Her Story

About the free-spirited woman who transformed a trapper into a conservationist.

"A Free Spirit"

Written by Gabriel Fritzenbased on a 2002 interview with Anahareo's daughter, Katherine, as well as correspondence with Anahareo's son-in-law, Bob.

"A Free Spirit." Painting by Bob Richardson. Photo courtesy of Bob Richardson.
"A Free Spirit." Painting by Bob Richardson. Photo courtesy of Bob Richardson.

"So what's it like to be the daughter of a famous woman?" 

I put this question to Anahareo's youngest daughter Katherine in early December 2002, as I tried to piece together a sketch of what kind of a person this woman -- after whom I had named my daughter -- had actually been. Silence came back from the other end of the line. Katherine was pausing to think how to respond, though I wasn't quite sure of that; the telephone connection between Germany and British Columbia wasn't good at all, full of echoes and delays.

"Well, did she think of herself that way? Did she have any sense at all of being a famous person?" I prodded.

"No, not at all," Katherine replied. "She did not think of herself as important at all."

When I asked Katherine to elaborate a little more on the type of person her mother had been, this is how she described it: "My mother had a very good sense of humour. She didn't take herself seriously either. You asked me, did she feel that she was famous – no, she didn't. She was a rebel right from the word go. When I say that, I mean she didn't go with convention, so to speak. You can appreciate, you have a young Mohawk woman in the early 1920s and 30s – when the prejudice here was rampant against native people – who dressed in buckskin and breeches and was like, 'the hell with everybody…' She was absolutely her own person."

Bob Richardson, who was married to Anahareo’s oldest daughter Dawn, created a painting entitled "A Free Spirit" to describe his mother-in-law – and that certainly seems to be a good overall summary of this woman. Adventurous, rebellious, unconventional, a prankster, compassionate… these are all terms that would fit Anahareo equally well and that are vividly apparent in her writings.

I wondered how it was that a native girl born in 1906 in the wilds of Ontario came to be such an eloquent story-teller. Here is what her daughter Katherine had to say on the subject: "She was self-educated. She only had about Grade 4, but if you met her, it was clear she was very, very knowledgeable. She just read constantly; she loved to read."

Of all her characteristics, however, it was Anahareo's compassion and deep concern for the animal world that was ultimately responsible for her own fame and for that of Grey Owl. Until they met, Grey Owl was just one of thousands of other trappers in the forests of Northern Ontario and Quebec. Although, deep down, Grey Owl always seemed to have had misgivings about his profession, Anahareo managed to bring these out into the open and turn her proud and often arrogant companion inside-out emotionally. She ultimately encouraged him to use his innate story-telling ability and his writing skills to tell the world about the threatened wilderness, thereby laying the foundation for their ultimate fame.