Indian Hunters and Modern Hunters

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Wildlife artist Jack Paluh, of Waterford, PA, presents realism in his native American artwork. Here, primitive hunters are using fire to drive elk to the hunters. (Painting by Jack Paluh Wildlife Originals (used by permission))

Contributing Writer
Steve Sorensen

Modern Americans often view Native American tribes with nostalgia, and for good reason. Native Americans settled this continent before anyone else knew it was here, and their civilizations extended from sea to shining sea. The tribes had well-developed cultures and numbered in the many dozens, including the Nez Perce, Paiute and Navajo in the west, the Sioux, Apache and Comanche in the Great Plains, the Huron, Iroquois and Delaware in the northeast, and the Natchez, Cherokee and Choctaw in the southeast.

We still use these tribal names, and many more, in our modern day. Many of our states and cities were named in honor of Indian tribes — Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Alabama, Wichita, Miami, Erie, and many more. We hunters especially, with our interest in wildlife, woods and wilderness, tend to romanticize Native American civilizations and their hunters.

If we didn’t, modern archery hunters wouldn’t say, “I hunt like the Indians did, with a bow and arrow.” Few hunters today actually do hunt the way Native Americans hunted. Most archery hunters use compound bows, oft disparaged by archery purists as “bows with training wheels.” But Native Americans didn’t use steel broadheads or perfectly straight carbon arrows either.

In our mind’s eye we picture a stealthy Indian perched in the limbs of an oak tree. He waits for that big buck to arrive to feed on acorns, unaware of the danger from above. But Indians didn’t normally hunt from trees, they weren’t mainly buck hunters, and they didn’t always reserve their hunting to the time of year when acorns were falling and deer antlers were hard.

Why not? Because deer hunting in those days was about survival, so failure to kill was not an option. A hunter’s tribe depended on meat, lots of it, and using a stick and string to launch a stone-tipped wooden arrow was a very inefficient way to kill an animal.

The lone hunter was inefficient too. The time and energy a single hunter spent pursuing his game was costly. Hunting wasn’t something done alone. It wasn’t a leisure time sport. It wasn’t a way to measure one man’s skills against another. They couldn’t afford to view hunting in those ways.

The methods of American Indian hunters varied widely, and they used whatever method gave them the largest return for their effort. On the Great Plains they hunted in organized bands, riding their ponies into a buffalo herd and shooting slow, heavy wooden arrows into the rib cages of bison crazed with fear. When hit, the bison didn’t peel off from the herd and fall down dead. The slow speed of heavy arrows meant they didn’t penetrate deeply, and it would have been rare for the arrow to pass through the animal the way our light, sharp arrows of today do. Many kills were not quick and clean by today’s standards.

In wooded terrain of the east, they sometimes started forest fires to drive deer to their demise past hunters lying in wait. Hunts were highly organized and undertaken to get as much meat as they could process and preserve. Hunters generally didn’t climb trees to ambush an unsuspecting deer. There’s a reason we don’t see paintings of lone hunters dragging a deer into camp. Instead we see paintings of hunts with deer on the move trying to escape a band of hunters with primitive weapons.

Hunting is much different today than it was when Europeans arrived on this continent. We hunt for different reasons, and we use different technologies and different methods. None of us hunt like the Indians did. We use vacation time or after-work hours to hunt. We wait for a season when the surplus can be harvested without diminishing the species. We have efficient tools modern technology provides. If we all hunted the way the Indians did, modern critics of hunting would have more reason to consider hunting inhumane and unethical.

Hunters, non-hunters, and even anti-hunters tend to view those extinct hunting societies from a romantic viewpoint. We don’t judge them by today’s standards. And they didn’t see themselves as we see them. They were simply survivors, and a normal part of the natural world.

When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell Steve exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him through his website, www.EverydayHunter.com. He is a field contributor to Deer and Deer Hunting magazine, and won the 2015 and 2018 national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing.

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Steve Sorensen of Russell, PA is an award-winning writer whose column, The Everyday Hunter®, offers hunting tips, strategies, insights and occasional humor. His byline has appeared in the nation's top hunting magazines and he is a field contributor to "Deer and Deer Hunting" magazine. Steve is also in demand as an event speaker, presenting programs on do-it-yourself Alaska moose hunting, whitetail deer, wild turkeys, and eastern coyotes, with new programs coming. E-mail him at EverydayHunter@gmail.com to invite him to speak at your next sportsman's dinner (or to tell him where your best hunting spot is).