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Grey Owl of Saskatchewan was really a Hastings Grammar School boy

Posted in Animals, Conservation, Historical articles, History, Oddities on Monday, 6 January 2014

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This edited article about impostors first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 503 published on 4 September 1971.

Grey Owl, picture, image, illustration

Grey Owl alias Archibald Belaney was born in Hastings, England, in 1888, by Ron Embleton

The curtain rose and revealed a tall, striking-looking Indian in his full native costume. The huge audience sat spellbound. Then the Indian started to speak in a rich, deep voice.

“I am Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin, Grey Owl, a North American Indian. I come from far across the western ocean . . .”

He went on to describe the Indians and how they lived, and to talk thrillingly about Canada’s wild life and his own fight to help save it.

At the end of his talk there was a moment’s silence, then deafening applause. It was the same wherever he went in Britain. Thousands wrote to him; children sought his autograph which was never refused. He lectured to King George VI and his family at Buckingham Palace. Then he returned to Canada, and soon after, in April 1938, he suddenly died.

Some months later, the scandal broke. Grey Owl had always claimed to be a half-breed, his father British and his mother an Apache. He said he had been born in Mexico. Yet it turned out that he had been really born in Hastings, Sussex, and that he did not have a drop of Indian blood in him. His real name was Archie Belaney!

His great fight to save Canada’s wild animals – he had literally saved the beaver from extinction – was forgotten in a torrent of abuse. He was branded an impostor, a fraud.

Yet the truth about Grey Owl was far more complicated and interesting. If he was a fraud – and there was no denying the existence of Archie Belaney, ex-pupil of Hastings Grammar School – then he was a magnificent one.

Archibald Belaney was born in Hastings in 1888. His ne’er-do-well father had gone to America and married there, but he and Archie’s mother had come home before the boy was born. His father returned to the States to continue his aimless life, leaving Archie to be brought up by devoted aunts. He sometimes saw his mother, but never his father.

Nearly all boys and girls want to be Indians at some moment in their lives. Archie decided he wanted to be one as soon as he heard about them. Other children played at being Indians: he worked at it. He learnt to creep about the “forests” of Sussex, silent and unseen. Meanwhile, he hero-worshipped his absent father, whom he imagined enjoying exciting adventures in the Wild West.

He never wavered in his object, though he did well enough at school, so when he was sixteen, his sorrowing aunts gave him his fare and clothes and he sailed away in the SS Dominion, Canada bound.

After a spell in Toronto finding his feet, he headed north when news of a silver strike broke. Still very much the English schoolboy, he found himself in the Canadian wilderness among some pretty rugged characters.

One night, after watching an open air religious meeting addressed by a grim-faced preacher, he decided to sleep out in the woods for the first time. It nearly cost him his life.

He awoke to find his head being held up by a hand while his coat, which he was using as a pillow, was pulled away. He jumped up to find the thief was the preacher! The bogus man of God drew a knife and went for him. Archie side-stepped and grappled with the man. Just as it seemed that all was up with the unarmed youth, voices were heard and his assailant ran away.

Archie became a woodsman with the help of a kindly guide and two Ojibway Indians. He learnt how to handle an Indian canoe, to hunt and to track. He grew his hair long like an Indian. His face became browned by the sun and wind. He wore moccasins. The transformation was beginning.

White men liked Archie but could not understand him. Now he had begun to think he was half Indian, and those who knew him in Ontario accepted him as such.

Then came the 1914-18 War. Archie went to France, was wounded and was nursed back to health by his aunts in Hastings. Then he returned to the wilds.

He joined a band of Ojibways, who adopted him, giving him his name, Grey Owl. They sang and danced and beat drums to celebrate. Soon he had almost forgotten his own language. He had found himself.

In 1925, he married an Iroquois girl, named Anahareo. But she could never get used to his life as a trapper, killing for a living. One fateful day they were in their canoe searching for a mother beaver whose young Grey Owl had accidentally killed, when he raised his rifle to kill what looked like a muskrat by a beaver house.

Suddenly, there was a plaintive cry. It was a beaver kitten with another behind it. Anahareo grabbed his arm and he lowered his rifle.

“Let us save them,” she cried.

“Yes, we must,” said Grey Owl. “We will take them home.”

The beavers adopted them and they adopted the beavers, calling them McGinnis and McGinty. Grey Owl vowed he would never kill another beaver even if he starved.

They settled down in a hut by a lake and Grey Owl began to write about his beavers. He sent an 8,000 word story to Country Life in London and, as beavers were being killed off around them, they and their two charges were never apart, until one day McGinnis and McGinty went back to the beaver world.

Heartbroken, they got two more kittens. One died but the other, Jelly Roll, was to become a film star! For now Grey Owl’s luck changed. Country Life bought the story and he started writing a book. And the heads of the National Parks got to hear about this amazing couple who tamed beavers, for now a newcomer, Rawhide, had replaced the dead one.

The officials were very impressed. Films were made and the Government offered to build a home in a National Park for Grey Owl where he and others could study the beavers. After a brief spell in Manitoba, the family, human and animal, reached Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan, where Grey Owl, now world-famous because of his books and films, ran the beaver reserve.

His efforts turned the scale in Canada. Four Provinces made it illegal to hunt beaver except at certain times of year, and Canadians and many Americans began to realise that their wild life was a heritage that must be preserved.

Then came the first British lecture tour. After at first feeling caged, away from the woods, he relaxed and became an inspired speaker. He brought the Canadian wilds to Britain and soon the papers were full of articles about the most famous of all living Indians.

He returned again the next year, having written perhaps the most well known of his books, Tales of an Empty Cabin, but his health, undermined by the war, was giving way. Back in Canada he gave his last lecture imploring Canadians to help him in his fight. They stood and cheered him.

Soon after he was dead. Old soldiers buried him near his Saskatchewan home. Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin had gone to the happy hunting grounds.

Soon the questions began to be asked and the truth started to come out. Thousands felt cheated because Grey Owl was no more of an Indian than they were. But when his British publishing friend, Lovat Dickson, wrote Half-Breed, a moving account of his life, after carefully investigating the facts, Grey Owl’s reputation was saved. What if he was an impostor? He was surely a noble one. And there were his achievements. And had he not become an Indian by adoption and in his love of Nature and its animals?

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