Women and autobiography: Maria campbell’s half breed in retrospect

Abstract: After the English and the Black women autobiographies, Maya Dutt brings in the Canadian indigenous women’s autobiography as the focus of her “Woman and Autobiography: Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed in Retrospect”. Dutt highlights the resistance offered by Campbell through her language and her characters, against the violent manifestation of colonisation resulting in the internalisation of colonialism by the indigenous people. She establishes Campbell to be “one of the first indigenous women daring to break the silence” and her Halfbreed “as an important legacy for indigenous women because it represents them”.

Keywords: unjust systems, de-colonisation, liberation, language as resistance, indigenous women, White-Euro-Christian patriarchy, racism, sexism, survival

        Shamans had prophesied the coming of the white man and the near destruction of the red man. They had also foretold the resurrection of the Native peoples of Canada seven lifetimes after Columbus. Now, at the close of the 20th century, at the dawn of the 21 st century, the prophecy seems to be coming true. Contrary to the expectations of white Canada, the Natives have not become extinct. Perhaps much of their religions, languages and entire tribal cultures have been forgotten in the 19th century attempt to “Christianise” and “civilise” them and assimilate them with the white mainstream. In 1805, Red Jacket, a celebrated Seneca orator, had rejected the missionaries’ overtures with the following words: “Kitchi-Manitou has given us a different understanding” (Ross vii). Red Jacket’s words made it quite clear even then that the notions, ideas, values, perceptions, beliefs, institutions, concepts, customs, habits, practices, conventions, outlooks – the entire tradition and way of life – that the Natives embraced were different from those held by the missionaries/newcomers. The implication, however, was not that the Natives’ understanding was superior to that of the missionaries, but rather that the missionaries had not proved their beliefs and conduct to be superior to the knowledge and learning that Kitchi-Manitou had bestowed on the Natives.

       Obviously, the coloniser believed that the Natives’ adherence to their traditional values, customs and languages, would adversely affect the country’s government, and undermine national and provincial dreams and plans. The missionaries firmly believed that what the Natives needed was the Bible and education to draw them away from the path of error and set them on the path of truth. And thus was born the Residential School System which bore testimony to a shameful epoch in Canadian history.

       However, history has proved the falsehood of the doomed culture theory. Canada’s Natives, instead of conveniently disappearing, are now increasing at a faster rate than the general population. There is also strong indication that the Native Peoples’ innumerable and distinct cultures have continued to survive and that the erstwhile oral tradition of Native literature has steadily emerged into a highly articulate and formal literature. Transmitted through languages, songs, dances, traditional economic practices and governing structures, these specific indigenous ways have continued to provide spiritual, political and economic succour to these people and have contributed to the formulation of the self.

       Survival has been the focus of their energies as Indigenous peoples, since first contact with the European coloniser. Although many writers and scholars have attempted to articulate the complex relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, few non-indigenous writers possess the extensive firsthand knowledge of the Native peoples’ ways to correctly represent their distinct ways of life. Some of these writers have even misrepresented indigenous peoples by imposing their own Eurocentric world view, while others have fragmented the Natives’ ways by writing about only one aspect of a specific indigenous culture.

        Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed (1973) emerged into a Canadian literary tradition that had hitherto constructed images of indigenous women that were contrary to real-life experiences. Campbell’s work seems to challenge many existing stereotypes and images of indigenous women by providing a vivid spiritual, social, political and economic context of her own “halfbreed” (Metis) way of life. As one of the first indigenous women daring to break the silence, by writing her way out of the assumptions that women are submerged under, Campbell begins to realise how her identity has been constructed for her. The act of writing enables the author to explore her past for evidence of her authentic self, and in so doing, she helps other indigenous women to effect a similar reclamation and re-connection of their selves. In this sense, Campbell’s somewhat fictional autobiography is extremely significant because it becomes a role-model for indigenous women in their attempt to achieve wholeness and connectedness. Furthermore, Campbell’s text is an important legacy for indigenous women because it represents them, through the personae of Cheechum, Grannie Campbell, Qua Chich and Granny Dubuque, as survivors of an oppressive colonial regime, and of abusive relationships, including systemic racism and sexism.

        Maria Campbells’s Halfbreed intervened in a literary tradition that had hitherto constructed indigenous women’s lives within the framework of “White-Euro- Canadian-Christian” patriarchy. Her text, although written in the English coloniser’s language and thus seemingly privileging patriarchal hierarchy, constitutes a series of resistances against Christian patriarchy. The very construction of her text is in itself a prime act of resistance. As many previous colonised writers maintain, the act of writing is a deeply political one that encourages de-colonisation. In this context, Campbell is one of the first indigenous women who have appropriated the coloniser’s language to name her oppressors, identify these oppressors’ unjust systems, laws and processes, and subsequently work towards de-colonisation. In an interview Campbell has referred to her grandfather’s words: “… why you have trouble with the English language, it’s because the language has no Mother…. And what you have to do is, put the Mother back in the language” (Lutz 49). For Maria, inspiration struck when the Muses (rather, the Grandmothers) came. Campbell has inspired many Native writers to get involved in the project of putting the Mother back in the language, not only as missing character or subject position, but as nurturing environment, as articulated recognised place. Campbell’s text seeks a reconnection with the past, with her grandmothers and her “mothers” – her motherland, her mother culture, her mother tongue.

        Campbell’s language, which shifts repeatedly from English to Mitchif to Cree, is an important area of resistance. Even Campbell’s names for her female relatives constitute instances of this resistance. Her greatest influence and confidant, whose name and term of reference within English-Canadian patriarchy is great-grandmother Campbell, is fondly referred to in Mitchif as Cheechum. Another maternal relative (the author’s great-aunt) is simply referred to as Qua Chich.

        In the preface to her work, Campbell defiantly addresses members of the colonial world: “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” (2). Campbell’s reference to herself as a Halfbreed has disturbed many liberal White-Euro-Canadians who consider the term derogatory and are thus puzzled by her continued use of it. Maria Campbell and many other contemporary people still use the term Halfbreed: some refer to themselves as Halfbreeds with a strong nationalistic pride, while others perhaps use the term as a kind of blatant reminder of White Canada’s racist policies.

       Campbell’s text also seems to resist conformity to the Euro-Canadian patriarchy by glancing back at her life with a re-awakened self. In doing so, she challenges the racist as well as sexist White-Christian-patriarchal constructs of indigenous women, by firmly contextualising her book as proceeding from a Halfbreed-Indigenous ideology. This is embodied in the author’s very strong sense of community and family, or as Thomas King describes it in the preface to All My Relations, the web of “kinship that radiates from a Native sense of family” (xiii). Campbell challenges the various stereotyped images of the squaw drudge, the Indian princess and the suffering victim by firmly rooting her text in her Halfbreed-Indigenous ideology because she remembers the women in her family as resourceful, dynamic women who were vital elements in their community.

       Campbell strongly affirms that her Cheechum has been her greatest source of inspiration, strength and love. She remembers Cheechum as a small woman who clung tenaciously to her own way of life despite numerous and powerful threats from the agents of colonisation. Campbell writes:

       Cheechum hated to see the settlers come, and as they settled on what she believed was our land, she ignored them and refused to acknowledge them even when passing on the road. She would not become a Christian, saying firmly that she had married a Christian and if there was such a thing as hell then she had lived there; nothing after death could be worse! (11).

        That Christian-from-hell is the author’s great-grandfather Campbell, whom the old people called “Chee-pie-hoos” or “evil-spirit-jumping-up-and down” (10). Maria Campbell implies that Chee-pie-hoos who came from Edinburgh, Scotland and ran a Hudson’s Bay store, regarded Cheechum as a loose woman in accordance with the stereotype of indigenous women as whores. In fact, old man Campbell’s White-Euro-Christian patriarchal influence encouraged him to think that “his wife was having affairs with all the Halfbreeds in the area” (10). Although Cheechum married the Scottish immigrant, Maria Campbell insists that the old lady defiantly resisted any kind of domination.

        Campbell believes that, during the 1885 Resistance at Batoche, while great-grandfather Campbell worked with the North West Mounted Police, Cheechum collected information, ammunition and supplies to give to the “rebels”. When the old man found it out, he punished his wife: “he stripped the clothes from her back and beat her so cruelly that she was scarred for life” (10). Not long afterwards, he died mysteriously, and Cheechum went to live with her mother’s people in the area now known as Prince Albert National Park. Even though Cheechum’s “mother’s people were Indians, they were never part of a reserve, as they weren’t present when the treaty-makers came” (10). Campbell recalls with a great deal of pride that Cheechum scorned offers of so-called “help” in the form of welfare and old-age pension. Instead, she remained completely self-sufficient, hunting, trapping and planting a garden:

        She built a cabin beside Maria Lake and raised her son. Years later when the area was designated for the Park, the government asked her to leave. She refused, and when all peaceful methods failed the RCMP were sent. She locked her door, loaded her rifle and when they arrived she fired shots over their heads, threatening to hit them if they came any closer. They left her alone and she was never disturbed again. (10).

        Later on, the marriage of her son (Grandpa Campbell) to a “Vandal” woman whose family had been involved in the 1885 Resistance, marks a continuation of the pattern of resistance set by Cheechum.

        Campbell describes Grandmother Campbell as fiercely strong woman who, after her husband’s death, “went to a white community. . . to cut bush for seventy-five cents an acre” (12). Grannie Campbell kept her children warm while they worked by wisely wrapping their feet in the indigenous way with rabbit skins and mocassins, supplementing it with materials (old papers) from the White culture. Maria sees her grannie’s adaptive powers as vitally important, in that she conformed to the pattern of powerful, dynamic, resourceful women that the author subsequently adheres to. Grannie Campbell, Maria remembers, was also physically very strong: “Because they only had one team of horses and Dad used these to work for other people, Grannie on many occasions pulled the plough herself” (12). Grannie Campbell, like Cheechum, was totally self-sufficient; in fact when Maria’s dad suggested that he could take care of her “she became quite angry and said he had a family to worry about and what she did was none of his business” (13). Until she was quite old, she “brushed and cleared the settlers’ land, picked their stones, delivered their babies, and looked after them when they were sick” (13).

        The representation of Grannie Campbell’s older sister Qua Chich is also another site of resistance against the stereotypical image of indigenous women because she survives the government’s treaty-making interventions, relocation to an Indian reserve, a marriage which left her widowed, and destitution and poverty which hounded her brothers and sisters. Campbell remembers Qua Chich as a peculiar old lady who cussed at her dog in Cree. Qua Chich was also considered quite wealthy because “she owned many cows and horses as well as a big two-storey house full of gloomy black furniture” (20). Campbell recalls that Qua Chich “was stingy with money, and if someone was desperate enough to ask for help she would draw up formal papers and demand a signature” (20). Qua Chich’s business skills thus exemplify another aspect of the strong and resourceful women who pattern the author’s family.

        The variety of female personae that Campbell presents in the book resists the highly limiting, confining, stereotypical images that imprison indigenous women. Campbell’s mother, described as “quiet and gentle, never outgoing and noisy like the other women,” also challenges the very restricting stereotype of princess/squaw (13). While Campbell admits that her mother, like so many others, “was always busy cooking,” she recognises that her mother was quite unlike the other Metis women because “she loved books and music and spent many hours reading to us….” (14).

        Campbell’s maternal grandmother Grannie Dubuque also resists, albeit in a different way, the stereotypical confines that non-indigenous people seem to construct for indigenous women. Campbell describes her as “a treaty Indian woman, different from Grannie Campbell because she was raised in a convent” (15). Grannie Dubuque had married Pierre Dubuque, a French immigrant who “arranged his marriage through the nuns at the convent” (15). During her early childhood Maria Campbell could not quite comprehend the devastating damage Christianity had inflicted on her culture. However, as a young writer in the process of being decolonised, looking back upon her life with fresh eyes, she begins to understand the Christian-patriarchal constructs that have defined her character. Indeed, she realises that Christianity is a powerful agent of colonisation, constantly attempting to impose controls. The author’s mother and Grannie Dubuque, as mentioned earlier, were both raised in convents and the colonisers’ religion severely eroded any connection they may have had to their original way of life.

        Campbell remembers that her people never talked “against the church or the priest regardless of how bad they were” (32). Recalling her mother’s undaunting and unquestioning faith in God, even when the fat priest eats what little food they have, Campbell observes that her mother “accepted it all as she did so many things because it was sacred and of God “ (32). The priest by comparison showed no respect for what was sacred to them. Campbell bitterly remembers that he took things “from the Indians’ Sundance Pole, . . . [things] that belonged to the Great Spirit” (29). Unlike her mother, Cheechum clearly understood the power politics manifested in the priest’s actions and thus thoroughly and defiantly resisted domination: “Cheechum would often say scornfully of this God that he took more money from us than the Hudson’s Bay Store” (32).

        Cheechum’s knowledge, values and belief system, unlike Christian dogmatism were derived from a closeness to the land, which had also provided her with a tremendous insight into human relations as well as a rich understanding of plants and animals. Having lived through many changes, she was extremely opinionated about the politics of war, the church, the roles of men and women, and the government. At Campbell’s mother’s death, she derives comfort from Cheechum’s words:

        I have never found peace in a church or in prayer. Perhaps Cheechum had a lot to do with that. Her philosophy was much more practical, soothing and exciting, and in her way I found comfort. She told me not to worry about the Devil, or where God lived, or what would happen after death. . . . She taught me to see beauty in all things around me, that inside each thing a spirit lived, that it was vital too . . . . and by recognising its life and beauty I was accepting God. She said that . . . . heaven and hell were man-made and here on earth, there was no death; . . . 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; . . . 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. (81-82).

        Cheechum’s simple ways were often contradicted by Campbell’s maternal relatives who were, strangely enough, simultaneously strict Catholics and superstitious Indians. Contrary to Cheechum’s subtle teachings about striving for spiritual and cultural riches, Grannie Dubuque often implicitly encouraged Campbell and her siblings to seek material wealth. Grannie Dubuque’s idealisation of white culture however, only reminded Maria’s family of unattainable goals.

       However, a closer scrutiny of the text reveals that Campbell’s language sometimes reflects her subtle conformity to White-Euro-Christian patriarchy when she begins to fragment her images of indigenous peoples. Referring to the differences between “Treaty Indian” and “halfbreed” women, she makes broad generalisations that are more stereotypical than factual: “Treaty Indian women don’t express their opinions, Halfbreed women do” (26). These differences, according to Campbell, represent part of a pattern between “Indian” and “Metis” people.

        In later years, wisely reviewing her life, Campbell insists, during a conversation with Hartmut Lutz, that “when it comes to Aboriginal people in Canada, we have the church to ‘thank’ in all areas, whether we are Metis, nonstatus 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 coloniser” (Lutz 47). A more articulate and mature Campbell points out that the Church, for fear of losing control, is now incorporating indigenous ceremonies and rituals: “But that’s the history of Christianity. When you can’t completely oppress people, if you are losing them, then you incorporate their spiritual beliefs. And that’s even uglier than the other way . . .” (Lutz 47). If her comments sound bitter, they need to be understood from the perspective of her own cultural context. As a young girl her dreams, hopes and ambitions were shattered by Christian patriarchal intrusions, her mother’s death, extreme poverty, racism and sexism. Her story, written when she was thirty-three years old, grew out of her anger and frustrations. To Hartmut Lutz, she confesses about the situation which had led to the writing of Halfbreed.

        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. (Lutz 53).

        Halfbreed thus enshrines an act of resistance. Through the construction of her text, Campbell looks back upon her life with a renewed vision and a stronger connection to those powerful, resourceful and dynamic women who were her predecessors and prime motivators of her life. What she has written in Halfbreed has rarely been expressed by indigenous women in North America. The exploitation, racism and sexism that she has suffered are what too many indigenous women have suffered. Her voice has allowed this suffering to be heard. Campbell’s first-hand knowledge of this suffering has reinforced her refusal to let her ancestors’ sufferings be white-washed by liberal do-gooders:

        Canada’s history . . . is that they are killing us with their liberal gentleness . . . . It’s okay to report the atrocities of other countries . . . but heaven forbid that Canadians would ever do something like that!.

       We were busy in the 1940s hearing about the horrible things Germany was doing. Nobody ever would believe that in Saskatchewan at the same time people were loaded into cattle cars, . . . and were . . . hauled some place, and dumped off in the snow – and some of those people dying. We never hear about things like that because Canada doesn’t do things like that. We need to write those stories ourselves. (Lutz 58-59)


       Although Campbell fiercely refuses to let white Canada erase what has been done to her people, she also addresses the way indigenous people have internalised colonialism. She recalls Cheechum’s words: Many years ago . . . the Halfbreeds came west . . . in their search for a place where they could live as they wished . . . . but they lost their dream . . . . They fought each other just as you are fighting your mother and father today. The white man saw that it 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 (50-51).

        Here Campbell highlights some of the manifest symptoms of colonialism internalised and manifested in family violence, with Metis privileging the white ideal. Campbell’s family had lived through extreme poverty but they were able to stay together and help one another. Campbell maintains that when her people lost their collective dreams and their hopes, they lost their self-respect. Her father lost his self respect when his own people turned on him, when the men who had come to organise and lead her people were seduced by offers of government jobs: colonised people betraying their own for material gain, is symptomatic of the colonial disease. The most prominent symbol of the government’s co-opting is embodied in the “Indian-in-the-suit”. During her reawakening (recounted towards the end of the narrative), she meets many indigenous people who have sold their dreams. Campbell is devastated by the way the oppressors use indigenous neo-colonial puppet-rulers to further their goals.

       Campbell, however, refuses to admit defeat. Like the very strong, vital and resourceful women within her family, she manages to survive colonial rule in its absolutely oppressive states – abusive men, systemic racism and sexism, alcohol and drug addiction. She does not die a victim of racism and sexism, or a hopeless whore with neither the strength nor the determination to liberate herself. She is a survivor and as such she leaves an important legacy for all indigenous women. More significantly, her courage in speaking out, in naming her oppressors, in reclaiming her-self, helps to lift the cloak of silence from other women similarly situated. As Campbell’s Cheechum wisely foretold, she has found her-self and discovered many more sisters and brothers.

        Campbell’s journey from a healthy and wholesome child to an unhealthy and unwholesome woman, and finally to a recovered and reclaimed woman – is in many ways reminiscent of the traditional Trickster culture-hero who survives great odds and incredibly challenges experiences only to live and begin again. Campbell leads contemporary indigenous writers in writing their cultures back into stability, thereby assuring survival. Her story, albeit woven with tremendous pain and suffering, is one of survival and subsequent liberation. She is a true follower of Louis Riel who prophesied at the time of his execution in 1885 that one hundred years later his people would rise up, and the artists, musicians and visionaries would lead the way.

1. Campbell, Maria. Halfbreed. McClelland and Stewart, 1973; Halifax: Goodread
     Biographies, 1983. Page references are from the Goodread edition.

2. King, Thomas, ed. All My Relations: An Anthology of Contemporary Canadian
     Fiction. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1990.

3. Lutz, Hartmut. Contemporary Challenges: Conversations with Canadian Native Authors. Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1991.

4. Ross, Rupert. Dancing with a Ghost: Exploring Indian Reality. Markham, Ont.: Reed Books, 1992.

The research on which this article is based was funded with the assistance of the
Government of Canada through the Canadian Studies Programme of the Shastri Indo-Canadian
Institute (SICI). Neither the Government of Canada nor SICI necessarily endorses the views herein


MAYA DUTT. Professor, Institute of English, University of Kerala, is the author of several articles published in scholarly journals on subjects ranging from Linguistics and ELT to British and Canadian Literature. She is the recipient of two international awards – the Key English Language Teaching Award of the British Government (1989-90) and the Faculty Research Fellowship of the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, to pursue post-doctoral research on Native Studies in Canada (1994). She is the joint editor of two books – one on South Asian Canadian, and the other a collection of short stories.

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Maya Dutt
Professor, Institute of English, University of Kerala, is the author of several articles published in scholarly journals on subjects ranging from Linguistics and ELT to British and Canadian Literature. She is the recipient of two international awards - the Key English Language Teaching Award of the British Government (1989-90) and the Faculty Research Fellowship of the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, to pursue post-doctoral research on Native Studies in Canada (1994). She is the joint editor of two books – one on South Asian Canadian, and the other a collection of short stories

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