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Cultural appropriation is not a good thing and through the years there have been many examples from film to music to the story of Rachel Dolezal who presented herself as a black woman despite being white.
There was John Wayne playing Genghis Khan in 1956’s The Conqueror, Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and recently, Johnny Depp as Indigenous character Tonto in the Lone Ranger in 2013.
Side note, that role was originally made famous by Canadian Indigenous actor Jay Silverheels, I did an episode on his story that you should check out.
Throughout history Indigenous and people from the global majority have been portrayed by white actors on screen and in 1999 Pierce Brosnan appeared to be the latest to step into the appropriation spotlight L
Should we lump Mr. Brosnan in with the others I have already mentioned?
Because Pierce Brosnan was not playing an Indigenous person. Before John Wayne, Mickey Rooney or Johnny Depp, there was Archibald Belaney, the man who called himself Grey Owl.
I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx!
The man who would be known as Grey Owl was born in Hastings, England in 1888 and named Archibald Belaney.
Before he was born, however, his father George, was a heavy drinker who drained the family’s fortune. To try and build a new life George, his first wife Elizabeth Cox, and her younger sister Kittie, moved to the United States.
Elizabeth died suddenly, and George convinced her young sister Kittie to marry him.
The couple returned to England where Archie was born.
George then abandoned him and his mother, never to see them again.
His mother, still a teenager, was not ready to raise a son by herself so Archie was sent to be cared for by his two aunts, Janet and Julia.
His mother would only visit him a few times before leaving him for good when he was a toddler.
Archie was abandoned and that loneliness stayed with him for the rest of his life no matter how much the aunts cared for Archie and loved him.
Their home was strict, and Janet ruled with an iron fist even as she opened the world of literature and music as his first teacher.
Outside of his lessons, Archie read books about the Indigenous people of North America and ignited a passion for Canada that never left.
He was also deeply interested in and fascinated by wildlife.
Janet, despite her strict nature, et Archie keep snakes, mice, and rabbits on the top floor of the home.
When he was about five years old, his father sent him a miniature Mexican ranch set and he spent hours pretending two of the figures in the set were his father and himself, working together.
With both his parents gone from his life, Archie created two fictional parents that were often away because his father was a western plainsman in North America, and his mother was an Indigenous woman.
This imaginary life was an easy way to explain his unusual upbringing to his friends and save himself the embarrassment of explaining he was in fact abandoned.
Archie didn’t know it at the time, but this was the first step towards an entirely new persona that would make him world famous decades later.
After a few years under the tutelage of his aunts, Archie moved on to the Hastings Grammar School in East Sussex.
Overall, Archie was a good student.
He won a school prize for French and topped his class in English.
He also discovered he had a talent for chemistry.
He used that talent to make small bombs that he called Belaney Bombs, similar to what we would call cherry bombs today.
When he was 15, he left school and began working as a clerk at a lumberyard.
One day, Archie took fireworks and lowered them down the timber company’s chimney.
The fireworks exploded and nearly destroyed the office.
Very soon after, for some reason, he was fired by the lumber company.
Meanwhile he continued to read about the Indigenous people of North America, and took nature walks through the English countryside and longed to leave England and discover this great open land for himself.
At 17, he persuaded his aunts to let him travel to Canada knowing he would probably just go anyways, they agreed.
On March 29, 1906, he boarded the SS Canada, and arrived in Halifax sometime later, then moved to Toronto where he worked to raise money for his trip north.
After a few months, he saved enough money to go up he Ottawa River towards Lake Temagami, just to the northeast of Sudbury where there was an Ojibwa community along the shores of the lake.
He had spent his whole life reading about Indigenous people and now Archie was finally going to be in an Ojibwa community.
He began to work as a chore boy at the Temagami Inn where he met. Bill Guppy who taught Archie how to use snowshoes and basic trapping, a skill that Archie never forgot.
In the community he also met John Egwuna, an Ojibwa man.
Archie was welcomed into John’s family, and John’s niece Angele taught Archie to speak Ojibwe and gave him lessons in canoeing.
Archie and Angele spent time together and soon love blossomed. They married in 1910 and had a daughter, named Agnes. After his marriage, Archie started to take on more of an Indigenous persona.
He dyed his hair black, and darkened his skin with henna, to appear Indigenous.
When someone asked him about his blue eyes, he said it came from his father. However, he wasn’t quite using the name Grey Owl yet.
Within a year of marrying Angele, Archie abandoned his family like his father before him, in a cycle that became too familiar.
By the spring of 1912, Archie was living in Bisco, about 160 kilometres east of Lake Temagami.
In that community, Archie proved himself to be the life of the party.
He played the piano at community dances, delighted people with his knife throwing skills and, rather unfortunately, much like his father he became known for drinking heavily.
By now Archie was a guide and ranger, while also trapping furs to sell.
In Bisco he adopted a more Indigenous persona, by dropping his English accent and reinvented his origin story even further by saying he was the son of a frontiersman and Apache woman.
Despite being still married to Angele, Archie began a relationship with a Metis woman named Marie Girard who became pregnant, and it is not known for sure if Archie knew she was pregnant when they ended their relationship. in the winter of 1914-15. She died of tuberculosis the following autumn, shortly after giving birth to a son named John. By that time Archie was onto another path, he enlisted to fight in WWI.
When he enlisted, Archie said he had military experience with the Mexican Scouts, 28th Dragoons, which of course, was completely fabricated.
He also said he was born in Montreal and had no next-of-kin, both false.
On his enlistment form when asked if he was married, he wrote yes, then crossed it out and wrote no.
I will put the link to his enlistment papers in my show notes.
With no one questioning his answers, he was soon sent to France.
There, he proved himself to be an excellent shot and was posted as a sniper on the front lines.
He told his comrades he was Indigenous, and since Indigenous soldiers were known to be some of the best snipers in the First World War, no one questioned him.
But His time in the trenches was brief.
In April 1916, he was shot in the foot and had to be hospitalized in England.
Now…. There is some speculation that he shot himself to escape the horrors of war and really, I don’t think anyone can blame him for that but there’s no evidence to say he did for sure.
Unfortunately, the bullet wound developed gangrene, and took quite some time to heal.
While back in England for his recovery, Archie reached out to his aunts and slipped back into his English accent.
He also stopped drinking and didn’t tell anyone about his marriage to Angelene in Canada, he also didn’t mention his daughter Agnes. He also didn’t bring up Marie Girard.
Once he reconnected with his aunts they reached out to Ivy Holmes.
She was Archie’s childhood acquaintance and the daughter of a family friend.
Ivy was described as attractive and was as a professional dancer in a troupe that performed throughout Europe prior to the war.
Soon Archie and Ivy fell in love.
They married in late 1916 when Ivy accepted to move to the Canadian forest and leave her dancing career behind.
Archie went first because the First World War was still raging, and wives could not travel on ships with their husbands to Canada. likely because of the danger of U-Boats in the North Atlantic.
He left England on Sept. 19, 1917, with a promise to send for her as soon as the war was over.
Ivy never saw Archie again.
For everyone keeping track by this time in his story Archie had accumulated two children whom he abandoned and been married twice, without ever getting divorced.
Eventually Archie wrote to Ivy to tell her he was already married, and in 1922 she filed for divorce on the grounds of bigamy.
Archie may have left the frontlines, but he didn’t leave the war behind
The horrors followed him back to Canada and stayed with him.
Today, he would probably be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, but back then the only option was to push the feelings deep down try to ignore them or drown them with alcohol.
Adding to this ever-present misery was his foot which never healed completely and left him with a slight limp for the rest of his life.
Possibly looking for comfort in familiarity, Archie went back to Angele shortly after his return to Canada but left soon after and found his way back to Bisco.
His drinking was getting worse, and in Bisco he met Edith Langevin, the legal guardian of his son John.
She refused to allow John to meet Archie because she was revolted by his drinking and didn’t want that in John’s life.
It is possible that Archie’s life would continue to spiral into the bottle were it not for an Ojibwa family.
The Espaniels allowed him to stay with them on their trapping grounds, but he wasn’t allowed to drink while with them.
For several winters in the early part of the 1920s, he lived with them where he mastered the Ojibwe language and learned more about their way of life.
His drinking declined and remained so, for several years.
In 1925, Archie returned to Lake Temagamio with his wife Angele.
This time they were together long enough for Angelene to become pregnant with another daughter but when Flora was born in 1926, he once again left.
One reason could’ve been Gertrude Bernard, an Iroquois woman who had agreed to spend the winter trapping with him in Quebec.
Archie told people that he and Gertrude were married and neglected to mention that although he was in his 40s at this point, she was a teenager when they met.
Archie gave Gertrude the pet name of Anahareo, which means Pony.
Although she was Iroquois and was raised in Mattawa, Ontario and she had little knowledge of living in the bush or trapping. Trapping at this time was not easy. Gone were the days of big money fur trading s, and the very symbol of Canada, the beaver, was on the brink of extinction.
Coveted animal fur populations had been depleted through unregulated trapping.
Archie taught Gertrude how to trap and live off the land and when he caught a mother beaver and left the two beaver kits behind, she pleaded for the mother’s freedom.
He refused, stating they needed the money.
She continued, and, to his credit, Archie listened and went back the next day to adopt the kits.
It did not take long for Archie to bond with them as he saw the beavers were affectionate and intelligent beings.
From then on, he vowed to never trap another beaver again.
While with Gertrude and for 20 years Archie had used the name Grey Owl. While I don’t condone pretending to be Indigenous, it is important to note that with Gertrude’s encouragement, Grey Owl started to write about conservation, using the knowledge he had gained from the Ojibwe.
In 1928, the National Park Service made a film about the couple, which showed them with the two beaver kits they had adopted.
At around this time Grey Owl reconnected with his mother after she reached out to his aunts. For the first time in three decades, mother and son were on speaking terms.
In his letter he described life in the backcountry leaving his mother entranced.
She wrote to Country Life, a magazine in London, asking them to publish his writing. They agreed and quickly commissioned an article from Grey Owl.
That first article was published in 1929.
A year later he wrote another article for Forest and Outdoors.
After an excellent response to his first article, Country Life asked for a book which was released in 1931 as The Men of the Last Frontier, authored by Grey Owl.
In the background note in the book, the publisher stated,
“His father was a Scot, his mother an Apache Indian of New Mexico, and he was born somewhere near the Rio Grande forty odd years ago.” and chose the name Grey Owl because as a child he imitated the hooting bird.
He added that his parents had been part of the famous Wild Bill Hickok western show and had toured England.
He said he was born in Mexico when his parents were touring there.
His book argued that trappers were swarming the forests in increased numbers to find beaver pelts due to the scarcity of the animal.
He wrote that the only way to save the beaver was to have the forest be free of trappers.
This was during The Great Depression when money and work were hard to come by.
Arguing for the conservation of beavers was against the common belief of the time.
In the book he also took aim at the government and the logging industry, arguing that they worked together to present a false image of forest preservation, while clearcutting huge swathes of land.
The Canadian government soon took notice of Grey Owl.
The Dominion Parks Branch began to publish his stories, and a film about Grey Owl and his pet beaver was made.
The goal was to provide a living argument for conservation.
Upon its release, the film received a great reception and.
In the spring of 1931, Dominion Parks Branch made him the conservation officer and caretaker of the park animals at Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba and used him to increase tourism.
After six months, Grey Owl and Gertrude were transferred to Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan because it was a better habitat for beavers.
That’s where his daughter Shirley Dawn was born and where he wrote his next three books.
While living in a log cabin on the shore of Ajawaan Lake, Grey Owl wrote, raised his family and tamed another beaver.
The beaver could travel in and out of the cabin thanks to an underwater tunnel.
Grey Owl wrote and published his books and their success spawned short films that depicted his life in Prince Albert National Park.
These films made him famous and in England, he became a star.
[CLIP FROM GREY OWL MOVIE 47 SECONDS]
In 1934, his book Pilgrims of the Wild, was released and it detailed how Gertrude turned him into a conservationist.
The book sold incredibly well, averaging about 5,000 books per month in sales.
He followed that book with a children’s book titled The adventures of Sajo and her beaver people, which was another best seller.
Beginning in 1936, the Governor General of Canada, Lord Tweedsmuir, visited Grey Owl at his cabin many times through the years.
Tweedsmuir admired Grey Owl’s conservation & Indigenous people but had no idea that the man before him was English.
Of course, while nearly everyone was fooled into thinking Grey Owl was Indigenous, Indigenous people were never fooled.
As Grey Owl achieved worldwide fame, the Indigenous people around him saw him as someone telling the world what they had been saying for decade.
One of my favourite stories comes from John Tootoosis who was an Indigenous activist in the early 20th century.
He was a relative of the famous Chief Poundmaker, and his son, Gordon Tootoosis, was a celebrated actor who played Albert Golo on North of 60.
His daughter was Jean Cuthand Goodwill, the first certified Indigenous nurse in Saskatchewan.
Side note, I’ve done episodes on all of these check them out.
But in the case of Grey Own, While having breakfast at a shop near the Parliament buildings, Tootoosis ran into him on his way to meet with the Prime Minister and Governor General.
John Tootoosis, an Indigenous man, could not get a meeting with either, while Grey Owl, an Englishman pretending to be Indigenous, had no problem scheduling a meeting.
Grey Owl asked Tootoosis to join him for his breakfast and the two talked for some time.
Grey Owl was going to be busy all day, so he offered Tootoosis his hotel room until he returned.
The two then met in the evening and Grey Owl offered to introduce Tootoosis to people at Indian Affairs.
Unfortunately, Tootoosis was unable to meet any senior officials and those he did meet s were very dismissive of him.
Grey Owl and Tootoosis parted on friendly terms, and later Tootoosis said he knew Grey Owl was not Indigenous, but it didn’t matter, because he saw that Grey Owl was an ally to the Indigenous cause.
During the winter of 1935-36, Grey Owl and Gertrude toured England where he was called a Modern Hiawatha, referencing the legendary Iroquois leader who co-founded the Iroquois Confederacy.
The trip lasted for four months and was extremely successful. Throughout the tour, Grey Owl preached the message that humans belong to nature, nature does not belong to humans.
During his speeches, he said.
“I want to arouse in the Canadian people a sense of responsibility they have for the north country and its inhabitants, humans and animal.”
Some newspapers questioned Grey Owl’s identity, but in an off-hand way not because of how he looked, but because they were suspect of an Indigenous man who had, in their racist views, had elegance.
When asked about it, Grey Owl simply stated racial prejudice.
Unfortunately, as his fame increased and his mission as a conservationist took over, the relationship between Gertrude and Grey Owl fractured.
They parted ways soon after their tour of England ended.
By now, Grey Owl’s drinking was getting worse and, on the ship, back to Canada, he drank so heavily, while only eating onions that he was constantly sick.
Upon his return his fame exploded
In Ottawa, a famous portrait was taken of him by Yousuf Karsh.
Karsh was one of Canada’s greatest portrait photographers and was well known for his photo of Winston Churchill At a dinner organized by Karsh in his honour Grey Owl was nowhere to be found. As dinner began Karsh went looking for him and found him drinking in a bar.
Karsh dragged him back to the dinner.
But Grey Owl’s fame didn’t wane after publishing his fourth book, Tales of an Empty Cabin, he was asked to speak to a crowd of 1,700 at the King Edward Hotel.
On Nov. 9, 1936, speaking to another audience, Grey Owl he urged the attendees to protect nature, stating,
“Canada’s greatest asset today is her forest lands. In my latest book I have attacked the average Canadian’s ignorance of his own country. He is prouder of skyscrapers on Yonge Street and the price of hogs. He can have those any time, but we can’t replace the natural resources we are destroying as fast as we can.”
The event was so popular, 500 people were turned away at the door.
With this growing popularity he met and married Yvonne Perrier, a French-Canadian woman who lived in Ottawa.
She went to Europe with him in 1937 on a three-month tour that included a performance at Buckingham Palace.
According to those who were there, Grey Owl saw King George VI, and a young Elizabeth.
He flung his right arm in a salute and said, “How Kola”, and then addressed him with some words in the Ojibwe language.
He then lowered his arm and stated that in his language, he had said “I come in peace, brother.”
The King was suitably impressed by Grey Owl, not realizing for a second that the man standing before him was born, and had grown up, 113 kilometres to the south in Hastings.
After the visit Grey Owl returned to Canada with great fanfare, and the couple embarked on a three-month tour of the continent.
It would be his last
In April 1938, Grey Owl returned to Prince Albert National Park, completely, and utterly exhausted.
Five days later, he was found unconscious on the floor of the cabin.
He had contracted pneumonia and was rushed to the hospital but was too weak to fight it and on April 13, 1938, he died at the age of 49 and was buried near his cabin. As news spread, he was eulogized in newspapers across the Western World, and was called quote,
“the most famous of Canadian Indians.”
Then, a bombshell dropped.
[PAUSE] Upon hearing of the death of Grey Owl, Angele, his first wife went to the media.
She not only told them that they had been legally married for three decades, but that the man they called Grey Owl was not Indigenous.
He was an Englishman named FULL LEGAL NAME
Newspapers did their own detective work and before long were able to corroborate Angele’s account.
Archie had no Indigenous ancestry.
Publishers quickly stopped selling his books and published them under his birth name They also proved Angele was Grey Owl’s legitimate wife, and she inherited most of his estate, which was estimated to be between $1 to $5 million at the time of his death.
After being abandoned several times and left to raise their two kids, while being completely ignored by Grey Owl in his writings and speaking tours, she seemed to have got the last laugh.
Yet, we still talk about Grey Owl today, and most don’t even know his English name.
Grey Owl’s appropriation of an Indigenous background has done little to tarnish his legacy.
His Wikipedia entry identifies him as Grey Owl.
Documentaries and films have been made about him, and a plaque honours him in his birth place of Hastings.
Thes cabin in Prince Albert National Park has been preserved and still stands to this day. The one at Riding Mountain National Park was also designated a heritage building and restored in 2019.
He even has a Heritage Minute devoted to him, starring Pierce Brosnan.
Pierce Brosnan, of course, played Grey Owl in the 1999 movie about him.
(INSERT CLIP OF MOVIE HERE)
It was directed by Richard Attenborough, who saw the real Grey Owl speak in the 1930s with his brother David.
David Attenborough went on to become the most famous wildlife expert in Britain, and possibly the world.
The message of conservation seems to have outweighed the cultural appropriation for many and Grey Owl’s legacy is seen in the protection of species which prevent overhunting.
Including the animal close to Grey Owl’s heart, the beaver which is listed as a species of least concern on the IUCN Red List.
I will end this episode with a quote by Grey Owl, and his love for nature’s creatures.
The feel of a canoe gunnel at the thigh, the splash of flying spray in the face, the rhythm of the snowshoe trail, the beckoning of far-off hills and valleys, the majesty of the tempest, the calm and silent presence of the trees that seem to muse and ponder in their silence; the trust and confidence of small living creatures, the company of simple men; these have been my inspiration and my guide. Without them I am nothing.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Biographi, The Canadians, Wikipedia, BBC, Library and Archives Canada, Virtual Saskatchewan, Northern Ontario Travel, Canadian Icon,
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