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
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.
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
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.