Grey Owl (or Wa-sha-quon-asin, from the Ojibwe wenjiganoozhiinh, meaning "great horned owl" or "great grey owl") was the name Archibald Belaney (September 18, 1888 – April 13, 1938) adopted when he took upon a First Nations identity as an adult. He was a writer and became one of Canada's first conservationists.
Archibald Stansfeld Belaney was born in September 1888 in Hastings
, to a farmer family. His father wasted the family fortune in drinking. Some sources also suggest that his mother was only 13 years old when they were married. His parents separated in 1901, and his father left the country.
Belaney was raised by his grandmother and two maiden aunts. He expressed an interest in nature and native culture at an early age. He went to Hastings Grammar School, and at the age of 16 – due to his aunts' urging – left to work for a timber yard. He was fired when he dropped a bomb down his employer's chimney.
Immigration to Canada
In 1906, Belaney immigrated
to Canada, ostensibly to study agriculture
. After a brief time in Toronto
, he moved to Temagami
, Northern Ontario
, and adopted a native identity and the name Grey Owl
. He also married an Anishinaabe
woman, Angele Egwuna. He worked as a fur trapper
, wilderness guide
, and forest ranger
. He explained that he was a child of a Scottish father and Apache
mother and had emigrated from the U.S. to join the Ojibwa
During World War I, in 1915, Grey Owl joined the 13th Montreal Battalion of the Black Watch. His unit was shipped to France, where he served as a sniper. His compatriots treated him as an Indian and generally praised his conduct afterwards. He was wounded first in January 1916 and then again on April 24, 1916, with a shot through the foot. The wounded limb developed gangrene, and he was shipped to England for treatment.
Grey Owl was moved from one British infirmary to another for a full year while doctors tried to heal his foot. He also met and briefly married childhood friend Constance Holmes. The marriage failed. He was shipped back to Canada in September 1917 and honorably discharged on November 30 with a disability pension.
In 1925, he met the Iroquois
woman Gertrude Bernard (whom he later called Anahareo
), who encouraged him to stop trapping and publish his writings about wilderness life. His writings attracted the attention of the Dominion Parks Service
, and he began to work for them as a naturalist
. In 1928, the National Parks Service made a film, Beaver People
showing Grey Owl and his wife playing with their pet beavers, Jellyroll and Rawhide. In 1931, he and Anahareo moved briefly to a cabin in Riding Mountain National Park
with their pet beavers. Next year, they moved to near Ajawaan Lake
in Prince Albert National Park
In his articles, books, and films he promoted the idea of environmentalism and nature conservation. In 1931, He wrote several articles for the Canadian Forestry Association (CFA) publication Forests and Outdoors:
In 1935 and 1937, he successfully toured England (including Hastings) in Ojibwa costume to promote his books and lecture about conservation. His aunts recognized him but remained silent until 1937. In his latter tour, he also visited the court and met princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.
The tours fatigued him badly, and in 1938, he returned to Beaver Lodge, his cabin at Ajawaan Lake. Grey Owl died of pneumonia on April 13, 1938; he is buried near his cabin.
Doubts about his First Nations identity began appearing after his death. The North Bay Nugget
newspaper ran the first exposé, followed up by international news organisations such as The Times
. His publisher Lovat Dickson tried to prove Belaney's chosen identity, but unfortunately had to admit that his friend had lied to him. "Grey Owl" had been an invention, an invented Indian like Forrest Carter
, Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance
, and Nasdijj
The consequences of this revelation were dramatic. Publication of the Grey Owl books ceased immediately, and in some cases they were withdrawn from publication. This in turn had a knock-on effect on the conservation causes with which Belaney had been associated, affecting donations to conservationist causes badly.
Numerous books about Grey Owl have been published, including:
- Half-Breed: The Story of Grey Owl by Lovat Dickson (1939)
- My Life with Grey Owl by Anahareo (1940)
- Devil in Deerskins: My Life with Grey Owl by Anahareo (1972) published in the UK as Grey Owl and I: A New Autobiography by Anahareo (1972)
- Wilderness Man: The Strange Story of Grey Owl by Lovat Dickson (1974)
- From the Land of Shadows: the Making of Grey Owl by Donald B. Smith (1990)
In 1999, the film Grey Owl premiered, directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Pierce Brosnan in the title role. The film received mixed reviews and received no theatrical release in the United States. Attenborough had seen Grey Owl at the London Palladium theatre as a teenager along with his brother, the naturalist David Attenborough. On a Michael Parkinson chat show in 1999, Richard Attenborough mentioned that they were both very affected by seeing Grey Owl, perhaps influencing their future career paths.
On the 100th anniversary of his birth, a Canadian Red Maple tree was planted in his honor in the grounds of Hastings Grammar School, now renamed William Parker School. In June 1997, the mayor of Hastings and the borough's Member of Parliament (Michael Foster), unveiled a plaque in his honor on the house at 32 St James Road where he was born. There is also a commemorative plaque to Grey Owl by the ranger station at Hastings Country Park, 4 miles to the east of Hastings, a full-size replica of his Canadian lakeside cabin in Hastings Museum at Summerfields, along with an exhibition of memorabilia and a commemorative plaque on the house at 36 St Marys Terrace where he lived from 1895.
In 2004, Deejay Ra launched a 'Grey Owl' Birthday Recognition Campaign incorporating Grey Owl titles into his 'Hip-Hop Literacy' project and campaigning on Canadian community TV for September 18th birthday recognition on the country's calendars for the first author to teach Native rights at Harvard University. In 2005, the birthday recognition campaign led to Key Porter Books re-publishing Grey Owl's "Tales From An Empty Cabin" classic and inspired a BookTV special that featured Deejay Ra and Lord Attenborough discussing Grey Owl's legacy.
Grey Owl's books
- Cry of the Ancients. Illustrated by Daniel Nicholas. Independence, Mo.: Herald Pub. House, c1974.
- The Men of the Last Frontier. Don Mills, Ontario: Stoddard, 1992.
- Pilgrims of the Wild. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1983; first published 1935.
- Tales of an Empty Cabin. Don Mills, Ontario: Stoddard, 1992, 1936.
- The Tree, by Wa-Sha-Quon-asin (Grey Owl). London: Lovat Dickson Ltd., c1937.
- Grey Owl and the Beaver (1935) Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd (co-authored with Harper Cory).
- The Adventures of Sajo and her Beaver People (1935)
The Men of the Last Frontier
, Pilgrims of the Wild
and Sajo and her Beaver People
The first three of the above have been collected and reprinted as Grey Owl: Three Complete and Unabridged Canadian Classics
(2001: ISBN 1-55209-590-8). Excerpts from all four were collected in The Book of Grey Owl: Selected Wildlife Stories
(1938; 1989 reprint: ISBN 0-7715-9293-0).
- Ambassadeur des bêtes. Translation by Simonne Ratel. Paris : Hatier-Boivin, 1956?. (Translation of the second part of: Tales of an Empty Cabin.)
- Récits de la cabane abandonnée. Translation by Jeanne-Roche-Mazon. Paris : Éditions contemporaines, 1951. (Translation of the first part of: Tales of an Empty Cabin.)
- Sajo et ses castors. Translated from the English by Charlotte and Marie-Louise Pressoir; illustrations by Pierre Le Guen. Paris : Société nouvelle des éditions G.P., 1963. (Translation of: The Adventures of Sajo and Her Beaver People.)
- Pilgrims of the Wild. Éd. ordinaire. Translation by Jeanne Roche-Mazon. Paris : Éditions contemporaines, 1951.
- Саджо и её бобры. Перевод с английского Аллы Макаровой. Предисловие Михаила Пришвина. Москва: Детгиз, 1958.
- Рассказы опустевшей хижины. Перевод и предисловие Аллы Макаровой. Художник Б.Жутовский. Москва: Молодая гвардия, 1974.
- Cаджо та її бобри. Переклад з англійської Соломії Павличко., Київ: «Веселка», 1986
External links and sources