Grey Owl - The Indian from Hastings
The Story of Grey Owl - was Grey Owl the first Canadian Environmentalist?
This is the true story of Archie Grey Owl, sometimes called the first Canadian environmentalist. Archie Grey Owl lived in the Canadian wilderness with the animals he loved, but Grey Owl's life story holds some genuine surprises.
This page is about the man Grey Owl, also known as Washaquonasin and will tell you his secret....
How I learned about Grey Owl
Through the looking glass of loss....
Recently my parents moved into a sheltered flat and many rich memories started to flood in with this new window on adult life. These memories we take for granted at the time but they prove so valuable through the looking glass of loss. My grandfather was a fine man, an artist and sculptor who carved gravestones, sundials and small statues for a living. He was a gentleman who would walk five miles after a hard day's work to buy his grandchildren a peach because they hadn't yet tasted one! Above all, he was fascinating. Right up to the end of his life he always had something new and interesting to share.
It was my grandfather who introduced me to Grey Owl. He had a biography of the man which sadly got lost somewhere in the mists of time. Visiting my grandfather and chatting over a glass or two of Wild Turkey was a very real pleasure and amongst the tales of desert adventures, parachute silk and Israel came the story of Grey Owl, a man who had literally remade himself and invented an entire life story!
Archie Grey Owl
"On all sides from the cabin where I write extends an uninterrupted wilderness, flowing onward in a dark, billowing flood Northward to the Arctic Sea. No railroad passes through it to burn and destroy, no settler lays waste with fire and axe. Here, from any eminence, a man may gaze on unnumbered leagues of forest that will never feed the hungry maw of commerce." - Archie Grey Owl
Archie Grey Owl
Canada's First Conservationist?
Grey Owl was the name writer Archibald Belaney adopted when he assumed a First Nations identity. He was a writer and one of Canada's first conservationists. Although born and brought up in Hastings, Sussex, Grey Owl was in love with Canada and the First Nation way of life.
Archibald Stansfield Belaney was born in Hastings, Sussex, in 1888 and died in Canada in 1938 at the age of 50. He was christened in 1888 at Blacklands Church in Hastings. The concept of environmental conservation was born with him.
The Belaney Family History
George Belaney, a Scottish lowland farmer, was a drunk and a wastrel. Archie's mother Kittie was hardly old enough to bear a child let alone raise him. As a result, his care and education fell to his grandmother Julia and maiden aunts Carrie and Ada who lived in genteel poverty. Archie grew up an isolated individual with few lasting friendships. His parents finally separated in 1901 his father leaving the country.
He was fascinated by animals, their environments and their modes of life and kept a menagerie of mini-beasts. He was not a collector, as were so many of his generation, but he tried to create good habitats for his creatures. In later life this became the foundation of his philosophy. He cultivated environmental understanding, realizing its importance in the natural world. He was interested in the mechanisms of nature.
The Making of a Legend
During Archie's youth there was growing interest in native Americans. The Redman had been driven to virtual extinction by military power and conquest. The rich culture had been virtually destroyed but the romantic tales lived on. Archie was enchanted by stories of the North American Indian sharing his life with stream, lake and forest; how he lived in harmony with nature by understanding his surroundings.
Archie attended the same school as my father!
Archie attended Hastings Grammar School but left at 16 years. He did very well in Literature and Religious Studies and loved music, but was a rebellious student and was not tested in the subject areas he loved - animals and the environment.
His Aunt Ada sent him to work for Cheale's Timber Merchants at Ore Village. He was bored with his job and often said he wanted to go to Canada as a trapper. He realised his ambition by lowering a home-made bomb down the chimney of his employer's office-workshop. After this his aunts had little choice but to send him to his Canadian Paradise at the age of 17 to study agriculture. He would return home to Hastings only four more times.
After spending a little time in Toronto he moved to Northern Ontario and worked as a fur trapper, wilderness guide and forest ranger in Temagami. There he met with the native people and began to learn their language. He married Angele Egwuna, the first of his three wives, who taught him about the Anishinaabe and their lore. At first he would simply sign his name as "Grey Owl" but in time he adopted a native identity. He would tell people that he was a child of a Scottish father and Apache mother and had emigrated from America.
The return of Wa-sha-quon-asin
During World War I, in 1915 Grey Owl joined the 13th (Montreal) Battalion of the Black Watch. He served as a sniper in France, his compatriots treated him as an Indian and praised his conduct. He was wounded in the wrist by a bullet in January 1916 and again on April 24, 1916, with a shot through the foot. As a sniper he delayed his return for treatment.
This cost him a toe when it developed gangrene and he was shipped home to England. He was moved from one military hospital to another on an attempt to heal his foot, but it was permanently damaged and he was honourably discharged in Toronto with a 20% disability pension. During this time in England he met a childhood friend, Connie Holmes, courted her and was married. He returned to Canada in September 1917 when the marriage failed.
In 1925, he met Gertrude Bernard, a Mohawk Iroquois woman who encouraged him to stop trapping. She persuaded him to think more deeply about conservation and write about wilderness life. Grey Owl also changed her name to Anahareo and later married her. As his writing brought him to prominence, he began work for the Dominion Parks Service as a naturalist and in 1928, the National Parks Service made a film, Beaver People, showing Grey Owl and Anahareo playing with pet beavers, Jellyroll and Rawhide.
Grey Owl's Strange Guest - 1936 Documentary
Grey Owl returns to Hastings
Grey Owl was sincere in his love for wildlife and his desire to preserve and protect it. He called his beaver "the Wilderness personified" and they could swim into a preserved lodge in his cabin using an underwater entrance in the adjacent lake. He knew how strong the symbol of the Canadian beaver was.
In 1935 publisher Lovat Dickson arranged a lecture tour of the British Isles for Grey Owl to promote his books. Grey Owl's intention was to carry out the tour dressed as an Ojibwa Indian to publicise conservation issues. He first appeared at the White Rock Pavilion on 2nd December 1935, he played to a packed house including his confused aunts. Grey Owl's second appearance in Hastings was on December 14th 1937. On this second tour he met Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. In response to the press his aunts wrote to the Hastings Observer in April 1938 around the time of his death saying that they believed that Grey Owl was in fact their nephew Archibald Stansfield Belaney.
"Every now and then, he'd go on a binge," said Colleen."He was classed as an Indian and Indians weren't allowed legally to purchase liquor. So he'd visit the bootleggers and go on a four-day drunk."
Fraud, Biganist, Scoundrel, Drunk, Liar
....and hero to this day!
On his speaking tours he drank heavily between shows and once took to the stage drunk but managed to sober up enough to receive rave reviews! However word got back and parks branch officials threatened to fire him. When Archie was absorbed in binge drinking and writing he was impossible to live with and Anahareo was forced to leave for Ontario.
His abandonment as a child probably caused his social problems and his character was flawed from then on but this seemed to make him even more compelling as a writer.
His other great weakness was women. Angele was his first wife, and he had five wives and four children, but Anahareo, a beautiful 19-year-old Mohawk Indian was the love of his life.
His wives and children were:
Angele Egwuna, an Ojibwa Indian, married in 1910, who bore him two daughters, Agnes and Flora.
Marie Girard, common law partner, set up home 1913-14, mother of his son Johnny.
Connie Holmes, childhood sweetheart who divorced him on grounds of bigamy, married in 1917.
Anahareo (born Gertrude Bernard); common law partner until 1934, who gave him daughter Shirley Dawn.
Yvonne Perrier, Ottawa medical assistant, 1936 another bigamous marriage while still married to Angele.
Whatever deceptions transplanted Haistinger Archie Belaney practised on his women and audiences, he nevertheless dedicated his life to preserving the pristine wilderness of Canada. His success is evident even today in Prince Albert National Park; and in his hometown, Hastings, despite his flawed and troubled nature, small boys still hail him as adventurous First Nation hero, Grey Owl.
Death and Disillusionment
His death in 1938 was most likely the result of exhaustion although it was recorded as pneumonia. The difficulties of his extended tour to promote his books and the stress as he was about to be exposed as a fraud both contributed to this.
Grey Owl was a realist as well as a conservationist. He realised it would not be possible to return to the past, but hoped that society would take on the duty of preserving some wilderness for future generations.
"Say a silent thank you for the preservation of wilderness areas, for the lives of the creatures who live there and for the people with the foresight to realize this heritage, no matter how.''
Unfortunately following the revelation about Grey Owl's identity, conservationist causes experienced a decrease in donations and Grey Owl books were withdrawn from publication.
Many people ask legitimately, did Grey Owl do more harm than good for conservation? The scales are finely balanced on that. There is no doubt he made his generation more environmentally aware. There is equally no doubt the discovery of his true identity as a middle class Englishman resulted in a backlash. The world can be a strange place. Ultimately all I can say is that Washaquonasin, or Grey Owl, or even Archie Belaney, succeeded in making his life the life he dreamed of and that in itself is an achievement.
Who would have listened to a white man?
“When Grey Owl died of pneumonia at the age of 50, his true identity came to light. The romantic Indian with his message of conservation was unmasked as Archie Belaney from Hastings; people felt they had been taken in by an audacious con man. But who would have listened to his message if he had been a white man in a suit?” - Cathy Smith
Grey Owl's Cabin
© 2009 Lisa Marie Gabriel