Saskatchewan's Environmental Champions

Grey Owl

Archie “Grey Owl” Belaney
(1888 -1938)

One of the best-known people in Saskatchewan and Canadian conservation history is the legendary Grey Owl, the English born Archie Belaney who portrayed himself to be an Indian.

Grey Owl's four books on the wilderness life and the importance of conservation were major best sellers in Canada, Europe and the United States. In the years 1935-37 he gave hundreds of lectures on the need to conserve wilderness. In England he spoke to an estimated 250,000 people in total and gave a presentation at Buckingham palace before the entire Royal family.

…his writings, films and lectures powerfully conveyed the message of conservation around the world, inspiring millions about the importance of wilderness.

Having grown up in England fascinated with animals and stories of wilderness adventure, he came to the northlands of Ontario at age 18. Here he learned traditional skills from the Ojibway people and they gave him the name Grey Owl.

In the 1920's Grey Owl earned his living primarily as a trapper. In 1928, he met and later married Anahareo, a young woman of Mohawk descent whose conservation beliefs would change his life. (see Anahareo). After one of his traps left two beaver kits orphaned, it was her influence that led the couple to adopt the kits. Persuaded by Anahareo to quit trapping and pursue his writing, Grey Owl began publishing articles about frontier life. His writing conveyed a sense of the spiritual dimension of wilderness experience and the need for humility, awe and caring in our relationship to nature.

The growing popularity of Grey Owl's writing and the work of the couple to establish a beaver sanctuary caught the eye of the national parks service (now Parks Canada) and he was hired as their first naturalist.

In late 1931, Grey Owl, Anahareo, and their two celebrated, tame beavers Rawhide and Jelly Roll and their kits were moved into a special cabin built partly over the edge of Ajawaan Lake in Prince Albert National Park. There the 2 beaver built their lodge with entry from a hole in the cabin floor. At Beaver Lodge, as Grey Owl called it, he began writing with greater intensity. In 1935 Pilgrims of the Wild and a children's book, Sajo and the Beaver People, were both published. According to historian, Bill Waiser* …"they were widely acclaimed as two of the finest works on Canadian wilderness heritage and the need for conservation." His writings still stand as classics today.

The growing fame and the grueling book publicity tours took their toll. Shortly after his last tour in 1938, Grey Owl developed pneumonia and died. Immediately on his death, his assumed identity was exposed and this threatened to annul his legacy. However, his message remained and during the 40's and 50's, as his books were translated into several languages, letters frequently arrived at Prince Albert National Park addressed to him. With the awakening of interest in environmental issues in the 1960's, Grey Owl's conservation ethic, embodied in sayings such as "remember you belong to nature, not it to you," took on new meaning. Now the site at Ajawaan Lake has become a place of pilgrimage for many.

Grey Owl's life reveals many faults. In today's understanding, his romantic ideals of the wilderness, using tame beavers as conservation props and his 'appropriation' of Indian culture are suspect. However, his personal journey-from growing up in a colonizing nation to living with and learning from colonized peoples-produced an effective result. He was able to describe the exploitation of nature and portray Aboriginal people and their intelligent relations to the wilderness in a positive light. It can also be said that he lived his childhood dream.

Most significantly, his writings, films and lectures powerfully conveyed the message of conservation around the world, inspiring millions about the importance of wilderness. It is certain that his life will remain as an enduring symbol of our yearning for a deeper connection to nature.

*Waiser, B. 1995. Park Prisoners: The Untold Story of Western Canada National Parks