A conversation with Maria Campbell
- Lindell Haywahe | October 02, 2023
Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed, published in 1973, celebrated its golden anniversary.
Halfbreed remains a testament to the power of literature and a catalyst for change.
Campbell’s ability to bridge gaps and foster dialogue between different perspectives has made her an inspiration to many aspiring writers, activists, and anyone seeking to make a positive impact on the world.
Here is part of the conversation. (Some responses have been edited for length)
LH: It’s been 50 years since you published Halfbreed, what are your thoughts?
MC: It was 50 years on the first of May… It doesn’t seem like that long ago. It’s always amazing to me. I still have people who stop me on the street or talk to me in restaurants. In fact, I went into a place the other day and, and this lady followed me while I was shopping and she said, “You look familiar.” She asked me if I was Maria and I said yes, and she was probably in her late forties. And she told me how she had read the book. She was non-Indigenous and she read it when she was in high school, and how it had really made a difference for her. [She was amazed by] how close she was and how she didn’t know anything about the people around her. Stuff like that happens quite frequently and so it always blows me away when I think of it that because it’s still relevant.
Lots of things have changed for us, but the change that’s happened for us as Indigenous people, has been through our hard work. It’s through us writing and painting and doing things like podcasting and now radio and doing our own newspapers. We’ve made change among ourselves, and we have so many young people going to university and graduating. Those are all things that we’ve done. That was our initiative.
But when you look at the larger society, not a whole lot has changed.
We’re still struggling with the same kinds of things. My great grandchildren: the oldest one is 18, and the youngest one, is eight, and they’re still struggling with a lot of the same things my kids went through.
LH: Do you realize the magnitude of the influence your book has had?
MC: Yeah, I do in one way, simply because I was one of the early writers. I probably was the first one to write about things that nobody was wanting to talk about, but I don’t think about it like that. I don’t think of that as myself. I think about that as a young woman because I really found myself when I was writing.
I started writing because I was just so frustrated and angry. I didn’t know what to do. I felt so powerless. It was not so much therapy, I just felt like I had to talk, and in my generation, we were silenced...a lot. We had to fight just to speak.
I started to realize what an impact books were having on people because they were having an impact on me.
I was reading about what was happening, in the black movement in the US. And I was looking at things in the world and I was identifying with them and those were helping me, to understand about colonization because we certainly didn’t use those kinds of words when I was a young woman. I didn’t really start to hear those kinds of words until I was in my late thirties.
LH: What was the experience like when you were writing the book?
MC: I was so frustrated. I was a single mom and trying to raise four kids trying to navigate through that without losing myself in it. I didn’t want my kids to have to go through all the things that I had gone through, and I was just powerless to do anything, so I was writing.
I hate the word, therapeutic, because those are such victim words, but it made me strong. I was able to release all of that stuff. I can’t really say it’s therapeutic, because when I think of therapeutic, I think you’re all clean and everything is good, and your life is changed forever.
Mine certainly didn’t.
It was even harder after I had released all of this stuff, and I was able to look at it objectively. After it was published. I could look at the world with almost a clear lens, and I understood… what had happened to us.
I always use the metaphor of a puzzle. I used puzzles with my kids all the time. We were always doing puzzles together and board games. [Once] you finish a puzzle and you drop it and the pieces fall all over.
Well, I always think about that.
I remember my own elder telling me that once trying to demonstrate what happened to us. He tossed the finished puzzle up in the air and these pieces flew all over and he picked them up and he said, ‘Look at there’s three pieces that can be your friend, And here’s five pieces over here and somebody’s got 10 and one of us has one. And some people don’t have anything because they were so broken. And he said, ‘All we have to do is work together and put those pieces together and we can all make it the whole picture again.’
That really stayed with me. And that’s really what I feel like the book did for me.
I was able to feel like I had quite a few pieces: I had grown up on the land. I had grown up with culture and so I had more pieces. I had privilege with that, even if I was struggling and I was poor. I felt strong.
Then I met lots of other people who had other pieces, and we started to work together.
I’ve been an activist for the last 50 years, so I met a lot of really good, strong people who came through the same things I did. We ended up in urban places because there was no place for us anywhere. And working with them, I started working in radio.
I did radio for a couple of years before I started writing Half breed.
It was just so liberating.
All my life—I had to shut up. Whether it because of being in a violent situation, growing up in all kinds of trauma, you just learn not to talk.
After a while, you want to talk, but you don’t know how to articulate anything. So that’s what it did for me.
That young woman was only 29 when she started writing.
I understand what happened with her and how she really helped me to become the, the old woman I am now.
I love her and appreciate her because she liberated me. And I guess an old part of me must have done that for her.
The complete audio of the interview is available on CFNUradio.ca.