Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Here is my editor's note from the September 2010 issue. Reprinted by permission of The Dramatist, Journal of the Dramatists Guild of America.
Every Canadian schoolchild, and I was one many years ago, learns the story of Grey Owl. He was an Anishinaabe Ojibwe and fur trapper, who became well known as a conservationist, author, and public speaker. In the 1930s he toured Canada and England, where he attracted large audiences. His books, such as Pilgrims of the Wild and The Adventures of Sajo and her Beaver People were popular bestsellers. On one tour he was invited to court and made a presentation to George VI and the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.
Shortly after his death an interesting fact about Grey Owl came to light in the press. It turns out he was an English bloke from Hastings named Archibald Belaney. And in Hastings (on the coast of East Sussex in England) he’d been raised by his kindly maiden aunts, attended the Hastings Grammar School, and grew up playing in nearby St. Helen’s Wood. He was, in short, about as Ojibwe as Tsar Nicholas II. That is to say, not very Ojibwe at all.
In 1999 Richard Attenborough made a film about Grey Owl starring Pierce Brosnan, which in the end turned out to not be such a hot movie. But, there is one scene in particular that struck me. In it, Grey Owl is being honored at a First Nations ceremony. And dear old Archie seems to be a bit nervous that some one is going to yell “Fraud” at any moment. At one point, if memory serves, the chief leading the proceedings looks at him knowingly and says, “We become what we dream.” And you’re like “He knows, but he accepts him, and believes in what he’s done, and that’s like totally awesome,” or something to that effect. I always thought it said something fascinating about identity. Who we are by circumstance versus who we choose to be, and how powerful those choices are.
As for Grey Owl, after being outed in the press he was posthumously shunned. He books were withdrawn from publication. Conservation causes saw their donations dwindle. It is only since the 1970s that he has been rehabilitated from the “famous fraud” category and returned to “noted naturalist.” But for many years who he “was,” was so deeply tied to what he said, that when his identity proved to be questionable it was felt his ideas and message were too. (It brings to mind James Frey and other recent fiction/memoir scandals.)
This issue of The Dramatist we explore questions of identity; “how we see ourselves” versus “how others see us.” Perhaps most importantly for dramatists, “how we see others,” because that point of view is very publicly on display in the range of characters we give life to.