage, which serves as a kind of Cree Olympus. Far from solemn and remote deities, they chat and argue among themselves as they determine who will next enter Jessica's dream moments. To participate as people, they simply doff their masks and enter the human levels of the stage, either the middle space, which is the Métis world of Vitaline's kitchen, once Jessica's family home, or the bottom level, which is variously a whorehouse, Sam and Jessica's apartment and the city world of white encounters. The play's achievement lies in its vivid theatrical integration of fabular elements and contemporary realities.

Like the collective creation play from which it derives, Jessica has gone through several stages of development before reaching its present, and still not necessarily final form. The original idea was instigated by Paul Thompson in 1979 when he approached Maria Campbell about a dramatization of Halfbreed that would include material cut from the original manuscript by its editor and also concentrate on her journey since its publication. From the late 1970s Thompson's work for Theatre Passe Muraille began to shift away from the documentary and sociological thrust of collective creation exemplified, for example, in The West Show (1975). He was turning to Canadian prose texts, such as Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter and Robert Kroetsch's The Studhorse Man, because he wanted to develop their potential for surreality and fantasy on stage, which he did in 1980 and 1981, respectively. In his collaboration with novelist Rudy Wiebe on Far as the Eye Can See in 1977 (a play that investigates the stripmining of prime farmland in Alberta), a supernatural element had already entered the work. At Wiebe's suggestion they created the Regal Dead, three historical ghosts, Chief Crowfoot, Aberhart and the Princess Alberta Louise, to function as comic interveners in the present-day farmers' issue.

For the Jessica project Thompson and Campbell undertook workshops, discussion and research for two years, but the improvisational work began in earnest in the summer of 1982 at Theatre Network in Edmonton. Linda Griffiths joined the project as performer-writer along with actors Bob Bainborough, Graham Greene and Tantoo Martin (Cardinal); the latter two are native actors. Three of these four had worked previously in collectives: Martin in the 25th Street remount of Don'tcha Know, With You and the North Wind in My Hair; Bainborough in the first Paper Wheat, notably as Ed Partridge; and Griffiths as already indicated. Maria Campbell's film-writing experience included a collective documentary, Edmonton's Un Wanted Women, for CBC television. By the end of the summer, Griffiths records [In a Theatre Passe Muraille programme for the 1986 production of Jessica: A Transformation], "we had characters, situations, but little material which could be used verbatim."

With the 25th Street Theatre opening of Jessica scheduled for November, the principals, Thompson, Campbell and Griffiths, worked through another stage of the collective process at Theatre Passe Muraille in the early autumn. Griffiths writes: "Maria, Paul and I met in the BackSpace and, using the characters and basic scenes we had, I 'jammed' the entire play while they continued to direct, hone, and feed in new ideas." This occurred over a three-week period during which the sessions were taped and "transcribed into a loose script."

For the opening, three of the four actors of the summer workshop were in the cast; Martin as Vitaline and Liz, Green as Bear and Sam, and Griffiths as Jessica. Bainborough's roles of Crow and Jessica's white lawyer friend were taken over by Thomas Hauff. The programme credited Griffiths with the dialogue, Campbell with the subject matter and Thompson with the structure. This rough identification of the division of labour gave some reviewers a handy critical prod into flaws that they implied were no more than to be expected from a play patched together by a committee. But the most intelligent comments came from Caroline Heath, in the [December 1982 issue of] Ne-West Review, who appreciated the playfulness of the Métis sensibility and "the deeper than sociological" intentions; but she also noted that the play needed more work, a recognition confirmed by Maria Campbell herself, who indicated they would be going back to it in a few months. Months turned into years. Griffiths recounts that she was finally inspired to return to the play in 1984 after working with Caryl Churchill on Fen at the Public Theatre in New York. Churchill's play, she said, made her realize the further possibilities for mixing the real and superreal. She rewrote the play four times over the next year or so, but with "the final elements coming in during a two week session … with Maria at Gabriel's Crossing" in the autumn of 1985. The new production opened at Theatre Passe Muraille in April 1986, under the direction of its latest dramaturge, Clarke Rogers.

Even in the structural and thematic refinements of the revised play, it seems clear that its origins in collective play-making procedures are what have made this imaginative work possible. Thematically the basic conception, through Maria Campbell, derives from Cree cosmology with its perception of the unity of spirit life, or soul, in all living things. But the technique for combining this with her Halfbreed material into a workable ceremonial structure comes from the collective's presentational mode of theatre, where the lines between fantasy and actuality are less sharply drawn than in conventional naturalistic drama. Two elements particularly telling in the creating of Jessica are the collective's discontinuous scenic units and multiple characterization.

In the collective plays of the 1970s, an episodic or anecdotal structure served the epic-documentary intentions of plays like Paper Wheat or The West Show, or even a loosely plotted play (with its futuristic time shifts) such as Generation and 1/2. These also borrow, as did Brecht, from revue and cabaret. Thus collective works mix music, sketches and monologue, the dramatic relation of the scenes to each other depending on juxtaposed rather than continuous action. Needless to say, there is a pragmatic element here: the episodic unit is the most easily managed in improvisational play-making. Then it is the director's function in the jamming sessions to determine how well the units are shaping and energizing each other in a theatrical way that serves the theme or narrative. A flashback structure lends itself to the method because by nature the flashback process is itself discontinuous.

In the first version of Jessica, the present-time ceremonial moments are boldly intercut with both naturalistic and supernaturalistic flashbacks. In the ceremony itself the supernatural is present through Vitaline's evocation of Bear, as presiding spirit, and the ubiquitous Crow. As Jessica's guardian, Crow plausibly enters several of the flashback moments as well. More vivid as a theatrical moment than coherent as dramatic structure, however, is the late one-episode introduction of the full animal spirit pantheon (still in the flashback context) halfway through the play. This briefly introduces the new animal spirit characters, Coyote and Wolverine, and rather belatedly sets up a structural convention in the play, which is the explicit identification of spirit figures with human counterparts. Significantly, though, this solitary "Group Spirit Scene" is the donnée for the playwrights' later rationalization of the new structure in which they cast all the episodes of the play into a mythological parable of supernatural intervention. Now the only human character is Jessica herself. The rest are animal spirits who perform human roles.

In collective creation, multiple characterization may be partly expedience, but more importantly, it also establishes a special relation between performance and audience. It usually indicates that actors are giving a demonstration of character rather than a naturalistic representation. Instead of invoking audience empathy for character, this technique seeks audience engagement in the performance of character as an interpretive process. In Maggie and Pierre, for example, the transformation of one performer into three distinct characters alerts the audience to the play's interpretive as opposed to mimetic intention. A three-actor production of the same play would impose naturalistic expectations on a work plainly offered as the writer's imaginary rendering of the very public private life the Trudeaus. The multiple characterizations of collective plays depend largely on transformational body language and voice, minimally on sets, props and costume, and the audience is thus made party to the frankly stated theatricality of the performance procedures.

The first version of Jessica in part advanced the use of multiple characterization by establishing a thematic relation between some of the characters performed by the same actors. Bear and Sam, Coyote and Vitaline, and, for a time, Jessica and Wolverine are explicitly identified, although the structural rationale for this is rather hit-and-miss. Thus, while there is a rough irony in the Vitaline actor also playing the prostitute Liz, this has no bearing on the Vitaline-Coyote identification. Nor is there any clear connection established by the Crow actor's multiple performances of a GWG salesman in a more or less naturalistic prostitution scene, and the white lawyer who helps to bring out the wolverine side of Jessica.

In revision, the partial human and animal spirit identifications as such disappear into the fabular mode. The now five spirits of the ceremony (Unicorn is the new one) are interveners rather than merely catalysts for Jessica's dream-vision recollection, and their links with the human characters they play are more clearly established. But the seeds for the development towards this structural formalization are inherent in the initial phase of collective creation's customary multiple character improvisation. Now the animal spirits together represent the components of Jessica's own soul, each of which she must recognize and bring into equilibrium; multiple characterization is therefore integrated to its full presentational capacity in the play. The animal spirits function both as audience to what is going on and performers in the action as the need occurs. They are party to their own collective creation, so to speak, in which they interpret Jessica to herself, as well as to the actual audience. In other words, performance has become essential to the plot.

In Jessica there is also a general thematic connection to the collective theatre as well as a formal one. In a 1983 interview [with Alice Klein] Griffiths says, "It was in the collective that I got encouragement to go for the female perspective. That was part of the populist ethos of collective theatre which aimed at capturing the perspectives that mainstream culture was likely to ignore." Her typically untypical women of her collective work are witness to this direction as is her essentially sympathetic interpretation of Maggie, broken but still defiant in her conflict between flower-child notions of love and freedom and Pierre's male-centred rationality and sense of public decorum. In O.D. on Paradise, Candy, the ex-hippy wife of a career-anxious lawyer, is trapped in the role of beguiling and nurturing female. Karen, her opposite, is a liberated professional woman who theorizes that the feminine fight for mutual independence is a necessary and heroic struggle. Even if the men have to be allowed to go crazy in the process, women, she says, must face "the oldest dragon there is … or they'll have it over us forever."

In outline Karen anticipates Jessica's struggle with Sam: in his discouragements at the bureaucratic frustrations of his political crusade, he expects a solacing ego-stroking role from her. He jokingly notes how he best likes the look that "says I'm your Iroquois brave and you're my vermin infested halfbreed." In the parlance of old Vitaline (with a little assistance from the hovering Unicorn), the whole earth is suffering from an imbalance between sun and moon dating back the thousands of years since women were persuaded by the "glory in sacrifice" to submit to the dominance of men:

He took and she gave and gave until there was nothing left but migraine headaches and sacrifice. The balance was broken. The whole earth has to do with that balance, the tides and the winds and the growth of everything. Nothing can be right again without it, nothing.

In Halfbreed, Maria Campbell makes only one, incidental, reference to the women's wisdom that Sam fears from Jessica's tutelage from the old medicine woman. The narrator is seeking to explain to herself why a once supportive male Indian friend changed his attitude towards her when she ventured to speak out in public meetings. She tries to explain this when she writes [in Halfbreed]:

The missionaries had impressed upon us the feeling that women were a source of evil. This belief, combined with the ancient Indian recognition of the power of women, is still holding back the progress of our people today.

By this I take her to mean that the current attitude towards women is based on the unfortunate misunderstanding of Indian tradition imposed on it by Christian zealotry. Elsewhere in Halfbreed is the narrator's deep expression of love and admiration for her great-grandmother Campbell, or Cheechum, who was the emotional support and teacher of her childhood:

She taught me to see the beauty in all things around me; that inside each thing a spirit lived, that it was vital too regardless of whether it was only a leaf or a blade of grass, and by recognizing its life and beauty I was accepting God.

The old lady, a niece of Gabriel Dumont, had the gift of second sight, but she was cautious of using it. There is no indication that Cheechum was a medicine woman, but she may be the prototype of Vitaline, and certainly of the grandmother who appears in the childhood dream vision to make Jessica the gift of her Crow guardian. In her children's book People of the Buffalo, Campbell distinguishes between the nature of the spiritual gifts of Indian women and men. "Some people," she writes, "think that in the Indian way of life the boy was glorified; on the contrary, the girl was considered spiritually stronger, because like the earth she gives life." She outlines how Plains Indian boys at puberty had to go on a quest for a vision of their guardian spirit, who was revealed through fasting and meditation. For girls, in contrast, "The menstrual cycle brought power to communicate freely with the spirits." Because at the time of the onset the spirits around her were uncontrolled, however, "The young girl was lodged in a teepee away from the camp, where she was guarded for four days by an old medicine woman who could communicate with and control the spirits."

In the play, Jessica has these spiritual gifts; she has been "seeing" the animals all her life but has tried to ignore them, particularly Crow. She has no instruction in her youth from an old woman with knowledge and power to accept and to control them. Only in her chronological maturity does she begin to value her natural gifts, and as the process of vision intensifies under Vitaline's ceremonial direction, control of the spirits is difficult. For example, Jessica goes wild and vicious when her spirit is possessed by Wolverine.

Integral to the spiritual journey, of course, is its basis in the very specific circumstances of the Métis struggle between two worlds. In several ways Jessica makes the point that she is naturally drawn to the white world. The canny way in which Vitaline acknowledges the conflict is to initiate her ultimate ceremonial effort by naming the contents of Jessica's luggage as her "bundle": her high-heels mark the four sacred directions, papers from Jessica's work are the centre of the circle and she herself is instructed to don her bathrobe and plug her walkman into her ears. This is hardly obscurantist shamanism, but rather a spiritualism pragmatically rooted in the facts of the modern world. Throughout the play, the sense of this is reinforced by the earthy, humourous tone of the whole ceremonial venture and sustained by the idiomatic quality of the dialogue at all levels.

In the revised play, the idea of ancient feminine power under siege over the millennia is lightly extended by the introduction of the anachronistic Unicorn to the pantheon of Jessica's animal spirits. Structurally this provides an organic spirit counterpart to Liz, especially suitable if the latter is played as a white woman. Narratively, Unicorn, as the spirit of archaic female sexual mysteries, introduces herself to the other spirits as "what's been missing" in the ceremony so far. She tells them that she is "a bit of the goddess left over" whose "horn was for women to ride when women had power, and when they lost it, this horn made them remember." Her incongruity in the Plains Indian context is comically confronted head on by remarks from the others. Coyote has seen her at The Bay: "you had a big pink bow and you were sitting on a candy cane rainbow." To Crow she is a "fugitive from a mouldy French tapesty." Bear, on the other hand, begins to recollect her as a more ancient embodiment "of the old way" that they all represent.

Although Unicorn is good for the play, she has not yet quite found a comfortable place in its scheme. Her first important intervention, with Bear and Crow (and a dash of Wolverine) at her service, is certainly the most self-conscious and mythologically mixed in its intention of reminding Jessica of the "old way." In her intervention as Liz, she is Jessica's instructor in the wiles of prostitution. As Unicorn, she reminds the other spirits of the familiar feminist point, that prostitution was once "sacred and beautiful" in its ceremonial purpose when "Men were cleansed through lying with the priestesses." The curious part comes when Bear and Crow agree (Crow reluctantly) to play the roles of clients, disguised, as it were, as themselves (Wolverine is a waiter). Bear, who is more attuned to Unicorn's meaning, thinks to help Jessica to "rake away the shame." Crow, who is more down to earth, asks "what shame?" Thus the two descend in their masks to the hotel room as if clients for a session of kinky sex. Instead, however, they introduce the women to the ancient meaning of their trade, stand them back-to-back in blindfolds and teach them to chant the "Whore Prayer," an invocation to the Goddess through a litany of her several ancient names. As the "clients" vanish, the two women slip into some wistful chat about the wonders of inspired sexuality. The scene is both funny and a little pretentious (the whole effect a little like essay-writing for Myth 101, as one reviewer noted); wittingly or unwittingly it verges on send-up with its combination of Indian animal spirits as Ishtarian adepts and the bawdy remarks by Liz. This scene, unlike most of the other dream-vision interventions, imposes meaning rather than letting it emerge spontaneously from the context. Crow, for one, better belongs in the darker sequence quickly following; this time he actually transforms—into the character of Weird Harold, in a parodic "S and M" scene that makes Jessica vomit.

However, to criticize in this manner is not to disparage the already high level of achievement clearly evident in Jessica. As with the collective mode of play from which it grew, the text is not sacrosanct as long as there are areas for its further unfolding. Also like the collective, this has to happen through more of what actor-dramatist Linda Griffiths calls "writing on the spot," which is to say through her kind of creative improvisational workshopping, a technique begun on a modest scale when there were few scripted works available, now responsible for the new (unfortunately rare) level of dramaturgical bravura in Canadian drama that Jessica represents. As in the 1970s, so in the present, the small, alternative theatres everywhere in the country are still the most open to taking the risks that can lead to the creation of a fine new experimental play.

Agnes Grant (essay date Spring-Summer 1990)

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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 Halfbreed.

A close friend of mine said, "Maria, make it a happy book. It couldn't have been so bad. We know we are guilty so don't be too harsh." I am not bitter. I have passed that stage. I only want to say: this is what it was like; this is what it is still like.

This book is the story of Maria's life as a Métis child in northern Saskatchewan and of her life as a young woman in the city. Some of the literary qualities are immediately obvious to the readers—the very brief retelling of the history, the humour, the irony, the understatement. The oral tradition, apparent in the writer's style, assumes that the listener (or when transferred to writing, the reader) comes from the same background as the storyteller. Because of the common heritage there is no need for lengthy descriptions or wordy explanations. There is no need for elaborate display of emotions; in fact, emotion is rarely expressed because events speak for themselves. But though remarkable for its understatement, Halfbreed is a book choking with emotion. The author's sense of place and her dependence on that sense show up again and again in the first part of the book. Recurrent allusions to love, peace, beauty, and happiness indicate that Métis are not hopelessly caught between two cultures. But Maria's life is devoid of this warmth and sense of belonging as she leaves home. She is manipulated by people who are strangers to her and to her way of life, and the style of the second half of the book demonstrates this distinction.

Though Maria Campbell claims she has overcome her bitterness, her anger seethes just below the surface, an anger undoubtedly justified. She makes no attempt to understand non-Native society, just as non-Native society has made no attempt to understand hers. She tells dispassionately of British war brides who were lured to Saskatchewan by Métis men:

One was a very proper Englishwoman. She had married a handsome Halfbreed soldier in England believing he was French. He came from northern Saskatchewan's wildest family and he owned nothing, not even the shack where a woman and two children were waiting for him.

This woman promptly beat up the English bride and the community collected enough money to send her to Regina where "they were sure the government would help her." As she moved into the outside world Maria's contempt for non-Natives increased. She talks of the social action groups of the 1960s: "The whites at the meetings were the kind of people who failed to find recognition among their own people, and so had to come to mine, where they were treated with the respect they felt they deserved." And she goes on to say, "I'd hated those nameless, faceless white masses all my life." Such blunt comments about non-Natives and the harshness of Métis life dominate the book.

But Campbell also uses humour effectively, often remembering and lovingly describing community rituals. Much of her humour takes the form of anecdote. When the Métis parents were all called to the school for inoculations, she recalls, "Alex Vandal, the village joker, was at his best that day. He told Daddy that he was going to act retarded because the whites thought we were anyway." The joke is not Alex Vandal's antics but the fact that the teacher took him seriously, thereby hugely entertaining the assembled Métis. But the humour in the book does much more than just entertain. Campbell uses it as a defiant gesture which accounts, in no small measure, for the popularity of the book among Métis readers. Kate Vangen (Assiniboine) points out [in The Native in Literature: Canadian and Comparative Perspectives, edited by Thomas King, Cheryl Calver, and Helen Hoy, 1987] that

indigenous peoples have undoubtedly been using humour for centuries to "make faces" at their colonizers without the latter being able to retaliate; however, Native humour has escaped most historical and literary accounts because the recorder did not perceive the gesture as humourous or because he did not appreciate the humour.

Maria regrets being Catholic because the Anglicans have that exciting "fornicator and adulterer," Henry VIII. Maria's Indian grandparents excuse her outspoken ways because that was the "white" in her. She tells of playing Caesar and Cleopatra on the slough while non-Native passers-by shook their heads and laughed. The irony of the situation takes a double turn when we find that the cousins never allowed Maria to be Cleopatra because she was too "black" and her hair was like a "nigger's." 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 humour 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.

Penny Petrone (essay date 1990)

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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 community events. At the spiritual centre of her life was her wise Cree great-grandmother, her beloved Cheechum. Even though 'dad was always drunk, mom always pregnant', after visiting her Indian relatives she was 'always glad to get back to the noise and disorder of [her] own people.' Circumstances changed when her mother died, Cheechum had to leave the family, and Maria was left to take care of six younger children. At the age of fifteen she married a white man to keep the welfare people from taking the children, but her husband soon reported them to the welfare agencies and they were placed in foster homes. Her marriage eventually failed and Campbell, cut off from the support of Métis community life, tried to survive in an urban world of alcohol, drugs, and prostitution. Overcoming extraordinary odds, and with the help of a few good friends and the hovering spirit of her Cheechum as well as her own remarkable strength of will, Campbell was eventually able to find spiritual and economic freedom and her true identity as a Métis woman. At the age of thirty-three she was resilient enough to rise from her stereotypical self-destructive behaviour towards healing and taking responsibility for her own life. From saying: 'My parents and I never shared any aspirations for the future', she became able to say: 'If I was to know peace I would have to search within myself.' Campbell offers no definitive solution to the plight of her people, but she manages to be optimistic. She knows that tomorrow will come and it will be better. Cheechum's prophetic words, 'You'll find yourself, and you'll find brothers and sisters' were understood and fulfilled. Interestingly, in her struggle for rehabilitation her assertiveness was attacked by the Métis male community. (As a result of the American Indian movement of the 1960s, many young Indian and Métis men had acquired a sense of pride that was as much macho as native and subsequently became oppressive to native women.)

Campbell weaves into her personal history descriptions of Métis social customs, the traditional role assignments of men and women, and the differences between the Indians and the Métis:

They were completely different from us—quiet when we were noisy, dignified even at dances and get-togethers. Indians were very passive—they would get angry at things done to them but would never fight back, whereas Halfbreeds were quick-tempered—quick to fight, but quick to forgive and forget….

We were always the poor relatives … They laughed and scorned us. They had land and security, we had nothing.

Campbell also discusses the linguistic characteristics of Mischif, the patois spoken by the Métis. She celebrates community life, capturing the fun-loving spirit of the Métis at weddings, week-end dances with fiddler music, and sports competitions. Her account rises above the level of mere autobiographical protest because she sees her life in the larger context of distinctive Métis culture.

Written during the height of native activism, Halfbreed reflects the political climate of the early 1970s. Campbell views her own life and struggles as a continuation of Métis resistance. It is ironic that she chose as her title the word that has been used by both whites and Indians in Canadian society as a label of scorn. Instead of rejecting the term of abuse, she wears it as a badge of merit and pride. In her introduction she states that her purpose was to explain '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.' She does just that and more. Her searingly honest account of human misery, courage, and hope is told in a stark, unsparing prose, unfiltered and undiluted. Though the chronological flow of her memoir, broken by Cheechum's appearances in and out of narrative sequence, is difficult to follow, and the second half about her struggle for survival after her marriage failed lacks the rich detail and the strong narrative line of her childhood years, the strengths of Halfbreed outweigh the weaknesses. Rich with a sense of place and time, it is a disturbing testimony to the ugliness of racism that is part of Canada's social history.

Helen Hoy (essay date Spring 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3117

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 raises by implication the epistemological and cultural violence which can be done (is necessarily done?) to Native texts by non-Native readings of them. Is teaching and criticism of these texts, by non-Natives, another form of cultural appropriation? In Canadian literature, The Book of Jessica, a collaborative effort by Métis writer Maria Campbell and Scottish-Canadian actress/playwright Linda Griffiths excavating the problematics of their earlier collaboration on a script of Campbell's life, provides detailed ground for an investigation of these issues. A vexed and troubling text—from the placement of Griffiths' name first in the attributing of authorship, to the devolvement of ultimate editorial responsibility eventually to her—The Book of Jessica, in all its ambivalence, can be read as modelling aspects of the white scholar/Native writer relationship. From its material conditions of production to the implications of Campbell's extra-textual decision to put her energies into Native politics rather than the book, the text both glosses and itself enacts postcolonial problems of gatekeeping, cultural impasse, and imbalances of power, while simultaneously insisting on the mutual imperative to communicate. My article will pair this concrete enactment of the politics of cross-cultural communication with current postcolonial/feminist theory on issues of appropriation and what Gayatri Spivak calls "the epistemic violence of imperialism." It will study how the theory illuminates the practice and how the practice illuminates the theory….

Take I: The Book of Jessica as textual appropriation

However well-intentioned, The Book of Jessica redeploys the strategies of intellectual colonialism. Originally conceived as a full collaboration, it has by the time of publication fallen back under Griffiths' editorial control. So it replicates the originary Native Informant/Master Discourse model of the play itself. (According to Diane Bessai, [in "Collective Theatre and the Playwright: Jessica, by Linda Griffiths and Maria Campbell," in Writing Saskatchewan: 20 Critical Essays, edited by Kenneth G. Probert, 1989], early programme notes for Jessica credited Campbell with the subject matter, Griffiths and director Paul Thompson with the dialogue and structure respectively.) Campbell's decision to run as President of the Métis Society of Saskatchewan and withdraw from the collaborative project, a decision only tersely acknowledged in the introductory "History"—and unglossed—speaks loudly in the vacuum created by her editorial absence. As a final refusal/indifference/signal of divided allegiance, an eloquently silent codicil to the text that resonates with earlier repudiations, it pushes against the reconciliatory drift of the narrative. Unrancorous post-publication interviews by Campbell mute the contestatory impact of her defection, in that arena, but the decision functions as a disruption textually-at least.

It is Griffiths, then, who provides the framing narrative—tellingly referring to herself three times in the opening line alone—and who selects both her own and Campbell's words, in what nevertheless purports to be a dialogue. Just as the programme credits for Jessica shift between 1981 and 1986 from three co-authors to "Written by: Linda Griffiths, in collaboration with Maria Campbell," so the hierarchy of authorship for The Book of Jessica—Griffiths followed by Campbell—gives precedence to the one-time final formal setting-down-on-paper, to the value of individually exercised verbal and structural creativity and control. What has happened to Maria's gift of "her life, her philosophy and entry to her deepest self"? But, in one sense, that arrogation of pre-eminence on the title page speaks true. Given the editorial process, this story can now finally only be read as Griffiths'….

Other disturbing evidence of appropriation sprinkles the text of The Book of Jessica. Within a few lines of the opening, Griffiths refers to the "familiar arrowhead point in the pit of my stomach." The image illustrates a facile tendency to adorn oneself with metaphors from the appropriate culture, a kind of intellectual souvenir-hunting that bedevils cross-cultural critics. The gesture becomes more serious when Griffiths appropriates the Native ceremony of the give-away, the red cloth Maria has learned so painfully to surrender, as trope for Griffiths' letting go of something she cannot claim ever to have had: "The clearest give-away I have ever been involved in has been Jessica…. It's my red cloth." The deceptively objective third-person "History" extends this transposition of beneficiary and donor to The Book of Jessica itself: "Linda's contribution to [Campbell's] campaign is the editing and structuring of this book … the red cloth." Using editorial privilege, Griffiths then author-izes this standpoint by entitling the second section of the book "The Red Cloth." The interpretative reversal here connects with the paradoxical inversion involved in her theatrical technique of 'sibyling.' Ostensibly the ultimate gesture of self-abnegation—acting as pure medium, a "self-effacing vessel," a blank so absolute that Griffiths feels absent as an emotional being—sibyling becomes the ultimate gesture of ingestion, an imperialist receptivity: "I was taught that you could open yourself to anything, anyone, let the energy pour through you, and something would happen. I was ravenous for those moments" (emphasis mine). Campbell herself identifies the stance as one of dangerous greediness. Are sibyls supposed to end up with copyright, with right of first refusal, with the position of director, with editorial carte blanche, with red cloth to give away?

Griffiths' account, moreover, contains disingenuousness—"the thing was already out of [Paul's] domain. It was on paper now, it had passed over to me or maybe you would say I'd taken it"; pernicious misreckoning—the designating of Campbell's hostility and other Native people's as racist; evasion of responsibility—"Out of my paranoia and confusion came a little voice: 'Yes,' I said, 'I wouldn't mind having a first refusal on the part of Jessica …'."; unacknowledged perceptual blinkers—"Women appeared from nowhere and cooked a Métis feast (emphasis mine); and interruptions of Campbell at critical moments. It is doubtful whether, under Campbell's editorship, the text would have remained so narrowly focused on the pas de deux of Campbell and Griffiths, when, as Campbell reminds us, the play was many people. The insistent personalizing of the conflict as a struggle between two well-meaning individuals obscures too the broader social and economic forces at play. But even granting this emphasis, in the absence of editorial reciprocity, The Book of Jessica reproduces the inequitable power relations of the original collaboration….

Take 2: The Book of Jessica as postcolonial deposition

With illuminating candour, The Book of Jessica self-consciously documents the particularities of one extended cross-cultural endeavour, in all its wrong-headedness as well as accomplishment, precisely so as to scrutinize that practice. Some moments, like Griffiths' classic defense of the Sun Dance photograph as preservation of a dying culture, almost feel concocted to provide the full panoply of colonialist assumptions. (Notions of this text as artless spontaneity meet their most obvious hurdle with the intrusion of the Voice from the Middle of the Room, an absent presence, into the transcribed conversation.) Just as the play Jessica set out to create "a woman who was Maria, but not really," so the book about the play intensifies the antithetical personae of white naif—"Where was the exoticism of the books I'd been reading?"—and street-wise Native—"What a bunch of garbage…. It just sounds so … much like a white professor introducing me at a convention of anthropologists"—to throw into relief the postcolonial perplex. Arguments between Campbell and Griffiths, about the (literal) give-and-take of their collaboration, rehearse systematically the sites and tropes of Euro-American/Native contestation: land, treaties, ownership, concepts of time, religion, cultural copyright. Making her claim to Jessica, for instance, Griffiths voluntarily takes on metaphors as counterproductive as home-steading and sacred treaties. Campbell in turn frames her objections in the language of conquest: "[Paul Thompson] came in between, the conqueror with his piece of paper, when we were both exhausted." Even in the text's silences and suppressions—Griffiths' need not to know the deal Campbell struck with Thompson, for instance, or her repeated spurning of an undelivered, angry letter from Campbell, in one case at the moment of insisting that she wants everything said—The Book of Jessica signals us insistently with traces of its evasions. The final destabilizing of peaceful reconciliation—"Are we going to leave people with the faerie tale of it? Because the truth is, I am wrecked over doing this, I'm still afraid of you, still feel like your servant," says Griffiths—is yet one more invitation to us to continue the anatomizing….

The Book of Jessica gives us—in place of a narrative of liberal self-scrutiny on the one hand or anti-colonial resilience on the other, either constructed in comfortable isolation from the other—the less usual and necessarily more nuanced rendering of mutual disputation/negotiation in process. What could be static documentation is repeatedly problematized and transformed, through the dynamic of instant accountability, correction, and challenge. Confronted with an embodied reminder, in Griffiths, of "a society that takes and takes, a society that changes, rearranges, interprets and interprets some more, until there's nothing left but confusion," Campbell must wrestle with her cultural ethic of generosity, of letting go and giving away. Griffiths must confess her determination to write Jessica without Campbell's blessing if necessary or her misrepresentations of how far she had gone with that undertaking, not simply to the reader, but, as she says about her sibyling, much more disconcertingly with the "subject" in the room. Everything is in the tension. With the ongoing interaction, comes also a greater pressure for mutuality. "[Y]ou have to be able to be honest about yourself too," insists Campbell. "You can't lay something out, and then say, 'Well, I can't do that because it might hurt some people.'… Why is it okay to lay my guts all over the table, but you can only take some of yours, and by the way, madam, let's make sure they're the pretty ones."…

In particular, The Book of Jessica re-views the discourse and practice of white scholarship, permitting us to track the disjunctures between what Barbara Smith calls [in "Racism and Women's Studies," in Making Face, Making Soul/Hacienda Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Women of Color, edited by Gloria Anzaldua, 1990] "the pernicious ideology of professionalism" and quite other cultural imperatives of artistic healing, responsibility to community, and personal balance. Griffiths and Campbell display good will, shared goals and assumptions including the conviction that the circle of grandmothers has no colour, and considerable personal investment and sacrifice. Griffiths suffers incapacitating back trouble and extended physical collapse; Campbell faces estrangement from her community, internal discord, and eventual temporary loss of self. (An entire poststructuralist/feminist/psychoanalytic paper on split and shared and overlapping selves, fluid and transgressed ego boundaries, and transposed subject positions, incidentally, is begging to be written on The Book of Jessica.) Nevertheless, the differing structures and demands of the communities to which they are answerable impinge divisively on Campbell and Griffiths' joint work. In Griffiths' case, specifically, we can instructively discern at work the inapposite requirements of career advancement, notions of individual creativity and intellectual property, pressures of a print culture, economics and legalities of publication.

In her sense of herself as an interpretive intermediary for Campbell's world—"Make me understand and I'll make an audience understand" Griffiths has something in common with the literary critic. In comments about her status as watcher and the unsuitability of her linear mental processes at a Native ceremony, she constructs herself self-deprecatingly in the place of the academic outsider. Simultaneously, in her desire not to be one with the other white people at the Native teachers' graduation, she functions as cultural tourist/scholar aspiring to be an insider. When she describes the loneliness of winning approval from no one, the ignominy of prying into the personal life of a stranger, the debilitating conjunction of audacity and ignorance her improvisations entail, the poignance of smuggling spiritual rituals into her life under the guise of research, or her vulnerability to Campbell's veto power, Griffiths' honesty illuminates the pain and risk and presumption of this borderlands position….

Griffiths' early hankering to hone the unedited transcripts of the improvisations for Jessica reveals "the contemplative ego of the writer" beginning to impose itself on the collective process (emphasis mine). In her drive to create (that overrides scruples about consultation), her explicit need as a writer for accomplishment, her pain that she cannot own Jessica, her desire not so much not to steal as not to be seen as stealing, her belief that she has single-handedly kept the book project together, and her faith in the worth of her creation, she exposes the double-edged values that also impel/impale academia. At the same time, through Campbell, the text documents a countervailing ethos. Campbell invokes respect and a sense of the sacred in place of sophistry regarding entitlement to cultural material. She challenges the concept of creative ownership of Jessica. She questions the wisdom of rushing to subject powerful Native spiritual symbols to the same artistic exposure in the West that has depleted Western ones.

The legal contract and later the privately crafted script become tinderboxes because they so pointedly signal the shift from the personal contract between the collaborators to the world of white professionalism. Mainstream conditions of cultural production and reception, and the economic structures sustaining and rewarding them, reveal themselves as potent, though largely offstage, agents in this drama. 25th Street House Theatre's financial exigency and suspicion of eastern interests, the precedence accorded autonomous authorship (played out in the overall trajectory of Griffiths' career from its beginnings in collective, improvisational drama), and "standard" assumptions about literary ownership, presumed audience, textual integrity, royalties, film rights, and first refusal rights play themselves out before us on the bodies and psyches of the two women. When Griffiths accuses Campbell, "But you're not dedicated in the same way, because you would have let Jessica die," she equates, in the presence of a self-proclaimed storyteller, the absence of a printed record with extinction. Cultural cross-purposes find a voice here. The two women are indeed not dedicated in the same way, and therein lies the conflict they expose….

Take 3: The Book of Jessica as textual resistance

The Book of Jessica is Maria Campbell's book. It is her idea initially. The very substance and format of the book are determined by her ethos of mutual self-disclosure as fundamental to any true collaboration. Provoked by the inconsistency of Griffiths' fascination exclusively with a Native past, arguing that she and Griffiths can find a meeting place only in an exchange of their ancestral histories, and contending that shared personal matters, like Griffiths' shoplifting, give her someone solid to interact with, she ensures that this text both theorizes and models a collaborative process of genuine exchange. Though deletions leave their traces—Griffiths' mother's alcoholism(?) cured through religion, for example—Griffiths is exposed in ways foreign to sibyls and researchers. The textual format of dialogue and interjections, in place of a monologic or synthesized narrative, develops naturally from this insistence on mutuality. The book's forthrightness too reflects Campbell's motive for persisting with a project this painful, the urgency of providing connections and hope in a period of global devastation.

Furthermore, the most eloquent piece of oratory in the book is Campbell's. In its historic concision and controlled passion, it necessarily infuses any reading of the entire collaboration and the book. The speech I mean is her caustic response to Griffiths' contention that the play Jessica lives thanks to Griffiths' authorship but requires Campbell's belated modifications and permission:

Now Wolverine is saying, "I took it. I gave it birth. I gave it life. It was mine and it would have died without me. I salvaged it. I built temples all over the place. I built high-rises all over the place. I put wheat fields out there. I produced it and if it wasn't for me, you would have let this land die. So I came along and I took what you were wasting and I made something productive out of it, because you weren't doing it, but I need you to tell me that I didn't steal anything, that I didn't take anything from you."

Campbell inserts the narrative so forcibly and repeatedly into history, and into a colonial history, that the reader cannot help but read the collaborations as one moment in a centuries-long struggle….

It is Campbell's contribution too in The Book of Jessica which advances the much argued contemporary debate over appropriation of cultural materials beyond the reductive poles of imaginative autonomy on the one hand and retreat on the other. She does so through a deft turn on the trope of artistic theft:

Today, most art is ugly, because it's not responsible to the people it steals from. Real, honest-to-God true art steals from the people. It's a thief…. It comes in, and you don't even notice that it's there, and it walks off with all your stuff, but then it gives it back to you and heals you, empowers you, and it's beautiful. Seventy-five percent of the art that's out there steals, but it doesn't give anything back. It doesn't bring you joy. It doesn't heal you. It doesn't make you ask questions…. It takes your stuff and it hangs it up on the wall and it says, "Look what I've done. Isn't that wonderful. I'm an artist."

By arguing that "you have to first admit you are a thief" and that thereafter "if you're an artist and you're not a healer, then you're not an artist," she shifts the focus, for the white writer, from a project of moral self-purification—demonstrating cultural sensitivity or entitlement—to one of political effectiveness. A presumed position of transgression, as a given, becomes, not grounds for profitless apology, but a responsibility incurred, the springboard for socially accountable art—or scholarship. In addition, Campbell's response to the Native ceremony which Griffiths keeps verging on violating through indiscretion points to a modus vivendi. To Griffiths' thwarted cry, "Alright, I'll cut it all out," Campbell replies, "No, not your experience. You're an artist, find a way to do it." The Book of Jessica models that kind of art.


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