Grappling with Settler Self-Education in the Classroom: Rereading the History of Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed

By Rebekah Ludolph

“If the past 30 years have taught us anything, it is that there is a powerful, loud bunch of privileged white settlers who do not want to learn about us or from us…they are unaware and do not have to bother doing their research.” – Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm (Anishinaabe)

Akiwenzie-Damm calls for settlers to self-educate. To do their research and acknowledge the information that is available to them because of the hard work of Indigenous writers and scholars.

As a settler graduate student attending lectures and leading tutorials I have worked primarily in thematic courses featuring one or two Indigenous literary works framed as texts to promote settler-student education about settler-colonialism in Canada. From this experience, I notice that class discussions often verge on what Eve Tuck (Unangax) calls “damage-centered research.” Our curriculum “intends to document people’s pain and brokenness in order to hold those in power accountable for their oppression” but, in the process, often “reinforces and reinscribes a one-dimensional notion of [Indigenous] people as depleted, ruined, and hopeless” (409).

This often happens inadvertently when classes overlook the important work Indigenous texts perform outside of settler education or when class is conducted under the assumption that it is only composed of settler students (whether Indigenous students choose to publicly identify themselves or not). While there are already many resources teachers can use to address this situation, the politics of settlers using Indigenous literatures for self-education warrants deeper investigation.

The publishing and reception history of Métis writer and community worker Maria Campbell’s 1973 autobiography, Halfbreed, for example, points to the long-standing practice of positioning Indigenous texts as first-and-foremost tools for settler education. Maintaining this interpretive position, to the exclusion of other perspectives, continues to produce damage-centered readings of Indigenous texts.

In this post, I want to try to explore different ways in which Settlers can approach this literature, its literary history, and the broader concerns raised with regard to education by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I will use Campbell’s Halfbreed, a key work in Canadian and Indigenous literary history and thus a key point of interaction between settlers and Original Peoples, as a case study.

When publisher Jack McClelland saw the “makings of a bestseller” in Campbell’s manuscript, he identified the need for Campbell’s text to be shaped as an effective pedagogical tool for settlers: a “biography with a purpose” (qtd. in Edwards). In order to achieve this, McClelland asked Campbell to expand the “unique and devastating” content from her childhood, and cut the vast majority of the text, save for Campbell’s return to her almost abandoned childhood community and any suggestions she wanted to make about how to help her people. McClelland also suggested that the connections Campbell made between colonial displacement and dispossession, racism, poverty, survival sex work, addiction, and the sexualization of Indigenous woman might cause her readers – clearly assumed to be settlers – to become “unsympathetic” and therefore endanger her cause (qtd. in Edwards).

Campbell had to work with her text to make these connections in ways settler’s could understand and validate. Changes were imposed for other reasons, too. This most significant example was that,  citing legal reasons, the publishers removed a section depicting her being raped by RCMP officers as a young teenager.

The limits of settler education work here as a form of censorship. In the words of publisher Jim Douglas, it was considered necessary for Campbell to “let herself be publicized, her past exposed, her family life jeopardized” to educate settlers (qtd. in Edwards). The removal of the “RCMP incident” from the text reveals that it was not acceptable for high profile businessmen, the RCMP, or important publishers to be under fire. Rather, Campbell was left with the emotional work of accepting and correcting the publisher’s decision (as she did in her play Jessica).

What interests me is not only that framing Halfbreed as a settler pedagogical tool was an effective sales tactic (the book was a bestseller), but that the limits of what settlers were willing to learn influenced both the editing of the text and reader interpretations.

The 1973 reviews of Halfbreed reveal settlers to be conducting damaged-centred readings of the text. A Maclean’s feature entitled “Lessons of Defeat” claimed the book would educate settlers about the “little bands of Indians and Metis [we see] as we drive into such towns as Fort McLeod and Prince Albert” (27) and the despair and defeat they experience. And, Cornelia Herbert’s often cited review states: “Halfbreed … is shocking … the hand that holds the book trembles at what it has done” (344). Readers were ready to educate themselves about the damage of colonialism, but did not appear to grasp other aspects of the text. This self-education was acceptance of historical tragedy.

Both McClelland and the 1973 reviews preclude multiple readings of Campbell’s political motivation that scholars, primarily Indigenous scholars, have since emphasized; Cheryl Suzack (Anishinaabe) argues that Halfbreed might be read as a text that calls for a “coalition of Aboriginal women’s identity” in direct response to the 1969 White Paper which disenfranchised many Indigenous women. Janice Acoose’s (Anishinaabekwe-Métis-Nehiowé) attempt to “model a cultural-specific theoretical approach [and] reveal the possibilities for the interpretation of Indigenous literature” (217) considers Campbell’s work to be a “Nehiowìwin-Métis cultural revitalization project” that “initiated the practice of carrying into English important elements of culture, dynamic storytelling elders, and a distinct language” (225). And Deanna Reder (Cree-Métis) investigates Halfbreed as an Indigenous autobiography that models the nêhiyâwiwin intellectual tradition wâhkotowin, kinship. Reder and Acoose read Halfbreed as evidence of enduring, complex, culturally specific literary traditions; while these readings are not primarily concerned with settler education, they implicitly refute damage-centred assumption of inevitable Indigenous oppression and brokenness.

What is at issue here extends outside of literature. If a course like the ones in which I find myself assisting were to conduct a reading of Halfbreed today, if they were to frame the text, for example, as educating the class about violence against Indigenous women, and if they were to ignore the existence of readings like those offered by Suzack, Reder, and Acoose, even with the best of intentions, the class would be at risk of conducting a reading not far from those damaged-centred readings produced in 1973.

As scholars, First Peoples, the state, allies, and settlers work to engage the full meaning of the TRC and think about what it might mean to know more about First Peoples and the violence of settler-colonialism, settlers and settler instructors need to ask these kinds of questions: how should we read texts and history?

Ignoring the importance of literary texts for Indigenous interpretive communities could result in ethnocentric readings and, most troublingly, these readings would be on display in front of a new group of students.

Paying attention to literary histories, such as that of Halfbreed, can shed light on the importance of thinking critically about how we go about much needed settler self-education and perhaps move us away from conducting our classrooms in a way that undermines the important political work done by the literary texts we study.

Rebekah Ludolph is a settler PhD candidate in the Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Works Cited

Acoose, Janice. “Honouring Ni’Wahkomakanak.” Reasoning Together: The Native Critics Collective, edited by Craig Womack, Daniel Heath Justice, and Christopher Teuton. U of Oklahoma P, 2008, pp. 216-33.

Akiwenzie-Damm, Kateri. “The cultural appropriate debate is over. It’s time for action.”   The Globe and Mail, 19 May 2017. Accessed 5 Apr 2018.

Campbell, Maria. Halfbreed. 1973. Formac, 1983.

Edwards, Brendan Frederick R., “Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed: ‘Biography with a Purpose.’” McMaster Digital Collections. study/maria-campbellshalfbreed-biography-purpose Accessed 2 Apr 2018.

Holbert, Cornelia. “Halfbreed.” Best Sellers, vol. 33, 1973, pp. 344.

“Lessons of Defeat.” Macleans,1 May 1973. Accessed 5 Apr 2018.

Reder, Deanna. “Indigenous Autobiography in Canada: Uncovering Intellectual Traditions.” The Oxford Handbook of Canadian Literature, edited by Cynthia Sugars, Oxford U P, pp.170-90.

Suzack, Cheryl. “Law Stories as Life Stories: Jeanette Lavell, Yvonne Bédard, and Halfbreed.” Tracing the Autobiographical, edited by Marlene Kadar, Linda Warley, Jeanne Perreault, and Susanna Egan, Wilfrid Laurier U P, 2005, pp.117-42.

Tuck, Eve. “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities.” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 79, no. 3, 2009, pp. 409-27.

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