In honor and hopes of the forthcoming hunt….
It was the last day for me to hunt. In a few more hours I would have to pack it up and go home. Back to the daily grind of work, bills and watching the days fly by, another day older. For the past 3 days, I had been chasing cow elk through the woods of Northern Arizona, battling the wind and rain and wearing out my boots in the process. In other words, having the time of my life that only a hunter could fully appreciate.
Yet with all the effort I had put forth, miles covered it seemed, the elk would not cooperate. Glimpses of tan hide, a twitching ear, or moving legs was all that they showed me during that time. I kept thinking back to the opportunity I missed the day before, an easy 50 yard shot, but dark branches above the elk’s head gave the impression of antlers. I had hesitated a few breaths, staring down my scope trying to figure out whether this elk was fair game, or was instead, a small 3 x 2.
For a tortuous few seconds, I scanned that elk, rubbing my finger against the trigger guard. Suddenly, in one smooth motion the elk spun around and was headed downhill at full speed, revealing her to be a nice, young cow. A deep breath, and a chuckle to myself, and I shouldered my rifle and headed back to camp. The time for this hunt seemed to fade to fast.
So here I was, my last day to redeem this hunt. I was up early and headed to an area just south of where I had missed out on the cow the day before. I pulled into a clearing and sat there, watching the black night sky turn a faint gray as the sun began its’ return. I got my rifle and gear, exited the truck, stretched my weary muscles and began my way into the junipers. The cold air made me bristle and a soft wind moved through the trees. To the south of me rose the steep northern flanks of a large mesa uplift some 300 feet high. Numerous canyons and ravines cut the northern face, and they were overgrown thick with brush and dark forests.
I was soon sneaking through the woods, peering around tree trunks; raising, lowering myself so that I could see under and over tree branches. As the morning sun broke the far horizon, the early light illuminated the tree tops, turning them a glowing orange for a few brief minutes. Rather than soak in the moment, the event seemed to me as if a reminder of how little time I had left in this hunt. Determined to cover ground, I quickened my pace.
After I covered a hundred yards in less than a minute, I had to tell myself to “slow down”. It was advice my dad had given to me before as I was sometimes too eager to see what lay over the next ridge. I took a deep breath and slowly stepped forward with my right foot. SNAP! broke the twig under my boot. In that same instant, the sound of breaking tree branches and hooves on rocks exploded somewhere ahead of me. A small clearing in the trees showed me the herd of cow elk that were again, headed away from me at full speed. “There goes my one chance” I thought to myself, shaking my head in disbelief.
I sat down on a stump and waited until I could no longer hear the herd smash their way through the forest. A small nut thatch chided me from above. I sat there, thinking of my next move, the vapor of my breath slowly drifting off. “What now?” I thought. Should I return to my truck and move further down the mesa edge? Perhaps I should just go home and watch the football game and be lazy? Sounded good, but I’d never forgive myself for wasting the little time I had to be out here. After 20 minutes or so, I began my second journey that morning to redeem myself, and this hunt.
Changing my direction a bit more south and a bit more uphill, I soon found myself skirting a semi-open ridge top. Various shrubs and thick oak grabbed at my jacket and I considered moving back down off the ridge into more open country. But I continued in the same direction. Repeating my mantra, “slow down” over and over in my mind.
Eventually, the vegetation opened up and I could see off into the distance. The sun was well up by now and the blue skies stretched away to the far northern horizon. From where I stood, I could see past the dark outlines of cinder cones of the San Francisco Volcanic Field, 20 miles away. Beyond those, I could see the far off mesas and plateaus of the Hopi Indian Reservation, my homeland, some 70 miles distance.
As the air warmed, I took off my pack, removed my jacket and sat down on a large limestone slab, looking at the distant landscapes though my 10X binoculars. As I sat there, I glimpsed down at my loose shoelace that needed tying. I leaned over and that’s when I saw it. An arrowhead. Black volcanic obsidian reflected sunlight as it contrasted with the white limestone rocks that surrounded it. I picked it up and noticed that it was completely intact. Barely an inch and half in length and half that in width, it was the type categorized by the discipline of archaeology as a double side notched point.
Working as an archaeologist myself in the Northern Arizona Region for 10 years, I had seen numerous and varied types of projectile points found on surveys and journeys across this terrain. Many of these points had specific uses, the size and shape made for use on specific game. This type was used to tip the dangerous end of an arrow, and when it was first made, it was sharper than a modern surgeon’s steel scalpel. Its existence showed that prehistoric Indian peoples once roamed this same area, pursing the ancestors of the elk I now chased. Being a Native American of Hopi descent, I was pretty sure that this point was made by my ancestors, the Hisatsinom, or People of Long Ago, over 800 years previous to my time. They were the first to occupy this landscape and during those prehistoric days, they survived and prospered in this harsh environment, enduring some hard times here and there.
Holding the point in my palm, I wondered who the ancient hunter was who dropped it. I could imagine him, clad in buckskin that he tanned himself, carrying a bow made of oak, strung with twisted sinew that launched sumac arrow shafts tipped by black obsidian. In my minds eye, I could see this hunter, moving stealthfully along in moccasins, peering around tree trunks, silently praying for a successful hunt. In contrast, here I stood. A modern “savage”, clothed in synthetic camouflage and armed with the latest technology that was a reflection of the modern world I lived in. Who had it better I wondered?
People often ask me why my family hunts. The answers can be pretty obvious, such as providing us with natural, dare I say, “organic” meat, in addition to other materials we use, antler, hide, hoof, feathers, etc. Yet there is another reason why I hunt. Being out in the wilderness I actually feel more alive, more of a participant in my natural world and the natural cycles that occur there. I once asked my dad “why do we hunt?”
Sitting on the edge of the mesa, starring out over a landscape dotted with grassy meadows, surrounded by stands of aspen and fir, with cumulus clouds building on the distant horizon, he remained silent while pondering this question from his son. After awhile he sighed heavily and spoke, “I guess I hunt because out there is nature, things living, things dying. I want to be a part of nature, just as our ancestors were”.
Hunting is definitely a large part of our Hopi culture and history. Knowing that my ancestors hunted in some of the same areas I now hunt, I do feel closer to them. I sometimes wonder how much they would recognize if they were standing next to me looking out over the landscape. In some instances, they are closer than one would think.
I thought back to another experience in which I stood before a petroglyph panel depicting a classic hunting scene; a hunter with bow drawn, and a small line indicating the flight of an arrow towards an antelope. What struck me wasn’t so much the scene itself, but the manner in which the figures were represented. The hunter was puny looking, his bow fragile and his arrow struggling to maintain flight. The antelope in contrast was huge, a sure giant of the animal kingdom, towering over the quivering hunter. I thought to myself that this scene depicted only one thing, it depicted the truth. Hunting is not easy. It requires great skill, strength and a whole lot of luck and prayer. The hunter who made this scene knew the score, and he knew it all to well. Yet, like modern day Hopis fasting and praying for a successful hunt, this hunter too left his prayer pecked upon the stone wall. I walked away, wondering if he had killed.
I began to scan the ground for other signs of human passings. “The hunt could wait” I now thought as I ejected the cartridge and put my rifle down. Reverting to the archaeologist in me, I moved methodically, randomly, all the while with my eyes glued to the ground, looking for what I knew was there. Soon enough, my eye could pick out other forms of prehistoric “trash”; sherds of brown and gray pottery, broken bits of grinding stones and flakes of obsidian, chert and quartz. These flakes were produced by making projectile points like the one that so easily distracted me from my hunt.
After examining each bit of evidence up close, I slowly took a step back from what I was looking at, and then fully realized what lay around me. An entire archaeological site materialized before me. I could see the scattered outlines of small rooms here and there, more trash, and a large upright basalt rock that had a smooth flat side. Upon further inspection, this stone turned out to be the beginnings of a large grinding stone that was to be used for grinding nuts. It was left here, perhaps to be completed upon the return to this camp the following year, only to be forgotten. This camp was probably a seasonal home, used in the summer and fall as a base from which men could embark on hunts; where women gathered and collected the natural bounty found in these forests, and children, turkeys and dogs filled the spaces.
All told, I “discovered” several other grinding stones, big and small, pottery with various painted designs and few more projectile points. I took a few pictures and after about an hour of inspecting the site, or perhaps it was two hours, I felt that my curiosity had been satisfied and I began my way back to where I had left my rifle and pack. By now, the sun was right overhead and I figured that it was okay to return back to my truck, having gotten some satisfaction from my little side trip into prehistory. Before I left the site, I remembered to pay homage to my ancestors who had once called this land home. Tough, resourceful people if you ask me.
I found a little clearing in the site and took out a small leather pouch from my pocket. This pouch contained white corn meal. Simple offerings. Taking a pinch, I said a prayer. To no one in particular, to the sky, to the earth and to those I pursued on this hunt. I asked for success and prayed that perhaps the spirits of my ancestors would hear me and grant me my wish. Satisfied, I stood and returned to get my gear.
Making my way down the ridge line, the traces of my ancestors grew less and less until eventually, I could see no more. Still, the last thing on my mind was “hunt”. I was still thinking of what I had just seen. I paused and stood silent, scanning the forest around me, my breaths slow and steady, muscles relaxed.
Just then, somewhere ahead of me, a slight snap of a twig and a flash of brown hide revealed an elk, a cow, moving up and away. As my eyes adjusted, I could see more elk fading in and out between the trees, kicking up dust that drifted like smoke. They were no more than 75 yards from me, the wind in my face concealed my scent. They didn’t notice me as I crouched, shouldered my rifle and brought the scope to my eye.
My breath quickened, my heart beats drummed in my ears as I settled in to make my choice. There were three cows immediately in front of me, moving in single file. Some more moved along the ridge behind them, out of sight, but I could hear them. I needed to make a choice and make it quick before they disappeared into thicker brush. Looking through my scope at each elk, I made my decision…no…no…yes. Its now or never I thought as I clicked off the safety, which seemed 10 times louder than it should. Loud enough for the cow I had chosen to stop, turn her head, and look in my direction. She looked at me, or through me it seemed. Right down the scope to my eye. I was sure she saw me. We locked eyes in that instant, my one magnified eye, blinking at her two brown eyes.
Slowly, she faced forward again and took a deep breath and exhaled. In that split second, I wondered if she knew what fate had been chosen for her. I settled the crosshairs and took my own deep breath, squeezing the trigger with instinct. She never moved as the rifle thundered. I wondered if I had missed. After what seemed an eternity, but was more like a second, she dropped to her knees and fell to her side. I crept closer and saw that she was fading, fast. I knelt by her head as her breaths grew soft. I reached out and touched her forehead, talking to her, thanking her. Under the boughs of a fir tree, we stared at each other, my two brown eyes blinking at hers, which soon grew dull and stared straight ahead.
After I calmed down, I again took out my leather pouch and “fed” her spirit, placing the cornmeal upon her mouth and nose. I said a small prayer of thanks, of humility, of respect, and then got ready to finish the job that had started 3 days earlier. Time to finish this journey and redeem the hunt. As I took out my knives to begin the task of dressing her out, I thought to myself again, “slow down”.
A couple hours later, I arrived back at camp. I found my dad, sitting in his chair around a small fire, reading an old hunting magazine. I walked up to him and quietly asked, “You ready to do some work?” A quick glance from him at my blood stained pants and bloody hands and a wide grin split his face. He jumped up and shook my hand, all the while saying “Alright Kid!” As we drove up to retrieve my elk, I retold the story of that morning, of the spooked herd at dawn, of the archaeology site, of the prayers I said to our ancestors. He listened intently and nodded in approval as I concluded my tale.
I led him to the spot where she fell. My dad took out his own leather pouch and left his own offering to her. Together we prayed and gave our thanks. Together we labored to get her off of the ridge, almost 300 pounds worth we would later find out. We struggled, moving inch by inch until finally, she rested in the bed of our Dodge. We sat back, silent, but smiling for a job well done.
A year later, I still think of the experience at my ancestor’s camp. I think about how the short time I spent there allowed me to “slow down” and appreciate what was around me, beyond the hunt. I like to think that my ancestors did answer my prayers that day, acknowledging my existence, as I acknowledged theirs.
Even though I was not lucky enough to get drawn for a hunt this year, I still intend to return to that place this fall and give thanks for what was given, for what was taken. To pray and ask that in due time, I will once again pursue these noble animals as my ancestors had done. Till then, the elk steaks will satisfy our hunger, and the story of that journey, will have to satisfy our souls.
Portions of this article appeared in Bugle Magazine: Journal of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.