ON A FRIGID MORNING WHEN I WAS around ten, my father took me squirrel hunting for the first time. We saw nothing. So to keep the morning from being a total waste, my father taught me to shoot his old scratched-up, single-shot 16 gauge.
There was an old chimney standing on the edge of the hollow where we hunted. The house that it had supported was long gone. My father took some of the crumbling mortar from the chinks in the bricks and drew concentric circles on the chimney, explaining to me about load and wad and spread.
Then he handed me the gun and told me to put the bead on the innermost circle.
All these years later I can still remember the roar of the gun, the jolt of the stock as it slammed into my shoulder, and the cloud of dust that burst from the bricks.
My father took his pocket knife and picked the shot out of the bricks, forever imprinting on my mind the pattern of the pellets.
Two years later when I killed my first squirrel, I felt as if I had completed the process that began on that cold morning. I had connected to something deep inside myself that had no name, a connection that only blood could allow.
Even now, when I visit the haunts of my childhood, I feel drawn to those very woods where I learned to hunt. But the woods where I first hunted are gone, replaced by subdivisions, the trees bulldozed over and forgotten. The loss is like a gash in my flesh.
Trips back home always make me wonder what hunting means in this relatively young country where wooded lands are under assault by a restless population hungry for space, for food, for water, for wood, for oil, for money. American hunting is unique because of the history of the country. There were no vast stretches of uninhabited wilderness for the hunter in England; no unknown, virgin country peopled by a warrior society for whom hunting was as essential to life as breathing.
For those first settlers in this country, for those trappers who went into the then-unknown regions of the American West for beaver pelts just after Lewis and Clark, Native Americans allowed contact with a group of people who were not just close to nature, but who lived the life that men and women had lived for centuries. The time in which human beings have lived among 12-lane freeways and tall buildings, buying their meat prepackaged in the supermarket, is only a blink of the eye compared to the eons in which man hunted to survive. Little wonder the first shedding of blood is so memorable in a boy’s life: It allows for a connection to the collective memory embedded in our DNA.
We like to think that Native Americans were environmentally aware in some way that we are not, that they took care of the land in a way we have not. The truth is at once simpler and more complex than that. We can only speak and think of awareness of the environment when we have been estranged from it. The environment was to the Native American what water is to the fish: all there is. And hunting was tied not just to food, clothing, and shelter, but to belief, to God, to everything.
In his book on Native American spirituality, The Land Looks After Us, Joel Martin recounts a remarkable story about an encounter between a Moravian missionary and a Delaware warrior in the 18th century on the east coast of what would eventually be the United States. The warrior had shot a bear and broken its backbone. As the animal wailed and moaned, the warrior spoke to him: “You know, bear, that our tribes are at war with each other, and that yours was the aggressor. You have found the Indians too powerful for you, and you have gone sneaking about in the woods, stealing their hogs; … Had you conquered me, I would have borne it with courage and died like a brave warrior; but you, bear, sit there and cry, and disgrace your tribe by your cowardly conduct.”
Astounded at the Indian’s words, the missionary asked him why he spoke to an animal that could not possibly understand him. The Delaware warrior assured the missionary that the animal had understood him — the look of shame on the animal’s face told him that. It is impossible to imagine a modern hunter having this sort of conversation with an animal. But everywhere in Native American history we find examples of this sort that demonstrate a closeness to the natural world that makes this conversation understandable.
For the Plains Indians, far to the west of the Delaware, buffalo hunting was quite literally the center of existence. The movement of the buffalo herd over the vast panorama of the Great Plains determined the nomadic movement of the tribe. Every part of the buffalo was used in some aspect of Native American life: the hide for clothing and teepee covering, the sinews for bow strings, the bones for cutting and digging implements, the bladder for water bags, the tannin in the brain to tan the hides so that they would be soft and pliable. The buffalo was from the earth, a gift to the Lakota from Inyan or the Rock, the primal source of all.
The Plains Indian dress, which for most Americans has become the image of the Indian, is a picture of what the Indian hunted and lived among: the feathers of the eagle in the hair, the claws of the bear on a necklace, the hide of the wolf or the rabbit or deer covering the body. For the human being to live, he had to slay the bear. Wearing the claws showed the utmost respect for the animal as a worthy opponent in the battle for existence.
FROM MY HOME IN THE EAST, I have been drawn westward by images such as these from Native American life. Perhaps it is because Native American tribes in the East were vanquished long before those in the West, leaving only echoes: haunting names of rivers and towns, such as Choctaw or Chattahoochee or Apalachicola or Tuscaloosa.
Landscape out West embodies Native American life — the long, empty spaces on the prairie, the rolling brown hills in southern Montana, the spectacular meadows in the Wind River range in western Wyoming, and the sacred Black Hills shadowing the horizon as you drive from Wyoming into South Dakota. These landscapes tell of a time not long past when nomadic tribes scanned the plains for the fires of enemies, or the dust created by buffalo herds, or land merging into an endless sky.
Stories from early settlers out West repeatedly tell of the long-range eyesight of the Plains Indians. They could see horses, buffalo, or trees in the distance where white settlers could only see shadows. Perhaps their vision was a product of living and hunting for generations amid wide-open spaces; perhaps it was a gift from God to a hunting people. A Lakota man I met in South Dakota explained to me that the Sioux needed to see a long way in order to be safe. Like the animals they hunted, they were not only predators but also prey. And much like those animals, they would eventually lose this land, even the sacred Black Hills.
Driving into the Black Hills from the Little Bighorn area of Montana, I seek a link to my hunting past in this landscape that the Sioux called, “the center of all that is.” Part of the drama of the Black Hills is their difference from all that is around them. They arise unexpectedly from the plain, their dark color a shadow on the horizon that deepens and expands as you get closer to them. And then when you realize that the black color of the hills is due to the green of the Ponderosa Pine and the Black Hills Spruce, you feel as if you had stumbled upon an oasis. You understand then why the Sioux took their dead here, why they sent young warriors into these hills for visions. It is holy land, created by the Great Spirit to shelter the animals during the long, hard winters. “Paha Saha” the Sioux called them, “hills that are black.” My Lakota friend puts it more succinctly: “A church.”
But even in churches, history is many-layered and civilization is as relentless as death. The Sioux ran the Kiowa out of the Black Hills a century before white people came west in large numbers. The Kiowa, in their turn, carried this remarkable landscape with them. Devil’s Tower, the monolithic rock tower that juts into the sky like a beheaded toadstool on the northwest edge of the Black Hills, is the center of a Kiowa legend. According to the Kiowa, the tower is the stump of a tree that cast seven Kiowa sisters into the sky to become stars. The tree was protecting them from their brother who had become a bear. As the brother-become-bear climbed after his sisters, his claws scored the bark of the tree — marks that remain in the vertical grooves on the side of Devil’s Tower. “There are things in nature that engender an awful quiet in the heart of man,” American writer and Kiowa descendent N. Scott Momaday explains of Devil’s Tower and the legend it engendered. But the Kiowa legend of Devil’s Tower is only one layer of legend, one civilization’s story. Wyoming road signs claim Devil’s Tower, named by a white man, as the first national monument of the United States.
Who owns this land — the people who bury their dead here, the people whose legends bring life to its wide vistas, the hunting people who lived on and worshipped its bounty, or the state that incorporates and names it, setting its borders within it? These sacred hills reflect the chaos of civilization as surely as they reflect the ancient rites of a hunting people. The unfinished Crazy Horse Memorial, commemorating the life of the Sioux warrior who proclaimed, “My lands are where my dead lie buried” stands less than 20 miles from Mount Rushmore, the great monument to Manifest Destiny. And 30 or 40 miles to the northwest is Deadwood, the historical center of gold mining in the Hills and recently the subject of an HBO series. Gold mining ended the Sioux’s tenure in these lands when the United States reneged on the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty that granted the Black Hills to the Sioux in perpetuity.
SOMETIME I GO TO MORE REMOTE PARTS of the West, still seeking what I felt when I learned to hunt. The San Juan Mountains in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico are more rugged than the Black Hills. There are no great monuments here to Native Americans, gold, or presidents. Still, history happened here too. The Pueblo lived in these mountains and before them the Anasazi. Coronado came through these mountains in the 1540s, long before Crazy Horse or the American Presidents on Mount Rushmore were even born. Like the white men who took the Black Hills, he was looking for gold. He found only financial ruin and eventually death from what American writer Willa Cather called “a broken heart.” In frustration, he executed the Native American guide who promised to take him to the gold.
I go with a group of friends, men about my age who grew up in the sporting tradition. Though we fly on an airplane to get there and carry into the woods the best that Orvis and Columbia have to offer, we go to answer some elemental calling deep inside, something akin to the blind instinct of a salmon heading up stream to spawn in the very bed where she was born. I seek again the lost woods of my youth.
Late at night after my friends have gone to bed, I sit and watch the fire die. The roar has gone out of it, yet at its center the fire is molten, like the center of the earth. I like to listen then to the voice of the woods. Unlike the Native Americans whose traditions I seek, I am not smart enough or woodsman enough to interpret its language, but there is something out there, a voice of some kind, deeply embedded. Perhaps this voice is what I seek. I suspect that all the men and women who hunted and fished the woods and the Great Plains, all who struggled up the sides of these very mountains to see what was here, knew this voice; else they would not have come. It is a voice of no nation, no tribe, no species, no time.