Archie Belaney – White and Wrong
You may ask why this stop on the Trails is not named for Grey Owl; the answer is that it was Anahareo who persuaded Archie Belaney to see that the trapping of fur-bearing creatures for money/fashion was wrong. She suggested the way to broaden the reach of the nascent conservation movement. She continued after Archie’s death. And while not all imposters are created equal, her husband was effectively acting, while Anahareo is very real.
Belaney has been described as ‘flawed’, a colourful character’, a man with ‘some personal shortcomings’, ‘spendthrift’, ‘binge-drinking bigamist’, ‘much prone to exaggerating and downright lying about his life’. The deception of this British-born Caucasian, once revealed, left many people who believed in him and helped him carry his conservation message forward feeling embarrassed and betrayed.
More recently, caution is encouraged in speaking of such a controversial individual who, though the term only came into being a quarter of a century after his death, appropriated the way of life of a native person, finding it offered much of what he felt he did not have. If Archie Belaney had not become widely known as Grey Owl, his cultural appreciation would not likely not have become an issue of cultural appropriation.
However, it has and it is. Amanda Myers, director (of Metis and Anishinaabe heritage) of Western University’s Indigenous Student Centre, has created material for schools addressing issues surrounding First Nations identity. She pointed out in a CBC interview about some Ontario class material lionizing Grey Owl but without saying that he was an imposter:
“During the time that he was appropriating our culture, it was illegal for us to practice our culture… When something like this comes up, as an Indigenous person it can be very triggering for people struggling with their own connection to identity.”(1)
While we (and Anahareo and Archie) may not have been aware before of the federal Department of Indian Affairs’ (and at least some churches’) policy of assimilation in at least the early- to mid-1900s, it now is clearer as are the effects.
Following announcement of Belaney’s non-indigenous identity in the late 1930s, he was vilified by some for his imposture, although still respected by others for his conservation message. Again today there are mixed views on him – he’s been referred to as an ‘apostle for the wilderness’, and he is criticized, as Daniel Francis wrote, because:
“In presenting his message, Belaney often exploited non-Indian stereotypes of Indianness. These were stereotypes that often took a dehumanizing view of Indians. The Indian identity Grey Owl embraced so enthusiastically was not an identity from the Indians he knew, but rather it was an identity that came from stereotypes he learned as a child growing up in England. It could be argued that, in dressing like an Indian, Grey Owl reinforced racist ideology and established patterns of white domination of Indians.”
On a website that sees Grey Owl as a Canadian icon, the authors noted:
“When Grey Owl arrived on the scene, he redeemed the image of the Indian – here, at last, was a good Indian, an Indian who could hold himself with dignity and speak of the wisdom of the wilderness.”
This statement may well have reflected the view at the time of many in Canada, the U.S., and Europe, but it is now easy to see how this perception is patronizing and condescending.
Daniel Francis added:
“Non-Native Canadians have always formed their impressions of the Indian without much reference to actual Native people, and especially without hearing what Native people might have to say about their own situation. There have been exceptions, however. Every once in a while, a Native voice emerges from the background – or as it were the margins – and gains a wide audience among non-Natives, who then project onto it the voice of the “typical Indian” in the non-Native imagination.
These voices are often inauthentic. Whites have never been very good at ‘distinguishing “real” Indians from non-Natives who appropriate an Indian persona and claim to have special insights into the Indian way of life. These “plastic shamans” speak with great authority and achieve wide recognition. They are accepted so easily because they conform to the image of the Indian held by the White world. They are the Indian that Whites wish the Indian to be: the Imaginary Indian come to life. … The dominant society set the agenda and the terms of discussion. At the same time [that] Grey Owl attracted so much public acclaim, Native leaders who were attempting to achieve political gains for their people were meeting a wall of blank indifference.” (emphasis added)
For those not very familiar with the concept of cultural appropriation, The Canadian Encyclopedia says:
“For Indigenous peoples in Canada, cultural appropriation is rooted in colonization and ongoing oppression. Indigenous peoples have seen culturally significant symbols and motifs used in non-Indigenous goods, marketing, and art. They have also seen stereotypical images of “Indians” used in sports logos and the sale of various products. While it is possible to appreciate the culture of another without appropriating it, this involves building respectful and reciprocal relationships with local Indigenous groups.”(2)
Archie’s adoption of headdress and other cultural symbols for his speaking tour to draw attention to Anahareo’s and his message remains a sensitive matter. As to ‘respectful and reciprocal relations’, Daniel Francis noted that:
“… the Indians who knew Archie Belaney and realized he was no Indian did not choose to expose his charade until after his death. As Donald B. Smith has pointed out, Belaney was on the same side as most Indian activists in the political issues of his day. He consistently advocated better treatment of native people in Canada.”
Anahareo appears to support Grey Owl’s public image as an Indigenous man because she thought it would help their conservation efforts. Although believing he went too far in his outfits on his lecture tours, and despite finding herself having been lied to about his true origins, she seemed to accept what he was doing because of why he was doing it.
“The more Archie did, the more Indian he became in the eyes of the public, and he went along with it and became more Indian than Tecumseh himself. One may as well go the limit should it happen to facilitate the job at hand.”(3)
In fact, there was reportedly an article about the real story submitted by two people who knew Archie to a major Toronto newspaper in the 1930s – the article was rejected. (4)
On the website that argues Grey Owl is a Canadian icon, the authors noted that:
“In the opinion of many, Grey Owl’s native persona had been assumed solely to promote his books. Belaney’s reputed Indian identity certainly must have contributed to the enormous popularity of his books and lectures and also lent authority to his conservationist message.”
The authors acknowledged:
“However, this Indian identity was not adopted only for promotional purposes. Belaney had been living and representing himself as Indian, or half-Indian, for many [about 15] years previously, at a time when there were no ostensible advantages to be gained from doing so, and many disadvantages. Half-breeds, as Grey Owl claimed to be, were nothing rare or romantic in the Canadian bush. As he wrote “there are thousands of mixed bloods like myself kicking around the North” (Smith 1990:166). The truth is that both Belaney’s Indian identity and his works on wildlife came from the same source: his drive to live in and for the wilderness.”
As to the argument that the Grey Owl persona was self-promotional to sell books, Archie turned the proceeds from his book sales into making educational films about wildlife, not into a lifestyle of the rich and famous. Grey Owl’s sudden renown and money did not turn him from his original purpose. As he declared in 1936:
“Every word I write, every lecture I have given, or ever will give, were and are to be for the betterment of the Beaver people, all wildlife, the Indians and halfbreeds, and for Canada, in whatever small way I may.”
This 1934 quote, near where he is buried with Anahareo and Shirley Dawn resting nearby, is a fitting (if ambiguous) epitaph for this curious man.
(3) Devil in Deerskins: My Life with Grey Owl, 1972
- The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture, Daniel Francis, 1992
- Gender and Indian Masquerade in the Life of Grey Owl, David Chapin, American Indian Quarterly, Winter, 2000, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Winter, 2000), pp. 91-109, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1185992
- 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), https://spectrum.library.concordia.ca/982938/1/Ohri_A_MA_F2017.pdf
- Imposters, Fakes and Charlatans, Albert Ohayon, July 13, 2015
Well worth watching: Thomas King, of Cherokee and European descent, talks about working on a ship when he met a German cook who it turns out loved the books of Karl May, a late-19th-century novelist who wrote about the American West he’d never seen, and Indians he’d never met. When King told the cook that he was a North American Indian, the cook – after looking at him with some skepticism – replied, “You’re not the Indian I had in mind.” Thomas King went on to a writing career, and produced and appears in the 5½-minute National Screen Institute short I’m Not the Indian You Had in Mind.