Today is the birthday (1888) of Archibald Belaney who called himself Grey Owl when he took on a fraudulent First Nations identity for himself as an adult. Belaney was, to say the least, a colorful character, much prone to exaggerating and downright lying about his life. He also appears to have married 4 women without divorcing any of them (although the civil legitimacy of some of these marriages is doubtful, having been performed as indigenous rituals). He was born in England and migrated to Canada early in the 20th century. He rose to prominence as a notable author and lecturer on conservation, described as “one of the most effective apostles of the wilderness”. In studying the Ojibwe, he learned some native harvesting techniques and trapping skills which provided him with a living for a while. The pivotal moment of his life’s work was when he began a relationship with a young Iroquois woman named Gertrude Bernard, who assisted in his transition from trapper to conservationist.
Grey Owl was born Archibald Stansfeld Belaney near Hastings in Sussex. His mother, Kittie, was his father’s second wife. Years before Archie’s birth, his father, George Belaney had emigrated to the United States with his then-wife Elizabeth Cox and her younger sister Katherine (Kittie). After Elizabeth’s early death, George persuaded Kittie, not yet 20, to marry him, a marriage that would have been illegal in Britain. Within the year they returned to Britain in time for the birth of their son Archie. The family lived together near Hastings until Kittie became pregnant for a second time. George and Kittie Belaney left to return to the United States, where he abandoned her. Archie remained in England in the care of his father’s mother Juliana Belaney and his father’s two younger sisters, Julia Caroline Belaney and Janet Adelaide Belaney, whom the boy would know as Aunt Carry and Aunt Ada. Kittie visited him a few times.
As a boy, Belaney was known for pranks, such as using his grammar school chemistry to make small bombs which he called “Belaney Bombs.” At the time he was fascinated by Native Americans, and he would read extensively about them and draw them in the margins of his books. Belaney left Hastings Grammar School and started work as a clerk with a timber company located behind St Helen’s Wood. There Belaney and his friend George McCormick practiced the arts of knife throwing and marksmanship. His last event at the company was lowering fireworks down the chimney of the timber company’s office. The fireworks exploded and nearly destroyed the building. After the timber yard fired him, Belaney’s aunts let him move to Canada, where he sought adventure.
On March 29, 1906 (aged 17) Belaney sailed for Halifax. He emigrated ostensibly to study agriculture. After a brief time in Toronto, he moved to Temagami (Tema-Augama), Northern Ontario, where he worked as a fur trapper, a wilderness guide at Keewaydin camp, and a forest ranger. At first he began to sign his name as “Grey Owl”. Then he fabricated a Native identity, telling people that he was the child of a Scottish father and Apache mother. He claimed to have emigrated from the U.S. to join the Ojibwa in Canada.
Belaney went to Toronto to earn money in the retail industry with aims of traveling farther north. Before heading to Northern Ontario to stay with the Guppy family in Lake Timiskaming, Belaney was keen to become a guide and continued to educate himself in nature. Before becoming a trapper, Belaney sought first-hand experience to learn the basic skills of a woodsman and apprenticed himself to Bill Guppy, who taught Belaney how to use snow-shoes and the basics of trapping, including how to place several types of trap. Following the Guppy family, he moved to Lake Temagami (Tema-Augama) in Northern Ontario, where he worked as a chore boy at the Temagami Inn for 2 years before returning to Britain.
Upon his return to Lake Temagami, Belaney’s fascination with the Anishinaabe people increased. Belaney set about studying their language and lore while conducting a relationship with Ojibwa co-worker Angele Egwuna. Egwuna helped Belaney increase his knowledge of trapping and fish nets, and also provided him access to a network of Ojibwe people. Belaney says he passionately embraced the cause of the Ojibwe Indians, and that in turn the Ojibwe treated Belaney as one of their own. In 1909, Belaney spent a winter with the Ojibwa trappers, and claimed he had been adopted as an Ojibwa trapper. In Donald B. Smith’s From the Land of Shadows, it is noted that Belaney’s greatest lesson from the Ojibwa was the fragility of the environmental ecosystem and this was profoundly influential in forming his conservationist views. On August 23, 1910, he and Angele Egwuna married.
Belaney enlisted with the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force (CEF) on May 6, 1915 during the First World War. On his attestation papers, he claimed to be born in Montreal on September 18, 1888, and listed no next of kin. When asked about his marital status, there was some confusion. He wrote the word ‘yes’ then crossed it out, then wrote the word ‘no’ and crossed it out, leaving his marital status unclear to the military at the time of enlistment. He stated his trade was a ‘trapper’ and that he previously served as a ‘Mexican Scout’ with the 28th Dragoons, although this is unclear since the U.S. was not in any significant military actions in the region (other than small operations, in which he could not have served). Belaney joined the 13th (Montreal) Battalion of the Black Watch. His unit was shipped to France, where he served as a sniper. His comrades accepted his self-presentation as Indian and generally praised his conduct. Belaney was wounded in January 1916, and then more seriously on April 24, 1916, with a shot through the foot. When the wounded limb developed gangrene, Belaney was shipped to Britain for treatment.
While doctors tried to heal his foot, they moved Belaney from one British infirmary to another for a full year. In Britain, Belaney met again with childhood friend, Constance (Ivy) Holmes, and they married. Their marriage failed in a short time, without his having told Holmes that he was still married to Angele Egwuna, whom he had abandoned but not divorced. Belaney was shipped back to Canada in September 1917, where he received an honorable discharge on November 30, with a disability pension.
In 1925, then 37-year-old Belaney met 19-year-old Gertrude Bernard (aka Anahareo, or Pony), a Mohawk Iroquois woman who was to be very influential in his life. She encouraged him to stop trapping and to publish his writing about the wilderness. They had a passionate 8-year affair, beginning with their Anishinaabe wedding ceremony. Through her influence, he began to think more deeply about conservation. Anahareo encouraged his writing and influenced him by saving and raising a pair of beaver kits.
After accompanying Belaney on a trapline, Anahareo attempted to make him see the torture that animals suffered when they were caught in traps. Anahareo could not convince Belaney until his pivotal moment of conversion from trapper to conservationist occurred involving beavers. According to Belaney’s Pilgrims of the Wild, he hunted down a beaver home where he knew a mother beaver to be and set a trap for her. When the trap caught the mother beaver, Belaney began to canoe away to the cries of kitten beavers which greatly resemble the sound of human infants. Anahareo begged Belaney to set the mother free, but he could not be swayed from his position because they needed the money from the beaver’s pelt. The next day, Belaney went back for the baby beavers which the couple adopted. Albert Braz noted in “St. Archie of the Wild”, “Indeed, primarily because of this episode, Grey Owl comes to believe that it is ‘monstrous’ to hunt such creatures and determines to ‘study them’ rather than ‘persecuting them further.'”
Belaney’s first journal article, “The Falls of Silence”, was published under the name A.S. Belaney in Country Life, the English sporting and society magazine. He also published articles on animal lore as “Grey Owl” in Forest & Outdoors, a publication of the Canadian Forestry Association. He became increasingly known in Canada and the United States. In 1928, the National Park Service made a film, Beaver People, featuring Belaney and Anahareo, which showed them with the two beavers which they had taken in as kits. Belaney wrote 25 articles for Canadian Forest and Outdoors magazine between 1930 and 1935, published while he was in the midst of writing his first book.
Belaney’s first book,The Men of the Last Frontier was published in 1931, and it traced the devastating story of the beaver as well as posed some concerns about the future of Canada and its forests. Beaver pelts had become such a hot commodity in Canadian industry that the beaver was on the verge of extinction when Anahareo helped Belaney understand the desperate need for protecting the animal instead of trapping it. According to Belaney in The Men of the Last Frontier, trappers swarmed to the forests in higher numbers than ever before in 1930 because of the beaver’s scarcity, and he argued that the only way to save this animal was to remove all of the trappers from the forests. This was an extremely difficult feat however because their pelts were so valuable and the job economy was so poor in the 1930s that he described their role in the economy as “beavers [being] to the north what gold was to the west”. Though much of his focus in his writings were on the beaver, he also believed that this animal could be used as a symbol for the disappearing future of Canadian wilderness in a broader sense. Belaney believed that Canada’s wilderness and vastly open nature was what made it unique from other countries of the world, and this was disappearing at an extremely fast rate due to consumerism and the modernist emphasis on capital. Grey Owl also discussed in The Men of the Last Frontier how the Canadian government and logging industry were working together to project a false image of forest preservation in order to gain possession of Canada’s forests and rid them of their resources, burn down what remained, and attempt to replant “synthetic forests” in their places. The Men of the Last Frontier was a call of desperation for the people of Canada to awaken from their immobility and resist the destruction of their country as the forests were being turned into deserts for profit.
For me as native-born Argentino the great irony is that beavers are a menace in southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego where they were introduced from Canada, originally for their pelts. But they have no natural predators there and there is virtually no hunting or trapping, so they are overrunning the wilderness and destroying woodlands and rivers with their dams and lodges. At the moment the government appears powerless to stop the devastation which is painfully evident if you visit the region.
In 1931, Belaney and Anahareo moved briefly (with their beavers) to a cabin in Riding Mountain National Park to find a sanctuary for them. Riding Mountain National Park was found to be an unsuitable habitat for the beavers, as a summer drought resulted in the lake water level sinking, and becoming stagnant. Both the beavers and Belaney were unhappy with the situation, causing Belaney to search, with the support of the Dominion Parks Branch, for better living conditions. The Parks Branch suggested Prince Albert National Park, situated 450 miles north-west of Riding Mountain National Park. Belaney and Anahareo found the park suitable for their needs as it was isolated, teeming with wildlife, heavily wooded. Belaney told his publisher and future biographer, Lovat Dickson, the following story about his origins:
He was the son of a Scottish father and Apache mother. He claimed his father was a man named George MacNeil, who had been a scout during the 1870s Indian Wars in the southwestern United States. Grey Owl said his mother was Katherine Cochise of the Apache, Jicarilla band. He further said that both parents had been part of the Wild Bill Hickok Western show that toured England. Grey Owl claimed to have been born in 1888 in Hermosillo, Mexico, while his parents were performing there.
In 1935–36 and 1937–38, Belaney toured Canada and Britain (including Hastings) to promote his books and lecture about conservation. His popularity attracted large, interested audiences, as Pilgrims in the Wild at one point was selling 5,000 copies a month. Belaney appeared in traditional Ojibwa clothing as part of his fraudulent First Nations identity. Although his aunts recognized him at his 1935 appearance in Hastings, they did not talk about his true, British origins until 1937. During a publication tour of Canada, Grey Owl met Yvonne Perrier, a French-Canadian woman. In November, 1936 they married.
The book tours (and chronic alcoholism) took a major toll on Belaney’s health. In April 1938, he returned to Beaver Lodge, his cabin at Ajawaan Lake. Five days later, he was found unconscious on the floor of the cabin. Although taken to Prince Albert hospital for treatment, he died of pneumonia on April 13, 1938. He was buried near his cabin with 2 of his children.
Eating something you have foraged seems appropriate for today’s recipe. This will depend on where you live, of course. One of my most valuable possessions for many years when I lived in the Catskills was the Peterson guide to edible plants. Some are pretty obvious, such as the many berries available in the region – most notably blueberries. But there are mountains of edible greens which you can eat fresh or boiled. Mushrooming is a little tricky, and I would not recommend it without some expert knowledge. I routinely found morels, boletus mushrooms, sulfur shelf mushrooms, and puff balls. I always loved the line “all true puff balls are edible.” This is correct, but what is a “true” puff ball ???? The deadly amanitas has the habit of disguising itself as a puff ball when young. You can tell the difference quite easily if you cut one open (and know what you are looking for). Anyway, I find puff balls rather bland. Fried to a golden brown in heaps of butter they aren’t too bad. Watercress was also abundant in side eddies of streams where I lived and you could pick basket loads in minutes. Then there’s acorns, black walnuts, scuppernong grapes . . . you name it. There’s a feast out there. Have at it.