Devil in Deerskins: Anahareo and Indigenous Writing

I recently read Devil in Deerskins: My Life with Grey Owl the autobiography of Anahareo (1906-1985).  Anahareo was a Mohawk environmentalist, writer, and activist.  She is perhaps most well known for her marriage to Grey Owl, also known as Archie Belaney, the internationally acclaimed author who claimed to be of Scottish and Apache descent, but who’s roots as an Englishman were revealed after his death.

The original version of Devil in Deerskins was published in 1972.  The University of Manitoba Press republished Anahareo’s autobiography in 2014 as part of it’s First Voices First Texts series.  This series aims to republish critical editions of books by important under-recognized Indigenous authors and place these texts within their cultural contexts.  The republished version of Devil in Deerskins was edited and includes an afterword by Sophie McCall.  The critical comments by McCall add value to the discussion of Anahareo as an important historical figure in her own right and the republishing aims to introduce a new generation to Anahareo and Grey Owl.

McCall’s afterward rightly points out how Anahareo has most often been defined by her relationship with Grey Owl and at times has been “overlooked as an Indigenous writer because of her family’s history of displacement and relocation.” McCall’s close examination of Devil in Deerskins highlights the depth of Anahareo’s Mohawk heritage and the influence it had on her way of life and writing.  This is brought out through a discussion of Anahareo’s relationship with her Grandmother, her beading, her use of traditional medicine, and the use of oral history to impart traditional knowledge.

Prior to reading this book I knew very little about Anahareo other than her relationship with Grey Owl.  Anahareo is far more than the supporting figure that history has whitewashed her into.  She received the Order of Nature from the International League of Animal Rights in 1979 and in 1983 received the Order of Canada.  Her contributions to environmental, social, and animal rights go far beyond her relationship with Grey Owl and she was one of the first Indigenous women to publish a full length memoir in Canada.  Her autobiography is well worth a read if you are interested in early environmentalism or indigenous literature.

Anahareo’s use of place in her life narrative and her ability to recreate landscapes inspired me to look up some of the locations she mentioned in her autobiography. The cabin which Anahareo describes in her memoir as the spot Grey Owl picked to settle and begin creating a beaver sanctuary in 1931 still exists in Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan. The main cabin known as Beaver Lodge was built on the shoreline of Ajawaan Lake with a beaver lodge integrated into the design.  A larger cabin for Anahareo, her daughter Shirley Dawn, and visitors was nearby in 1932.   The Parks Canada description of the Cabin focuses largely on Grey Owl with just one or two mentions of Anahareo.  I would be interested to know what interpretive materials are at the site itself and how they depict Anahareo.

 

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