Grey Owl

From Academic Kids

This article is about the Canadian conservationist and writer; there is also a Great Grey Owl.

Missing image
Portrait of Grey Owl in 1936,
by Yousuf Karsh.

Grey Owl (in Ojibwe: Wa-sha-quon-asin) was the name Archibald Belaney (September 18, 1888 - April 13, 1938) adopted when he took upon a First Nations identity as an adult. He was a writer and became one of Canada's first conservationists.


Early years

Archibald Stansfeld Belaney was born in September 1888 in Hastings, England, to a farmer family. His father wasted the family fortune in drinking. Some sources also suggest that his mother was only 13 years old when they were married. His parents separated in 1901, and his father left the country.

Belaney was raised by his grandmother and two maiden aunts. He expressed an interest in nature and American Indians at an early age. He went to Hastings Grammar School, and at the age of 16 - due to his aunts' urging - to work for a timber yard. He was fired when he dropped a bomb down his employer's chimney.

Immigration to Canada

In 1906 Belaney immigrated to Canada, ostensibly to study agriculture. After a brief time in Toronto, he moved to Temagami, Northern Ontario, and adopted an Indian identity and the name Grey Owl. He also married an Ojibwa woman, Angele Egwuna. He worked as a fur trapper, wilderness guide and forest ranger. He explained that he was a child of a Scottish father and Apache mother and had emigrated to join the Ojibwas.

During World War I, in 1915, Grey Owl joined the 13th Montreal Battalion of the Black Watch. His unit was shipped to France, where he served as a sniper. His compatriots treated him as an Indian and generally praised his conduct afterwards. He was wounded first in January 1916 and then again on April 24, 1916 with a shot through the foot. The wound contracted gangrene, and he was shipped to England for treatment.

Grey Owl was moved from one British infirmary to another for a full year while doctors tried in vain to restore his foot. He also met and briefly married childhood friend Constance Holmes. The marriage failed. He was shipped back to Canada in September 1917 and honorably discharged on November 30 with a disability pension.

In 1925 he met the Iroquois woman Gertrude Bernard (whom he later called Anahareo), who encouraged him to stop trapping and publish his writings about wilderness life. His writings attracted the attention of the Dominion Parks Service, and he begun to work for them as a naturalist. In 1931 he and Anahareo moved briefly to a cabin in Riding Mountain National Park with their two pet beavers. Next year they moved to near Ajawaan Lake in Prince Albert National Park.

In his articles, books, and films he promoted the idea of environmentalism and nature conservation. In 1931, He wrote several articles for the Canadian Forestry Association (CFA) publication Forests and Outdoors:

  • King of the Beaver People (, January 1931
  • A Day in a Hidden Town (, April 1931
  • A Mess of Pottage (, May 1931
  • The Perils of Woods Travel (, September 1931
  • Indian Legends and Lore (, October 1931
  • A Philosophy of the Wild (, December 1931

In 1935 and 1937 he successfully toured England (including Hastings) in Ojibwa costume to promote his books and lecture about conservation. His aunts recognized him but remained silent until 1937. In his latter tour he also visited the court and met princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.

The tours fatigued him badly, and in 1938 he returned to Beaver Lodge, his cabin at Ajawaan Lake. Grey Owl died of pneumonia on April 13, 1938; he is buried near his cabin.

Doubts about his Amerindian identity began to appear after his death. His publisher Lovat Dickson tried to prove his identity but ended up exposing the truth.

Posthumous recognition

Numerous books about Grey Owl have been published, including:

  • Grey Owl and I by Anahareo (1972)
  • Wilderness Man: The Strange Story of Grey Owl by Lovat Dickson (1974)

In 1999, the film Grey Owl premiered, directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Pierce Brosnan in the title role. The film received mostly poor reviews and received no theatrical release in the United States.

On the 100th anniversary of his birth, a Canadian Scarlet Maple tree was planted in his honor on the grounds of the Hastings Grammar School. In June 1997, the mayor of Hastings and the city's Member of Parliament (Michael Foster), unveiled a plaque in his honor on the house at 32 St James Road where he was born [1] (

Grey Owl's books

  • The Men of the Last Frontier (1931)
  • Pilgrims of the Wild (1935)
  • Sajo and her Beaver People (1935; 1991 reprint: ISBN 0773673415)
  • Tales of an Empty Cabin (1936; 1999 reprint: ISBN 1552630307)

The first three of the above have been collected and reprinted as Grey Owl: Three Complete and Unabridged Canadian Classics (2001: ISBN 1552095908). Excerpts from all four were collected in The Book of Grey Owl: Selected Wildlife Stories (1938; 1989 reprint: ISBN 0771592930).

External links and sources


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