Grey Owl’s Great Deception

Many of the native people whom Grey Owl met knew instantly that he was a counterfeit, but they saw the value in what he was saying.

We expect our heroes to be flawed, but Archie Belaney, aka Grey Owl, was more flawed than most. The guise under which he did his considerable good works was a lie. Yet, in his heyday he was the most famous Canadian alive.

Archie created his fantasy world early in his unhappy childhood. Abandoned by his parents, he was raised by two strict aunts who were determined that their nephew would not turn out like his worthless father. Archie retreated into books and an imaginary world peopled by romantic images of North American Indians.

When he came to Canada in 1906 Belaney headed for the wilderness around Lake Temiskaming, astride the border of Ontario and Quebec. There he set about creating his own family myth, in which he was born part Apache in the southwestern United States. He married an Ojibwa named Angele and began weaving snippets of language and culture into his personal narrative.

He died his hair black, darkened his skin with henna and stared in a mirror for hours to practice a stoical “Indian” expression. He left Angele and presented his new persona to a young Iroquois girl named Gertrude Bernard. Archie loved and respected Gertrude, whom he named Anahareo, but he could never tell her the truth about his origins.

Conservationist Grey Owl presented himself as the son of an Apache and a Scot. He was in reality an Englishman who devoted much of his life to conservation. He is shown here with a beaver pup in Riding Mountain Park (courtesy Archives of Ontario/P-150).

Anahareo shared the work but she hated the suffering that she saw among the animals on Archie’s trap line. One day he trapped and killed a mother beaver he heard the crying of two motherless kits. As he went to shoot them, Anahareo begged him to spare them. Surprisingly he agreed. Over the next winter and summer of 1929 the two kits won him over completely. They touched in him, he said, “a chord of tenderness that lays dormant in every human heart.” Now it seemed to him that “to kill such creatures seemed monstrous. I would do no more of it.”

To try to support himself Archie wrote his first article for the English magazine Country Life. He declared himself an “Indian writer” and for the first time he used the name “Grey Owl.” He worked furiously on a manuscript that would appear in 1931 as The Men of the Last Frontier.

Grey Owl’s book contained his invented family history, but it also revealed him to be a wonderful storyteller and, after his conversion by Anahareo, a pioneer of conservation and defender of the endangered beaver. Grey Owl made sure that his prose was not perfect and insisted that his editors leave in his deliberate spelling and grammatical errors. The book was a bestseller and Grey Owl became a darling of the Canadian press. After Commissioner of Parks James Harkin read the book, he invited Grey Owl to become “caretaker of park animals” at Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba, and later at Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan.

In 1936 Grey Owl made a triumphant return to England as the Hiawatha character he had imagined as a boy. He spoke to sold-out houses repeating the same theme “Remember you belong to Nature, not it to you.” He returned

As his success grew, so did his anxiety of being discovered. At least one journalist, Ed Bunyan of the North Bay Nugget knew that Grey Owl was a fake, but he chose not to run the story. Many of the native people whom Grey Owl met knew instantly that he was a counterfeit, but they saw the value in what he was saying. While anthropologists like Marius Barbeau demeaned the native way of life, Grey Owl celebrated it.

In 1937 Grey Owl made an even more successful tour of Britain, meeting the King and Queen. He followed with a hectic speaking tour of Canada and the US but his health was broken by alcohol and exhaustion. He died April 7, 1938.

Once the Nugget got the story of Grey Owl’s death, it finally ran its three-year old article, quoting Angele’s statement that he was a “full blooded white man.” Newspapers around the world picked up the story but they hesitated to condemn Grey Owl. Anahareo reacted with disbelief. “I had the awful felling for all those years I had been married to a ghost,” she wrote.

Grey Owl’s life was a fiction that demeaned his personal relations but it was redeemed by his empathy for nature, wildlife and the native way of life. Through his elaborate deception he enriched the consciousness of Canadians about issues that we now consider essential to our well-being.

James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia. 

First published in the National Post and CanWest newspaper chain, now featured on The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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