Settler and working class (and claiming to be indigenous): Darren Reid, ‘Classy Subversions: Rethinking Grey Owl as a Subversive Character’, In/Versions, 2019, pp. 9-14

08Sep19

Excerpt: While Grey Owl’s ethnocultural transformation has been dismissed as failing to subvert settler-colonial power structures, I challenge scholars to begin to rethink Grey Owl’s subversion in terms other than settler colonialism, or, even better, to think about how his subversion reveals intersections between settler colonialism and other discourses. I argue that Grey Owl’s working-class perspective structured his environmentalist message so that it included and addressed the working-class in a way that other contemporary environmentalists did not. In doing so, I suggest that scholars move past an exclusively racial analysis of Grey Owl and towards an intersectional approach that includes class.

Grey Owl’s biographers routinely celebrate him as one of the most famous environmentalists of the early 20th century. The popular environmentalist Kenneth Brower goes so far as to claim that “no man was more important to Canadian environmental consciousness, or to environmental consciousness in the entire British commonwealth…In the pantheon Grey Owl belongs with Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson.” Yet Grey Owl’s reputation as an environmentalist has also been severely criticized. Environmental historian Tina Loo asserts that “he was not an ecologist or even an amateur naturalist, but rather…‘a poet, recreating for us dreams of innocence.’” Geographer Bruce Erickson argues that Grey Owl didn’t actually say anything specific about the environment, but merely “established a connection between the visual codes of ‘indian’… and a generic vision of wilderness.” Dismissing the content of Grey Owl’s message, these scholars attribute his popularity as an environmentalist to his racial persona, whether through the poetic romanticism of an imagined Indigenous innocence or through the authority of “visual codes of ‘indian.’” And they have a point; of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson, Grey Owl stands out as the only non-European person within the “pantheon” of environmental writers.

However, he also stands out for another reason, a reason which no Grey Owl scholar has addressed: he is the only working-class person of the pantheon. Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, and Carson all attended elite universities (Harvard, Yale, Wisconsin-Madison, and Columbia, respectively), and their messages ranged from ignoring to vilifying the working-class. Grey Owl, on the other hand, never received a post-secondary education. He worked as a trapper in northern Ontario and a warden in northern Saskatchewan, and his vision of the environment was not of a place of leisure, but of subsistence. Breaking the silence around the significance of Grey Owl’s working-class background, I argue that Grey Owl’s working-class perspective structured his environmentalist message so that it included and addressed the working-class in a way that Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, and Carson did not. In doing so, I suggest that scholars move past an exclusively racial analysis of Grey Owl and towards an intersectional approach that includes class. I begin with a brief summary of who Grey Owl was and the historiographical approaches with which he has been treated. I then survey the work that has been done on the role of class in North American environmentalism. Finally, I juxtapose the elitist discourses of Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, and Carson with Grey Owl’s more egalitarian discourse, and show how Grey Owl’s writings reversed the elitist discourse and placed subsistence land users at center stage. Some brief concluding remarks and possible directions for further research follow.

If you have never before met the problematically subversive Grey Owl, let me introduce you. Grey Owl was born as Archibald Belaney in 1888, in the town of Hastings, England. He emigrated to Canada at the age of 16 and worked as a guide and a trapper in northern Ontario. As Archibald Belaney he married an Anishinaabe woman named Angele Egwuna in 1910. He left to fight in the First World War, and then returned and married a Haudenosaunee woman named Anahareo in 1926. But he did not marry Anahareo as Archie Belaney; by that point, he claimed to be an Anishinaabe man named Grey Owl. As Grey Owl, he became an international celebrity. He wrote several best-selling books, gave international lecture tours, and starred in his own documentary film. The news about Grey Owl’s ethnocultural transformation broke immediately after his death in 1938, and a public debate ensued over the importance of his ethnocultural transformation.



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