I come from a family of hunters. Autumn was always a big deal, because that’s when hunting season began. The day hunting licenses became available was treated like a special occasion. Many a morning, my dad and over a dozen male relations would wake up before sunrise, have coffee, dress themselves head-to-toe in warm layers of camouflage, load up their shotguns, rifles, and buck knives, and travel far out into remote fields on tribal land to lie in wait for wild game; just as Dakota and Lakota fathers and grandfathers before them had done in order to provide for their families. Sure, Natives didn’t hunt with guns a thousand years ago, but we adapt. Here on the Plains, my ancestors became expert equestrians and marksmen soon after the arrival of sunka wakan (the horse) and maza wakan (the gun).
My dad was a subsistence hunter, meaning we ate whatever he brought home. While he usually brought home deer, pheasant, ducks and geese, I remember seeing other wild game on our kitchen table, like elk, moose, turkey, grouse, rabbit and beaver. We had turtle soup and frog legs a few times too.
From a young age, I was expected to learn how to gut, skin, butcher, preserve, and prepare wild game. These days, Native hunters often take their game to the meat processor to be butchered; but I’m thankful I learned how to do it myself. As a teenager, it wasn’t a skill set I bragged about because most of my friends weren’t taught how and they thought it was gross, but since then I have an appreciation for it, because as a Native woman from a hunter-gather society, keeping these practices alive, no matter how unpopular they are in western society, is another means by which we fight colonization, assimilation, and the termination of our traditional lifeways. Not to mention, if Western civilization fell tomorrow, I’m confident my family wouldn’t starve.
I enjoy hunting too, so I own firearms. The first gun I ever fired was a Winchester Featherweight .7mm magnum rifle. Her name was Tashina. She kicked and it was a trick just to learn how to keep her steady while aiming. Personally, I’m not concerned with the size of a buck’s antlers. We are taught to respect the animals we hunt and kill, and thank them for giving us life. One of my favorite things to do after a successful hunt is to give meat to elders. Many miss the taste of wild game, and have no one to hunt for them anymore. Wild game is also a healthy source of protein.
I also target shoot. As a woman who has been the victim of an assault, and now that I travel through reservations and rural countrysides where law enforcement is often questionable, knowing how to protect myself is important. I am the only person in my family who hasn’t served in the military; consequently, I grew up respecting maza wakan, and gun safety was always a priority.
The right to bear arms is a significant issue in Indian country. In the case of tribal member gun owners however, it has less to do with a liberal or conservative agenda, and more to do with treaty rights and tribal sovereignty.
The Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution protects the right of its citizens to bear arms, but court cases contiguous to the issue of gun control called for the United States Supreme Court to further delineate its meaning in recent years. In Columbia v. Heller (2008), the Court upheld the right of an individual to possess a firearm, for self-defense for example, even if such possession is independent from service in a militia. Then in McDonald v Chicago (2010), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment limits local and state governments to the same degree that it limits the Federal government.
While the U.S. Constitution mentions Natives, we weren’t citizens of the United States until 1924 so the Bill of Rights didn’t pertain to us. The Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 applied parts of the Bill of Rights to Natives but the right to bear arms is absent, as gun control laws were left up to tribal governments. Nonetheless, hunting rights were firmly established thanks to treaties between the gederal government and tribes.
It is the sovereign right of tribes to control the hunting and fishing rights of its membership, as well as tribal members’ right to bear arms, on their reservation lands. Today, many tribal governments simply assume the gun laws of surrounding jurisdictions. In these uncertain times, tribes should consider visiting the gun issue, to enforce tribal hunting and fishing rights under treaty law. Tribes could also flex their sovereignty muscles by taking a leadership role in applying guns laws that may enable them to better protect and serve their membership, especially on reservations where crime is rampant.
As for this Native huntress, you know my freezer will be full by season’s end, as will my Dad’s. He’s no longer physically able to hunt, so we’ll do it for him.
Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) is a writer, speaker,former science professor and tribal attorney. She is a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network and LastRealIndians.com.