I come in peace, brother.
On 10 December, 1937, Buckingham Palace fell under a spell. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, their young daughters Elizabeth and Margaret, and Queen Mary, the King's mother, sat and listened to a lecture. The lecturer was a rather remarkable man. Dressed in a buckskin outfit, beads, moccasins and a single eagle feather, he was Grey Owl, a member of the Ojibwa people. For four hours he entertained the Royals with an illustrated talk on the wilderness of Canada, its beautiful wildlife and the culture of the Native Americans. Grey Owl described his life as an American Indian, revealed how he had been converted by his wife from trapper to conservationist, and brought a stark message of how indiscriminate commercial hunting and logging were threatening both the environment and the traditional way of life. He illustrated his talk with films, showing, among other things, his domesticated beavers, McGinty and McGinnis, who had been hand-reared by the pair after their mother was drowned in a trap.
Grey Owl's voice was deep, his English was perfect and he was a gifted storyteller. His bronzed face, long black plaited hair and somewhat distant gaze made him as authentic a figure as you could ever wish to meet. The Windsors were transfixed. When the lecture was over, the King clapped Grey Owl on the shoulder and said, 'Goodbye, brother. I'll be seeing you.'
He Who Walks By Night
It was clear from his features that Grey Owl was not a pure-bred Indian. He described himself as the Arizona-born product of a Scotsman named MacNeill – a frontier scout in the US Army – and an Apache mother from Northern Mexico. When he was 12, his father was killed in a brawl. According to Grey Owl, his older brother then avenged his father's death and went on the run from the law. Grey Owl was then adopted by his father's friend, Colonel Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, and toured as a knife-thrower with his Wild West Show, visiting England in 1906.
When Cody died, Grey Owl returned to Canada with an Ojibwa woman and her two sons, then became adopted into the tribe, who gave him the name Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin, literally 'He Who Walks By Night', but translated into English as 'Grey Owl'. He then worked as an Indian guide for mineral prospectors in Northern Ontario.
During the First World War he enlisted as a sniper in the 13th Montreal Battalion and was sent to the trenches in France, twice being wounded in action. Following his recovery in an English hospital, he returned to Canada and became a trapper. It was there he met and married his Iroquois wife, Anahareo.
Ambassador From the Wild Lands
Man should enter the woods, not with any conquistador obsession or mighty hunter complex, neither in a spirit of braggadocio, but rather with the awe, and not a little of the veneration, of one who steps within the portals of some vast and ancient edifice of wondrous architecture.
— Grey Owl, Tales of an Empty Cabin.
Grey Owl was also a gifted writer, and regularly submitted articles to magazines. These attracted the attention of publishers, and between 1931 and 1936, he wrote four best-selling and critically acclaimed books on life in the Canadian wilderness, including one for children. Grey Owl poetically described his early life, his transformation from trapper to conservationist, and how he had devoted his life to the protection of the beaver: this useful and valuable animal, representative not only of all North American Wild Life but of the Wilderness itself.
His growing reputation secured Grey Owl a number of conservation jobs with Canadian National Parks, not least to help develop tourism in the region. He shot and narrated films on the beaver which were widely distributed. One publisher, Lovat Dickson, then proposed he tour Britain to promote his message. In 1935, he delivered 200 lectures to a total audience of 50,000 people. Another tour followed in 1937, culminating in the royal command performance.
Despite the King's warm farewell on that occasion, the 'brothers' never did meet again. Four months later, Grey Owl was dead. He succumbed to pneumonia, exacerbated by the exhaustion of the gruelling lecture tours. News of his unexpected death was widely reported, but no sooner had the obituaries been typed than another story broke, one which painted a very different picture of the man.
One year before his death, Grey Owl was in North Bay, Ontario, en route to northern Quebec to make a film about the wilderness in winter. At a local hotel he arranged to give an interview to Mort Fellman, a journalist with the North Bay Nugget. Fellman, however, had had a tip-off. He asked the Indian if he knew of the name 'Belaney'. The interview was swiftly closed.
For two years, the Nugget had sat on a story which would have exposed Grey Owl as a fraud. An Ojibwa woman from the town of Temagami claimed that she was once married to Grey Owl, and that 25 years previously, he had walked out on her and their one-year-old daughter. More disturbingly, she claimed that he had no Indian blood in his veins at all; he was an Englishman by the name of Archie Belaney.
The newspaper's editor knew it was a huge scoop, but for some reason decided not to publish. Once Belaney was dead, however, it all came flooding out.
On 18 September, 1888, Archibald Stansfield Belaney entered this world in the town of Hastings, on the South Coast of England. His mother Kittie was a teenager; his father George was a wastrel, who he may never have met. He was adopted and raised by two maiden aunts, Carrie and Ada. Educated at Hastings Grammar School, Archie was by all accounts a gifted pupil, notably in English literature. Deprived of parental love and affection, however, he developed into a bit of a loner, immersing himself particularly in books of Indian stories, and acting out his fantasies in the local woods, capturing small animals, and sleeping rough. He also experimented with gunpowder, on one occasion detonating an explosive device inside the office of his first employer, a Hastings timber merchant.
In 1906, Carrie and Ada eventually funded Archie's desire to go to Canada and become a trapper. At Temagami he met the Ojibwa woman Angele Egwuna, lived with her family group on Bear Island, and the two married in 1910. Angele gave birth to their daughter Agnes the following year, but Archie had no intention of settling down into family life. He travelled north to continue his trapping and fell in with another woman, Mary Jero, who conceived a child before he abandoned her, too. He drifted around the community at the settlement of Biscotasing, where he developed a drink problem and got involved with petty crime. It was at this point that he started to pass himself off as an Indian, using dyes to colour his hair and skin. At this point in his life, joining the army didn't seem such a bad idea.
Archie's war record was fairly in line with the story he spun as Grey Owl. One episode he omitted to mention occurred during his convalescence in England after being shot in the foot1 and invalided out of the army. He stayed with his aunts, then met and married his former girlfriend Connie Holmes, and started to settle in England. Yet, the lure of Canada was too strong, and he returned to visit Angele, who conceived their second child. He later divorced his English wife. In 1925, once again trapping in the Canadian North, he met the Iroquois woman Gertrude Bernard, who he named Anahareo, one who was happy to accompany him on his expeditions. It was her influence on Grey Owl that led to his conversion when they discovered the two orphaned beaver pups. From this point until his death, Grey Owl's stories were accurate.
So there was no Indian blood in Grey Owl, no outlaw brother avenging his father's death, and no appearance with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. This romantic poet was an English bigamist, alcoholic and consummate con-artist. Neither his publisher Lovat Dickson nor his wife Anahareo had any idea of his past. Yet, history has treated him kindly. Not only did we enjoy his writings, his films and his lectures, we understood both him and the message he was preaching. Archie Belaney was following his dream to live a romanticised First Nations2 life, a time-honoured Canadian pattern of European men going off into the wilds, taking what were at times known as 'country wives', and settling down to a new and sometimes double life. Today, this phenomenon is often referred to as 'The Wacousta Syndrome', after the title character of Major John Richardson's 1832 novel.
Perhaps more relevant today is our view of Grey Owl as a pioneer environmentalist, and we can probably thank him alone for the fact that the beaver is not extinct. We can forgive him a few indiscretions along the way.
If, in the pursuit of his strange and lonely path, Grey Owl thought it well to adopt a race and a tradition that were not in fact his own – not in order to deceive his fellow-men or to amuse the children who so loved him, but in order to feel himself in body and spirit the being he desired to be – he did it that the truth of him might be the more true.
— Leader in The Times, 22 April, 1938.
Further Reading and Viewing
Grey Owl's books remained in print for over 50 years, and were popular school readers. His life story has spawned many biographies, as well as a Richard Attenborough movie.
Grey Owl's Books
- The Men of the Last Frontier (1931)
- Pilgrims of the Wild (1935)
- The Adventures of Sajo and her Beaver People (1936)
- Tales of an Empty Cabin (1936)
- Donald B Smith, From the Land of Shadows: The Making of Grey Owl
- Lovat Dickson, Wilderness Man: The Strange Story of Grey Owl
- Anahareo, Devil in Deerskins: My Life with Grey Owl
Two of Grey Owl's silent beaver films are available online at the National Film Board of Canada:
Grey Owl - the Movie
In 2000, the movie Grey Owl, directed by Richard Attenborough3, was released in British cinemas. As boys, Attenborough and his brother David, a celebrated naturalist, attended one of Grey Owl's lectures, and believe it influenced their future careers.
The movie went straight to DVD in the United States. Despite its £20m budget, its stunning photography, and having the actor Pierce Brosnan4 in the title role, American distributors didn't know how to market it. The decision enraged Attenborough, who was told by distributors: It does not have a sufficient scale, does not have sufficient special effects and does not demonstrate or illustrate either the pornography of violence or sex.
In other words, it's a good, old-fashioned movie. Catch it on DVD.