Reviewed by Ruth Latta
Apostate Englishman: Grey Owl, the Writer and the Myths
by Albert Braz
University of Manitoba Press
2015, ISBN 978-0-88755-778-1
Grey Owl (1888-1938) was one of the great imposters of 20th century history, but, as Albert Braz shows, he was much more than that. He first became known outside the Anishinabee aboriginal community at Temagami, Ontario, Canada, when his articles on the vanishing Canadian wilderness and the plight of the beaver (then near extinction) attracted public attention. Who was this Indian who wrote so well? When pressed for biographical details, Grey Owl said he was born in Mexico of a Scottish trapper and an Apache woman and that his parents had travelled to Europe with Wild Bill Hickock’s wild west show. Grey Owl had roamed North America trapping furs until the Anishinabee welcomed him into their community and taught him their language and way of life in harmony with nature.
In 1925 a film, Beaver People, was made about Grey Owl, his wife Anahareo and the orphaned beaver they had raised by hand. Anahareo had convinced him to abandon trapping in favour of writing. In 1925 Canada’s national parks department offered him a position as conservationist in the Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan. Grey Owl wrote four books, and between 1935 and 1938, went on lecture/book promotion tours in Canada and England. Striking in his fringed buckskin jacket and feathers, he drew wide audiences and met the British royal family. An elderly friend of mine, as a child, taken to one of his lectures, was impressed that a “red Indian” could express himself so well in English.
Others were surprised, too. One reviewer implied that his books had been ghost-written; consequently, in the foreword to Pilgrims of the Wild (1935), Grey Owl’s publisher wrote that the book was truly his: “Nobody else has written it.”
After Grey Owl’s death from alcoholism and pneumonia in 1938, the Nugget, a newspaper from North Bay, Ontario, published a story they had been sitting on for three years. Based on interviews, including one from Grey Owl’s former wife, Angele, they revealed that Grey Owl had lied about his origins. He was actually Archibald Belaney, born in Hastings, England, to British parents, and had been raised by his aunts and educated at Hastings Grammar School. As a boy, fascinated by North American native people, he’d read all he could about them, and, at seventeen, immigrated to Canada.
Reaction to the revelations was shocked and condemnatory, though Canadian author Lucy Maude Montgomery, who had met Grey Owl at a literary gathering, wrote in her diary: “At least his love of animals was real.” His publishers hastened to say that they were unaware of his deception. His wife Anahareo, who hadn’t know Grey Owl when he first came to Temagami, seems to have been genuinely unaware of his non-aboriginal origins. Though some First Nations people had their suspicions, they kept quiet because they valued his work and because his love for their culture and way of life was something rare.
Since then, of the many books and articles written about him, quite a few have vilified him. He has been called a colonialist and an appropriator of indigenous culture (someone who stole elements of First Nations culture for his own advantage.) Other critics condemn him for his alcoholism, his series of “marriages” and his failure to take care of his two daughters.
Albert Braz, an English professor at the University of Alberta, has read all of Grey Owl’s writing and everything that has been written about Grey Owl, judging from the length of the bibliography he includes. Braz contends that the charge of cultural appropriation is untrue.
Archie Belaney “went native”, in an era when “the cowboys always won.” In the early 20th century, American First Nations people were still regarded as savages with a lust for killing wild animals. On one occasion, in an upscale Toronto hotel while on a lecture tour, Grey Owl was taunted for being Indian. He harmed no one with his deception. Did writing about his own experiences in the forest with animals constitute cultural appropriation? Braz says no.
In Braz’s view, the cultural appropriation charge masks critics’ discomfort over the fact that Belaney was an “apostate”, someone who “spurned” the European culture into which he was born, for one that was regarded at the time (and by some people now) as inferior.
Among his many sources, Braz quotes two people of indigenous origins who have positive views of Grey Owl. Armand Garnet Russo, an academic and author is one. Chief Gary Potts of the Bear Island Anishinabee community near Temagami, pointed out to Braz that “white people do not seem very concerned when aboriginal people are assimilated into white society”, but get upset at the thought that “one of their own would willingly… choose to become an Indian.”
What accounts for Archie Belaney’s choice to assimilate into indigenous culture? Braz presents insights from a number of authors along with his own.
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” wrote Margaret Atwood. “What was it that the Indians had, or were thought to have, that the imitators wanted?”
Several authors think that Belaney’s unstable family situation in England, combined with his upbringing by domineering, stuffy maiden aunts, made him yearn for a new and friendlier community. Russo adds to this thought, suggesting that Archie wanted to escape a “stultified, ordered universe” for a less restrictive way of life. Some suggest that his spiritual survival was at stake. Braz interprets Grey Owl’s book, Pilgrims of the Wild, as a “spiritual biography”, which, though inaccurate and evasive about his origins, shows Grey Owl being transformed from a hard-hearted trapper into a “father-protector” (of beaver), an environmentalist, and a “reborn man.”
Braz sees current criticism of Grey Owl as an indication that mainstream Canada is still facing up to the plight of its indigenous people. Certainly, the current inquiry into murdered aboriginal women, and the periodic media revelations of severe poverty on many reserves support this assertion. One hopes that Braz’s book will influence future writers on Grey Owl to judge him by the quality of his writing and in the context of his times.
About the reviewer: Ruth Latta grew up in Northeastern Ontario. Visit her books blog at http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com