On Hunting, Pilgrimage, and Caring For the Self in Others

Today began sunny and cool. An hour or so ago the wind came up, clouds moved rapidly in, and sleet began falling. The temperature has dropped noticeably. The breeze sends the leaves from our neighbor’s big maple scurrying across our yard. The maple  is nearly bare.

Hunting season is upon us. Traditional deer season begins in about a week. Here in Vermont, hunting season increasingly yields discord between land owners who post their land, and hunters, many of whose families have hunted the land for generations. Property owners post for many reasons. They may have concerns for the safety of family, pets, and livestock. They may be attempting to shelter or conserve wildlife, or they may worry about liability.

Hunters also take to the fields and woods for diverse reasons. Many families hunt for subsistence. For them, a deer or two in the freezer assures meat for the winter. Others hunt as an acknowledgement of family tradition, a pilgrimage to the Ancestors, and a rite of passage. (In Vermont,  rising number of hunters are women, and all female times at deer camp are no longer unusual.) For them, hunting offers an opportunity to walk with, and in the footsteps of, the ancestors. Still others hunt as an excuse to be outside in the still of the early morning or evening. A small number simply relish the power they experience in the kill.

Here in the Northeast, and across the border in Canada,  Native people find ourselves in many of the same hunting and fishing rights conflicts as those that have become legendary in the West, only at a markedly smaller scale. Knowing the Land Is Resistance summed up the issue nicely, from a Native point of view, in a recent post:

Words like ‘trespassing’, ‘unlawlful assembly’, or even ‘illegal hunting’ for that matter, confuse and trivialize the issues at stake. Describing treaty issues in these terms is a deliberate tactic used by both governments and racist right-wing organizers alike to delegitimize the longstanding and important issues raised by the Haudenosaunee and other First Nations.

Crusiest reports on a similar conflict between the Huichol and development interests in West Central Mexico:

Nevertheless, the main strength of their cultural reproduction is the collective resolve to keep their ancestral traditions. An essential part of their cosmogony and identity is the pilgrimage through dozens of natural sacred sites, spread along a corridor of more than 800 kilometers that runs from the coast of the State of Nayarit to Huiricuta. These pilgrimage routes are what remain of the pre-Hispanic trade routes that joined the Pacific coast with the Gulf of Mexico.

The Huichol regularly follow this route on pilgrimages to sacred sites and their ancestral land. The pilgrimage is an essential aspect of Huichol identity and healing, and without the journey, the Huichol would lose much of the integrity of their culture, as well as individual sense of Self.

Let me now return to the topic of hunting, which in urban areas is a genuinely bad idea, no matter who’s doing it. Hunting threatened or endangered species is, too. But what are we to do when traditional practices, both Native and non, come into conflict with a rapidly urbanizing world,  in which an ever growing list of creatures is endangered or threatened? How are we to continue subsistence practices that are essential to the maintenance of Self, both individual and collective? How are we to understand and resolve conflicts between traditional, subsistence practices, and the desires of a largely urban, increasingly resource hungry, population, when  those very urban desires serve to further the agendas of racist and classist elements in the culture, to the detriment of Natives and rural families?

It is easy to discount the desires and needs of Native people, and of others who still follow, at least in part, subsistence lifestyles and/or practices. Yet, to do so is to attack the very core of meaning and Self in the lives of those groups.  Human beings suffer when we lose Self, and much of contemporary cultural practice is built on practices that distort, undermine, or destroy this sense of self, and not just for Natives and rural dwellers. Consider the impacts of large scale economic disparity and high structural unemployment. Much therapy, and shamanic practice, is directed at healing such attacks on Self, acts of violence that may be  inadvertent or intentional, isolated or institutional.

In our lives, whether therapists, shamans, or simply people who care, we are given many opportunities to sooth the wounds of others. Let us take those opportunities, whether interpersonal or in the broader culture, to be healers. Let us remember to listen deeply to the needs of Self in individuals and diverse class and ethnic groups, think carefully about complex issues, and resist those all too frequent calls for actions that harm Self in others. We are, least we forget, companions on this pilgrimage through life.


2 thoughts on “On Hunting, Pilgrimage, and Caring For the Self in Others

  1. Hi Michael,

    What a thoughtful post. Reading it through we especially appreciated the way you linked hunting as a traditional practices to other traditional practices (the trade routes of the Huichol being an example), and included both natives and settlers who still lead a subsistence lifestyle as having important spiritual and cultural connections to this issue.

    As settlers, our collective believes it’s important to remember the broader importance of practices like hunting that might be tempting to view through a lens of safety. Your point about how urban expansion raises new questions and conflicts about tradition, self, and safety is a powerful one — the area around the forest at Iroquoia Heights that we wrote about has only been built up in the last few decades.

    Thanks for writing this. We’re glad to have found your blog, and we’re excited to pass this post along to our friends.

    good adventures,


    1. Thank you. I very much enjoyed hearing your thoughts on this post.I also enjoyed finding your blog, and look forward to your future posts.
      My father’s side of the family were subsistence farmers for many years. After it became relatively safe for Natives to openly own farms ,they purchased a farm in the rich Ohio River bottom lands, well outside the flood plain, and slowly became more prosperous. (Not that small farms were prosperous in the 50’s-70’s.) Still, they supplemented the larder with day labor and hunting. Meals might include, deer, possum, and raccoon, even squirrel, alongside freshly caught fish, and whatever fowl might be in season. Most of the neighbors were European immigrants who’s families had lived in the valley for over 100 years.

      In Vermont, subsistence activities are alive and well for many rural folks, and a few urban ones as well. Yes, we do have clashes between Natives and state wardens, but they tend to be relatively benign, and designed to make a point. After all, my Native Ancestors were managing the land long before my European Ancestors even thought about a new world.

      Blessings to you and yours.

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