Grey Owl – Anatomy of A Myth by Julia Luttrell
At this, the turning of another century,
it should no longer surprise me when, yet again, the ironic specter of
Grey Owl reappears to walk among my people.
It seems like only yesterday that, while visiting on Lake Temagami, I was treated to yet another play about his controversial character. This one, appropriately called ‘Indian Heart’ was aptly and accurately presented on Bear Island, home of the famous bigamist imposters’ first Indian wife, Angele Belaney.
Over the years an endless trail of books, plays and stories have resurrected and dissected the conundrum of his interesting life. Yet, as the Grey Owl myth has grown, it has never grown any closer to answering my own ultimate question… “How could anyone ever mistake him for an Indian?”
The latest manifestation of Grey Owls tireless ghost was also fairly recently reincarnated in the movies, through handsome Hollywood actor, Pierce Brosnans’ rather unfortunate portrayal of Canada’s’ infamous environmentalist.
Taking time out from his seemingly permanent role as James Bond, aka super agent 007, Brosnan was mysteriously cast as Grey Owl, aka Archie Belaney, infamous Indian imposter, in the film of the same name, which was done for Academy Award winning director, Richard Attenborough no less.
As someone who grew up knowing the truth about how Grey Owl came to live his particular lie, I remain bewildered by the eternal public fascination for this charismatic chameleon, an unflagging interest that has lasted now for going on a century.
It was at the turn of the last century, in 1905, that a bright-eyed eighteen-year-old Archie Belaney got off the train in my hometown of Temagami and headed straight for the most colourful, grizzled, clearly highly skilled and bush worn woodsman on the platform.
That man happened to be good old Bill Guppy, my own maternal grandfather.
It took only a few moments of his considerable charm to captivate Grandpa and Archie soon had an open invitation to move in and live with our family.
There, he would be daily taught, by “the king of the woodsmen” himself, all the survival skills he required and all the Indian lore he craved, for his longed-for life in the Northern bush.
Years later, in Grey Owl’s first book, Pilgrims of the Wild, he would honour this time spent with my grandfather, referring to him as “Billy Guppy, that ‘King of the Woodsmen’, respected by all men, red and white, and whom the Indians called Pijeense – the Little Lynx”.
This name would eventually become the title of a book written about my charismatic grandfather, who himself was a character worthy of central casting.
In his own inimitable words, the book describes all the fascinating pioneer spirits he met during his adventurous life as an early frontiersman in the Temagami area, long before the highway, or even the railway, stretched that far north in Ontario. King of the Woodsmen is a valuable piece of our Northern Canadian heritage and was distributed in Canada and the U.K. and interestingly enough, also in Australia.
It was Grandpa who first set Archie up with a woodsmen’s ‘kit’ and gave him his first trap line to work. Grandpa, who made him his first snowshoes, taught him how to handle a canoe, shoot the rapids, read the trail, and most important to Archie, it was Grandpa who gave him his first knowledge of native religion and customs and taught him his first Indian words.
For their part, my young uncles, Gordon and Clifford, taught Archie first how to throw a tomahawk, then a hunting knife at a distant target, with pinpoint accuracy.
Old Bill Guppy, nobody’s fool, encouraged this boyish pastime. He knew the entertainment value of this skill would set his boys apart from the other hunting guides, all vying for the mighty tourist dollar. By the time the next summer rolled around, Archie, an avid student, had tourists pinning money to a tree and challenging him to “cut it in half, and it’s yours”.
As the granddaughter of the ‘tutor’ of Grey Owl, I naturally grew up hearing first hand about Archie’s evolution from earnest young “English dude with a dream” to respected Indian champion of the beaver. Yet, that Grey Owl was as much, albeit inadvertently, a champion of the Indian has seemingly escaped his various biographers’ attention.
Archie came along when many Indian territories had become crown lands through various nefarious means and hunting grounds were rapidly shrinking. The fur trade was dying out and Indian life on the land was fast being forced toward redundancy.
He unintentionally drew some media attention to the otherwise ignored appalling living conditions of Natives generally, making him for a short time, an accidental hero of the Temagami Indians, although I am certain they would never view him that way.
In my Grandfather’s day, the big story was the marvelous hoax that Grey Owl, an Englishman posing as an Indian, perpetrated on British royalty and the heads of state in Europe, during his wildly popular conservationist lectures to aristocratic audiences.
At the height of his popularity, Grey Owl was bigger than the Beatles and more well regarded than Mahatma Ghandi. He had a mesmerizing effect, decked out on a spotlit stage, in full Indian regalia and speaking his own made up Ojibwe, which would ironically overshadow any lasting interest in Native issues, leaving only his precious beaver, the beneficiaries of his fantastic popularity.
By about mid-century, various writings about Grey Owl begin to tell his story from the perspective of his most dramatically appealing lover, Anahareo, who is often, in the spirit of Hiawatha, portrayed as a romantic Mohawk princess.
In reality, she was a totally assimilated girl who worked as a waitress for the local tourist lodge, and possessed somewhat modern feminist inclinations. That there is no such thing as a ‘princess’ in Mohawk culture is apparently beside the point in the building of the Grey Owl myth.
In the ultimate irony, the more recent Hollywood movie, portrays Anahareo relatively accurately, as a ‘wannabe’ Indian, an entirely assimilated, middle class Mohawk girl, seeking her roots though her association with a fake Indian!
Less authentic, is the broad stroke of the Hollywood brush that lightly passes over the fact that she was the true conservationist, who had to work hard to indoctrinate Archie to the concept of the preservation of the beaver from extinction.
While each incarnation of his story peels back another layer of truth, still, nearly a century since Archie stepped off that train in Temagami, we never get to the central core question remaining… “How could anyone ever mistake him for an Indian?”
Certainly the Indians never did, although I suspect they enjoyed his act immensely. With tongue firmly in cheek, the Temagami Indians welcomed him as one of their own, knowing that his play-acting could not only draw tourist dollars, but might shine a much-needed spotlight on their increasingly urgent social issues.
Archie married an Ojibwe Indian woman from Bear Island on Lake Temagami. It wasn’t until he then deserted her, and their baby, that they began to think that maybe Grey Owl wasn’t so much fun after all.
No, the “Bear Island” Indians of Lake Temagami, didn’t need an Archie Belaney, with his pancake makeup and his made up ‘war dance’, to teach them how to play ‘noble savage’ for the rich white tourists. As natural showmen themselves, whose sense of humour already ran toward turning the white man’s ignorance and prejudice to their own advantage, they were quite adept with their own ‘Indian Guide schtick’.
They loved to demonstrate the expected uncanny ability of any ‘Red Indian’, to magically know every mood and nuance of nature. Certainly they could predict the weather, the location of animals and the availability of fish, but they also enjoyed portraying themselves as ‘supernatural spirits of the forest’, or whatever other nonsense might be expected of a real 'Red Indian’ by the typical tourist of 1905.
My own father, a hunting guide and trapper of Ojibwe heritage, used to hide a wristwatch in his pack, so that he could surreptitiously glance at it, and impress the tourists with how accurately he could tell the time of day, merely by ‘reading’ the sky.
No, the Bear Island Indians, (the Teme Augama Anishnawbe, or Deep Water People) of Lake Temagami, knew Archie Belaney, AKA Grey Owl, for who and what he was. No doubt they too asked themselves “How could anyone ever mistake him for an Indian?”
Yet who are we to judge what is in a man’s heart? From Archie Belaney, with not an ounce of Indian blood, there grew a true and unwavering passion that, nurtured all his life, became the very soul and spirit of a natural North American Indian. Archie Belaney was Grey Owl.
Near the end of the Grey Owl movie there is a scene where Archie is invited to meet with a group of chiefs and elders. This is a great honour, which he cannot get out of, regardless of how anxious he feels about what may be his final exposure.
As he steps into the Indian lodge, the elders rise to greet him. His worst fears are played out when they recognize at once his hoax and the lodge erupts in laughter. It is however, a genuinely good-humoured laughter, one which he is invited to share as he is nonetheless welcomed into their midst.
Once among them, the lodge quiets as the chief places a brotherly hand upon Archie’s shoulder. And then, “You”, he tells Grey Owl, “You have become what you have dreamed.”
With these few simple words a powerful message of understanding, acceptance and honour is conveyed. And I am left to realize the insignificance of my still unanswered question, “How could anyone ever mistake him for an Indian?”
By Julia Luttrell:
Granddaughter of the ‘tutor’ of Grey Owl