Grey Owl: Canada's great conservationist and imposter

By Jane Onyanga-Omara
BBC News

Image caption,
Grey Owl was born Archibald Stansfeld Belaney in Hastings, East Sussex
Image caption,
He undertook lecture tours in England, appearing at Buckingham Palace

One hundred and twenty five years ago, a great conservationist - and imposter - was born in East Sussex. Known as Grey Owl, he was one of Canada's first conservationists and is said to have saved the Canadian beaver from extinction.

But his beginnings in south-east England were a world apart from his public image as a celebrated writer and speaker on both sides of the Atlantic.

Born Archibald Stansfeld Belaney on 18 September 1888 in Hastings, he grew up enthralled by stories of Native Americans and moved to Canada aged 17 in search of a new life.

He married a girl from the Ojibwa tribe and learned the language, trapping and canoeing. He kept his true identity a secret, however, telling inquisitive traders and trappers he was the son of a Scotsman who had married an Apache.

He was then enlisted to fight for the Canadian army during World War I, where he served as a sniper but was wounded and returned to his aunt's house in Hastings.

Image caption,
The conservationist said he was the son of a Scotsman who had married an Apache

There, he married a local woman but he abandoned her soon after for reasons unknown - a recurring theme in his personal life, much of which remains unclear.

At the end of the war he returned to Canada and on his travels, Archie Belaney was rescued from snow blindness by an Ojibwa chief called Ne-Ganikabo, or The One Who Stands First.

He studied under Ne-Ganikabo for four years, becoming skilled in wilderness survival techniques, and adopted the name Grey Owl.

He also married again - to an Iroquois woman called Anahareo in 1925. It was a marriage that would change his life.

Two years later, after a long trapping season, he trapped a mother beaver and the kittens were left in the lodge to die but Anahareo convinced him to take the baby beavers home. The episode led him to stop trapping animals and begin his writing and conservation work, warning of the dangers of the logging and fur industries and how they threatened Canada's native beavers with extinction.

His first book, The Men of the Last Frontier, attracted rave reviews and his journey to fame began. Published in 1931, it is partly memoir and partly about the vanishing Canadian wilderness. However, all trace of his past life in Hastings was erased.

The book's foreword states: "It should be explained that the author is a half-breed Indian, whose name has recently become known throughout the English-speaking world.

"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."

The fame of his books led to Grey Owl being invited to carry out lecture tours of Canada, England and the United States in the 1930s and he became arguably the first celebrity conservationist.

Don Smith, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Calgary, said he thought Grey Owl had adopted his Native American persona as a cover, because of his lack of family.

He said he had "cast a tremendous shadow" over subsequent conservationists and was decades ahead of his time.

Image caption,
Grey Owl wrote most of his books in Beaver Lodge

"This is 1930s Canada, it seemed to have inexhaustible forest," he said. "His personal life was a mess but he had insight, he had vision. This man had a message. Everybody's green now. He was green when there was nothing to it. His message was 'you belong to nature, it does not belong to you'."

Clive Webb, professor of modern American history at the University of Sussex, said it was "very easy" to dismiss Grey Owl as a fraud.

"I think you do have to separate some of his personal shortcomings from his great work as a conservationist," he said.

"It is precisely because he has assumed that identity that he has an apparent authenticity that he would not have possessed if he was just any other white European settler who'd moved to Canada in the 19th or early 20th Century."

Identity revealed

He added: "This is a young man who, really from the outset of his life, wanted to be a Native American. There's a real singular sense of vision and purpose about him which really stands out. He's not simply setting the context for the environmental movement that will emerge later in the 20th Century, but he's really the one of the first and foremost voices. He is the first celebrity conservationist."

Image caption,
The tale was turned into a 1999 biopic with Pierce Brosnan in the lead role

Grey Owl became an animal caretaker at Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba, taking two more beavers with him, and made his first film for the National Parks Service. He then moved to Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan and established a beaver colony in the park. A spokeswoman from the park said the conservationist wrote most of his books in Beaver Lodge.

However, he had become a heavy drinker and consumed by his conservation work. Anahareo left him in 1936, taking their daughter with her. Grey Owl then married a French-Canadian woman called Yvonne Perrier, who accompanied him on a tour which saw him appear before the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace.

He fell ill and died of pneumonia in Prince Albert on 13 April 1938 at the age of 49.

After his death his first wife came forward and revealed he was an Englishman.

Prof Webb said many people felt deceived and in some cases Grey Owl's books were withdrawn or his alias replaced with his real name.

His incredible tale was turned into a 1999 biopic by the director Richard Attenborough, who attended a lecture by Grey Owl as a boy in Leicester in the 1930s with his brother David, who himself would go on to become one of Britain's most famous wildlife experts.

Pierce Brosnan played the lead role in the film, which was shot in Canada and Hastings and had a premiere in the East Sussex town.

A spokeswoman from Prince Albert National Park said Grey Owl's charade pretending to be aboriginal was still a contentious issue for some local First Nations people.

"He was an eccentric person and some of his personal choices in life have been criticised, but his efforts to promote conservation and the protection of habitat and wildlife are still resonant today," she said.

However, back in Sussex, he is still remembered fondly. An exhibition about his life was opened at Hastings Museum and Art Gallery in 2007 and has drawn many visitors from Canada.

Jeremy Birch, leader of Hastings Borough Council, said: "Grey Owl was one of the first conservationists of the modern era, and his message was well ahead of his time.

"And the fact that he was simply a Hastings schoolboy makes his story much more interesting."

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