BOOKS: Grey Owl

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 1999:

Grey Owl: The many faces of Archie Belaney
by Jane Billinghurst
Kodansha America Inc. (575 Lexington Ave., New York,
If you are interested in how live- NY 10022), 1999. 145 pages, illustrated. $22.00, hardcover.

 

A sticker affixed to the cover of
Grey Owl: The many faces of Archie Belaney
announces that his life is soon to be featured
in “A Major Motion Picture by Richard
Attenborough.” Pierce Brosnan was apparently
cast in the leading role after the book
went to press.
The incorrect but dramatic capitalizations
echo Grey Owl’s own style, as one of
the first and most successful of the many
members of the Wannabe Tribe who have presented
themselves, over the years, as bearers
of a largely fictitious Native American ecological
wisdom.


Authentic bearers of Native
American ecological perspective, like
Mohawk historian Ray Fadden, have often
struggled to get words and concepts in edgewise––such
as Fadden’s historically accurate
insight that the collapse of the Mohawk
Confederacy came when too many Mohawks
abandoned development of a growing agrarian
economy in favor of commercial fur trapping,
to supply European buyers.
While the media-savvy likes of Grey
Owl, the late Rolling Thunder (who claimed
native status but whose claim is still disputed),
and one-time Rolling Thunder disciple Ben
White, among others, have kept alive the tradition
of the medicine show––which was
more-or-less begun by Connecticut Humane
Society cofounder P.T. Barnum and his star
performer Buffalo Bill––Fadden for decades
just fed bears at remote sites to keep them
away from hunters’ cabins, smashed traplines,
taught school on a Mohawk reservation, and
addressed the relative handful of visitors who
trickled through his Six Nations Indian
Museum in Onchiota, New York.
Fadden rather more soberly and studiously
followed the path of the equally
obscure Gertrude Bernard, reinvented by
Grey Owl as Anahareo, his longtime Mohawk
companion.
According to the Grey Owl j a c k e t
flap, “As a trapper and fur trader in Canada’s
frontier country, Grey Owl learned to respect
and care for nature and eventually transformed
himself into a legendary protector of wildlife.”
As a regular writer on conservation
themes for leading Canadian magazines,
1928-1938, and as a popular lecturer, Grey
Owl did have significant influence. But it was
actually Anahareo who opened his eyes and
inspired his message––after the man known to
many of his onetime Native American hosts
and benefactors as “Archie Baloney” had
already been trapping without an evident
twinge of conscience for 18 winters.
“In the winter of 1926-1927,” Jane
Billinghurst recounts, “Anahareo joined
Archie on his trapline. She was not content to
spend her time in the cabin, and so she
accompanied Archie as he made his rounds.
She was disgusted by what she saw. Nothing
in her small-town upbringing had prepared her
for the heart-wrenching sight of the frozen
corpses of animals who had died in agony
while trying desperately to escape from the
unyielding metal jaws of the leghold traps.
Nor could she bear to watch as Archie used
the wooden handle of his axe to club to death
those who were still living.”
Anahareo prevailed upon Archie to
found the Society of the Beaver People, and
to try to start a beaver sanctuary at Birch Lake,
New Brunswick, which Archie hoped would
be supported by a combination of gifts from
animal lovers and trapping of other species.
Uncomfortable with the trapping
aspect, Anahareo studied mineralogy and
cherished hopes of finding gold.
The would-be beaver sanctuary
came to grief when Native American pal Dave
White Stone arrived in their temporary
absence, found the beavers, and killed and
skinned them as an intended favor.
White Stone won his way back into
Anahareo’s favor by capturing two young
beavers, whom Archie looked after for the
rest of their lives, and wrote and made documentary
films about. Anahareo and White
Stone meanwhile spent much of their time
traveling together on prospecting expeditions.
Despite his dedication toward the
beavers, who became his meal ticket, Archie
remained an inherently irresponsible and occasionally
violent drunk. Anahareo, much
younger but of similar disposition, returned to
him many times, yet each time seems to have
been driven away by his domineering nature.
In April 1938, on the verge of exposure
as a fraud, Archie died of pnuemonia.
Billinghurst argues that he should be
forgiven for his life and remembered entirely
for his “sincerity” in promoting his eventual
pro-animal and pro-ecology message.
“Chances are,” she writes, “that
Archie Belaney could not have done nearly
such effective work for conservation of
wildlife under his own name.”
But how effective was he? It is
largely through the influence of Grey Owl that
the Canadian government defends the fur trade
and sealing as allegedly essential aspects of a
“Native” lifestyle which earlier Europeans
much like the hard-drinking Archie Baloney
actually brought to them.
The ghost of Grey Owl also underlies
the Makah revival of whaling for reasons
of “cultural survival.”
Whether the forthcoming “Major
Motion Picture” will dare to as unflinchingly
portray Archie as Billinghurst has remains to
be seen. Billinghurst summarizes the more
definitive 1990 biography From The Land of
Shadows, by Donald B. Smith.
Smith in turn borrowed heavily from
Anahareo, whose first book, My Life With
Grey Owl (1940) was reprinted and expanded
in 1972 as Devil in Deerskins.

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