Top critical review
Disadvatageous peoples of North America
Reviewed in Canada on August 30, 2000
The novel, "Half-breed" is based on the biography of Maria Campbell, a Metis woman who was born in northern Saskatchewan. Maria Campbell's family was a mixture of Scottish, French, Cree, English, and Irish. They spoke a language completely different from the people around them. The half-breeds lost their land when the authorities reclaimed it to offer to immigrants. Thus half-breeds settled down along the road lines and crown lands where they built cabins and bars, giving them the title of "Road Allowance people". Maria was born in a home where Cheecum, her father's Cree grandmother, taught ancient Cree rituals and legends. Maria's struggle for existence was strengthened by the Cree traditions and by Cheecum's wisdom. However, this was weakened by extreme discrimination and poverty.When she was fifteen, she tried to escape from poverty and discrimination by marrying a white person. However, soon after she broke up with him and found herself alone in the slums of Vancouver where she faced drug addiction, prostitution and depression. After many years of hardship and struggle, Maria made new friends who helped her to remember Cheechum's lessons, advice and her heritage. Eventually she returned to her own people and decided to work with native organisations all across Canada. The text is mainly concerned with the frequent discrimination, its negative impact and the extreme poverty in which the Metis- Indians had to live under. The narrator of the book, Maria Campbell, conveys her sorrows and frustrations by emphasising what it is like to be a Half-breed woman and grows up between two opposing worlds: white and native. The text clearly demonstrates the existing problems regarding race within the pluralistic Canadian society. The narrator develops the argument by describing her experiences. Through her experiences, she explains how badly whites treated her and her people. She grew up as a social outcast and was constantly teased and mistreated by other school children. Throughout the novel, Maria Campbell provides many examples to show the white society's mistrust and rejection of her people. The examples show the Indians' isolation on every level of society, including the church. Not only were she and her family excluded and driven out of church, but they also had to suffer verbal insult. Whenever the Half-breeds went downtown, the town's people would yell "Half-breeds are in town, hide your valuables." If they walked into stores, other white women and their children would leave while the shopkeepers'wives and children would watch to prevent the Half-breeds from stealing. The text discusses three important sociological concepts: discrimination, poverty and injustice. Defining these concepts in "cause-effect" context, one can see the interconnection among the three. Unjust government policies causes poverty, which in effect contributes to society's enhanced discrimination and mistrust of the Indians. While the Half-breeds represent a subculture, characterised by certain cultural traits that differs from others in the society, whites represent the dominant class who hold the power and influence. The Half-breeds were homeless because the Canadian government had unfairly taken their land away from them, so they have remained poor and unable to establish their own social institutions such as church and school. Consequently, the Half-breeds were subordinated and forced to speak the dominant language, behave the way whites do, and go to schools and churches that were built by the white society. Thus, the cultural diversity, different physical appearance, economical scarcity and a disordered life style, greatly influenced the discrimination against the Half-breeds. In the first fourteen chapters, the narrator relates the life style of half-breed families, their relationship with the white society, their traits, traditions, and their history. Through her experiences, she explains how badly whites treated her and her people. She grew up as a social ou, the Half-breeds remained relatively poorer and powerless. As the narrator states, due to poverty and lack of housing the Half-breeds had to move to "road-allowance-houses" (which are like shacks). The pages of these chapters also uncover the main cultural differences between whites and half-breeds by describing their family structure, distinct traditions and conception. These differences can be the structural elements that contribute to the uniqueness of Indian's situation. Firstly, unlike whites', half-breeds have extended family type in which two or more generations of the family members live together. Secondly, the half-breed families and other Indians live in a community where they practise their spiritual rituals, traditions and transmit their distinct cultural elements to the coming generation. It is also evident in the novel that Maria's family included her extended family and the Cheemchum taught Maria and her siblings their heritage, legends as well as cultural values and norms. Finally, the most important characteristic that sets the Indians apart from whites lies in their spiritual conception of the world. While the Indians are highly spiritual and believe in the interpretation of the natural and the supernatural, the whites strongly believe in subduing and dominating nature in order to create nature in men's image. With respect to such differences, in regards to family and community structure Indians try to sustain their distinct conception of the world as well as their distinct culture. Hence, their struggles to protect and sustain their uniqueness make them more distinct and marginal in the society. Maintaining these distinct elements also causes the Indians to remain economically weak in the contemporary industrialised Canadian society, since their belief is based on rationality rather than spirituality and the supernatural. The rest of the chapters are about Maria Campbell's life in Vancouver. The book mostly focuses on the realities of urban racism, prostitution, drug addiction and violence. Maria's husband left her without any money, which forced her to face prostitution. Within functional perspective, which is based on consensus and harmony for the benefit of society, prostitution seemed to be the only way for Maria to survive. Therefore she had to get involved in prostitution in order to survive and have enough money to raise her daughter; thus she carried out her function in society. In this process she also became addicted to drug and alcohol, because all the terrible circumstances that she faced were against her moral understanding and distinct (Half-breeds') conception of the world. So she lost her self-esteem and found herself in depression with the trap of drug addiction and alcoholism. At the end, she recovered from her addictions through the help of her own people. They helped her to regain her identity and dignity hence she started to work within "Native people" organisations throughout Canada.Campbell's experiences with discrimination, poverty, and other unfavourable things are realistic and persuasive. The examples that she gives in the novel strongly support her argument: the hardship of being "a half-breed woman in the white dominated Canadian society". Yet, at times her narrative tends to be biased since she conveys her story in a subjective manner. Especially, her easy and quick involvement in prostitution and drug addiction is questionable and difficult to understand since she was raised in a conservative and traditional Cree family. Nevertheless, The book "Half-breed" basically reflects an outstanding aspect of native people's difficulty in assimilating into the pluralistic Canadian society. It also provides a brief knowledge about how native people's distinct culture and subordinated economical or political weakness contribute their marginal and isolated position in the society. Overall, I personally think this book is useful for understanding the sociological concepts such as inequality, discrimination and poverty through the eyes of the distinct people who are discriminated against. The text offers an aspect of native people's lives in northern Saskatchewan through a half-breeds woman's experiences. The simple language and fascinating narrative makes the book more interesting and easy to read.