In the month that marks the 75th anniversary of Grey Owl’s death and the 125th year since his birth the environment challenges still make this man’s life a testimony to our need to take steps to take better care of our world. To paraphrase Grey Owl’s own words, ‘you belong to nature, it doesn’t belong to you,’ tells us something about his concerns and our responsibility to the environment.
Grey Owl’s life was controversial to say the least, but
his love for the wilderness and concern over its future cannot be disputed. It was a message he delivered over and over again in the 1930s as he toured Britain and speaking before the king, and later in the USA and Canada: the wilderness is not endless, it needs to be preserved and cared for. In his
lifetime he’d witnessed beaver and other furbearing animals in Canada decline to
alarming numbers. He’d seen large swathes of wilderness cut down under the axe and saw blades that clear cut their way across Ontarios and Quebec in the great thirst for timber to feed the building of ships, houses and all manner of man made goods. The
wreckage left in the wake of such tree felling took its toll in the rapid decline of the wildlife deprived of its habitat and the First Nations people who subsisted in those areas.
Anahareo, Grey Owl and friend
Grey Owl, born Archie Belaney, came to the Canadian wilderness from Hastings England after a childhood enthralled by tales from James Fennimore Cooper, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Ernest Thomas Seton. Barely eighteen, he headed straight to the Quebec side of Lake Temaskaming and fell under the tutelage of veteran woodsman, Bill Guppy. Under Guppy’s eye he learned essential bush
skills including paddling and portaging a canoe, important in a region filled with lakes and waterways. Archie spent much time with Guppy until one summer he met a young Anishnabe woman from Bear Island, Angele. Though she knew little English they managed to communicate and he met her extended family and became her acknowledged boyfriend. Less than a year later he married her and lived with her and her family on Bear Island. She bore him a daughter and within a few months of her birth Archie’s restless temperament compelled him to depart in search for new wilderness and adventure. For the next few years he acted as a fire ranger in summer and trapper in winter, sending money to Angele sporadically. In addition to that he became known as an inveterate storyteller, his skin browned in the sun and his chiselled face and dark hair all contributing to the occasional mistake that he was an Aboriginal.
Just before the war, in 1913, he met a young woman Marie Girard and invited her in the bush after a drunken tear. The pair emerged in November and a short while later Archie enlisted in the army and was sent overseas, probably before he knew tha Maire was pregnant with his son. War did not deal kindly with Archie, neither physically or emotionally. Trained as a sharp shooter he was exposed to mustard gas and suffered a crippling wound to his foot. Sent back to Hastings to recuperate, he fell into the company of a childhood friend, Ivy Holmes, a stunningly attractive former dancer who had toured Eastern Europe. Under the encouragement of both families the two married, since none but Archie knew of his prior marriage to Angele and he remained silent. But not for long. A short while later, he made his way back to Canada and wrote to Ivy, before she joined
him there and explained the situation. She divorced him.
Back in Canada, the exuberant inquisitive storyteller transformed after the war into a morose drunken brawler, his lungs and missing toes preventing him from any sustained activity. Slowly, while under the care of an Anishnabe family, The Espaniels, he regained enough physical strength to work some of the year and eventually resumed his fire ranger duties and trapping and occasionally guiding. It was in 1925 while guiding at Camp Wabikon that he met the woman who was to change his life. Anahareo.
He courted and wooed Anahareo carefully; she was only nineteen and he was in his thirties. But he was smitten in truth by her feisty spirit, her young beauty and
her quick mind. All this made him take her to the wilderness and her own joy of it and his patient (and not so patient) tutoring kept her there with him. She’d
grown up in a town next door to the wilderness, but not in it and so she attacked her lessons in bushskills with all the energy and enthusiasm of someone who needed to make up for lost time. That the two were bonded over this love of the outdoors and all the creatures it contained could not be doubted as they accumulated whiskey jacks, a moose, squirrels and various other creatures around their various homes. Such love compelled Anahareo to relinquish her new trapping regime, the cruelty it sometimes imposed was too
much for her. It was the two little orphan beaver kits that brought their concern and care for wild animals sharply into focus and Anahareo encouraged Archie to write his observations of the wilderness down.
How could they not be charmed by the energetic McGinty who took Archie’s mackinaw out for a nice long swim while Anahareo and Archie chased her frantically. Or McGinnis’eager assistance when he ably cut down a pole for them, the pole that
supported their humble tent. They were also won over by ‘their sneezes and childish coughs, their little whimpers and small appealing noises of affection, their instant and pathetically eager response to any kindness….’
All those and many more things filled Archie’s writings which later became published in Pilgrims of the Wild and other of his works. The stories and ideas soon found great popularity in Britain, Canada and even the USA as Archie was continuously asked to speak about his work with the beavers. The expanding Parks Canada recognized Archie’s work as an opportunity to link their own efforts at building a national park system for the nation and asked Archie and Anahareo to implement their plans to establish a beaver colony in one of their new parks. The public began to see and hear of Archie’s work under the name ‘Grey Owl’ a choice he made in the light of some assumptions made by some of the media and his own efforts to bring a persona into play that he thought would be most effective. Who better than an Indian to speak about the wilderness?
It was a choice that would resonate down through the
years and raise the spectre of ‘fraud’ shortly after his death in 1938 when the truth of his real heritage was published. It would cast a shadow over his work in conservation, put into doubt the truth of his message and render ineffective his very timeless message that ‘we belong to nature, nature does not belong to us.’ But today we can and must see beyond the controversy and puzzle that was Grey Owl’s life and look once again at what he was trying to tell us.
You can read more about Grey Owl and Anahareo's story in my biography, Anahareo: A Wilderness Spirit, published by Fireship Press.
Sunday I was listening to ‘A Point of View’ and heard that Hollywood is in the process of remaking ‘The Lone Ranger.’ It caught my attention and I listened with dread, wondering who would play Tonto and somehow knowing that I wouldn’t be pleased. I was right. In a casual statement a few moments later the commentator mentioned Johnny Depp was cast in the role and only added a few words that it had cause some controversy as he moved casually on to explain his reason for bringing up the topic for his point of view—that he had loved ‘The Lone Ranger’ as a child and remembered how the series and films had been so popular in Britain and captured the hearts of many children and adults.
I could only groan. Even in the original series of the Lone Ranger Hollywood had for some unknown reason gone against the norm and cast a real Native American for the role. Jay Silverheels was a Mohawk from Canada and he spent most of his professional career trying to get Hollywood to cast real Native Americans to play the native parts and when he could, to have them portrayed authentically.
Usually Hollywood studios just grabbed wigs out of wardrobe and piled
on the makeup because it was cheaper to keep one race (white) on the payroll that could be used in all films with just a slight adjustments. It wasn’t always this way. There were some early studios that had Native Americans on their payrolls in the days of silent films, but when the studio system emerged and Hollywood began to dominate filmmaking and competition and cost of talkies them to cut their payroll to cutback on actors and retain those that could play a variety of parts. So they taped back eyes to create a Chinese man like Charlie Chan or donned black wigs and heavy makeup for Native Americans. We got Ricardo Montalban playing a chief and laughable of all, Donna Reed playing Sacajawea, the Mandan woman who guided Lewis and Clark. With her obvious 1950s undergarments (torpedo bra and girdle) worn underneath her fringed buckskin dress,
one can wonder why they didn’t supply her with heels!
My great-grandmother, Ella Mannal
Wigs and makeup weren’t the only areas that Hollywood fell down on. The images of Native
Americans portrayed on film were stereotypes that emerged out of the dime western novels and also influenced by the nature movement of the nineteenth century that celebrated Native Americans as pure and unsullied by modernism. The stoic chief, epitomized by the commercial against littering broadcast in the
1970s in America. Some started groups in America, Britain and elsewhere to emulate the wilderness skills and connection with nature around the early 1900s. Even my great-grandmother, Ella Mannal, got in on the act and was in‘The Daughters of Liberty’ I think it was called.’ Baden Powell (founder of the Boy Scouts) and others’ were inspired to start organizations for children that incorporated wilderness skills and other aspects of behaviour they thought Native Americans exemplified. On the female side was the Indian Princess and tales of Pocahontas was created as the best model.
My great-grandmother attempting to scalp my mother
Tsianina Redfeather, a peformer
This contradicted the other stereotypes of the dangerous warrior with braids and warbonnet of the plains Indian. The female version was clad in a blanket, followed silently after her man in her braids carrying bundles or a papoose on her back.
Regardless of the stereotype Hollywood used they all seemed to feel though that the Native American could only utter things like ‘ugh,’ or ‘how’ or the more loquacious ‘me come in peace.’ If they did grant them some dialogue it was riddled with bad grammar or it sounded like pidgen English. Poor Tonto had some dire sounding lines that more or less added up to ‘yes kimosabe, no kimosabe.’
Some Native Americans who managed to break into the film business had no choice but to go along with the stereotypes if they wanted to stay employed. Or if they were to perform in public in any way because it was audiences expected and wanted, was the argument. Anahareo’s partner in wilderness preservation, Archie Belaney/Grey Owl understood that and hen he toured in Britain, the U.S. and Canada he dressed the part complete with beaded
buckskins, braided hair and later even a war bonnet. He allowed people to
believe he was half Apache because he knew they would accept a message of
wilderness preservation from someone whom they felt was close to nature.
Click herAnahareo, swept into celebrity by Grey Owl’s book,
Pilgrims of the Wild, published in the 1930s, didn’t change her appearance and presented to the world an authentic person. She was a Mohawk/Algonquin woman who was raised in a town, had become expert in bush living but still had modern sensibilities. There were no braids and buckskin dresses for her. She wouldn’t drag around after Grey Owl clad in a blanket toting a papoose. She wore trousers, high top boots, a neckerchief stylishly tied around her neck and bobbed her hair and she could smoke a cigarette with the finesse of Bette Davis. (see webpage for Anahareo). She spoke of her past as a prospector, a dog musher and trapper and she always spoke her mind. Even in later years.
It was a brief event, though. Her celebrity faded and it was only years later that her voice was heard again in the 1970s when the world was ready to hear about ecology and preserving the wilderness. She was a woman
ahead of her time, presenting an authentic image of a First Nations person and more particularly a First Nations woman in Canada.
Today, the stereotypes still linger. I understand that PBS broadcast a program called, ‘The Reel Injun’ about Hollywood stereotypes. I haven’t seen it. Apparently Disney haven’t either. I can hear Anahareo snorting in disgust from beyond.
If you want to read more about this topic there are several books out.
Among them is Philip J. Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places.
This has been a Christmas to celebrate. Last week my internet and phone were down most of the week (no that's not a celebration though I did get a lot of writing done on next novel) but when I managed to get on again I was thrilled to find among my 43 emails (mostly rubbish) there was one gem of an email from Fireship Press offering me a publishing contract for Anahareo, A Wilderness Spirit. Thrilled to bits, is an understatement. As you can gather from some of my previous posts this has been a long road.
It all started at Christmas..... about 5 years ago, or was it 6? Watching marathon TV in Cornwall at my mother in laws (as you do) and in between the cowboy films there was Richard Attenborough's film Grey Owl. 'Ah that's up your alley,' says the husband. And low and behold it was. We ended up talking about it all during an evening walk. 'Fascinating character I said. 'Anahareo's the one for you,' says my husband. 'You need to write about her.'
Little did her realize what those words started.... Hours and hours and hours and hours of research, travelling to Canada twice and so much more. And now finally I have something to show for it!
When I first was offered my publishing contract my husband asked me if I was going use a pseudonym. “No,” I said. “I’ll use my own name. I’m happy to have it attached to my novel.” Then he asked me if I meant my married name or my maiden name. “Oh, Kristin Gleeson,” I said. “It works well and it’s easier to spell.” All the years growing up struggling to get both names spelled right went into that statement.
With a name like Kristin Brownsey, when people asked me what I was called when filling in forms or any kind of official capacity, I automatically launched into spelling it and watched them with great amusement as they continued to type/write “Christine”and then hesitate with the second name.
“Brown with an S E Y added on the end,” I’d say in a helpful tone. The results would be more creative. “Blownski,” “Brownski” and “Bownsky” were the most common. My first name, if it didn’t meet with the more usual “Christine”result was put into Kirstie, Kirsten or even Kisten. At one point I remember receiving three copies of a wholesale book catalogue on a regular basis with three different spellings of my first and last name.
In most cases it really doesn’t matter in the long run, except if you run into job’s worth officials. “That’s not you,” I’ve been told. “No really,” I say. “That’s me, they just spelled my name wrong.” “No, I’m sorry, but the name has to match exactly.” Sigh.
I liked my name growing up (well for the most part), though no one had heard of it, that is until Kristin shot J.R. in the TV programme Dallas in 1981. My mother named me after the character, Kristin Lavrensdotter, in Sigrid Undsett’s nobel prize trilogy published in the 1920s. Determined to have the name “Kristin” she even phoned up the Norwegian embassy to see what the boy’s equivalent would be (or so she said). The surprised embassy official made a brief check and then told her, “Kristen.” Now whether this is
true or not, I don’t know, but it made me determined to retain the “i” in my
When I came to Ireland I realized my issues were nothing compared to someone who spelled their name as gaelge (in Irish), especially women. The women could choose to retain their maiden name and put “ní” with it, as in my friend, “ní Laoghaire” (daughter of Leary) or they could go with the married form, and put “uí”with it, as it would be in my case, “Kristin Uí Ghliosáin.” But spelling your name to someone not familiar with these many Irish permutations can be a nightmare, as any Irish woman spending some time in America, the U.K., or anywhere else for that matter, can testify. Passport and birth certificates sometimes leave no choice, for good or ill.
Yesterday a friend emailed me the link to the amazon page in the U.K. that is selling my book. Yeah! I thought. Another milestone. Then I saw the
spelling. Ha! They spelled it wrong. Kristen. What! Sod’s law. I should have expected it, but sometimes, after a spell of no problems you forget.
And now, with the name almost common, I really have relaxed vigilance. I contacted the publisher and she assured me that it would be set right, eventually.
In a calm of trying to make lemons out of lemonade, I thought perhaps that it might set me highest on the google search machine when googling my name. At the moment a woman named Kristin Gleeson from New Jersey who was on some crash diet programme to lose massive amounts of weight is rated in the top google search. When, out of curiosity, I went into it to see what she looks like I found that I had to sign up to read further. Years ago when I googled my name there was a mime artist? from New Jersey who had my name. Could this be her I speculated? Does a career in mime (miming?) carry hazards of obesity? So maybe I am glad for that “e.”
I wouldn’t want to be confused with an overweight mime artist from New
On a connected matter, many of you know that I’ve written a popular biography of a Canadian Indian woman, Anahareo (see her page on website). I’ve been trying to get the biography published and have run into various issues. One publisher sent it out to reader who, clearly at odds with Grey Owl, said “the most interesting aspect of Anahareo is that she was so sexy.” Forget that she was a prospector, trapper, dog musher, and early advocate of wilderness and wild animal preservation. No she is sexy. An academic publisher encouraged me to submit the manuscript for consideration in their special popular series called “Voices.” Unfortunately
after revising it thoroughly to simplify it and include many direct quotes, they turned it down because Anahareo wasn’t ordinary enough. They wanted ordinary people.
In some ways this is true, Anahareo was an extraordinary woman who enjoyed a few years of celebrity. But the essence of her voice, especially
after that fame disappeared is representative of many of the struggles First
Nations women in Canada (and the U.S.) faced in the twentieth century and, in some ways still face today.
Now I don’t imagine I will be enjoying the kind of celebrity Anahareo did in the 1930s, and I’m sure my name will continue to be spelled in all variety of manners, but my voice has been heard in many ways that hers never was. What does an “i” matter in that light.