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THE SPIRIT STILL LIVES
John Barsness
June 26, 1978
The buffalo is long gone, but to Indians like old Ben, the principle of the hunt endures, although game is pursued in pickup trucks
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June 26, 1978

The Spirit Still Lives

The buffalo is long gone, but to Indians like old Ben, the principle of the hunt endures, although game is pursued in pickup trucks

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Ben Burshia is an 80-year-old Sioux Indian. He has killed 1,000 deer in his lifetime. Others have shot that many big game animals, notably African "control" hunters (those hired to thin overcrowded herds), "white" hunters, who led safaris, and ivory hunters. There might be an old maharaja or two still living who could tell of his great bags of tiger, black buck and axis deer, or a very old American hide hunter who took part in the slaughter of the last great bison herds (such a man would have to be very old, indeed, as the last year in which significant numbers of buffalo were hunted was 1883).

There is one big difference, however, between those hunters and Ben Burshia; without exception, they have either been paid to hunt—by a government, by people they were guiding, or been recompensed by hides or ivory—or they have been of the moneyed leisure class, who killed as a pastime, for sport. Ben Burshia has killed 1,000 deer for food.

None of the animals he killed was sold. None was taken only for its hide or as a trophy. In the Indian way, they were shared among his family (which includes my wife, who is Ben's granddaughter) and close friends. Ben lives on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeastern Montana, where the tribal members have legal rights to unlimited year-round hunting. Ben still hunts; he is known as one of the best hunters on the reservation. While he cannot see or shoot quite as well as he once did, he can still find deer.

It is an already hot morning in mid-July, and the huge Montana sky is a clear, intense blue above the khaki-green prairie. Ben's little Japanese pickup is bouncing along the top of a ridge in the country north of Poplar, the tribal agency. He is pointing with his pipe, talking to me as we bounce along, relating where the deer like to lie in this part of the country, telling stories of how and when he got the "big buck," of where his oldest grandson shot his first deer. Ben knows every trail and coulee on the reservation; he learned the locations of many of them just after the turn of the century when he was a young cowboy and the prairie was still empty land.

We ride up to the edge of a long coulee and get out. Ben takes his old .30-06 from the gun rack in the back window of the little truck. The wind and rain have beaten the edge of the ridge bare. I pick up a rock the size of my fist and throw it as hard as I can toward a thick patch of chokecherry below us. My aim is good: the rock arcs above the straight horizon and falls, slowly tumbling, into the thickest part of the brush. Small branches snap as the rock slaps through the green leaves, but instead of the expected diminishing of sound, the crackling becomes louder. The brushtops wave and with a bounding crash two deer, red-coated from the summer sun, are running in the open, up the other side of the coulee. Beside me Ben's rifle cracks, the bullet throwing dust and gravel over the deer, and then they are gone, beyond the ridge.

"Come on, get in!" Ben says, already in the pickup. "I know where they're headed." He jerks the truck into gear and we bounce up around the end of the long coulee, then back down the next ridge. As we near the end of the ridge Ben slams on the brakes; he seems to be out the door before the pickup has fully stopped.

"Too late," he says. He takes off his long-billed cap and runs his hand through his iron-gray hair, then points. Out across the open flat below us the two deer are running, small dots, at least a mile away. We watch as they disappear into a coulee in the distance.

"Let's go get 'em." Ben pulls his cap back on, and we drive along the edge of the ridge, looking for a place where we can safely head down into the flat below so that we can follow the deer.

The hunting rights that Ben and the other tribal members enjoy are part of the legacy of the old treaties—the most important part of those agreements—whereby land was set aside for Indian hunting "as long as the grass grows and the water flows." The original reservations were only occasionally the exclusive hunting lands of a tribe (How can you designate a certain piece of country as the land of a band of nomadic buffalo followers?), but in time such land, no matter how sparse its game, did become hunting country. Hunting is important to the Indians, if only as a gesture that affirms a tribe's continuing existence.

The buffalo were gone about the time the Fort Peck Reservation was established in the early 1880s, well before Ben was born, and he grew up hunting mule deer and pronghorn antelope. Now most of the mule deer and antelope are gone, too, not having adapted well to the white man's civilization; much of the original Indian land on the reservation has been sold or leased to white ranchers by Indians who had no other source of income.

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