The Grand Society Of Race-shifters: Ode to Grey Owl

The race-shifters are coming out of the woodwork like ants attracted to honey--Hollywood actors, singers, academics, writers, and of late, even a university president--all relying on old family tales to claim one more trophy, the cachet of having a ggggg…grandmother of Indigenous origin.  

I blame it all on Grey Owl. Well, his name was really Archibald Stansfeld Belaney, but I didn't know that when I attended grade school in the late 1950s. His stories of life on the Canadian frontier were very much an item on our literary menu. 

He was one of my great childhood heroes--his long braided hair, his buckskins, and his love of the wilderness, reinforced my image of the noble Indian--Tonto, Geronimo, Sitting Bull, and the last of the Mohicans, all rolled into one. The Grey Owl I knew was the son of a Scottish trapper and an Apache mother in the Wild West of the 1800s. He moved to Canada (from the US) and became one with the Ojibwa; I desperately wanted to be a member of his tribe. 

Except none of it was true and in the late 1950s when I was a grade seven student, Grey Owl was long since dead, having succumbed to pneumonia brought on by alcoholism in a Saskatchewan clinic on April 13, 1938. The truth about his real origins came out to much of Canada shortly after his death. 

It took another 20 years for the mocassin telegraph to deliver the bad news to my remote village on the wild northeast coast of the island of Newfoundland. Perhaps it was a story in The Star Weekly or maybe an item on the radio that left me disillusioned and confused. I distinctly remember my teacher explaining that Grey Owl was a great big phony. 

Archie was no Apache, nor Ojibwa. Alas, he had not one iota of genetic material or genealogical evidence linking him to Indigenous people, nor to anyone else in North America for that matter. 

He was instead born to English parents, George Belaney and Katherine Cox, in Hastings, East Sussex, UK, on December 18, 1888. He immigrated to Canada at age 17, reinvented himself as an Ojibwa in his thirties, and parlayed his trumped-up Indian heritage into fame, films, fleeting fortune, and an audience with famous royals. 

Along the way, he used his invented Aboriginal heritage to secure a number of cushy jobs with the National Parks Service in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

In the field of Indigenous identity fraud, Grey Owl was a master.

Leave a comment