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Despite a movie starring Pierce Brosnan in 1999 that I had not previously heard of, neither had I heard of ‘Grey Owl’ at all before watching a program the other night, that sees former British politician, Michael Portillo, travel around wherever he is in the series by train. In this series he is in Canada.
In the course of his travels he chats to local people and, in this episode, he chatted to some ‘One Nation’ people – in other words, descendants of the original inhabitants of Canada – and others with interesting historical facts to add to the program.
One such lady talked about ‘Grey Owl’. The story she told was interesting in its own right but, frankly, blew me away when she came to the ‘punch line’.
‘Grey Owl’ was not, as I had assumed, a member of a tribe from the ‘One Nation’ people, but a middle class Englishman of all things. I was fascinated.
Apparently, Archibald Belaney chose ‘Grey Owl’ for himself when he started pretending to be a First Nations person. While he achieved fame as a conservationist during his life, after his death the revelation of his non-Native origins and other autobiographical fabrications negatively affected his reputation.
He seems to have been, among other things, a genuine English eccentric. I mean to say! How many Englishmen would go and live in the wilds of Canada now, let alone in 1925, and take on the guise of a native of that land? Odd to say the least.
Certainly, once his ‘secret’ became public knowledge, his reputation suffered somewhat but, his achievements in conservation far outweighed his pretense in the minds of many.
he had gone to Canada in 1905, so it had taken him a while to decide to ‘go native’ so to speak but, when he did he really did!
After a brief spell trapping Beavers, a real ‘One Nation’ lady called Anahareo convinced him of the cruelty of his trade. From then on he went hell for leather into conservation and is credited with saving the indigenous Beaver population from being hunted to extinction.
He also became renowned as an author, writing about his experiences in the wild and his conservation work.
Once he was exposed as a fraud regarding his true identity and origins, some turned against him but many didn’t. His work was invaluable regardless of his fantasy identity.
Archibald ‘Grey Owl’ Belaney died of pneumonia, although his alcoholism hardly helped. It is believed his service in WWI was much to blame for it. Perhaps due to the horrors he witnessed?
Anyway. After listening to his story on Portillo’s show, my first thought was ‘they have to make a movie of this guy’. Well, they did. I have no idea whether Pierce Brosnan’s movie is any good – I do intend to seek it out – but, to be honest, it would be nice for somebody like, say, Spielberg, to remake it.
Archie ‘Grey Owl’ was an extraordinary middle class Englishman who had an extraordinary life in an extraordinary place doing extraordinary things.
Regardless of his reputation somewhat suffering, ultimately, he did a lot of good. That should count for more than a reputation.