I Learned To Hunt As A Boy

Sep 14, 2018

Tom Weso recounts a hunter's childhood in the traditions of Ojibwa and Menominee in Wisconsin.
Credit Marcia Epstein

In the novel Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese, hunting is a major theme. Perhaps some readers are surprised by how young Franklin Starlight is when he learns to clean a rifle, age five, and by age seven, he is learning to shoot. He shoots targets and learns how to track. At the age of nine, he gets his first deer.

Franklin is Ojibwa from the forests of western British Columbia. I grew up in a similar environment on the Northern Wisconsin reservation of Menominee Indians. My grandfather and uncles began teaching me to hunt when I was very young, also. I describe this in my book Good Seeds: A Menominee Indian Food Memoir:

“My family expected me, and all other male family members, to hunt as soon as I was able. That meant learning to survive the forest, which includes many skills. Not getting lost is one, and surviving cold weather is another. From childhood, Uncle Bobby taught me how to stalk, track, kill, and dress animals. My grandfather told me stories that included practical advice. Avoiding dangerous animals was an important consideration for a hunter, so using a gun was part of my training. There were large, fierce dog packs running in the woods in the 1950s and 1960s. When I was small, the family did not want me to get killed by the feral dog pack.

“Most kids had guns by the age of five or six, and so did I. My grandfather gave me an old .22 pump rifle, but my arms were not long enough to slide the pump. So they found me a bolt action .22. Uncle Billy cut the barrel for me and welded a scope on it. Originally, the old gun did not have a scope, but this was like training wheels on a bicycle.

“I became a good shot. The men in my family taught me, ‘Don’t point at anything unless you are going to shoot it.’ I went out squirrel hunting alone for the first time when I was eight years old, and I brought home enough for a meal. I also hunted ducks with that .22 as well as raccoons and porcupines. As my skill increased, I could shoot partridges in flight. When I was a little older, my uncles and grandfather taught me that if I saw a deer within shooting distance, I was to kill it. Food was a gift that people had to earn, and the gift may come at unexpected times. When hunting, I learned to aim carefully for a clean kill shot. Deer might seem fleet-footed, but if shot correctly, they will fall over dead on the spot. If I only wounded a deer, then I would have to track it until its death. As a hunter, I was taught to be happy that I got food. That is the hunter’s prayer. The Menominees in my family did not have a formal prayer, but we were thankful. . ..”

In the novel, Franklin learns through a similar process, and his young age is not a surprise. This troubled child gains confidence and discipline as he learns to provide his family with meat. Many people in the High Plains area share this universal tradition.

I’m Thomas Pecore Weso, author of Good Seeds: A Menomimee Foods Memoir . I now reside in Lawrence, Kansas, and I support the High Plains Public Radio Book Club.   https://tomweso.com/2010/08/28/hello-world/