By David Sedlock
The friendship between Grey Owl and W.J. “Bill” Oliver began on an awkward note in 1931:
Bill, then working under contract for the Parks Branch, had just lugged his twenty-five kilograms of camera equipment over the five-kilometer forest trail to Grey Owl’s cabin northeast of Clear Lake in Riding Mountain National Park. It had been a long haul for the hearty photographer. Just as he put down his heavy load at Beaver Lodge Lake, Grey Owl greeted him with this remark: “So you’re the cameraman. I may as well tell you I have not much use for white men.” When Bill asked why, his host replied: “I have never had the pleasure of meeting many who did not want to deface God’s earth.”1Smith, Donald B. (1990). From the Land of Shadows: the Making of Grey Owl. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, p101.
Aficionados of Canadian film history will of course be familiar with the Calgary-based cameraman and photographer W.J. Oliver, who “became one of the most noted outdoor photographers of his day and left a legacy of pictorial work which has stood the test of time.”2Jameson, Sheilagh S. (1984). W.J. Oliver: Life Through a Master’s Lens. Calgary: Glenbow Museum. p6.
And of course everyone knows who Grey Owl was: Born in Mexico to a Scottish father and an Apache woman, he made his way to Canada, was adopted by the Ojibwa Nation in Ontario, learned the ways of the northern wilderness, and magically transformed himself from an Indigenous backcountry trapper and guide into a popular writer, public speaker and conservationist. Well, not exactly… Grey Owl was actually Archie Belaney, born in 1888 in Hastings, England, and he did not have a drop of Indigenous blood in his veins! Amazingly, he fulfilled his childhood dream and successfully passed himself off as half Indian in the latter years of his life.
Even his Apache Algonquin companion of eleven years, Anahareo, and his London publisher, Lovat Dickson, believed his story to the end. Indeed, Dickson spent months trying to disprove the identity of Grey Owl and Archie Belaney. As for Bill Oliver, he was also fooled, despite often working closely with Grey Owl:
Only after Grey Owl’s death did Bill Oliver realize the irony of the situation. The Indian making these remarks was born and raised in Hastings, Sussex, just fifty kilometers or so from from the village of Ash (near Canterbury), Bill’s hometown.3Smith, Donald B. (1990). From the Land of Shadows: the Making of Grey Owl. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, p101.
It is perhaps difficult to appreciate today the sensation that Grey Owl created back in the 1930s. Arrayed in Indian regalia, he played to packed halls, including a Royal Command Performance at Buckingham Palace in 1937, attended by King George VI and the young Princess Elizabeth. Grey Owl was impressed by the King, who struck him as a “keen woodsman.” In parting, it is reported that Grey Owl put out his hand to the King and said “Well, good-bye, Brother, and good luck to you.”4Smith, Donald B. (1990). From the Land of Shadows: the Making of Grey Owl. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, pp188-189. His public tours in North America and Britain made him a rock star.
The films Bill Oliver made, starring Anahareo and the beavers, Jelly Roll and Rawhide, contributed greatly to Grey Owl’s success. In the opinion of Sheilagh S. Jameson, Oliver’s biographer:
The original movies were truly Oliver pictures; he wrote, directed, photographed and edited them, and they were excellent. They had an appeal and sincerity which reflected his own feelings for wildlife and the depth of his empathy and understanding of Grey Owl’s conservation efforts.5Jameson, Sheilagh S. (1984). W.J. Oliver: Life Through a Master’s Lens. Calgary: Glenbow Museum, p54
And Grey Owl’s biographer, Donald B. Smith, remarks:
Without the aid of modern equipment such as telephoto and macro lenses, W. J. “Bill” Oliver of Calgary had made these four films. Schools, church groups, and service clubs across North America and Europe—-and now Grey Owl himself—-showed them. Lovat Dickson used many of Bill Oliver’s dramatic stills of Grey Owl, looking so consciously Indian, to illustrate the publicity for the first (and later the second) British tour.6Smith, Donald B. (1990). From the Land of Shadows: the Making of Grey Owl. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, p124
The Beaver People (1930)
Grey Owl’s first film, shot near Cabano, Quebec, predates his collaboration with Bill Oliver. (Some sources incorrectly credit Oliver as the cameraman and give 1928 as its date, but the film was shot in 1930 by an unnamed cameraman.7Jameson, Sheilagh S. (1984). W.J. Oliver: Life Through a Master’s Lens. Calgary: Glenbow Museum, pp54, 100. )The film was commissioned by James Harkin (known as the Father of National Parks), who, impressed with Grey Owl’s articles in the periodicals Canadian Forest and Outdoors and Country Life, thought that a film about Grey Owl and the beavers would be good publicity for Canada’s parks. Apparently it was, since the Parks Branch would go on to commission four more films.
In his autobiographical book Pilgrims of the Wild, Grey Owl gives the following account of the filming:
[T]he cameras were grinding away while Jelly and Rawhide swam, dived, walked, ran, hauled sticks around, climbed in and out of a canoe, and did besides a hundred and one other things that no one had ever seen a beaver do before, and which formed the subject of the first beaver film of any account ever taken, “The Beaver People.” … The difficulties connected with the filming of this first beaver picture were numerous. The operator who, in his enthusiasm, spent much of his time standing ankle deep in mud and water, and once slid waist deep into the creek, had little knowledge of beaver, and I had considerably less of picture taking, still or otherwise. The beaver were, however, very helpful, staying on deck all afternoon and acting very polite and interested, the main difficulty being to keep them far enough away from the cameras.8Grey Owl (2010). Pilgrims of the Wild. Toronto: Dundurn Press, p129.
The film was screened in public in 1931 at the annual convention of the Canadian Forestry Association in Montreal, where Archie Belaney lectured for the first time in the persona of Grey Owl. This was a turning point in his life, since the success helped him secure a job offer from the Dominion Parks Branch. Henceforth he would be the “caretaker of park animals” at Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba. The position would allow him to quit trapping and guiding for good, and free him to write and study the beaver, with the full support of the Parks Branch.
The Beaver People can be streamed at the National Film Board of Canada website.
The Beaver Family (1931)
In 1931 the Grey Owl family was established at their new cabin on Beaver Lodge Lake in Riding Mountain National Park, where Bill Oliver was to shoot the second beaver film (Oliver’s first). After the first awkward words at their meeting, he read Grey Owl the riot act:
[H]is only purpose was to make a movie of the beaver for which he required Grey Owl’s full co-operation and should it not be forthcoming he would cancel the project and leave immediately.9Jameson, Sheilagh S. (1984). W.J. Oliver: Life Through a Master’s Lens. Calgary: Glenbow Museum, p54.
They soon got down to work. The result was The Beaver Family. The film again featured the antics of Jelly Roll and Rawhide, with Anahareo and Grey Owl in supporting roles. Appearing for the first time on film were Jelly Roll’s babies Muskinee and Muskinoo. Embarrassingly, Grey Owl had always thought Jelly Roll was male, but the appearance of the kits proved otherwise. (It is said to be very difficult to determine the sex of beavers.) Perhaps they were the inspiration for the beavers Chikanee and Chilawee in Grey Owl’s third book, The Adventures of Sajo and Her Beaver People.
The Beaver Family can be streamed at the NFB website.
Strange Doings in Beaverland (1932)
Beaver Lodge Lake in Riding Mountain National Park proved to be unsuitable for the beavers, and in October 1931 the family relocated to Lake Ajawaan in Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan, where a cabin, known thereafter as Beaver Lodge, was built for them according to Grey Owl’s specifications. After being away in the summer of 1932 giving birth to their daughter Dawn, Anahareo and the baby returned to the cabin during the filming of the third beaver film to find a distressing situation:
Hooray! It was a beautiful day, and I was going back home! … Since Archie had no idea we were coming, he was properly astonished at our sudden appearance. He was also agitated – if words can describe a man mentally pulling his hair out by the roots; and I too was shocked to a standstill when I saw that the roof was off Beaver Lodge and that the beaver were in a frenzy of activity, which was unusual for that time of day. I sensed that something strange was going on, so I left Archie with his flurry of explanations and ran into the cabin. There, perched atop the bunk, was a photographer taking movies of a procession of beaver carrying sticks and armloads of mud across our living-room floor!10Anahareo (1972). Devil in Deerskins: My Life with Grey Owl. Toronto: New Press, p153.
But the excitement didn’t stop there:
When it became too dusky for indoor movies, Bill Oliver, the photographer, set his tripod up outside to get more shots of the beaver at work. At the rate they were going, their house would be mended by midnight.
We were sitting around the outdoor fire, watching Bill doing his stuff, when Charlie, our tame moose, came crashing down the hill. It was mating-season (for the moose, not the photographer), and Charlie was on the rampage. He carried on in a most riotous manner, charging the wood-pile with horn and hoof, knocking over the storage tent, and uprooting the sawhorse.
Bill, being the dedicated man that he was, ignored this stomping, snorting moose and kept right on ‘shooting’ the beaver. Charlie was getting bolder and was edging closer. Archie said we’d better get into the cabin, but Bill paid no heed to the warning. The moose was practically on Bill’s back when Archie yelled, ‘Bill … get the hell in here … I warn you I’ll not shoot that moose to protect you.’
Bill looked over his shoulder and right into the face of the moose, and simply flew into the cabin, leaving his camera perched on its tripod. Charlie hooked a horn under the whole issue, tossed it into the air, and strode back into the bush. Jelly Roll went to investigate and, finding the loot of great interest, began to drag the camera down to the lake. However, Archie retrieved it in time.11Anahareo (1972). Devil in Deerskins: My Life with Grey Owl. Toronto: New Press, 154-155.
Strange doings indeed!
Grey Owl’s Neighbours (1933)
Beaver Lodge was again the location of the next Grey Owl/Oliver production. The film showed Grey Owl interacting with various animals in addition to the beavers. It also showed him welcoming visitors arriving by canoe. Oliver’s biographer describes how a typical shooting session would go:
The beavers, who were the main characters in the film … were capricious in their cooperation. Sometimes they performed very well … providing opportunities for marvelous pictures. At other times days passed without them appearing at all and meanwhile Bill waited patiently camera in hand, ignoring flies and mosquitoes, sometimes standing perfectly still waist deep in water.12Jameson, Sheilagh S. (1984). W.J. Oliver: Life Through a Master’s Lens. Calgary: Glenbow Museum, p54.
Pilgrims of the Wild (1935)
This was to be the last film Grey Owl and Bill Oliver would work on together. Grey Owl wanted to make two more films with Bill, but, failing to get financial support from the Parks Branch, he ended up making them himself.
In From the Land of Shadows: the Making of Grey Owl, Donald B. Smith described Grey Owl’s performance in Hastings, England:
After his words of greeting from the Hastings stage, Grey Owl showed “Pilgrims of the Wild,” an eleven minute film about his life with his wife, Anahareo, at his home in distant Saskatchewan. The film had been shot at Beaver Lodge, in Prince Albert National Park in September 1935, a month before Grey Owl left Canada for Britain. It showed him and his beautiful Indian wife canoeing, portaging and calling the beaver…
The film took its title from Grey Owl’s autobiography published the previous year. In this moving account the former trapper told the story of how he had decided to abandon the hunt and to work instead for the conservation of the beaver and all wildlife…
While the silent film ran, the lecturer moved to and fro across the front of the screen recounting tales of his beloved northern Canada. He told stories about wildlife–particularly about those intelligent, hard-working animals he lived with: the beaver, Canada’s national animal. He talked directly to his audience, and used no notes. His animated dialogue and his second, third and fourth films magically transported his listeners from the narrow streets of Hastings to the vast, unbroken Canadian forests.”13Smith, Donald B. (1990). From the Land of Shadows: the Making of Grey Owl. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, p4.
Pilgrims of the Wild (with watermarks and timecode) can be streamed at the NFB archives website.
Grey Owl: Scoundrel or Champion?
Grey Owl’s next to last public appearance before his untimely death was at Massey Hall in Toronto, where on March 26, 1938 “nearly three thousand Canadians gave him the greatest ovation of his life.”14Smith, Donald B. (1990). From the Land of Shadows: the Making of Grey Owl. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, p209. Exhausted from touring and in poor health, he retreated to Beaver Lodge. His condition deteriorated and he soon died of pneumonia on April 13, at the age of 49. After his death the North Bay Nugget, which had sat on the story for three years, exposed Grey Owl’s true identity as the Englishman Archie Belaney.
Called an imposter and a fraud, his stock fell drastically. But perhaps we, benefitting from today’s more nuanced ideas about personal identity, will judge him less harshly than his contemporaries and appreciate his concern for the vanishing wilderness and the plight of the creatures that live in it.
With extreme weather events now everyday occurrences, and environmental catastrophes seemingly on our doorstep, with old-growth forests replaced by “synthetic forests,” Grey Owl’s message certainly rings truer today than ever before:
Remember you belong to nature, not it to you.15Smith, Donald B. (1990). From the Land of Shadows: the Making of Grey Owl. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, p120.
In his book Grey Owl and Me, the Canadian outdoorsman and environmentalist Hap Wilson asks us to consider whether Grey Owl was, “Scoundrel or Champion.” People have to answer that question for themselves, but maybe the safest answer is “a little of both.”
I am an Indian and have spent all my adult life in the woods, yet never have I met one who so sincerely loved and appreciated the wilderness as Grey Owl did.
– – Anahareo
- Smith, Donald B. (1990). From the Land of Shadows: the Making of Grey Owl. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books.
- Jameson, Sheilagh S. (1984). W.J. Oliver: Life Through a Master’s Lens. Calgary: Glenbow Museum.
- Grey Owl (2010). Pilgrims of the Wild. Toronto: Dundurn Press.
- Anahareo (1972). Devil in Deerskins: My Life with Grey Owl. Toronto: New Press.
© 2023 David Sedlock