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Grey Owl's Wild Goose Chase

Showman, fraud or 'Green' prophet? John Hayman investigates the life of perhaps North America's most famous 'Indian' between the wars.

To his contemporaries Grey Owl was the personification of everything an American Indian was supposed to be. His bronze skin, high cheek bones, and long plaited hair matched their expectations exactly, and these features were accentuated by his dress and accessories: his moccasins, buckskin suit, and single eagle feather. He was, as one witness remarked, 'the first Indian that really looked like an Indian – an Indian from those thrilling Wild West days of covered wagon, buffalo and Sitting Bull'. By the close of his life he was known as a writer, lecturer, and broadcaster on conservation. He was even something of a film celebrity, since his lectures were combined with screenings of the documentaries on his work with beavers. But despite these varied activities, he was recognised most vividly as the quintessential Indian. In photographs, his intent yet distant gaze suggested an apartness – a concentration on things removed from the everyday urban world.

Born in 1888, he declared himself to be the son of a Scottish father and an Indian mother, but the public seemed not to remark on his status as a 'half-breed'. Grey Owl himself claimed that he had been adopted by the Ojibwa and increasingly in his writings and lecture appearances he identified himself with the lives of Indians. He gave much thought to his stage appearance when he lectured in Britain and North America in the 1930s, and newspaper accounts record his success. 'There never came a Redder Red Indian to Britain', declared The Sunday Express. With similar conviction, The New York Times asserted: 'Grey Owl is no stuffed Indian. He is real and honest'. Such declarations were, however, to echo with irony.

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