How much do you identify with nontribal hunting culture?
Most of the time tribal hunting doesn’t look that different from nontribal hunting. We are a modern people now. We have the right to access the same hunting gear— we use rifles, compound bows, some traditional bows, and so on. The difference is the values with which individual hunters are raised and how we express them.
There are some values that outsiders simply don’t have, and what I mean by that is that for us, hunting is an act of prayer. What’s really different about tribal hunting, about Nez Percé hunting for my family, is that we’re not supposed to pose and take a picture with an animal. And that’s the first thing white people do. After they kill an animal, they pick up the antlers and take a big smiling picture. We’re taught explicitly not to do that because it’s disrespectful. But we’re starting to get more tribal folks that do that, and we have tribal members who are trophy hunters. I don’t like it, but that’s the reality. The old men that I grew up around say things under their breath when the youngsters show pictures of a good-sized buck. They’ll teasingly say, “Oh, you hunt like a white man.”
Is it just a few individuals, or is that where you see your culture going?
It depends on the family. I don’t let my boys do it, and I tell them why.
Where does storytelling come in?
Stories are where the vast majority of values are embedded. Language conveys from one generation to the next their relationships to the rest of the world. Stories organize your value structure. Take the stories about the old men who raised me scoffing about white guys’ trophies on their wall. When I tell that story to my boys, I’m not telling them, “I went to this one guy’s house, he had so many trophies on the wall. He’s such a good hunter.” I’m telling them about how this hunter took all the sacred food and hung it on the wall. The way you talk about stuff establishes your values. [Focusing on antlers] is a different value system, and I don’t think it’s sustainable.
Hunter recruitment is part of the national conversation. What does it look like for the Nez Percé?
A lot of family time, first and foremost. The Nez Percé are constantly trying to refine and reevaluate their value
structure in this modern time. And hunting is a core part of that because we wouldn’t be here without animals. And we need to figure out how to fit our relationship with hunting and modern values in that context. In some ways, it’s easier. Like technology makes things a lot easier—we don’t have to walk to buffalo country.
And what makes it more challenging?
Access. Private possession of our ancestral lands.
Are you hopeful for the future?
I have to be. I do worry that some of us are losing the relationship to the animals we hunt. If something’s not important to you, are you going to keep it around? Hunting is sacred, an act of prayer. And it’s worth hanging on to for the next generation, and worth fighting for.
We covered a lot of serious stuff. Is hunting fun?
Oh yeah. When we say that we’re going hunting, it’s more of an open activity. We say, “Hey, let’s go cruise,” and we’ll take a rifle. It’s more about being out, connecting, rustling around, and getting back to your roots— rejuvenated and recharged. You can throw all the flowery language you want at it, but it just feels freaking good.
You found blood and hair. You just can’t find the deer. You recall somebody—somewhere—said with absolute confidence what wounded deer do. Was it Uncle Bill at deer camp or the farmer who gave you permission? Regardless, they said they knew exactly how deer behave after being hit by a bullet or an arrow. Their advice is echoing in your head, but daylight’s slipping away, panic is setting in, and you have no earthly idea where that wounded buck has run off to, or even how badly it’s injured.
It’s impossible to predict with absolute confidence what an injured animal does after being shot. Nobody knows
YOU KNOW YOU HIT THAT BUCK.
that better than members of United Blood Trackers, a coalition of dog owners who use their specially trained dogs to track and recover wounded game, often for a price. Legal in 40 U.S. states, leashed-dog tracking has deep roots in the hunting culture of central Europe, where breeds were developed specifically to find game like red deer, fallow deer, and wild boar. Leashed-dog tracking didn’t become widespread in North America until the late 20th century, but since then, the practice has taught thousands of anxious hunters the unpredictable ways of wounded animals, lessons that often culminate with the recovery of an animal that would have otherwise been lost.
“I’ve been tracking with my dog for just two seasons,” says Damon Bungard of Tennessee, who uses his dachshund, Jager, to find deer and wild hogs. “He’s already taught me more about what wounded or marginally hit animals really do than I learned in 30 years of hunting.”
We humans may not have dogs’ prodigious sense of smell or their ability to process a complicated array of sensory cues, but we can learn from their accumulated experiences. Here are a number of lessons hunters can glean from leashed tracking dogs to ensure a wounded animal is recovered.
Tracking with Callie
Minnesota deer hunter Shane Simpson’s Youtube channel, “The Callie Chronicles,” details dozens of tracking routes with his bluetick Callie. Here are two examples: a circuitous route on the left and a simple retrieve on the right.