Anahareo – A woman ahead of her time

Note:  We hope you become as interested in Anahareo as we did while researching this project, and we recognize we have much more to learn.  If we have made a mistake, to paraphrase the words of Don Marks, a non-indigenous child raised by an indigenous family, “’… guide [us] gently to a higher understanding’ like the elders do. [We] never meant to offend anyone and …  hope we can teach each other about these things in a good way.”  Read more… 

“Guide. Trapper. Prospector. Adventurer. Conservationist. Wife. Mother. [And author.] These are all roles that Anahareo took on in her life, yet none fully captures the essence of this amazing woman… Arguably, this is what made Anahareo especially extraordinary: her refusal to conform to society’s expectations of her in a time where aboriginals and women – and aboriginal women in particular – were held in very low regard. Anahareo had the courage to do what she felt was right, ignoring what the world thought of her stepping out of her place, speaking her mind, and looking to her own conscience for approval.  … In the process, she turned a hunter and trapper into a conservationist and author, and forever changed our relationship with nature.” 

Gertrude Philomen Bernard, Gertie, or Pony to her childhood friends, was born in Mattawa, Ontario, north of Algonquin Park, near the Quebec border.  She was quite independent from a very young age, and something of a ‘tomboy.’  In 1925, at the age of 19, she took a job waitressing at a resort on Lake Temagami, Ontario – Camp Wabikon. There she met, among other people, an American couple, who offered to pay for her education, as well as 36-year-old Archibald Belaney.  Archie, who at the time also called himself Grey Owl, was working at the camp as a guide.  Gertie decided not to accept the offer of formal education (she had not particularly liked school), instead opting to learn more about the wilds with Archie.  

While Gertie and Archie later became a couple, the original relationship seemed more like friends, with Gertie wanting to learn as much as she could about bush life from Grey Owl because she had been more of a ‘town girl’.  He, on the other hand, was interested in her not only because of her youth and beauty, but because she was intelligent and quite a character.  

Regarding Gertie, whom he later named ‘Anahareo’, Archie Belaney wrote in Pilgrims of the Wild: 

“I speedily discovered that I was married to no butterfly, in spite of Anahareo’s modernistic ideas, and found that my companion could swing an axe as well as she could a lip-stick, and was able to put up a tent in good shape, make quick fire, and could rig a tump-line(2) and get a load across in good time, even if she did have to sit down and powder her nose at the other end of the portage.”


(2) A tump-line is a strap attached to both ends of a sack or other gear and then place over the top of the head to make the items easier to carry

Belaney also describes her ability to shape deerskin into fashionable dress:  

“I stood by in rather apprehensive silence and viewed the apparent slaughter of this very excellent material, for which I had paid a very excellent price, but out of which there was presently constructed…. one of the best fitting and most elegant looking pair of breeches anyone could wish for”.(3)

When Gertie/Anahareo went with Archie to Cabano (now Témiscouata-sur-le-Lac), wearing native garb, she describes how the local populace reacted to the couple’s first appearance there: 

“… when they first saw us, the first citizens who were about that early morning either wheeled around and ran the other way, or just stood agog in their tracks….. It isn’t every day that one sees a couple of befringed, buckskin-clad figures perambulating up the street”.(4)

Some of the mainly French Canadians of Cabano helped the couple out, however, Archie and Anahareo spent a difficult winter. Living in the woods nearby, they found that this area also had been overhunted, and Belaney could little more than eke out a living as a trapper.  The 1926-27 winter had been the first time Anahareo had accompanied Belaney on a trap line and she did not like the inhumane treatment she witnessed – the animals when caught can die painful deaths.  The crux came two years later in Cabano when, after Archie had killed a beaver mother, Anahareo persuaded him to go back for the beaver’s two kits who would surely die without their mother.  He quickly discovered that the pair – later named McGuiness and McGuinty(5) – had many traits in common with human children.  Gertie persuaded him that the killing of beavers and other animals for money for their pelts to be used for fashion was wrong, and he realized he had to find a new way to support himself.  

The story goes that Archie’s mother submitted one of his apparently rare letters to her, that lyrically described the wild, to the publisher of Country Life (an English sporting and society magazine).  Country Life editors were interested, leading to his being assigned his first article “The Falls of Silence”.  Published by accident under his mother’s name, it later was corrected to the name A.S. Belaney.  The article brought him a small amount of income, but not enough to sustain him and Anahareo. 

Eager to find work to earn money to go to northern Quebec to prospect for gold, the couple was attracted by the idea of guiding opportunities near a summer resort area on the Saint Lawrence River, 154 kilometres away.  These did not materialize, but he was presented instead with an unexpected path

(3) Pp. 44-5, quoted in Afterward
(4) Devil in Deerskins, p. 91
(5) Anahareo gives us a flavour of life with beavers:

“With a flourish he heaped the bowl with flour, added salt, and rummaged in the grub-box for the baking powder. While his back was turned, McGinty, the opportunist, spied the abandoned bowl. She came at a dead gallop, zoomed through the air, and landed plop in the middle, sending flour in all directions.

Archie’s shocked surprise convulsed me, but I didn’t dare laugh, because it was awful thing for McGinty to have done. Then a wild and noisy battle erupted. Archie shouted her name and mine alternately as he tried desperately to pull her away, but McGinty had a firm grip on the bowl and was determined to stay. Archie was at his wit’s end, for it was like fighting a whirring electric fan in a tub of feathers. The overwhelming speed with which Mac propelled her webbed hind feet through the flour forced Archie to let her down.

The atmosphere was so thick with flour that I could barely see them. The scuffle ended at last in victory for Archie, and McGinty ambled off in a huff. She was not in the least repentant. She cast malignant glances at Archie as she sat back, cleaning her flour-clogged nostrils with clenched fists. Such was the stand the beaver invariably took to preserve their rights.”

to greater wealth than he had expected, although he reinvested this in delivering Anaharaeo’s and his conservation message.

Known as Metis Beach, the location was part of an old Seigneury to which a Mr. MacNider in 1818 had brought a group of mainly Scottish and other English-speaking people by ship, supplying them with the necessary tools and provisions to start their new lives.  Around the 1860s through to the early to mid-20th century, the place was ‘discovered’ by the more (and sometimes less) wealthy wanting to spend their summers away from the heat, dirt, and frequent diseases of Montreal and other urban centres.  In July and August, the local population of 200, mainly descendants of the original Scots who came by ship, with some descendants of later arrivals who served in the War of 1812, ballooned to 2,000+.  

So it was that Archie and Anahareo came in very sorry straits from the small and isolated Cabano community to find work in this bustling social village in the summer of 1929.  The summer visitors had encountered Indigenous people who camped in Metis every summer, and bought crafts made by these natives, many of whom likely were descendants of First Nations families who had come to the area every summer for thousands of years.  However, Anahareo and Archie were something different.  Anahareo’s 1972 memoir (Devil in Deerskins – My Life with Grey Owl), reportedly the first published by an indigenous Canadian woman, describes the unlikely meeting that contributed in a significant way to his becoming so well known.  Speaking to Archie, Anahareo said:

“She [Mrs. Madeleine Peck] wants you to lecture in some hall.”

He exploded. “A lecture. Me! What in hell have you got me into now?” He whirled about and left the tent. 

Since Mrs. Peck would be arriving in a few hours, I tidied up the tent and grounds about the outdoor fire. The tea pail was boiling when Archie returned. He embraced me. “Sorry, kid. I lost my temper. Poor thing, you’re having it rough and I shouldn’t have, especially when I know you just wanted to help.” 

When Mrs. Peck and her mother[-in-law] arrived, I cast a worried look at Archie. I needn’t have, because their smiles and genuine friendliness disarmed him, and his face shone with a brightness I hadn’t seen in a long time. 

“Has your wife told you?” Mrs. Peck smiled at Archie. 

“Yes – but…”

“No buts. You just must give us this talk on wildlife. It’s beautiful.” 

Archie backed away. “I’m sorry, lady, but you’ll never catch me at that. I wouldn’t know where to begin, let alone following through. I’d make a fool of myself – a bigger fool than I am.”  

Did you know… ?: Anahareo’s and Archie’s descriptions of the same Metis Beach visit differ a bit.  Enjoy reading both sides in She Said, He Said

Madeleine Peck’s mother-in-law was Mrs. Alice Peck, whom historian Alexander Reford describes as a formidable woman. A generation earlier she was one of two women who had pioneered efforts to create the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, which became a thriving organization promoting artisans in regions of Quebec and later across the country. The reactions of Mrs. Peck and her daughter-in-law are illustrative, he adds, of a handful of Montreal women who were interested in finding meaningful ways to provide Canadian natives and others in remote areas with a way of life that both earned the women their own income and helped maintain their traditional artisanal talents and craftsmanship.(6)

Lovat Dickson (Grey Owl’s publisher and later friend), in his 1973 biography of Grey Owl, summarized the impact of the Metis visit on Belaney’s future: 

“… he did not know it then, but he had stumbled over the pot of gold for which they were going to go searching among the rocks of the north country. The audience of several hundred listed quietly to the opening passage of his talk, getting the measure of him the way audiences do with a speaker, making up their minds whether to listen or let their thoughts wander. They found themselves listening; at first almost against their will, ready to abandon the fellow if he struck a single wrong note or went on too damn long. Then some chuckles escaped them. He had such a droll way of making these animals become – well, like living people. You firmed up on something you had always felt uneasy about – it was a damned shame to persecute the little beast, and something ought to be done about it.”(7)

While the life choices and experiences of Anahareo and Archie Belaney/Grey Owl will no doubt continue to be debated for a very long time, the views of the couple’s two daughters (Shirley Dawn and Anne), as well these daughters’ stepsister Katherine (Anahareo’s child with her second husband, who spent some formative years with Shirley Dawn), are ones that are unequivocal, and perhaps the most meaningful as the three were closest to their parents.  

From Shirley Dawn, born 1932:

“As I walked along along, I saw an old wooden dock that protruded out into the water. I visualized a canoe being pulled up on shore by a tall, thin man, smiling as he did so at a dark-skinned young Indian girl, with almond-shaped eyes, sitting in the canoe. The man held out his hand to her and, at the moment their fingers touched, the picture disappeared; my throat burned and I started to cry. It was the closest moment I have ever had to both of my parents at the same time. I was feeling sorry

(6)   Recognition on Settler Terms: The Canadian Handicrafts Guild and First Nations Craft from 1900 to 1967, Aditi Ohri, August 2017 (submitted in partial fulfillment of her Master of Arts (Art History),; Ms. Ohri argues that “Guild volunteers enacted a politics of recognition in response to the aggressive policy of assimilation that the Canadian government and the Department of Indian Affairs legislated through the Indian Act.  Their (the Guild) politics of recognition encouraged Indigenous peoples’ cultural production while reinforcing a government-backed civilizing mission that marginalized Indigenous worldviews and rendered invisible the importance of land-based cultural, economic and political practices. The Guild rejected assimilation on grounds that it would do a disservice to Canada as an emerging nation in the British Dominion. Envisioning itself as a benevolent saviour easing the plight of poverty-stricken artisans, the Guild worked to integrate Indigenous people into the settler economic structure. Although Guild volunteers did take great efforts to celebrate Indigenous artwork, they did so on terms that, from Indigenous perspectives, did not help to strengthen Indigenous-led ways of life.”  Two former Metis residents with an Anahareo/Archie connection were Alice Peck, co-founder of the Guild, and Wilfrid Bovey, President of the Guilt for a number of years in the 1930s.

(7) Lovat Dickson, p. 187.

that some time had not been given to us to be together. I felt an overwhelming joy because I was at Lake Simon.”(8)

Did you know… ?  Shirley Dawn Belaney, first daughter of Anahareo and Archie/Grey Owl, travelled extensively with her husband Bob Richardson, and followed her parents’ footsteps, especially of the places that had been meaningful to them.  In the 1970s, this brought them to Metis Beach one October day when few were around and all summer residents had left for winter homes.  Shirley Dawn found Shirley Astle, daughter of Fred Astle who had given Anahareo and Archie their temporary home near a pond for their beaver Jelly Roll to enjoy.  Although Shirley Astle had been only six years old in 1929, she was able to tell Shirley Dawn and Bob a bit more about the first speaking engagement, and was also able to take Shirley Dawn and Bob to where Shirley Dawn’s parents had camped and Jell Roll had played.  Dawn was dedicated to her parents’ conservationist ideals, and to the rehabilitation and preservation of her father’s image as Grey Owl.  Shirley’s Astle’s daughter still has Belaney’s book The Adventures of Sajo & Her Beaver People (1935), which he sent to her grandfather at The Metis Lodge, likely in thanks for his earlier kindness in letting the young couple stay on his land.

From Anna Gaskell, born 1937:

“Living with Nature has always been a big part of our family’s life, so I am pleased and proud that the work in conservation that my mother Anahareo and Grey Owl did is still ongoing.  We need to be mindful that the planet that we life on is a living, breathing entity that sustains all life.  We must continue to fight on to ensure that our planet, Mother Earth, survives.”[add link to article in The Mattawa Recorder]


From Katherine Swartile, born 1942:

“It wasn’t until I was around five years old that I noticed that there was something different about my mother from other women in the neighbourhood:  she didn’t wear dresses, just slacks or breeches with boots; she didn’t bake, and to my great displeasure, she spent a great deal of time reading books, especially about rocks.  I wasn’t aware then that she still had the gold fever and continued to harbour thoughts about going prospecting again one day. … 

I realize today that the stories [my mother told me] were not purely for entertainment but also to instil in me love, respect, and compassion for animals and to know they too feel physical and emotional pain, fear and love, just like us. She brought that to my

(8) Excerpt from Dawn’s diary, reproduced in A Face Beside the Fire: Memories of Dawn Grey Owl Richardson

attention when I was very young.  We had a cat named Nipper.  Once, when I was holding him and was telling him he was my cat, my mother overheard and said, “No, Katherine, Nipper is his own cat and we are very lucky he decided to live with us.  Always remember animals belong to themselves.”  That stuck with me and when I had children of my own, I passed that wisdom on to them.

She also used stories to instil a deep sense of pride in me about our Mohawk ancestry, because in those days racial prejudice was alive and well.  She knew that one day I would feel its pain, therefore she wanted to ensure I developed a deep sense of pride and the inner strength to be able to stand up to racism.  Oh, the stories she would tell about our people; the great battles with other tribes won and lost…”

Did you know… ?:  Anahareo was laid to rest with Grey Owl and their daughter, Dawn, near their cabin on Lake Ajawaan, in Prince Albert National Park.  



Below are links to rarely-seen videos, as well as a listing of other resources.  Thanks to Alexander Reford, Pam Andersson, Alex Bovey, Donald B. Smith, Daniel Francis, and others for their time, interest, and written, spoken and photographic contributions.  Any errors in fact, judgement or interpretation are my own.

  • Beaver People, 1928, featuring Grey Owl, with guest appearances by Jelly Roll, Rawhide, and Anahareo (at 6:40); filmed at the couple’s cabin on Hay Lake, near Cabano, due to the interest of James Harkin, then Commissioner of National Parks, who early on appreciated the couple’s conservation efforts and fears about the disappearing wilderness. 
  • National Film Board, 1930, The Beaver Family” 
  • A Canadian Cameo 1936 Production produced by special arrangement with the National Parks of Canada
  • The Canadians: Grey Owl – Patrick Watson, with interviews with Anahareo, Donald Smith, Armand Ruffo and others
  • Devil in Deerskins – My Life with Grey Owl, 1972, reprinted(9) under the First Voices, First Texts series(10), was praised for its “observations on indigeneity, culture, and land, which speak directly to contemporary audiences.”
  • Smith, Donald B., From the Land of the Shadows: The Making of Grey Owl, 1990

(9)   Devil in Deerskins – University of Manitoba Press (;

(10)   First Voices, First Texts aims to re-connect contemporary readers with some of the most important Indigenous literature of the past, much of which has been unavailable for decades. This series reveals the richness of these works by providing newly re-edited texts that are presented with particular sensitivity toward Indigenous ethics, traditions, and contemporary realities. The editors strive to indigenize the editing process by involving  communities, by respecting traditional protocols, and by providing critical introductions that give readers new insights into the cultural contexts of these unjustly neglected classics.

  • Ruffo, Armand Garnet, Grey Owl: The mystery of Archie Belaney, 1996
    • Francis, Daniel, The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Commercial Culture, 1992
  • Anahareo, My Life with Grey Owl, 1940
  • Dickson, Lovat, Wilderness Man: The Strange Story of Grey Owl, 1973
  • Grey Owl, The Man of the Last Frontier, 1932
  • Grey Owl, Pilgrims of the Wild, 1935
  • Grey Owl, The Adventures of Sajo & Her Beaver People, 1935
  • Grey Owl, Tales of an Empty Cabin, 1936