Early Life and Education
Maria Campbell was born on a trapline in northwestern Saskatchewan. (See also Fur Trapping.) She grew up in a road-allowance community; road allowances refer to the nine-metre strips of government-owned land on either side of a road. Campbell was raised speaking the Cree, Michif, and Saulteaux (Ojibwe) languages. (See also Indigenous Languages in Canada.)
When she was seven years old, she was sent to residential school in Beauval, Saskatchewan. During her one year at the school, Campbell was punished when she spoke Cree. She described this experience in Halfbreed (1973): “I was pushed into a small closet with no windows or light, and locked in for what seemed like hours. I was almost paralyzed with fright when they came to let me out.”
Having worked in cities as a community organizer, Campbell co-wrote Many Laws (1969), a handbook that illuminated many of the challenges that Indigenous people face when they move to urban spaces.
Campbell’s first full-length book was Halfbreed (1973). It chronicles the first 33 years of her life, covering her experiences of poverty, alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide attempts, violence and sex work. Halfbreed also recounts many of Campbell’s experiences being subjected to discrimination from both settler Canadians and Indigenous people. She addresses the sense of divided identity that results from being positioned between two cultures as a Métis person. When the book was published in 1973, it received positive reviews from readers and critics, and it is still used in classes on Canadian literature, women’s studies and Indigenous studies.
Campbell is also the author of books for children, including People of the Buffalo: How the Plains Indians Lived (1975), Little Badger and the Fire Spirit (1977) and Riel's People: How the Métis Lived (1978). All three offer teachings about Métis spirituality and heritage. (See also Religion and Spirituality of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)
In 1991, Campbell was interviewed for Hartmut Lutz’s book, Contemporary Challenges: Conversations with Canadian Native Authors. In 1995, she wrote Stories of the Road Allowance People, in which she translated Cree-Michif narratives into English. The book was illustrated with paintings by Sherry Farrell Racette, a Métis scholar, author, and artist based at the University of Regina.
Campbell’s writers’ camp at Gabriel’s Crossing near Batoche, Saskatchewan resulted in the 1985 anthology Achimoona, a collection of stories by emerging Indigenous authors. She co-authored a book about Indigenous cultural practices called Give Back in 1992 and was an editor of Keetsahnak, a book about murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, published in 2017. Campbell has also written newspaper and magazine columns for Indigenous and mainstream media over her career.
Radio, Plays and Films
Campbell had a radio career as a writer and interviewer in the 1970s. In 1989, she co-wrote The Book of Jessica: A Theatrical Transformation with Linda Griffiths, loosely based on Halfbreed. The play debuted in 1986 at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille and won the Chalmers Award for Best New Canadian Play as well as the Dora Mavor Moore Award.
Campbell’s first professionally produced play, Flight, was the first all-Indigenous theatre production in Canada. The performance wove together Indigenous culture, modern dance and storytelling. Campbell has also served as a cultural advisor for the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company (now known as the Gordon Tootoosis Nikiniwin Theatre). She did cultural presentations at Batoche National Historic Site for many years.
Campbell wrote the film TheRed Dress (1978), a National Film Board production directed by Michael Scott. It tells the story of a woman caught between two worlds: her Indigenous culture and the world outside it. Campbell has also has been involved in various other films as both a writer and director, including Edmonton’s Unwanted Women (1968), Road to Batoche (1985), Cumberland House (1986), A Centre for Buffalo Narrows (1987), Joseph’s Justice (1994), La Beau Sha Sho (1994), Journey to Healing (1995) and Sharing and Education (1985). In 1984, Campbell co-founded a film and video production company, Gabriel Productions, that produced 34 community documentaries between 1984–97 and co-produced the television show, MyPartners My People (1987), which aired on CTV for three years.
In addition to her work in the arts, Campbell is a volunteer, activist and advocate for Indigenous rights and the rights of women. In 1963, she founded the first Women’s Halfway House and the first Women and Children’s Emergency Crisis Centre in Edmonton. Campbell is also the national grandmother for Walking With Our Sisters, an art installation about murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls touring Canada since 2013. (See also Indigenous Women’s Issues in Canada.)
Campbell was an Assistant Professor at the University of Saskatchewan and a Special Scholar under the Dean of Arts and Science. She was also a Seasonal Instructor at the Saskatchewan Federated Indian College (now First Nations University).
At Brandon University, Campbell served as a Stanley Knowles Distinguished Visiting Professor (2000–01). She was also a visiting academic at the Centre for World Indigenous Knowledge and Research, Athabasca University in 2009.
Campbell has been a writer-in-residence at a number of institutions including the University of Alberta (1979-80), the Regina Public Library (1980-81), Persephone Theatre (1983-84), the Prince Albert Public Library (1985-86), Whitehorse Public Library (1994-1995), the University of Saskatchewan (1998-99), and the University of Winnipeg (2008-09).
Mostly retired, she is a cultural advisor to the law school at the University of Saskatchewan and elder in residence at the Centre for World Indigenous Knowledge and Research at Athabasca University.
Awards and Honours
- Order of the Sash, Métis Nation of Saskatchewan (1985)
- National Hero award, Native Council of Canada (1979)
- Vanier Award, Vanier Institute (1979)
- Honorary Chief by the Black Lake First Nations (1978)
- Honorary Doctorate, University of Regina (1985)
- Chalmers Award for Best New Play (1986)
- Dora Mavor Moore Award (1986)
- Gabriel Dumont Medal of Merit from the Gabriel Dumont Institute (1992)
- Honorary Doctorate, York University (1992)
- Golden Wheel Award, Rotary Club, Saskatchewan (1994)
- Saskatchewan Achievement Award, Government of Saskatchewan (1994)
- National Aboriginal Achievement Award (now Indspire) (1995)
- Chief Crowfoot Award, Department of Native Studies, University of Calgary (1996)
- Inducted into the Margaret Woodward Saskatchewan Theatre Hall of Fame (2000)
- Honoarary Doctorate, Athabasca University (2000)
- Canada Council for the Arts Molson Prize (2004)
- Distinguished Canadian Award, presented by the Seniors University Group and the Seniors Education Centre of the University of Regina (2006)
- Saskatchewan Order of Merit (2005)
- Officer of the Order of Canada (2008)
- Honorary Doctorate, University of Ottawa (2008)
- Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Fellowship (2012)
- Honorary Doctorate, University of Winnipeg (2018)