Hisat’sinom to Hopi: Establishing Cultural Affiliation in the Bears Ears Landscape

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Hand Print & Sandal Design Rock Art, SE Utah.

As part of a 3 day hiking tour of archaeological sites in the Bears Ears National Monument (BENM), I was asked to share a personal perspective based on my experiences as an archaeologist, outdoor guide and person of Hopi descent. When it comes to the Bears Ears, issues such as preservation archaeology, tourism and Indigenous perspectives all converge upon the landscape, setting the stage for conflict, but also collaboration. While archaeological research of the Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa regions is on-going, the study of Hopi connections to these areas and the associated archaeological cultures is currently limited and lacks detailed examination by Hopi advisors.

I often pose the question of how is Hopi connected to these prehistoric groups from distant lands? What is the continuity between modern Hopi people (and other Pueblo groups) and the ancestral cultures of the Bears Ears? Seems like a valid question, given that the modern day Hopi reservation lies over 200 miles south of this part of Utah. What are the woven strands of culture that ties us back over time and space? I recall a prior conversation with a gentleman about the popularity of having one’s genetic background tested. Provide some DNA and you can see in neat percentages and cool graphics just where “your people” come from. There are a whole lot of people interested in learning more about their ancestry and heritage. Understanding your origins matters it seems.

I wonder what my percentages would be if I were to be tested? Would my test results show a pie-chart with one solid color, labeled “Hopi”? In fact, just who am I as a Hopi person? Deeper into my family history there are memories of distant lands my ancestral clans occupied prehistorically. According to this knowledge, if I were able to conduct a DNA test of myself using archaeological culture designations, I would guess my Ancestral Puebloan pie-chart slice would be larger in comparison to the Mimbres, Salado and Sinaguan slices. These cultures being representative of various geographic areas my ancestral clans once occupied and therefore, I am of these places as well.

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Two Perspectives of Culture: Archaeological and Hopi (Graphic Courtesy Archaeology Southwest).

Through a Hopi lens, the perspective of “prehistory” here in the Southwest is seen as fluid and dynamic. Rather than foreign concepts such as “Ancestral Puebloan” or “Sinagua” as predecessors to modern pueblo culture, Hopi sees Moti’sinom and Hisat’sinom; cultural concepts that encompass over 2,000 years of ancestry. According to Hopi oral tradition, many clans occupied the Four Corners area, including that of the Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa. These clans brought with them various sets of knowledge that would be incorporated into Hopi culture; ceremony, medicine, technology, language and arts. The end result being the development of what we now identify as “Hopi”. The tracing of that cultural evolution is reliant on both oral tradition and the tangible evidence found within archaeological contexts.

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Ceramic Spiral Applique, Circa 1100 A.D.

One Hopi perspective views the archaeological record as metaphorical “footprints” of Hopi ancestors, substantiating Hopi oral histories about clan settlements and migrations. Within Hopi culture is the belief that the meaning of the past is what it contributes to life in the present. This belief underscores the “cultural continuity” between modern-day Hopi and their ancestors. How this connection manifests itself, often daily, is in the cultural knowledge and traditional know-how a Hopi person maintains. This knowledge is evident in many forms within traditional Hopi culture; the crops we grow and eat, the homes we occupy, the tools we use, the art we create, the ceremonies we enact and the language we speak. All of which is really an accumulation of ancestral Hopi experiences, learned over countless generations.

Based on this traditional view, Hopi people firmly believe that some of our ancestral clans are represented in the archaeological record of the Bears Ears. Parts of this ancestral history, the invisible strands of genetic code and the visible evidence of material culture, subsequently made its way into the modern expressions of Hopi people. Proving this requires continued consultation and fieldwork with knowledgeable Hopi advisors. Fortunately there are opportunities for future, collaborative Hopi research, including iconography found in textiles, rock art and ceramics, as well as discussions about agricultural traditions. One interesting area of study is the idea of return migrations or perhaps pilgrimages, by more recent Hopi people. This is evident by the satisfying discovery of Hopi Yellow Wares on Cedar Mesa and surrounding areas. Faint “footprints” in the sand leading back into a recognizable landscape.

This is the meaning that Hopi people find in the Bears Ears region. Experiencing ancestral sites within natural surroundings gives us both insight and reflection; insight into the lives of our earliest ancestors, and reflection on the migrations from Hisat’sinom to Hopi.

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Bears Ears Landscape
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Face-to-Face: 25 Years of NAGPRA

On the approach of the 25th anniversary of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), I wanted to reflect on my personal experiences in dealing with and implementing NAGPRA with the Hopi Tribe. This is not meant to be a technical, legal or political analysis of the Act, there are other resources available if one wishes to learn more.


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November 16, 1990.

This was the day that the Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed into law. At the time, I was 15 years old and had no idea that this law existed or what its’ implications would be on my life and the lives of my fellow Hopi people. Fast forward 16 years…

In the summer of 2006 I find myself in the backcountry of Mesa Verde National Park and I’m staring into a large trench which holds the remains of over 2,000 individuals. The bones of my ancestors lay before me and I’m trying to comprehend the situation as a whole. It is overwhelming to say the least and I’m wondering what I got myself into. This is one of the largest reburials conducted in NAGPRA history and is my introduction to the whole process.

I had recently started working with the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office (HCPO), the formal governing body of the Hopi Tribe that deals with all matters of Cultural Resource Managment (CRM), including Archaeology, Anthropology, Ethnography, Linguistics and in this case, NAGPRA. As the new Archaeology Program Manager, I was given the assignment to help coordinate and carry-out this project, along with numerous individuals from the National Park Service (NPS), Museum Specialists from the State of Colorado, various agencies and other tribal representatives.

The Hopi Tribe, as a formal entity, had assumed the lead in this endeavor. This was based on established “Cultural Affiliation” with the prehistoric human remains in question. Establishing that affiliation is a long and complicated process; much like going to court, any tribe who claims affiliation with a set of human remains must “prove” this through several lines of evidence. The Hopi Tribe, in conjunction with Hopi elders, archaeologists, museum specialists, physical anthropologists and historians, had met this challenge sufficiently. It was an endeavor which spanned many years. Let’s leave it at that.

Back to the task at hand.

So just where did these remains come from and why were we re-burying them? The majority of the remains came from within the established boundaries of Mesa Verde National Park. Either as part of past archaeological excavations (deliberately removed from the ground) or through natural forces, such as erosion or as “inadvertent discoveries” – perhaps unearthed by accident through trail maintenance or other NPS activities. In anycase, these remains, like so many others throughout the country, had ended up in boxes, given an accession number and stored in warehouses or in some extreme cases, put on public display (as one unfortunate individual who was encased in cement to mimic an excavation and placed inside a glass case).

Cataloged Artifacts (not actual NAGPRA items).
Cataloged Artifacts (not actual NAGPRA items).

The bottom line was that these individuals, women, men, teenagers, children and infants, were no longer in their final resting places. In most cases, only fragments of them were left, partial skeletons that were once a living, breathing human being. Some of them were originally buried with “grave offerings”; pottery, jewelry, textiles, baskets and other “gifts” to carry with them into the after-life. These items were placed back with the individuals, as best as could be determined.

The identification process of these individuals is an extremely tedious task, requiring the expertise of archaeologists and physical anthropologists to examine each set of remains to determine gender and age; categorizing them into groups which would aid the reburial process. When it came time for reburial, the actual process was conducted according to cultural procedures set forth by which ever tribe assumed the lead. Thus the reburial was carried out and in one day, we re-buried over 2,000 individuals.


Since that day, I have been involved in half a dozen reburials with as many different federal, state and tribal agencies. Other Hopis, always males, have been involved with many more, since the dawn of the NAGPRA age. How and Why do I choose to be involved in this process? I can only speak for myself. I do not claim to voice the feelings or emotions of the other Hopis and Indigenous people who are involved in this aspect of NAGPRA.

Hopi Consultation Team. Comprising elders, archaeologists and ethnographers.
Hopi Consultation Team. Comprising elders, archaeologists and ethnographers.

It can be a difficult choice, there are cultural and personal boundaries we have to face and ultimately cross if we become involved. When I first told my family that I was going to be conducting the reburial at Mesa Verde, they objected to it and tried to change my mind. They were afraid there could be negative consequences, physically and spiritually, as a result of my involvement. They worried that I was not adequately prepared, at least from a cultural perspective. It’s not so much a cultural taboo or superstition in regards to handling human remains, but more of a concern that there could be other consequences that could affect my inner well-being.

While I respected their concerns, I viewed my participation as necessary, as a way to correct the wrongs of the past. Perhaps I was also a bit naive about it all, not fully understanding the implications of my decision. Yet it was that thinking that I needed to do something, which compelled me to participate. As an Indigenous person involved with the field of Archaeology and other aspects of CRM work, I have always felt that it is important to acknowledge the past history between the sciences of Anthropology, Archaeology and Indigenous people.

It has not always been respectful or beneficial and the Hopi experience has been no different. However I feel that by choosing to be involved in these fields, also requires my participation to make some positive changes. I think those of us who choose to be involved all carry the idea, that it is our duty and responsibility to respect and protect our relatives from a distant era. Thus I continue to re-bury the remains of my ancestors.

There are a myriad of emotions and feelings that I encounter while doing a reburial. I am often physically and emotionally exhausted at the end of the day. I have learned to hide my emotions while I am working, which can be a difficult task. I remember the first time I unpacked an infant from the storage box and placed it within the burial trench. Unexpectedly, I felt tears roll down my cheek and I had to compose myself. The thoughts of my own daughter who was the same age as this child crossed my mind. Through blurred vision, I gently arranged the fragments of skull and bones, placing alongside a small ceramic bowl and turquoise pendant she had been buried with. This emotion still occurs occasionally but I have learned to deal with it.

Other times I am left with surreal visions; such as countless skulls, all lined up facing east, waiting for their chance to greet the sun once again and continue on in their final journey. Or another time I took a skull out of the box and saw that this poor fellow had an obsidian projectile point embedded in his eye socket. He had died from his injury and it reminded me that at times, our history could be violent and unsettling.

I experience frustration and anger from time to time, wondering why my ancestors were treated with such disrespect to be labeled with a number and placed in storage boxes. Their final journey disturbed and their souls left uneasy. But those emotions are not welcome, at least during the actual reburial. They will resurface in me at a later time. Of course I am far from happy, but it is best to keep working and focus on getting the task done.

I sometimes talk to the dead as I’m laying them out. I hold them face-to-face and ask them who they are. I reassure them that we are there to help. I let them know that no further harm will come to them and they are free to go. Other times, during a long reburial, I say nothing and work in silence, hoping that we can finish before the sun sets. I drink or eat very little while I am working, taking short breaks to clear my head and talk with the living.

I am appreciative of those that come to assist us. Usually there are only a few Hopi or other tribal representatives involved, some from other tribes. Nowadays, that number grows smaller as people age and are no longer physically able to do the work. This type of work is not one that other Hopi males are eager to get involved with, for their own personal and cultural reasons. For now, there are only 2-3 of us who continue to do so. So be it.

But there are others who come to help; archaeologists, museum specialists, maintenance workers, trail crew and volunteers, from various agencies. Their extra hands help to unload boxes, unpack the remains and if needed, place the remains within the trench. According to Hopi belief, only males are allowed within the actual reburial pit (one of my uncles who is also involved in these efforts, jokes it is because Hopi males are expendable).

I don’t consider this to be morbid work. I have never been squeamish about bones, human or not. When I think about it, I guess I was destined to do this, but there is nothing glamorous in it. Again, I view it as an individual responsibility. What I take from it, or rather what I hope is gained, is a sense of peace for all involved. Not just for those we are reburying, but for those of us who remain. The Living. The Dead. Hopefully we can all rest easier.

One of the more amazing aspects of this whole ordeal are the personal items that are buried with an individual. Intricate jewelry that they wore with pride. Ceramics of all types, plain, decorated, imported and the one-of-a-kind. Shell, stone and other materials that came from distant lands. It showed that their lives were not all labor and toil, that they too had the opportunity to enjoy the better times of life. They contemplated their place in the universe, reflected in their art. They spent time with their families and friends, caring for one another in life and death.

Shell Necklace (not an actual NAGPRA item). Photo Credit: Dan Boone/Ryan Belnap, Bilby Research Center, Northern Arizona University.
Shell Necklace (not an actual NAGPRA item).
Photo Credit: Dan Boone/Ryan Belnap, Bilby Research Center, Northern Arizona University.
Turquoise Mosaic. Photo Credit: Dan Boone/Ryan Belnap, Bilby Research Center, Northern Arizona University.
Turquoise Mosaic (not an actual NAGPRA item).
Photo Credit: Dan Boone/Ryan Belnap, Bilby Research Center, Northern Arizona University.

I have to remind myself not to admire too much. That these items are no longer meant for this world, and so I place them alongside their owners and thank them for the chance to glimpse into their world. I also have to remind those who are helping in the reburial that this is not the time or place for in-field scientific analysis. I know this can be difficult for some of my archaeology colleagues, losing pieces of the past and with them, their scientific potential. I remind them that time has come and gone. Let us respect what needs to be done and move on.

When all is said and done, I say a final prayer to my ancestors. I ask them to be at peace. “Go be with your relatives who are waiting for you”. We leave offerings and conduct a cleansing ceremony for all involved, smudging ourselves in juniper smoke, washing away any negative feelings or emotions from the day. With final handshakes, the work crew disassembles and departs. I am usually one of the last to leave.

I never go directly home after a reburial. I find a secluded spot to camp out for the night. I build a fire and sit staring at the flames, watching stars in the night sky, slowly releasing the remainder of my emotions from the day. I reflect on the days activities and concentrate on bringing myself back to this world. I wonder if what we do really corrects the mistakes of the past. Will there indeed be repercussions for my involvement? Only time will tell.

I may never know who these people were in real life, we only cross paths in our journeys to our own final destinations. Yet I am thankful for their presence. They are the giants on whose shoulders I stand upon. The meaning of the past is what it contributes to life in the present.

I fall asleep knowing I will awaken to a new day and see in the eyes of my own children, the spirits of my ancestors.

We Are Still Here.

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Beyond The Hunt

In honor and hopes of the forthcoming hunt….

Early Sunrise.
Early Sunrise.

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.

Elk on the Run.
Elk on the Run.

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.

Distant Landscapes.
Distant Landscapes.

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.

Pieces of the Past.
Pieces of the Past.

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.

The Hunt.
The Hunt.

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.

Ancient Walls.
Ancient Walls.

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.

Artifacts1

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.

Rock Art depicting a kill.
Success!

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”.

Silent Prayer.
Silent Prayer.

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.

Mule Deer Antler Shed.
Mule Deer Antler Shed.

Portions of this article appeared in Bugle Magazine: Journal of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.