CONVERSATIONS: MARIA CAMPBELL

 

Maria Campbell is an Elder, Author, Scholar, Storyteller, Playwright, Broadcaster, and Filmmaker who grew up on the fringes of the boreal forest region of Saskatchewan near Park Valley. She works tirelessly to share stories and promote culture of Métis people through interdisciplinary art. Maria continues to create and collaborate on countless important projects that aim to promote Métis culture. She is fluent in the Nehiyaw, Michif, Saulteaux, and English languages. Maria is currently a cultural advisor and sessional lecturer at the University of Saskatchewan within the College of Law and at Athabasca University as a visiting academic at the Centre for World Indigenous Knowledge and Research. She holds a Master of Arts in Native Studies from the University of Saskatchewan and has received honorary doctorates from York University (1992), University of Regina (1985) and Athabasca University (2000). Maria has published numerous books over her career and is still actively publishing books among other projects. Her formative memoir, Halfbreed (1973) was unprecedented and very influential across Métis county. It explores ideas around mixed-blood Indigenous identity in Canada, and the challenges that come with it. Halfbreed paints a picture of the overarching sense of egalitarianism and community belonging within Road Allowance Métis Communities. These communities existed on the fringes of society out of sight and out of mind until the land was needed by settler cultures.  In the foreword for Contours of a People: Metis Family, History, and Mobility Maria elaborates on this further:

“After the resistances were put down, the leaders hanged, imprisoned, or exiled, and their homelands settled by new immigrants, our people were forced out by fear of violence and imprisonment. Many fled to the United States or to isolated areas of the Northwest and were forgotten by authorities. They settled on crown lands, or road allowances and were, according to the government, squatters; their inherent right to their land not recognized. They became known as Road Allowance People, and they were left alone, out of sight, out of mind, until it was again time for settlement or resource development” (1)

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Wild Plains Bison in the Park Valley Region of Saskatchewan. (Photo: J Surkan)

Her family lived a traditional sustenance lifestyle that was semi-nomadic in nature. Winters were spent in a log home along with other local Métis families, and during summer months their family was mobile and travelled their territory gathering medicines, food, and resources. The land at park valley is rich with mixed aspen forests and fescue meadows. Elk. Moose, Whitetail Deer, Wolves, Coyotes, Foxes, Waterfowl, and a herd of Bison still roam wild in this region. Up until the late 1920’s, the Halfbreed families in this area (Chartrands, Isbisters, Campbells, Arcands, and Vandals(2)) lived semi-nomadically lives that revolved around the seasons and natural cycles on the land. In fear of losing access to their lands when immigrant families moved into the area, these families began homesteading and lost their semi-nomadic lifestyle.

The homes many Métis families constructed across the prairies were unique to Métis people and was a hybrid between their Maternal and Paternal inheritance. Maria shared more about the type of home her family built in the park valley area during an interview:

“The quality of construction of a Road Allowance home was interdependent on the amount of time a family figured they would live in that area. In the area where I grew up (Park Valley), families thought they were going to settle this area for a significant amount of time, thus their first houses were very well constructed. They were strong houses for the main families of the area. The houses were all constructed from white poplar logs that were locally harvested. The logs were hand-hewn and dovetail notched at the corners. The houses were mud plastered with a mixture of chopped up grass and clay. By the late 1940’s and 1950’s families were forced to move around frequently and their houses were built more ephemerally. They were still log and mostly dovetailed, but they were put together much faster than the permanent homes… The poplar logs were not as straight as other types of logs such as pine or spruce. They had a larger gap between each course of logs. They (Métis Families) would take willows and stick  them into the cracks between logs, and then you’d mud over top of that. Those houses were the ones that were done really well. When they were all finished mud-plastering then the exteriors of the homes were all limed and whitewashed. At the end of the last day of the whitewashing, my grannies would be in charge of organizing a big feast. We would have a great big communal meal including last years potatoes from the root cellar and smoked muskrat all cooked over a cooking fire. This was a ritual for our families each year… Taking care of our homes was a community activity. Every spring all the families gathered together and we would burn the yards, when snow was still on the ground. The burning would regenerate the landscape around the house, and the grass grows very green after this.  After the burning was done, people would take all of the mud off of the house. My father and all of the men would go and get clay, and they would chop up really fine grass and mix it with the mud. Our family would use a stone boat hauled by two horses like raised beds on two skids to move clay from one house to the next. We would do that all together as extended kin and it strengthened our community.”

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Métis Folk Home with Gabriel’s Crossing Bridge in Background. (Photo: J Surkan)

This passage clearly illustrates a Métis way of life where egalitarianism and consensus are driving factors for social organization. This way of life developed out of Métis Buffalo hunting governance and culture in the prairie provinces in the 19th century. (3) Government subsidized housing programs are not sensitive towards this communal way of life and home building in Métis communities and these programs have had a lasting negative impact on our nation.

Currently, Maria Campbell lives and takes care of the land during the spring and summer months at Gabriel’s Crossing, just south of the historical Métis Site of Batoche Saskatchewan along the banks of the South Saskatchewan River. Maria hosts cultural camps, creative gatherings and storytelling workshops here at the site. During the summer of 2106, David Fortin and Jason Surkan traveled to visit Maria at her home here. She shared a long-term vision to construct a cultural center for artists to gather at the crossing and collaborate cross-culturally and contextually. In the fall of 2017, Jason began working collaboratively with Maria to design these structures through his thesis project at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. A design for a cultural center and four artist residency cabins was completed over the winter months and the thesis was successfully defended in April of 2018.

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Rendering of Cultural Centre at Gabriels Crossing (Image: J Surkan)

(1) Campbell, Maria. Contours of a people: Métis family, mobility, and history. Edited by Brenda MacDougall, Nichole St-Onge, and Carolyn Podruchny. Vol. 6. University of Oklahoma Press, 2012.

(2) Campbell, Maria. Halfbreed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

(3) David Burley, “Creolization and late nineteenth century Métis vernacular log architecture on the South Saskatchewan River,” Historical Archaeology 34 (2000): 32.

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