Grey Owl’s Wife

A new biography brings this fiercely free spirit to the fore

Although the name of Grey Owl is still well known, the name of Anahareo, his Algonquian/Mohawk wife who played a key role in his transformation from trapper to spokesperson for the wilderness, is not. Popular fascination with Grey Owl’s strange tale of inventing an aboriginal identity for himself, even though he was born and raised in Hastings, England, has long overshadowed her story. Kristin Gleeson’s new book, Anahareo: Wilderness Spirit, brings into focus the life and works of this complex, independent woman, her bravery in confronting and overcoming the social stigmas of her time, and the role she played in advocating for conservation and animal rights in Canada.

Using detailed archival and genealogical research as well as interviews with some of Anahareo’s relatives, Gleeson brings forward new information on Anahareo’s family background. Her mother, Mary, was an Algonquin woman from the Pikwàkanagàn First Nation on Golden Lake in Ontario, and her father, Matthew, whose father was Mohawk and mother Algonquin, had family roots reaching back to Mohawk territory in and around Oka, Quebec. Anahareo was born Gertrude Bernard in 1906 in Mattawa, Ontario. When she was four years old her mother died, and Anahareo was raised by her grandmother on her father’s side, Catherine Papineau Bernard, an Algonquin woman. Catherine, who was born in 1833 in Oka, was raised in a convent where she spoke French exclusively. She married a Mohawk man, John Bernard Nelson, whose parents disapproved of the marriage, causing the couple to leave the community. Gleeson’s book demonstrates how Anahareo, despite growing up far from her ancestral territories, maintained her connection to her Algonquin and Mohawk roots, particularly through her grandmother’s teachings about plants, medicine, family history, sewing, beading, tanning and other crafts. Anahareo’s flair for making clothes is evident in photographs of her and Grey Owl in their fashionably cut and intricately decorated jackets, moccasins and her signature riding pants.

Gleeson’s book shows that Anahareo, from her earliest life onward, was a rebel who, in her own words, “wasn’t cut out to follow a conventional life.” When she was about eleven, her beloved grandmother became too frail to look after her. Her aunt, who emphasized chores, rules and school, took over her upbringing. Anahareo began skipping school, paying a school friend 35 cents to complete her homework and hanging out in the forests. She met Grey Owl at age 19 when she was working as a waitress at a resort. She decided to forego an education in Toronto at Loretto Abbey (a convent school that was to be paid for by a wealthy tourist whom Anahareo had met at the resort) and instead to accompany Grey Owl into the bush to help with his work as guide and trapper. Even though they had separate cabins, her unchaperoned stay with Grey Owl for several weeks resulted in a 30-year rift from her family in Mattawa.

In later years, Anahareo continued to forge an independent life for herself, most notably through her pursuit of prospecting for gold. Prospecting was an unusual though not unheard of occupation for a woman at the time. Gleeson provides some fascinating accounts of Anahareo’s adventures on the prospecting trail, far from Grey Owl, her home and her young daughter, Shirley Dawn, who lived with a Euro-Canadian family while Anahareo was away, sometimes for months.

Gleeson shows that Anahareo was influential in Grey Owl’s decision to abandon his profession as a trapper and become a defender of the rights of small, fur-bearing animals. It was Anahareo who convinced Grey Owl to keep two orphaned beaver kits whose mother was drowned by his trap. These were the first pair of beavers whose hilarious antics would become the mainstay of his performances and writings. However, as much as the couple shared a love of travel, animals and living in the wilderness, their relationship was frequently stormy. In the early days, their drinking parties led on occasion to Grey Owl playing deadly games such as shooting a cigarette out of Anahareo’s mouth, or one or the other throwing knives. Later on, when he began writing full time, days and nights would pass in silence, punctuated by his frequent outbursts of irritability; meanwhile she became increasingly lonely, bored and longing for adventure.

There is no doubt that Anahareo was someone who defied the social norms of her time; and yet, following the end of her marriage in 1936, she became more vulnerable to the social controls that particularly affected aboriginal women. When she left Grey Owl, she was pregnant. At that time, as a result of government legislation and pressures from the church, police were authorized to arrest aboriginal single mothers who had no visible means of support. Anahareo was not arrested, but teacher Wilna Moore convinced Anahareo to place her second daughter, Anne, in a Salvation Army residence and, later, to allow a Euro-Canadian, Calgary-based family to adopt her. As Gleeson explains, although Moore, along with the authorities, expressed sympathy for Anahareo in her difficult circumstances, their judgements and actions were grounded in assumptions about moral and racial superiority.

Gleeson’s book shows that while Anahareo’s image was continually threatened by dominant images of the “squaw” and the “Indian Princess,” as was common for many aboriginal women of her time, she never missed an opportunity to use the media to her advantage to create a more complex picture of herself. Following the revelation of Grey Owl as a “fraud” and bigamist at the time of his death in 1938, and in spite of her own struggle to come to terms with this new information, Anahareo did what she could to set the record straight. In 1940 she published a memoir, My Life with Grey Owl. Possibly because she had been instructed by Grey Owl’s publisher to make no mention of the controversy over Grey Owl’s origins, she grew to intensely dislike it and took to ripping out the first chapter from library copies across the country. Thirty years later, with the help of her daughter Shirley Dawn, Anahareo meticulously rewrote the book, taking ownership over the voice and perspective, and publishing the bestseller, Devil in Deerskins: My Life with Grey Owl, in 1972. In 1975 a play, Life and Times of Grey Owl, which drew on material from her book, was staged in Toronto, representing her as sexually promiscuous. During the dress rehearsal to which she had been invited, she jumped onto stage and closed the legs of the actress, who was wearing a short skirt (Anahareo rarely, if ever, wore a skirt, preferring her breeches and prospector’s lace-up boots).

Anahareo’s lasting legacy, along with her wonderful books, is the work she did on behalf of animals and wilderness preservation. Well after Grey Owl’s death, she continued to advocate for the causes she believed in by writing letters, giving lectures, speaking to the media and showing films. In 1979, she was honoured with the prestigious Order of Nature by the International League for Animal Rights, and in 1983 she was inducted into the Order of Canada. She died two years later, just after her 80th birthday.

Gleeson’s accessible, thoughtful biography, with numerous photographs of the timelessly stylish Anahareo, will appeal not only to readers interested in aboriginal women’s and Canadian history, but also to those attracted to the lives of independent, free-spirited people who make their own history.