Grey Owl of the Ojibway People

I’ve just been re-reading a book that had a quite profound effect on me when I first read it, aged about thirteen. For some years afterwards I would write quite regularly to the Canadian Embassy in London asking for brochures and pictures of the northern forests and wilderness country, and it may have influenced my views on the natural environment ever since. It is Half-Breed – The Story of Grey Owl, by Lovat Dickson, first published in 1939.

It is beautifully written. The language has an old-fashioned elegance most writers could only envy, and is astonishingly evocative at times considering its brevity. The story is that of a Indian of the Ojibway tribe who came to England as a celebrity lecturer in 1935 and 1937, in the full regalia of an Indian speaking for his people, and who became widely famous as a writer and speaker for his descriptions of life in the wilderness and of his work to protect the natural world of his people against the ravages of the shag-a-nash, the white men.

The lectures were a great success and many people were impressed by this proud, dignified and wise old Indian with his deep understanding of the natural world and intense sympathetic connection with it. Only later did it become known that Grey Owl of the Ojibway people was born Archibald Delaney and brought up in the genteel English town of Hastings by two maiden aunts.

The story of how Archie’s life takes him from a middle-class boyhood in Hastings to being the most famous member of the Ojibway people of Canada is, needless to say, extraordinary. It begins early. Even at age eight his idea of playing cowboys and Indians was rather different from that of his schoolmates. They would whoop and holler a bit, do a bit a shooting and dying, and then quickly become bored. In the quiet woods around the town young Archie would pick out a target perhaps a few hundred yards away, and then spend an hour or two crawling silently through the undergrowth towards it, completely focussed, making sure never to rustle a leaf or break a twig, and however long it took him. It does not seem to have occurred to him to play the role of a cowboy.

Much later we read of his ceremony of acceptance into the Ojibway tribe. There are some preliminaries, and then finally a speech made to the tribal gathering by Neganikabu (Stands First), his long-time teacher and guide.

Then ‘Neganikabu danced the conjuror’s dance to the throbbing of the drum, and in endless reiteration the band chanted “Hi-Heeh, Hi-Heh, Ho! Hi-Heh, Hi-Heh, Ha! Hi-Heh, Hi-Heh, Ho! Hi-Hey, Ha!” It kept up so long, the mind became mesmerised by it, and when he stepped into the centre of that motionless ring, Archie felt as though he were entering a temple.’

Perhaps the world would be a better place if we all occasionally gathered around night-time campfires out in the bush and chanted ourselves into a communally reverent state, just as the hippies like to believe.

It’s a very good read, an object lesson for us aspiring writers, a grand adventure and a love story, and perhaps also, for young people in this day and age, an inspiring and educational story, if only because nowadays we often live far from the natural world and have little feeling for it. I would recommend it to any teenager or adult, and especially to any parent who, (and we’ve all been there), hopes to inspire a teenager to run away from home.

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