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Blankets of Shame: Emotional Representation in Maria Campbell’s Half-breed – Verna Heikkilä

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume 5, 2009

Emotions Issue

© 2009 Verna Heikkilä


Blankets of Shame:

Emotional Representation in Maria Campbell’s Half-breed

Verna Heikkilä

University of Helsinki


Maria Campbell’s autobiography Halfbreed is a story of survival, and of overcoming a sense of shame related to ethnic identity. Campbell brings attention to the way in which race in the Canadian multicultural society has been seen as real and definable. She describes the consequences of such racial thinking on Metís individuals (half-breeds or non-status Natives), the humiliating situations visibly Métis or Native people have experienced in their everyday lives, and the consequent, debilitating sense of shame shared by many of them.  At the same time, as her story proceeds, Campbell develops a growing sense of empowerment as she takes it into her own hands to define Métisness and introduces a politicized notion of the Métis as a legitimate identity category within the context of Canadian multiculturalism.  In Halfbreed, the shame and anger resulting from the degrading, traumatic experiences are in the end not portrayed as debilitating feelings. Instead, shame and anger are revealed as transformative forces that, when managed through the act of autobiographical storytelling, accommodate a drive to fight back, resulting in both individual and collective survival and the possibility of political change. 


Maria Campbell’s autobiography Halfbreed (first published in 1973) is a classic account of a young Native woman’s struggle to survive, to come to terms with the past and to find a way of building a better future in a climate of social oppression and violence. Campbell describes her own life, tells her own story, but her tone is openly political, her approach revisionist, and her style provocative. She contrasts whites with Natives, and status Indians with Métis (“half-breeds,” or non-status Native people) in a way that seems essentialist, presenting Métis identity as something real, something definable. However, as suggested by Bonita Lawrence (2004:82-3), communities of non-status Native people in western Canada have been created “by arbitrarily externalizing from Indianness an entire category of Indigenous people, designated ‘half-breeds’ and now called ‘Métis.’”  

Campbell, while essentialising race in a non-revisionist way, at the same time introduces a political sense of Métisness as a legitimate identity category within the context of the Canadian multicultural society. Rather than describing the people who are identified as Métis, or the culture of those people, the term Métis has responded to the needs created by the larger society to define and classify people.

In this way, Campbell operates within the framework of the colonial society, which, as Benedict Anderson (1991:165) has put it, has a “(confusedly) classifying mind” that imagines identities, instead of relating to ethnicity as the people themselves experience it. But instead of accepting the half-breed identity imposed on her and “her people” by the colonial state, Maria Campbell takes it into her own hands to define Métisness as she experiences it. Indeed, Campbell, later followed by other Métis writers, has defined and re-defined the terms half-breed and Métis in her writing, thus taking possession of those terms. In Halfbreed, Campbell documents both the shame that she felt as a troubled young woman, as well as her growing sense of empowerment as she comes to embrace her Métis identity.

Halfbreed establishes Métisness as a socially acceptable ethnic-cultural category, replacing a sense of nothingness, of being neither Native nor white, of being only half-breed. The term Métis has thus gained content and context, and become a reference point for other individuals of mixed (Métis) heritage. Indeed, Halfbreed thus participated in the process of establishing Métisness as a legally valid ethnic category in Canada, finally leading to the inclusion of the Métis as one of Canada´s aboriginal people in the Canadian Constitution Act of 1982.

Growing up in a Métis community in Saskatchewan, Maria Campbell relates how she faced the community’s poverty and racism, along with the society’s institutional violence and the destruction of families. Her own childhood was relatively happy until the death of her mother, but then, after she had failed in her attempts to take care of her younger siblings, her family was cut apart by the social services, with sisters and brothers being forcefully separated from each other. Campbell attempted to escape the misery of her situation by marrying an white man, but he turned out to be abusive, and she ended up addicted to alcohol and drugs, prostituting herself, and attempting suicide, nearly taking her children to death with her to save them from the misery of living.

Finally, however, Campbell developed a sense of empowerment.  Partly inspired by her strong-willed Cree great-grandmother Cheechum, who gave her confidence in herself and in her people, and partly by the 1960s civil rights and Native movements, Campbell gradually channeled her feelings of anger, frustration and shame into her eventual work as cultural and political activist. As she writes,

Great Grandma Campbell, whom I always called “Cheechum,” was a niece of Gabriel Dumont and her whole family fought beside Riel and Dumont during the Rebellion. She often told me stories of the Rebellion and of the Halfbreed people. She said our people never wanted to fight because that was not our way. We never wanted anything except to be left alone to live as we pleased. Cheechum never accepted defeat at Batoche, and she would always say, “Because they killed Riel they think they have killed us too, but some day, my girl, it will be different.”(1983: 11)

Her reference here is to the humiliating experiences during and after the Métis “Rebellion,” the battle of Batoche of 1885.  Campbell gives voice to the Métis perspective and breaks the collective silence of the Métis, the silence used for generations as a protection against the shame of being Métis.  At the same time, she documents the oppression of the Métis since the 1885 Métis uprising and the consequent execution of the legendary Métis leader Louis Riel for treason. By documenting this oppression and the shame that resulted from it, Campbell adopts the role of a civil rights activist. Indeed, as Browdy de Hernandez points out, for “the postcolonial autobiographer [….] autobiography is not just an exercise in recapturing the past, but a future oriented project that seeks to establish a secure home ground where the subject may reside without fear of displacement or humiliation.” (1983: 21) Through her autobiography, Campbell thus transforms the feeling of shame and humiliation from collectively debilitating and destructive feelings into sources of power and faith in the possibility and necessity of change. 

Halfbreed is often said to offer an insight into the situation of the Métis people in Canada, especially the hatred and racism they have experienced, and the resulting bitterness and shame. As Campbell writes:

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. I never saw my father talk back to a white man unless he was drunk. I never saw him or any of our men walk with their heads held high before white people. (1983: 9)

In Halfbreed, Campbell finally talks back to the white man, on behalf of herself and of other Métis people, enabling them all to walk with heads held up.

Campbell uses autobiography to forward her political agenda, to improve the conditions of the Métis by offering insight into the situation of the Métis people. Autobiography is a tool for and a form of political activism. Autobiography can mediate messages and experiences across cultural boundaries, improve the possibility for empowering self-presentation, and open up new perspectives in public discourse. It links the personal and the political through emphatic processes, by emotionally engaging the reader, challenging and agitating readers for transformative action, thus making the invisible visible, the forgotten unforgotten, and bringing attention to the cause.

Campbell’s autobiographical “truth” consists of stories of the horrible realities and conditions of the Métis that were previously little-known in the wider society. Campbell describes her need to share her story by writing as follows:

Going home after so long a time, I thought that I might find again the happiness and beauty I had known as a child. But as I walked down the rough dirt road, poked through the broken old buildings and thought back over the years, I realized that I could never find that here. Like me the land had changed, my people were gone, and if I was to know peace I would have to search within myself. That is when I decided to write about my life. [….] 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. (1983: 2)

Halfbreed can be and, for example in the works of younger Métis writers, has  been seen as a story of self-discovery, an act of ethnic self-definition, or a therapeutic process that transforms shame and anger into a dialogue that engages both the writer and the reader in a healing act of remembering. Indeed, the practice of remembering and rewriting can, as Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez puts it, lead “to the formation of politicized consciousness and self-identity.” (1997: 21)

Campbell’s autobiography brings forward the Métis perspective to the historical events and thus proposes an alternative history, challenging hegemonic ways of knowing and looking at history and the way in which history is written. This culture contact that takes place when a Native woman writes to non-Native audiences in her own words and terms does not necessarily reveal an overwhelming sense of “victimization of the individual from the less powerful culture”, but as Mullen Sands points out, the processes of writing and reading autobiography “can lead to mutual respect and harmonious interaction and fair representation” (1997: 49)

As Julia V. Emberley writes, Halfbreed is an important example of “how Métis women writers reclaim the derogatory connotations their cultural positions evoke’”. (1993: 152) By telling her story in, Campbell claims her right to self-definition and begins a process of detaching herself from the shame associated with being half-breed. She addresses the way in which the identity creation of the Métis has largely been based on stereotypical assumptions and historical representations imposed on them by the dominant society and its authorities. In order to survive, the Métis have had to accept and assume those hurtful, stereotypical images of “dirty squaws” and “drunken half-breeds” on welfare.  Campbell describes, for example, the advice given to her by a friend, to help her get assistance from the authorities: “That night Marion scolded me. ‘If you want help, never tell them the truth. Act ignorant, timid and grateful. They like that.’ [….] Then she gave me her welfare coat, as she called it, to wear, as it was hardly appropriate to go to Welfare well dressed.” (1983: 154-5)

The Métis have been pushed to act according to these stereotypical images, thus again re-enforcing them. It was not enough to quietly accept those prejudices, but Campbell also had to adjust her own behavior and appearance according to them:

I went to the Office in a ten-year-old threadbare red coat, with old boots and a scarf. I looked like a Whitefish Lake Squaw, and that’s exactly what the social worker thought. He insisted that I go to the Department 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 trying to look timid and ignorant. I answered a hundred questions and finally he gave me a voucher for groceries and bus tickets, and told me to be sure I found a cheap apartment or house, because government money was not to be wasted. I left his office feeling more humiliated and dirty and ashamed than I had ever felt in my life. (Campbell 1983: 155)

This episode also demonstrates the extent to which the notion of race has had an effect on the lives of individuals belonging to visual minorities in a Canada, where multicultural policies are applied throughout the legislative and administrative policies. In order to receive assistance, Campbell had to face and accept the racial prejudices of the social worker, who in that situation was the representative of the society and had the power given to the society to rule over individuals.

In this context, Campbell talks about metaphorical blankets of shame, blankets that discriminated people use to protect them from the judging eyes of the society, to protect themselves from their own shame. As she writes, referring to her strong-minded great-grandmother Cheechum:

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 a part of that government. When I tried to explain to her that our teacher said governments were made by the people, she told me, “it only looks like that from the outside, my girl.” (1983: 159)


These metaphorical blankets preserve the shame they cover and prevent change. They cover shame, and while doing so, they keep people fearfully hiding, unable to take action towards change. Cheechum, as Campbell writes, “used to say that all our people wore blankets, each in his own way. [….] Someday though, people would throw them away and the whole world would change. I understood about the blanket now – I wore one too. I didn’t know where I started to wear it, but it was there and I didn’t know how to throw it away.” (1983: 159)

In an effort to overcome her personal problems, Campbell joined an AA group where, incidentally, she met other Native and half-breed people, people who were to play “an important role in the Native movement in Alberta.” (Campbell 1983: 167) And later on, she met other political and cultural activists though a woman she befriended. She writes: “I met students from other countries. I listened to everything they said, and brought home piles of books to read until late at night.” (1983: 178) However, even in the company of these political activists, she continued to feel inferior, her sense of inferiority reinforced by the scholarly rhetoric used by those activists. Finally, she turned to her own books, books on the history of Native people and, through these, gained confidence in her potential and abilities.

Through her jobs and her friends she then learned more about the present and past conditions of the Métis, saw the hopelessness of the conditions in the communities people were unable to escape from, and went through periods of hopelessness herself. Yet, she gradually learned to accept the slowness of change and the importance of perseverance. Seeing the lessons of history, of the traumas of unsuccessful uprisings, she worked towards change through minor improvements and achievements, in small steps rather than by aiming for a complete revolution. As Campbell writes, “For these past couple of years, I’ve stopped being the idealistically shiny-eyed young woman I once was. I realize that 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.” (1983: 184)

Campbell encourages people to take action, to have faith and pride in a unified sense of Métisness, to persevere: “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.” (1983: 184)

According to a common legend, Louis Riel said in 1885, “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” Whether or not Riel actually said these words is not relevant here. The fact that this famous quotation has so often been repeated and referred to in Native history writing, in the Internet, and even in the meetings of literary scholars studying Native literatures has made the statement true in its own, narrative way. It crystallizes the idea that while responding to various forms of oppression, Métis culture and identity have survived, nurtured by the power of creativity and imagination. Indeed, even with a history of violence, oppression, bitterness and shame, there is a possibility of a future, and of finding an alternative history of creative and determined resistance.

In Halfbreed, the shame and anger resulting from the degrading, traumatic experiences commonly shared by Canada’s Métis population, are not portrayed as  debilitating feelings. Instead, shame and anger are revealed as transformative forces that, when managed through the act of autobiographical storytelling, accommodate a drive to fight back, resulting in both individual and collective survival and the possibility of political change.  

Maria Campbell concludes her story with the following words of faith, victory and encouragement: “The years of searching, loneliness and pain are over for me. Cheechum said, ‘You’ll find yourself, and you’ll find brothers and sisters.’ I have brothers and sisters, all over the country. I no longer need my blanket to survive.” (1983: 184) She throws her shame away by casting her blanket away, making space for change and hope.


Anderson, Benedict (1991) Imagined Communities. London: Verso.

Browdy de Hernandez, Jennifer (1997) “On Home Ground: Politics, Location, and the Construction of Identity in Four American Women’s Autobiographies.” MELUS. Ethnic Autobiography 22 (4): 21-38.

Campbell, Maria (1983 Halfbreed. Halifax: Goodread Biographies.

Emberley, Julia V. (1993)Tresholds of Difference. Feminist Critique, Native Women’s Writings, Postcolonial Theory. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Lawrence, Bonita (2004) “Real” Indians and Others. Mixed-Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Mullen Sands, Kathleen (1997) “Collaboration or Colonialism: Text and Process in Native American Women’s Autobiographies.” MELUS. Ethnic Autobiography 22 (4): 39-59.