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Keeping up with Traditional Harvest
~ Chase Voirin
The snow fell right on time this winter, blanketing
the earth with a soft touch, so as to highlight the sign left
behind by the 4-legged wild beings that we share this
landscape with. The only issue was we were not seeing
the tracks of the being we were pursuing just yet. Ironically,
this creature represented the largest wild species in the
area, yet somehow seemed to be the most elusive. We continued through large snow drifts engulfed by the various ancient lava flow pockets that composed the landscape. Despite being over a mile high in elevation, we were still in a high desert, and having to take small steps with high knees, clamoring over hidden slippery rocks and brush under the snow was not something we were accustomed to. This only added to the sense of work and physical exertion it took to obtain our query. As we topped out on a pinnacle overlook we looked out across the vast Southwest landscape. A growing breeze interrupted the still, cold air from earlier in the morning, as we took the moment to scan the mesas before us with our binoculars.
The area we were hunting in was the traditional homeland of my friend’s tribe: Laguna Pueblo. Located not more than an hour drive west on I-40 from Albuquerque, NM, the reservation’s nearly half million acres is large enough to hold several different hunting units that have different seasons for different species of animals. The animals we were hunting for on this outing were elk, and as mentioned before it was impressive that such a large animal could hide so well in a fairly-open landscape, especially with the background of the landscape composed of solid, white snow. However, the longer we hunted the more I came to find out just how varied this landscape was. Numerous hills, mesas, washes and depressions lined with patches of pinyon and juniper trees made it more and more conceivable that our query had plenty of hiding spots.
From our vantage point we finally spotted our first big-game animals in the area. A group of mule deer, one large buck and two does, who were unaware of our presence were cresting a hillside below us, their gaze fixated down a wash we could not see into. A few minutes later it was apparent that two smaller bucks were walking up hoping to join their crew. Being that it was still the breeding season, the large buck was not pleased with their intentions and proceeded to chase the smaller males away, prompting the female deer to scurry over another hillside. My friend had mentioned how she had seen deer in the same area, though it was during a fall hunt and not in the middle of the winter. She shared a few more stories of previous hunts in that particular area before we descended down the slope to scout an adjacent canyon. We both pondered as to if her ancestors had ever searched for game on that same pinnacle, watching similar spaces dance their seasonal acts. As a hunter and Indigenous member, these types of thoughts enter the mind when roaming around Home.
It never ceases to amaze me what snow can reveal about who inhabits an area. As we moved forward to the next canyon we came across very clear, and freshmountain lion tracks. Placing our hands next to the big feline tracks made us realize that where there is prey there will be predators, filling in the rest of the niches of this local ecosystem. A very humbling thought crossed our minds too – that we weren’t alone, and we weren’t the only predators in the area. Not long after following the tracks to the edge of a boulder slope, we finally came across the tracks we were looking for. It started off as a few individual tracks, maybe a few young bulls that were hanging out in this canyon. But then the tracks became more numerous, crisscrossing the various ravines and small open meadows of the mesa, each set made at different times throughout the last few days just after the snow had fallen. All of this indicated a sizeable herd of elk was presently inhabiting this region. We both became more aware that we may meet our query face-to-face in the near future.
What impressed me most was the varying topography of the reservation and areas we hunted. I grew up on the outskirts of Albuquerque and every time I would pass through Laguna Pueblo on the way to my own tribe’s (Navajo) reservation, I would see the ancient villages that were still inhabited by tribal members near springs and creeks. Throughout my youth I thought these villages made up most of the reservation lands. But being this was my third hunt with my friend, I came to understand that the reservation encompasses multiple mesas, hills and canyons made up of ancient volcanic lava flows and sandstone. The scenery was beautiful, and my friend would reminisce on hunts in years past within these different areas. What was interesting was we could climb up to any tall mesa or pinnacle and look out across the landscape and see adjacent areas of where we hunted in the past. It’s always amazing how far you can see from a high vantage point in the western U.S. And how many good memories you can bundle into a relatively small region.
As we marched along through the snow we began to slow down and scan the areas in front of us as best could. Based on the amount of tracks we were seeing it seemed the herd was meandering through different pockets and meadows searching for food to eat underneath the snow. Fortunately, we were downwind of the direction we were heading, making it less likely the elk would smell us as we neared where they were located. Every tree, rock and bush was carefully scanned in the near distance to verify it wasn’t an elk. It’s amazing how well a herd of 50 elk could be invisible on a rolling landscape like the one we were in, but that’s exactly what was occurring. As we topped a small hill our trained eyes caught the flash of tan fur running through the trees ahead of us and up the next hill. It soon became a stream of elk flowing out of the meadow below us and up the opposite hillside, to the point where it became impossible to make way for a clear shot. Expert biologists like to call this the confusion effect; where prey flush in groups so as to confuse the predator as to which one they should target. And it was working well at this moment in time, to say the least. Alas, the elk escaped out of site, but the pursuit for the day was just beginning. We would continue tracking and seeing multiple groups of elk that were hidden in different ravines and meadows. By the end of the day my friend and I estimated we saw about 80 different elk in this relatively small chunk of the mesa.
After four days of hunting my friend was able to connect on a cow (female elk) the morning before she was set to fly back home, coincidentally like her three other successful hunts. After all of the time, patience and persistence put into harvesting this species it was easy to reflect and recognize what a blessing it was to continue to have the ability to hunt and carry out traditional methods of harvesting wild food. Seeing the honor and pride my friend had at harvesting wild game on her tribe’s reservation, under her tribe’s wildlife management laws and regulations, reminded me of what it felt like to hunt on my own tribe’s land. Everything one learns about a given region, and the little nuances that compose that ecosystem, is learned intimately through the grueling efforts of laborious hunting. All of this happened not more than a 90-minute drive from the house I spent 20 years in, and I would not have known about this area and its uniqueness if I didn’t have the privilege of joining my friend on her tribal hunt. It’s changed my perception of Laguna Pueblo, and as I look at the villages and people who inhabit them, I think of how their ancestors probably traveled to the mesas to hunt their query in a similar process as we did, with the same respect for what the earth provides. That in itself is something to be thankful for, and to hopefully be passed onto the next generations of Indigenous members.
Chase Voirin is a Navajo tribal member, wildlife biologist and hunter who lives in Tucson, AZ.
Serra Hoagland (friend mentioned in article) is a Laguna Pueblo tribal member, wildlife biologist and hunter who resides in Ronan, MT.