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Conservationist Grey Owl: The Controversial Life of One Man

The story of Grey Owl is a story of wilderness, conservation, identity, and questions about what makes a man. Read more to learn the unlikely story of how one man’s quest saved so much.

“Remember, you belong to Nature, not it to you” – Grey Owl

Grey Owl was a half breed Native American who felt the calling of the North Woods of Canada at a young age. Not originally from the North, Grey Owl soon made friends with the local Native tribe of Objibwas of Bear Island in Ontario, Canada. These first nations people taught him how to live in the harsh conditions of the North.

Grey Owl copy 2
Image courtesy of the Library and Archives of Canada.

 

Grey Owl learned to snowshoe through the deep snow, trap the fur bearing animals of the North, and how to survive in an uninviting land. He learned the ways and stories of the Objibwas, which were unlike the ways and stories of his own people, and became like an adopted member of the tribe. For many years Grey Owl lived in the North and made his living from the land, trapping animals and selling their pelts to provide for his family.

In his middle age the path of Grey Owl dramatically changed course. At this point in time, Grey Owl was living with a Native American woman who adopted and raised a pair of beaver kits. During this time Grey Owl observed the animals, and recognized their high level of intelligence and affection. This was a pivotal moment in Grey Owl’s life, and at this moment he vowed to end his trapping ways and instead dedicated his energies to conservation of the animals and forests of the Canadian North.

Grey Owl would go on to write many books, speak in front of large audiences, and travel the world to deliver his message of conservation. He became so well respected as a conservationist he was appointed to be a Canadian conservation officer, and given a cabin in Prince Albert National Park from which to work.

Not only was Grey Owl an incredibly well spoken individual, but his message, based on Native understanding of the land, and his elaborate Native American regalia, captured the imagination of White Canadians and Europeans. Especially popular in Enlgand, he penned several books that found their way to top the best seller’s list, and his public addresses were sold out many times. People couldn’t get enough of “the most famous of Canadian Indians.”

So tireless was Grey Owl in his conservation method he eventually would drive his wife away and exhaust his body. In 1938, after six solid months on the road, he returned to his cabin in the Prince Albert State Park worn out and frail. In April 1938 he suffered from a mild case of pneumonia and within a few days died at the age of 49. Mourning for his passing spanned two continents.

Here is where the story of Grey Owl takes a remarkable twist.

Upon his death it was discovered Grey Owl, a Native American who had gained so much notoriety and captured the imagination of  many, was not a Native American at all. In reality his name was Archibald Belaney and he was born in East Sussex, England, a town just south of London.

Not only was Archie a full blooded Englishman, but he had lived with his aunts in England until the age of 17 and had not departed for Canada until after the completion of his schooling. It was then that he met his dear friends of the Ojibwa where he adopted their culture and learned how to survive the harsh Canadian North.

The real interesting questions of Grey Owl begin to arise at this point.

Was he a fake? A fraud? Was his deception unforgivable? Does his great bluff negate his accomplishments and all of his words?

Was he a fake and fraud? Yes. In a sense. He was not really a Native American and he knew it, at least at first. Apparently he would dye his hair black from its natural brown to look more of the part. Additionally he would darken his fair skin with henna as well before speaking. Archie knew very little about his mother Kittie, and eventually had convinced himself she was an Apache which added to his genuine curiosity of Native people and their culture.

Does his great bluff negate his accomplishments and all of his words? Depends on your perspective. Some would argue that as a non-native, his message cannot be validated and should be thrown out.

Others would argue that although not a Native by blood, he was in fact a Native in heart. He had truly adopted the Ojibwa culture and vision of the world and in a sense, this is more important that his actual DNA. Just as immigrants today can come to America, learn our ways, help our country, and advance American ideals to become bonafide Americans.

It’s a touchy subject for sure, and a highly personal one as well.

In the end the Englishman Archie Belaney died Grey Owl the adopted son of the Ojibwa tribe, at least in his own eyes. He did help to steward in an era of conservation that rescued many species from the brink of annihilation, and he did impact the way many people saw themselves in the world. Does the fact he was a white man dressed up as a Native American discredits his accomplishments? That answer is up to you.

NEXT: THE REAL STORY OF HUGH GLASS WELL BEFORE LEO DE CAPRIO CAME AROUND

Sources:
Canadian Icon. (2016, January 10). Grey Owl, White Indian. Retrieved January 10, 2016, from Canadian Icon: http://canadianicon.org/table-of-contents/grey-owl-white-indian/
Onyanga-Omara, J. (2013, September 19). Grey Owl: Canada’s great conservationist and imposter. Retrieved January 10, 2015, from BBC.com: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-sussex-24127514
Smith, D. B. (2013, November 1). Belaney, Archibald. Retrieved January 10, 2016, from Dictionary of Canadian Biography: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/belaney_archibald_stansfeld_16E.html

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Conservationist Grey Owl: The Controversial Life of One Man