Archibald Stansfeld Belaney (also known as Grey Owl), writer, conservationist (born 18 September 1888 in Hastings, England; died 13 April 1938 in Prince Albert, SK). Belaney was a well-known conservationist and writer in the 1930s who falsely presented himself as an Indigenous person. Although born in England, he portrayed himself as the son of a Scottish man and Apache woman and named himself Grey Owl. His articles and books stressed wilderness conservation and became bestsellers in Canada and Britain. Shortly after his death in 1938, a newspaper article exposed his real identity as Archibald Belaney.
Raised by two aunts and his grandmother, Archibald Belaney had an unhappy childhood. As a boy, he was fascinated with North American Indigenous peoples. At 17, he left England for Northern Canada where, apart from his war service, he spent the remainder of his life. Through his association with the Ojibwe of Northern Ontario, he learned about the local environment.
Grey Owl: Writer and Conservationist
Shortly after his arrival, Archibald Belaney presented himself as the son of a Scottish man and an Apache woman and began to use the name Grey Owl. As Grey Owl, he published his first book, The Men of the Last Frontier (1931). Anahareo, his Algonquin and Kanyen’kehà:ka (Mohawk) wife, convinced him of the need for conservation, and that became the central theme of his writings.
As Grey Owl, he was appointed to Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba, and later to Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan, to head a beaver conservation program. He wrote three books in Western Canada: Pilgrims of the Wild (1934), The Adventures of Sajo and her Beaver People (1935) and Tales of an Empty Cabin (1936). His work was extremely popular, especially in Britain, where he did two lecture tours.
Death and Exposure
Shortly after his death, the North Bay Nugget published an article on 13 April 1938 in which it revealed that Archibald Belaney had falsely identified himself as Grey Owl and was not Indigenous. Other newspapers picked up the story. His work as a conservationist was largely forgotten. New editions of his book came out in the early 1970s, and CBC aired a documentary of his life in 1972.
The Continuing Allure of Archibald Belaney
Archibald Belaney’s work and life have continued to fascinate historians and biographers, readers and viewers. Several biographies were published in the 1990s, including Donald B. Smith’s From the Land of Shadows: The Making of Grey Owl, Armand Garnet Ruffo’s Grey Owl: The Mystery of Archie Belaney (1996), and Jane Billinghurst’s Grey Owl: The Many Faces of Archie Belaney (1999). In 1999, director Richard Attenborough released the film Grey Owl, a fictionalized biography starring Pierce Brosnan.
The Men of the Last Frontier (1931)
Pilgrims of the Wild (1934)
The Adventures of Sajo and her Beaver People (1935)
Tales of an Empty Cabin (1936)