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We [Canadians] … are very lucky, in that we have all kinds of places to go within our own boundaries.

– Grey Owl

Grey Owl (b. 1888 – d. 1938) was one of the first and most powerful spokespersons for the preservation of a pristine wilderness and a strong Native identity in Canada. At the time Grey Owl was writing, in the 1920s and ’30s, it was generally assumed by whites that the Canadian wilderness and the Canadian Indian were doomed to disappear. This was imagined to be an inevitable consequence of progress. Grey Owl believed that for Canada to remain a unique country, both the wilderness and the Indian must continue to play a real (and not just mythological) role within it: "I want to arouse in the Canadian people a sense of responsibility they have for the north country and its inhabitants, humans and animal" (Grey Owl 1936: 144). Grey Owl therefore tried to convince white Canadians to support his conservationist plan by arguing that the continued presence of an untamed North within Canada was vital to national identity and well-being because it held out to Canadians the possibility of another place to go, another way to be.

White Indian

The dual identity of civilized/savage which Grey Owl envisioned for Canada also formed part of his own being. Grey Owl was born Archibald Belaney in Hastings, England in 1888. From childhood he had a fascination with all things Indian. He devoted himself to learning about the Native peoples of North America, drawing pictures in his notebooks of Indians in feathered headresses who looked very much as he himself would one day look in his reincarnation as Grey Owl. With his friends Archie played the role of a "Red Indian", learning woodcraft, sleeping outdoors, practising bird calls.

Archie Belaney was raised by the two aunts with whom he had been deposited as a baby by his parents. His father, George Belaney, was an inveterate wanderer, travelling to Florida to try his fortunes at orange growing and taxidermy and returning years later to Hastings a romantic, mysterious figure wearing a sombrero. About his mother, Elizabeth Cox, Belaney knew little, except that she was an American. The ambiguity about his parentage led the boy, with his love of Indian lore, to fantasize that his mother was an American Indian and that he himself was therefore half Indian. One gift George Belaney had sent his little son was a miniature model of a Mexican village. As Grey Owl would later tell his Mohawk companion, Gertrude Bernard:

My father sent me a miniature Mexican ranch – I was about five at the time. I thought it the most wonderful thing in the world, and it was. It had the little adobe houses, stables, and carved wooden horses – they had Navajo blankets instead of saddles on their backs, and little Mexican figures. Two of these figures I picked out as being my father and me, and I used to spend hour upon hour moving them about, imagining that he and I were working together on our ranch (Anahareo 1972: 180).

Here then were the seeds of Belaney’s alternative – and in his mind true – identity. His father was a Scotsman who had fought in Mexico; his mother was an Indian who gave birth to him in a Mexican encampment.

Eager to escape his strait-laced aunts and hum-drum life in Hastings, at the age of seventeen Belaney left England for Canada. His intention was to fulfill his dream of living with and learning from Indians, for – unlike most other British immigrants – it was not to English or French Canada that Belaney wished to immigrate, but to Native Canada. Once in Canada, his identification with Native culture led Belaney to openly claim – in this new land so far from England – that he was a half-breed who had been born in Mexico.

In Search of Native Canada

In search of Native Canada, Belaney first made friends with Objibwas living on Bear Island in Ontario. Through them he learnt the lore of the woods – how to snowshoe, canoe, track and trap animals – and the Ojibwa language. He learnt how to snowshoe and how to canoe, how to track and trap animals, how to survive a Northern winter in the woods. He also spent many evenings immersing himself in Ojibwa myth and ritual. In 1910, he married an Ojibwa woman, but possessed of a restless spirit like his father, it was not long before Belaney left his wife and continued his travels through the northlands. When news of the war in Europe came, Belaney, along with many of his "fellow" Indians, enlisted in the army. The war over he returned "home" to the North.

As an adolescent in Hastings Archie had boasted to a friend that he was going to Canada when he finished school. "To fight the Indians?" his friend had asked, thrilled. "No, to become an Indian", Archie answered. His friend retorted "But you can’t become an Indian if you haven’t been born one." Archie, who did not in his hometown claim to be of Indian blood, stated: "Yes you can…. You can be adopted into a tribe. That’s what I’m going to do" (Dickson 1939: 53). Among the Ojibwa, Belaney would come to think of himself as adopted into the Indian nation, a naturalized citizen of Native Canada. In later life, Belaney would describe this rite of adoption (which Grey Owl’s biographers tell us never actually took place) as follows:

A blood-brother proved and sworn, by moose-head feast, wordless chant, and ancient ritual was I named before a gaily decorated and attentive concourse … The smoke hung in the white pall short of the spreading limbs of the towering trees, and with a hundred pairs of beady eyes upon me I stepped out beneath it when called on … Hi-Heeh, Hi-Heh, Ho! Hi-Heh, Hi-Heh, Ha! … and there I proudly received the name they had devised (Grey Owl 1931: 225-6).

The name Belaney claimed to have received throgh this ritual was Washaquonasin – Grey Owl.

For the next decade Archie Belaney roamed the Canadian backwoods, making a living through trapping and increasing his knowledge of the wilderness and of Native cultures. In the towns where he stayed he inevitably presented himself as a half-breed, startling the inhabitants with his war dances and knife-throwing, and overplaying the role of "dumb savage" when condescended to by whites. He dyed his brown hair black and darkened his fair skin with henna. He could do nothing about his blue eyes but attribute them to the "white" side of his parentage. For Victoria Day, 1923, Belaney organized a "war party" in Biscotasing, Ontario. Playing the role of Indian chief, Belaney tied a symbolic white prisoner to a pole and "told him the wrongs that the white man had done to the Indian" (Smith 1990: 74). An odd way of celebrating Queen Victoria’s birthday, but the drama was a great success and got written up in the local paper.


It was not until Belaney was in his forties that he began his career as the conservationist for which he is best known today. This change of direction was occasioned by a number of revelations. Belaney was deeply disturbed by what he perceived as the destruction of the native way of life due to the loss of territory and the influence of white culture.

Modern influences have taken away much of the romance, picturesque appearance from Indian camps… Their racial pride has been sapped, and destitute and hopeless, they no longer have the ambition to keep up the old methods and traditions, so that home life is slipshod and wretched, and national character is falling into decay (Grey Owl 1936: 33).

Belaney also realized that great Canadian forests were being steadily pushed back. Increased prices for pelts and lumber, and a growing railway, brought droves of trappers and loggers into the North. Most of these had no interest in the land except as a source of quick cash. First the trappers would denude a region of wildlife, then the loggers would cut down the trees, and in the dried out bush which resulted, fire would often burn down what was left. While Indians had been able to live off the land without changing it, whites, apparently, could only make a living from the forest by destroying it.

Finally, Belaney became disgusted with the brutality involved in trapping. This disgust was triggered by the revulsion his new companion, a Mohawk woman named Gertrude Bernard, felt for the practice. When Bernard, otherwise known as Anahareo, adopted and raised a pair of beaver kittens whose mother had been killed in a trap, Belaney came to recognize that animals he had trapped for most of his life were highly intelligent and affectionate beings. After establishing a close bond with the kittens, Belaney vowed never to trap another beaver and to work to stop the wholesale slaughter of beavers.

Belaney henceforth devoted himself to writing of his experiences of the Canadian wilderness and of Native culture in order to forward his conservationist message and to provide an income to replace the one he had formerly earned by selling beaver pelts. Belaney’s vision was to establish wildlife sanctuaries throughout the North. He was also interested in prohibiting commercial traffic in animal skins to protect animal life and to prevent native culture from becoming commercialized and driven by European fashion trends. Belaney thought that Native peoples, instead of killing animals for profit, could work as conservationists and forest rangers in wildlife sanctuaries.

In his own writings Archibald Belaney presented himself as Grey Owl, a half-breed who was more Indian than white. The popularity of his writings led to extended lecture tours for Grey Owl in Britain and in North America. Grey Owl played up his Indianness for these lectures, darkening his hair and skin as was his custom and dressing in Native apparel. The Canadian woodsman, with his fringes, feathers and beads provided a thrilling sight on the streets and stages of England of the 1930s. (Although, ironically, some of Grey Owl’s Indian costume was actually bought in England, where it was sold as an exotic novelty from the colonies.) His message was thrilling to an audience jaded with and troubled by many of the traits of modern Western culture: "You are tired of civilization. I come to offer you, what? A single green leaf" (Raddall 1968: 144).

On one occasion Belaney lectured before the royal family. Walking onto the stage,

Grey Owl "flung up his right arm in salute, and addressing the King directly, said "How Kola". There followed a few words in the Ojibway tongue, then his arm was lowered: "Which, being interpreted, means `I come in peace, brother’" (Dickson 1973:249).

Little did the King realize he was being addressed by a fellow Englishman.

Grey Owl’s lectures and books were extremely popular and he was probably the best-known Canadian author of his day. The Times Literary Supplement stated that "it is difficult to recall any record of the great North so brilliantly and lovingly handled" (Smith 1990: 102). The New York Times wrote approvingly "Grey Owl is no stuffed Indian" (Smith 1990: 105). One suspicious reviewer from the University of Manitoba wondered "how in the world could a half-breed trapper pick up such an elegant style?" (Smith 1990: 106). Grey Owl angrily dismissed this criticism as a case of racial prejudice.

Due to his celebrity and his potential as a tourist attraction, the Canadian government offered Grey Owl a home and a place to raise his beavers within the new Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan. There the author poured the proceeds from his book sales into making educational films about wildlife. Grey Owl’s new fame and fortune had not in any way deterred him from his original purpose. In 1936 he declared:

Every word I write, every lecture I have given, or ever will give, were and are to be for the betterment of the Beaver people, all wild life, the Indians and halfbreeds, and for Canada, in whatever small way I may (Smith 1990: 162).

Such dedication was gaining the immigrant to Canada recognition. Grey Owl was called "Canada’s ambassador" by his enthusiastic supporters, and deemed "among the greatest Canadians of us all" (Smith 1990: 169).

In 1938, Grey Owl died suddenly in a Prince Albert Hospital from pneumonia brought on by overwork. Shortly after his death stories began to appear in the papers regarding his true identity: Far from being a Red Indian – as Native Americans were called – Grey Owl was of thoroughly British ancestry. Indeed the two maiden aunts who had raised him were still living in Hastings. A Red Indian with maiden aunts in Hastings was too much for public credulity and Grey Owl was transformed back into Archibald Belaney – not noble savage but wily white imposter.

The former trapper was himself trapped and skinned. Describing Grey Owl’s death, one cynical writer would jibe:

And what became of Grey Owl, stripped of his imposing plumage and revealed as a petty body after all? The Prince Albert undertaker, preparing the corpse for burial, rejected the buckskins sent along by the hospital people, and dressed it in a white shirt, tie, socks, shoes and a blue serge suit. So Archie went to the Happy Hunting Ground dressed for a businessman’s luncheon (Raddall 1968: 155).

Northern Lights

Grey Owl’s Canada was two Canadas; one the civilized South, home of Europeans, the other, the wild northlands, home of Indians. "The settled country to the South is, to the dwellers in [the] Wilderness, a world apart" (Grey Owl 1936: 11). So opposed are the two in Grey Owl’s mind that for many years he would not have a radio in his cabin for fear this strange device of modern technology would disturb the Northern climate:

We all had an idea in those days that radio caused electrical disturbances that had a bad effect on the weather, so that on account of some gigolo with corrugated hair singing "Ting-a-ling" or "You’ve got me crying again" in Montreal or Los Angeles, a bunch of good men had bad snow-shoeing all winter (Grey Owl 1934:19).

Grey Owl decried the tendency of European Canadians to despise the North. Such Canadians prefered to emphasize the advance of civilization in Canada over the expanses of wilderness, and would rather praise Canada’s skyscrapers than its forests and rivers. "North" in people’s minds, seemed to be associated with Arctic wastelands; while "Winter" was that frozen skeleton Canadians wished they could keep in the closet. "There seems to be a disposition to hide that part of our life that emanates from the North under a bushel, though it may yet prove to be the brightest ray of our national illumination" (Grey Owl 1936:145).

The North, according to Grey Owl, is what makes Canada unique among nations – "We have something here that no other country has" – it offers Canadians a dual existence: to walk city streets and paddle forest rivers (Grey Owl 1936: 148-9). The North provides the world-weary with an antidote to civilization, an antidote no longer available in much of the Western world.

At the present time countries having a heavy population are all in trouble, the accumulation within their borders seeking an outlet in any direction, and finding themselves surrounded by others in a like predicament are all dressed up and have nowhere to go. We, on the other hand, are very lucky, in that we have all kinds of places to go within our own boundaries (Grey Owl 1936: 145).

At a time when it was taken for granted by most whites that civilization was superior to wilderness, and whites superior to Indians, Grey Owl insisted on their equality. His vision of Canada was founded on a unity of you and I. Employing typical British imperial rhetoric a friend of Grey Owl wrote a poem lauding the Prince of Wales:

If the Prince of Wales is an English lad
His blood is the best, the best! (Smith 1990: 169)

After reading this poem Grey Owl wrote one word at the bottom: "Why?" Later Grey Owl would advise his friend to concentrate on exploring "the heart of Wilderness" rather than raving about how "England is the best (or any other nation)" (Smith 1990: 169).

The North, for Grey Owl, was the Canadian frontier, but not in the same way that the West is the American frontier. No one ever speaks of "how the North was won." To Grey Owl, you can destroy the North or learn to live in it, but you do not win it. The North is not about cowboys killing Indians, but about learning to live from and with Indians. An important consideration here is that, while in the United States the Indian was typically the enemy, in Canada the Indian was often an ally. For example, in the War of 1812 – that engagement which looms large in Canadian history but tends to be forgotten by Americans – it was largely thanks to the joint forces of British troops and Native warriors led by Tecumseh that the invading Americans were pushed back.

The Canadian North, therefore, has a very different ethos from the American West. The young man who goes North, does not go to conquer, but to survive. He does not establish his dominion over God’s creation, he discovers (if he is good enough) his equality with other living beings.

Man should enter the woods, not with any conquistador obsession or mighty hunter complex, neither in a spirit of braggadocio, but rather with … awe …. For many a man who considers himself the master of all he surveys would do well, when setting foot in the forest, to take off not only his hat but his shoes too and, in not a few cases, be glad he is allowed to retain an erect position (Grey Owl 1936: viii).

In the dualism of North and South, Indian and white, Grey Owl preferred to identify himself with the former. He wrote that he "irrevocably belonged" to the North and that "I feel as an Indian, think as an Indian, all my ways are Indian, my heart is Indian" (Smith 1990: 166)). Yet Grey Owl had the same dual identity that he assigned to Canada. He was one of those weary products of civilization whom the North provided with another place to go, another way to be. To some extent he acknowledged this dual identity by calling himself a half-breed, but he was a cultural half-breed, rather than a racial half-breed. If he had been born Native, or half Native, and grown up in the wilderness, Archibald Belaney might well have had the longing for Western culture and learning that as a well-schooled English boy he had for the trackless Northern forest. In his writings Grey Owl condemns those half-breeds who try to pass themselves off as whites without recognizing that their aspirations might not be that dissimilar from his own – to find a better life in the life of the other.

After years of living in the backwoods, his own British background would come to seem as ridiculous to Belaney, as it would seem to those people who had known him as Grey Owl, when his other identity was finally revealed. In a letter to his companion Anahareo, with whom he had a daughter, he wrote:

Two old maiden ladies living in some part of Scotland have written me through Country Life [magazine] and claim to be first cousins, or some kind of cousins of my father’s side of the family…. Funny how things turn out. No doubt we will find that you have inherited your war-like spirit from the Duke of Buckingham. Perhaps our daughter is the rightful Queen of Scotland, or an Apache Princess. Who knows what next will be heard? (Dickson 1973: 23).

Perhaps that Grey Owl, the renowned Indian author and spokesman for the Canadian North, was an Englishman?

Good Indian or Dead White Man?

Grey Owl wrote that his conservationist message was best received by whites as opposed to Indians or half breeds (Grey Owl 1936: 86). He preferred speaking in Canada and England, however, to speaking in the United States, where the figure of the Indian formed part of that country’s subjugated frontier history, and where he became "sick of walking the streets… in Indian regalia and having playful people ask him what cigar store he was working for" (Smith 1990: 206).

The most enthusiastic response to Grey Owl’s lectures and books came from his British homeland. It is not surprising, in many ways, that this should be so. Who should know better how to inspire the imaginations of an English audience with stories of Indians and wildlife than a man who as an English youth had his own imagination kindled by stories of the North? Unlike the storybook Indians who lived up to the romantic ideals of their white readers, most real Indians – as reported by immigrants to the Canadian colony – seemed to be depressingly unromantic, drunk, dirty and hapless. When Grey Owl arrived on the scene, he redeemed the image of the Indian – here, at last, was a good Indian, an Indian who could hold himself with dignity and speak of the wisdom of the wilderness.

After Grey Owl died, however, it was uncovered that what had seemed like the only good Indian was a dead white man. In the opinion of many, Grey Owl’s native persona had been assumed solely to promote his books. Belaney’s reputed Indian identity certainly must have contributed to the enormous popularity of his books and lectures and also lent authority to his conservationist message. However, this Indian identity was not adopted only for promotional purposes. Belaney had been living and representing himself as Indian, or half-Indian, for many years previously, at a time when there were no ostensible advantages to be gained from doing so, and many disadvantages. Half-breeds, as Grey Owl claimed to be, were nothing rare or romantic in the Canadian bush. As he wrote "there are thousands of mixed bloods like myself kicking around the North" (Smith 1990: 166). The truth is that both Belaney’s Indian identity and his works on wildlife came from the same source: his drive to live in and for the wilderness.

After the first shock produced by the revelation of Grey Owl’s white identity, many commentators were reluctant to denounce him as a fraud. One of his contemporaries wrote: "I care not whether he was an Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman or Negro. He was a great man with a great mind, and with great objectives which he ever kept before him" (Smith 1990: 214). An editorial in the Ottawa Citizen asserted that, far from jeopardizing the value of his work, Belaney’s masquerade as an Indian added to his accomplishments. The general feeling – at least among white Canadians – seemed to be that Belaney, if not an Indian by birth, was a self-made Indian, and that the benefits of his work in favour of nature conservation and the advancement of Native interests far outweighed any possible negative effects of his impersonation.

After a period of neglect, Grey Owl was brought to the attention of the public again in the 1970s as a pioneer conservationist. His message once again seemed vital and inspiring to a generation concerned about the vanishing wilderness. By this time his imposture had come to seem more interesting and romantic than fraudulent, enhancing, rather than detracting from, his reputation. Ironically, if Belaney’s Indian persona was what first gained him widespread fame, it would be the intriguing falsehood of that persona which would keep his memory alive.

More recently, Grey Owl, and other "white Indians", have been criticized as whites who appropriated for themselves the voice of the Indian. This criticism has been motivated by the contemporary concern over issues of cultural appropriation. As Deborah Root writes in Cannibal Culture,

individual acts of cultural appropriation do not float in space but are underlain by very precise systems of authority. In a society [such as Canada] where land theft is legitimated by law, and where communities and individuals are repressed to facilitate the colonization of territory, the taking up and popularizing of the culture under seige are not neutral acts. In effect, Belaney told non-Natives what they wanted to hear, which was that Native people did not actually concern themselves with politics and indeed were quite content with the colonial status quo (Root 1996: 105-6).

Grey Owl’s politics were deeply conflicted, to be sure. But rather than condemning him for his individual acts of appropriation, should not Grey Owl perhaps be praised for emphasizing the worth and importance of Native culture? Particularly when one considers that he supported Native cultures at a time when many whites and even some Natives perceived Indianness only as a stumbling block to a desirable integration into Western civilization.

On the other hand, when whites speak not only with the voice of the conquerors of the New World, but also with the voice of the conquered, there is no longer a place for any one else to speak. The very role of the Indian becomes dominated by whites. An analogy may be made to a play in which men play the parts of women as well as of men. The men playing women may be representing the concerns of actual women, but on the other hand they may not – and in any event, women themselves don’t have much say in the matter.

One may argue that if Grey Owl had not spoken up on Native issues during his lifetime no Native person would have taken his place and so, better Grey Owl than no one. This argument does not withstand close scrutiny, however, for silence may be telling – telling of oppression, or of other ways of communication. Grey Owl covered up this silence with his voice. The studied prose of his books made it appear that Indians could be completely comfortable speaking through the "white man’s tongue", and that one language and one form of expression could serve whites and Indians equally well. In some ways, Grey Owl was only a "good Indian" because, as a white man, he knew what a good Indian "should" be.

In the end what was ostensibly a Native perspective, was actually another white vision of the Canadian frontier. This does not mean it was not an important and powerful vision, only that it was not a Native one. Yet the headlines which appeared in the press after Grey Owl was exposed as an imposter — "`Grey Owl’ Was Not a Red Indian – He Was a Sussex Man!" (Smith 1990: 211) — do not ring completely true, for they fail to recognize what Grey Owl realized; that Canada is a country in which double identities and cultural paradoxes do not have to be reconciled. If Grey Owl was not really a "Red Indian", he was not really a "Sussex Man" either. His immigration to Canada had enabled him to transcend his cultural background and recreate himself as, if not an Indian, a man of the North. His crafted Victorian-style prose proves that he never lost his old identity; but the contents of that prose proves that it existed only in partnership with his new self. As Grey Owl (1936: 145) had put it: "We [in Canada] are very lucky, in that we have all kinds of places to go within our own boundaries."