Tales of an Empty Cabin

296 pages,
ISBN: 1552630307

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Saga of a Self-Made Ojibwa
by Stephanie Farrington

We have become a culture deeply concerned with "truth". In fact, in recent years, the general public's concern with the concept of honesty seems to be bordering on the obsessive. Where this idea of truth is concerned, Tales of an Empty Cabin presents a dilemma. This is a collection of stories told by someone who did live in the bush for years. He did promote conservation and Native rights. But his entire identity was fictional. Thus while Grey Owl's stories often have the ring of truth, it is the identity of Grey Owl himself that throws the concept of truth into question.

Had Grey Owl lived and written today, his work would doubtlessly be held up as the product of a liar. At best, Tales of an Empty Cabin would be regarded with suspicion and, at worst, contempt. However, the passage of time is what separates the liars from the mythmakers-not to mention the royalties from the profits; and Archie Belaney's essays and stories, published under his pseudonym of Grey Owl, have aged enough to be beyond accusations of voice appropriation. As we read them now, they are cultural history.

Archie Belaney was a bit of a conundrum even in his own time. He emigrated to Canada from England in 1906, at the age of eighteen. Once here, he realized his childhood dream of living with the Natives through a combination of luck, persistence, and the good nature of the people who took him in. It was in the outpost of Biscotasing that the transformation began. Archie Belaney learned to drum, dance, and live like the Ojibway-or at least enough like them to pass for native in the eyes of publishers and audiences everywhere: he published in Country Life Magazine in Britain; he was popular on the lecture circuit. At first, he made no mention of his background, but gradually the persona took over and Archie became Grey Owl entirely, engaged, full-time, in the business of deception.

Tales of an Empty Cabin was originally published in 1936, two years before the author's death. Written while Belaney was living in Beaver Lodge, Saskatchewan as something of a cross between a park ranger and a tourist attraction, this series of short vignettes chronicles his life as a woodsman-or so it would appear.

There can be no question of the reality of some of the characters in the book. Armand Ruffo's recent research into his own past and Grey Owl's part in it confirms that many of the characters (including Ruffo's grandparents) were real people rendered as truthfully as real people ever are. However, since Grey Owl the person is a fiction, reading the book can be an exercise in resisting the pull of the author's voice.

Grey Owl and Archie Belaney sometimes pull against each other: the book is full of literary allusions one would expect from a British private schoolboy, but coming from a Metis trapper, however well-read, they are, well, improbable at best. Take, for example, Grey Owl's description of a forest glade:

And as some passing breeze flutters the leaves of the tall and graceful birches, that like slim girls stand docilely modest and demure among the haughty, lordly pine trees, they seem to nod and talk, their upward reaching limbs like arms that claim attention as though they were so many Sheherazades who, fearing to be choked and utterly extinguished in the sunless grottos in which they stand, they seek to gain reprieve by the recital to their grim and overbearing escort, of the tales of an empty cabin.

This single sentence is surely the very picture of high Victorian excess and not the voice of the Canadian trapper Grey Owl pretended to be.

Early in the book, Belaney describes an encounter with "The Sage of Pelican Lake", who turns out to be an elderly white man living amongst the Natives. It is difficult, if not impossible, to see this chapter as anything other than Belaney's self-portrait.

After describing the "Sage" as preferring to talk in Ojibway and as being more fluent in any of four "Indian languages" than in English, the chapter goes on to depict the sage as a storyteller:

My old companion recounted many tales that had, I think, not often passed his lips before. This opening up of the floodgates of his memory was not on account of any alchemy of mine, or charm I put upon him with my presence, or open sesame that I pronounced, but was perhaps vouchsafed because he sensed in me an audience whose interest was genuine, and because he found a melancholy pleasure in the telling. He used none of the artful devices of the storyteller, stating plain facts without adornment, but with a wealth of detail. He garnished his tales with apt and homely comment on the characters in them so that they were very real...

Despite a free hand with the rules of grammar and punctuation, Grey Owl communicates with ease a certain Victorian grace. Belaney had the kind of clear, evocative literary voice that one finds in the children's literature of Lewis Caroll, Oscar Wilde or C.S. Lewis. The fairy-tale tone of the book makes it the kind of reading that is ideal for a snowy Sunday afternoon spent in a big comfy armchair next to a roaring fire. If only it were not necessary to keep one's guard up during the whole experience. And there's the problem.

Key Porter could have done something valuable with the publication of this book, but instead chose to take the path of least resistance. In making this choice, the publisher has added a stroke of irony to an already thorny issue.

With the current upsurge in native writing across the country, one would think it would be simple enough to find a writer with some knowledge of the topic of Grey Owl (or on literature pertaining to native life in general) to write a brief introduction outlining the problems and the strengths of his contributions to Canadian literature and to the cause of Native rights in Canada. This new edition needs (maybe even deserves) an introduction by a writer like Tomson Highway, Marilyn Dumont or Armand Ruffo, any of whom, as First Nations writers in Canada, could have brought valuable insights to the book and to the serious issue of voice appropriation.

Ironically, the book is ahead of its time in putting forward the issue of Native rights. Chapter XIII, entitled "The Tree", is respectful, poignant, and almost biblical in style. Although it draws on the popular perception of the time of Native Peoples as a "Vanishing Race" (perpetuated by the photographic work of Edward R. Curtis, among others) and smacks a little of the "noble savage" stereotype, for its time it is a remarkable piece of work. After describing the Ojibway tradition of the vision quest in reasonably accurate detail, Belaney uses the tree that becomes one of the spirit guides of a young warrior to map out the progress of a village through contact with the white colonists. The whole chapter is moving. Rhythmically, the piece is well controlled with an elegant flow. In the following excerpt he describes the first conflict with the white settlers:

But when the pale soldiers came with the early morning daylight, they proved to be better armed than the Blackfoot warriors; they had heavier horses too, and were in greater numbers. With cannon and rifle, revolver and sword they spread death in the encampment, sparing none; women were shot down with babies on their backs, one bullet often being enough for two. Young girls and boys, old people and children were sabred as they ran, by the blue coated soldiers who laughed and cursed as they dealt out death unsparingly. Hard pressed, the Indians fled up the pass and here, in the mountains, the cannons could not be brought to bear and the heavy military horses could not climb so well as the light Indian ponies.

For a colonial writer in the thirties, Grey Owl shows an unusual degree of compassion. And, it should not be forgotten that his voice was the first of its kind to be recognized in the Canadian cultural discourse. It is difficult to say whether it would have been accepted coming from a white man in the same way as from an "Indian Chief" though. Grey Owl played successfully on the romantic tendencies of the early twentieth century to lend some weight to causes that were anti-progress (such as conservation and animal rights) and, in the age of the machine, not yet fashionable in Canada.

With the publication of this book, however, Key Porter unconsciously illustrates one of the central questions in Canadian society today: who has the right to speak in the Native voice, and how do we deal with the stories that have already been told? It is difficult to see the publication of Tales of an Empty Cabin as anything more than a cash grab on the part of Key Porter. After all, Armand Ruffo's book about Grey Owl (Grey Owl: The Mystery of Archie Belaney, by Coteau) is now in its third printing; the Attenborough movie comes out in the spring of this year; even A&E (the Arts and Entertainment network) has filmed a segment of their popular Biography series about Archie Belaney. Grey Owl seems poised to be a major Canadian cultural touchstone in 1999. It is hard, then, not to see the publisher thinking in terms of the cash register with this timely release. There is nothing inherently wrong with publishers making astute business decisions, but there is a greater issue here.

The tone of the book is elegiac in places, strong and immediate in others; it is not an unqualified failure, but neither is it the truth. What the book suffers from most is a lack of context, something that could have been easily obtained by including a Native voice in the introduction.

Grey Owl lived his life as an imposter with a great truth to tell and, in many ways, he succeeded in his task. How sad and how ironic that the publication of this book, in this form, takes that success away and turns the paradox of Archie Belaney into nothing more than an amusing hoax. 

Stephanie Farrington is an Ottawa writer and poet. She works and studies at Carleton University's School for Studies in Art and Culture.


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