Who Was ... Grey Owl
Archibald Belaney known as Grey Owl (1888-1938). Born in Hastings, emigrated to Canada and lived as a native American. At age 40 he dedicated his life to protecting wildlife & wilderness, taking up writing and lecturing under the name Grey Owl. His uncompromising position on hunting and vivisection caused controversy – and after his death his true identity became known and he was rejected as a fraud. More recently he has been hailed as one of the first eco-warriors.
His parents separated when he was 4 and he was taken in by his aunts. He was fascinated by stories of American Indians and learned and practiced woodcraft skills. Desperate to live the life of an Indian he persuaded his aunts to allow him to emigrate to Canada at age 17.
He joined a band of Ojibway natives and married a native girl. As a young man, he was known as a bit of a hellraiser – getting drunk and brawling in the local town. Fleeing a warrant for his arrest he left the tribe and headed north.
He made a living trapping and selling furs and built himself a cabin in the woods where he lived with a young Mohawk girl who he named Anahareo. Tall and thin with aquiline features, hair in braids and wearing buckskin he looked every inch the Native American. He claimed to be half-Indian, inventing an Apache mother and a Scottish father to explain his blue eyes.
In the early 20th century the traditional Indian way of life was fast disappearing, the advance of civilisation was pushing back the wilderness which he had come to love. In 1928 he rescued and cared for two beaver kittens which had been orphaned when their mother died in one of his own traps. Shocked by the cruelty of what he had been doing he resolved to give up trapping and dedicate himself, with Anahareo, to protecting these fascinating and increasingly rare creatures.
To make a living he took to writing. He had been well educated before leaving England and found a ready audience for his articles about the wilderness and its creatures. He was concerned to raise awareness of how commercial interests were destroying the forests.
His first full length book published in 1931 “The Men of the Last Frontier” was an instant success – the lure of the unspoilt wilderness being in contrast with the gloom and doom of the Great Depression. Suddenly he was in demand.
His publisher wanting to cash in on his fame arranged lecture tours in England with a punishing schedule – Grey Owl was willing to do it, being anxious to get his message across to as many people as possible. He was uncompromising in his position, recording an interview for the BBC including a fierce condemnation of fox-hunting as a “barbarity”. The BBC refused to broadcast it and Grey Owl refused to back down.
Returning to Canada from the second tour in 1937 he was exhausted. Weakened by years of alcohol abuse he contracted pneumonia and died aged 49. The very next day the true story of his English origins broke in the press and the furore stirred up overshadowed his achievement.
Only in the 1990’s was he given his due as a pioneer of the green movement. He worked himself to death alerting people to the implications of destruction of the natural environment in the name of progress.
“It would seem as though the making of money would excuse almost anything, and that nearly any undertaking however unethical can be termed ‘business’ and so get itself excused, provided it is successful and does not muscle in on some big-shot monopoly.”
Author: Peter Bolwell
Published: Sat May 5 2018
Last updated: Wed Jun 6 2018