The First Hunt and the Last

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Photo by Pixabay/Hashan

I ask my brother Ralph when he got his first deer. He says he has a poor memory and tells me I should ask “Big Ralph,” our eighty-six-year-old father. Dad settles onto the couch and removes his glasses; he glances at my brother to signal he will tell a tale that has two sides. He remembers going out to track Ralph’s first deer, which triggers Ralph’s memory of coming home to get Dad to help track it. Ralph had hit it with a good shot, but still it had gotten away.

We are in a darkening room, and there’s noise of many children nearby, but Dad and Ralph pause and look at each other a moment. My dad has a long, white beard; my brother a long, brown braid. They both give me gentle smiles, as if they are about to laugh at the sweetness of the memory or the foolishness of youth. Turns out it is both. Ralph explains to me how hard it is to track a deer over a plowed field if you just can’t wait and go out to hunt before it snows — maybe without letting your dad know you were going hunting. Even if you have a blood trail, he tells me, it can be hard to discern when so many tracks crisscross it that you don’t know which deer to follow. Ah, that is the hard part, I think to my non-hunting self. Then I remember that both my dad and my brother were bow hunters — and I am not talking compound bows. I try to imagine how unlikely it was that a young boy would get a deer using a bow. I am sure my dad had been expecting Ralph to come home empty-handed, and who knows how he even had time to help track, but he did. Dad says, “I knew the Sand Hills pretty well, and when Ralph showed me where he shot the deer, I had a good idea where that deer might end up.” Sure enough, they found it.

Photo by Pixabay/janeb13 

We pause a moment. I ask Ralph how old he was when he shot that first deer. He says with pride, “Eleven years old.” I am amazed. I look at Dad so he can see I am amazed. Slowly Dad says, “He was eleven then”; and he turns to Ralph, waggles a finger, and adds, “And now he is a liar.”

We whoop it up and I ask for more stories. Dad tells me he shot his first deer “just like that” and then he had to track it quite awhile. He tells me he remembers the last deer he shot, too, but at first he does not elaborate. Then I recall the gruesome tale of how, when he saw a deer at the end of a day hunting on the Wild Rice River, Dad loosed an arrow, way up in a kind of last-minute free-throw-from-midcourt attempt. The arrow caught the deer in the eye. He hasn’t hunted since.

I ask Dad if he got a deer every year. He says he shot a deer every year, and I begin to understand and respect the challenge of bow hunting. Dad hunted about thirty years. The son of a German immigrant butcher, he did not hunt as a kid. I ask him why he started hunting with a bow, and he says, “Well, I married an Indian — I thought maybe hunting with a bow would make it . . . better.”

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Cover courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society Press

Reprinted with permission from Original Local: Indigenous Foods, Stories and Recipes from the Upper Midwest by Heid E. Erdrich, published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. The Minnesota Historical Society Press is on Facebook and Twitter.