Maria Campbell, whose real name is June Stifle, is a 33year-old Canadian half-breed. Her people were Riel’s people, and the Canadian government signed no treaties with them. Growing up in the Métis settlements of northern Saskatchewan, she learned the lessons of defeat and despair she describes in a new book being released this month by McClelland and Stewart. She also learned, in a painful journey through the white man’s world, to come to terms with the past by casting in her lot with that of her people. The haunting excerpt from Half-Breed that follows is a scene many Canadians will recognize. We see these little bands of Indians and Métis as we drive into such towns and cities as Fort Macieod and Prince Albert and The Pas. Only this time we are witnesses through the eyes of one of the people we stare at.
Summer was always a great time because during those months Dad was home from trapping and could spend most of his time with us. In early June Mom would bake and pack food in the grub box while he would grease the wagon wheels and fit the harness. Then we would leave our house early in the morning and head for the bush to pick seneca root and berries. Our parents sat on the front seat of the wagon, Great-Grandmother Cheechum and Grannie Campbell and the littlest ones in the middle, Jamie, Robbie and I on top of the grub box, tent or tailgate. Our four dogs and two goats ran behind and away we went.
By dinner time three or four wagons of half-breeds had joined us along the way and everyone was talking and yelling and joking, excited at seeing one another and at the prospect of what lay ahead. By the time we pitched our tents for the night there were 10 or more families in a long caravan. What a sight we must have been, each family with one or two grannies, grandpas, anywhere from six to 15 children, four or five dogs, and horses trimmed with bells!
The evenings were great. The women cooked while the men pitched the tents and we kids ran about, shouting and fighting, tripping over dogs which barked and circled around us. Parents called to each other and slapped at their young ones, but only halfheartedly, because they too were enjoying themselves. We all sat down to supper outside and ate moose meat, ducks or whatever the men had killed that day, bannock baked on hot coals, with lard and tea, and all the boiled berries we could eat.
Afterwards we helped to clean up and for the rest of the daylight hours the men would wrestle, twist wrists, have target practice or play cards. Someone always had a fiddle and guitar and there was dancing and singing and visiting. We kids played bears and “witecoos” (a white monster who eats children at night) until it was too dark and we were called in to bed. Inside the tent were our blankets all spread on fragrant spruce boughs, freshly cut. A coal-oil lamp on the grub box gave some light. When we were put to bed the grown-ups would gather outside and an old grandpa or grannie would tell a story while someone built up the fire. Soon everyone was taking turns telling stories, and one by one we would creep out to sit in the background and listen.
Half-breeds are very superstitious people. They believe in ghosts, spirits and any other kind of spook. Alex Vandal was the craziest, wildest man in our area and he believed with his heart and soul in the devil. He would tell about the time he came home from playing poker for three nights. His wife and 10 children were asleep in the shack and it was fairly dark. His wife’s sewing machine was beside the bed and as he came in the little drawer in the bottom opened and a devil the size of his hand stepped out and jumped to the floor. Alex said he froze in terror. As it landed on the floor, it got bigger and bigger until it was taller than him. Its eyes were red like fire and its tail switched. It smiled and said to Alex, “I helped you win the games, Alex, now I’ve come for your soul.” Alex came to his senses and pulled out his rosary and held it in front of the devil who then.disappeared.
And so the stories would go. The owls hooted and we would draw closer to our parents and grannies and they would hold us. Someone would again build the fire up until finally we all went to bed, paralyzed with fear. Then, after lying quietly for a few minutes, we would have to go to the toilet. Dad and Mom would never take us out, so our grannies would have to. I remember being so frightened that I couldn’t pee for the longest time, and I nearly fainted whenever a dog howled or branches moved in the wind. Soon the camp would be quiet, the silence broken once in a while by a mother crooning to her baby, awakened perhaps by the howl of a coyote or a wolf.
We worked like beavers during the daytime. Grown-ups would compete to see whose family picked the most roots or berries and parents would drive the children like slaves, yelling insults to each other all the while. Come suppertime and everyone would gather around while the old people weighed it all to see who had picked the most.
We had bad times during those trips too. For as much as we all looked forward to going to town, we knew our fathers would get drunk. The day would come when we had enough seneca roots and berries to sell, so we would all get bathed, load the wagons and go. The townspeople would stand on the sidewalks and hurl insults at us. Some would say, “Half-breeds are in town, hide your valuables.” If we walked into stores the white women and their children would leave and the storekeepers’ wives, sons and daughters would watch that we didn’t steal anything. I noticed a change in my parents’ and other adults’ attitudes. They were happy and proud until we drove into town, then everyone became quiet and looked different. The men walked in front, looking straight ahead, their wives behind, and — I can never forget this — they had their heads down and never looked up. We kids trailed behind with our grannies in much the same manner.
When I first noticed this, I asked Momma why we had to walk as though we had done something bad and she answered, “Never mind, you’ll understand when you’re older.” But I made up my mind then and there that I would never walk like them; I would walk tall and straight and I told my brothers and sisters to do the same. Cheechum heard me, and laying her hand on my head she said, “Never forget that, my girl. You always walk with your head up and if anyone says something then put out your chin and hold it higher.”
Those days in town were both nightmare and fun, the evenings ugly yet at times humorous. After the roots and berries were sold, Daddy would give some money to Mom, some to our grannies and 25 cents to each of us and we went shopping. Mom and the grannies always bought flour, lard and tea, and then they would look for satin and silk material to make blouses, embroidery thread in all colors, and scarves. We kids bought comics and black licorice pipes. The men went to the beer parlor, promising to be out in half an hour.
After our shopping was done we all walked over to the wagons. We waited and waited until finally Mom and some of the braver women drove to the outskirts of town, set up tents and made a meal. Those times were quiet, with little laughter or talk. Bedtime came, with the warning that if Mom called us we were to run outside and hide.
Sure enough, about one or two in the morning the men returned, yelling and singing. Sometimes they were not too drunk but often they brought wine and started drinking outside the tents. Then Mom would call us and we would crawl out back of the tent, to hide in the bushes and watch until they all fell asleep. The men would get happy-drunk at first and as the evening progressed white men would come by. They all danced and sang together, then all too soon one of the white men would bother the women. Our men would become angry, but instead of fighting the white men they beat their wives. They ripped clothes off the women, hit them with fists or whips, knocked them down and kicked them until they were senseless.
When that was over, they fought each other in the same way. Meanwhile the white men stood together in a group laughing and drinking, sometimes dragging a woman away. How I hated them. They were always gone when the sun came up. Our men would be sick and hung over and ugly-mean, the mothers black and blue and swollen. The men would go into the beer parlor every day until the money ran out and every evening the fighting would start again. After two or three days, we all left, usually at the request of the RCMP.
One day we were visited by a committee of indignant townspeople, among them an Indian dressed in a suit, who told us to leave, but we were still waiting for our men so we stayed. We were very frightened, though the women tried to quieten us. One wagon was set on fire before we were left alone. Our men came back shortly afterwards and for once sobered up at the destruction they saw. They caught the horses and we were gone before dawn. I remember feeling guilty about the trouble we’d caused, and angry at myself for feeling apologetic.
Our summers were spent in this way until I was 13 and those trips to town always became more unbearable, because little by little the women started to drink as well. ■
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