Cherokee Reflections on Hunting, Life Lessons & Got a Gun, Got a Date !
As a child I spent most of my time at my grandfather's side, watching, listening and learning. He taught in the ways of a true Elder, showing by example, weaving lessons into my daily life in a natural flow. My days were filled with these lessons, each one specific in his mind to the proper way to guide me. I learned to recognize the sound of the rain crow, the different bugs and how they reacted as a storm approached; the appearance of the fragrant purple blooms on the sage growing in heavy abundance around his home, the quiet indicators of the rain to come.
I was raised to hunt and fish and carried a rifle from the time I was six years old. This was a commonality in my family, with the women hunting as expertly as the men. I followed the footsteps of my grandfather and father most often, learning the signs, studying tracks and rubs, watching for the subtle indicators of movement.
Did you know that the pungent odor of a rattlesnake never truly leaves one's olfactory memory ? Once you have recognized this scent, you won't forget it the next time you are in the wilderness.
As a small child I sat and watched venom drip from a big rattler as my father tapped on the fang with a stick, listening to my parents explain that the muscle movement of the viper even shortly after death is strong enough to strike and inflict the poison into anything within range.
I was taught from that same early age how to field dress a deer; on numerous occasions crawling up into the cavity to help with my own little knife, severing the tissue and pulling the entrails out as I pushed my way from the emptiness of the buck. My parents and grandparents instilled in my sister and me the sacredness of hunting in the proper way.
I remember so many mornings waking to hear my Dad talking of 'dreaming the deer', giving us vivid descriptions of the location, the approximate weight of the buck, the time of day, all of the detailed information as if he had already been out, made the kill and returned back to the camp with fresh meat. Throughout the many years that we were all hunting at the same place, there was never a time when he 'dreamed the deer' that he did not go to the exact place of the dream and come in later with the animal that he had described to us that morning.
I never gave it a lot of thought, that's just how he was.
There were differences in how I was taught in regards to Papaw and my Dad. My Dad was more matter of fact, and never gave mention to my memory of our past, of the ancestors as Papaw did …but looking back now it was there regardless, just fashioned with other threads.
His 'dreaming the deer' was his way of connecting to the spirit of the animal and finding agreement so we had food. His way of teaching me was direct, showing me sign, training my eyes to see the near invisible movement in the brush, guiding my knife to skin with minimal hair loss onto the fresh meat, learning to cut cleanly, removing the backstrap in a continuous strip, to slip the blade of my knife between the bone to cut and quickly remove the forelegs without a hatchet.
My Mom taught us her skillful way of dressing the meat as her Dad had taught her, using touch to find the subtle sections of the muscle to separate and cut the choice ham and steaks, sorting out other pieces to be set aside to grind into burger or sausage.
It was commonplace to sit for dinner during the winter months and eat with the big wooden cutting boards covered with fresh bloody meat at my elbow. Rings of smoked sausage hung from small nails above the huge bar that separated the kitchen and the den and I would often sit mesmerized by the unique colorations of the bits of venison and fat beneath the gut. I saw the beauty in the colors, the texture and the shape; this was one of the quiet ways that my family taught me to "see".
In elementary school my classmates would open up their sandwich bags with giant cookies from home for their snack, while I gave away my milk to anyone who was willing to drink it and pulled out my snacks. Dried venison sausage or jerky and occasionally a homemade dill pickle or pickled okra, both seasoned liberally with jalapeno and garlic.
I carried rocks in my pockets, collected dirt everywhere that I went, and my Mom complained when she would open my closet and find herself covered with the feathers that would lift and float over my clothes and into the room.
In high school it was apparent to me that I was more popular during the winter months; in the words of one classmate "she's good with a knife" which translated to she can gut, skin and process your kill, if you can catch her at home and not hunting and if you don't mind losing a backstrap or inside tender when she leaves. Yeah, I found it strange that so many of the guys that I knew from school had no clue what to do with the deer that they shot. It became clear to me later on that I wasn't raised like the vast majority of my classmates.
It never occurred to me at that time that I was so different from any of the girls that I went to school with; other than the fact that a great many of my dates involved guns and knives as opposed to makeup and movies.
My Dad taught me techniques of walk hunting, stalking, and moving through the mesquites and blackbrush with little disturbance. I quickly learned to move at his pace to avoid the slap of a thorny mesquite branch across my face if I wasn't paying attention. I learned to watch his body language to know when he was going to stop before he actually did. As a small child I would sit with him to hunt and often felt the pop of his hand on my head if I was too restless, he was a lot less subtle than Papaw. Be still, be quiet, observe, and learn.
On numerous occasions when the deer were running, I would sit at his side or with Papaw and quietly watch one or the other use their rattling horns, working the horns together to lock and scrape, dragging them against the brush and onto the ground, timing the pauses to mimic with precision the natural act of two bucks locked in battle.
One afternoon my Mom left me near a ladder where I was going to hunt. I was 11 years old and carrying a new bolt action rifle my parents had bought for me.
I watched her walking off into the brush on her way to the location she had chosen to hunt. In the distance I could see our old Model-A truck in my scope, it was just off the road and obscured by mesquite trees.
The wind was high, the ladder taller than I preferred and I wasn't comfortable with the constant swaying, so I climbed down and slowly made my way down the road to the Model-A. The Model-A, or the "Hoopie" as we called it, was outfitted for hunting. Daddy cut out the rumble seat in the back and welded in a brace that held a 4.5 foot stand topped with a swivel seat, so the truck served double duty. Papaw's rattling horns were in the back and I picked them out and began the gentle tapping of the tines, increasing the strike as I had watched my Dad and Papaw do. I checked the wind and my location, keeping watch into the high wind and to the sides. I figured the high wind would carry my scent and likely nothing would slip up behind me …. Ah, there was one of Papaw's lessons staring me in the face; never assume.
I could feel something watching me and slowly turned to look across the low mesquite branches at a spectacular buck. The wide rack was glinting in the sunlight and sparkled like a chandelier.
I eased that new rifle up. My Dad had cut at least six inches of the stock off to accommodate my short arm length and I could smell the faint scent of the glue under the new recoil pad.
I had the crosshairs on him, the rattling horns draped over one arm, I was calm and certain. Damn, there's that assumption again …
Up to that time I had carried Papaw's old carbine and I was still getting accustomed to my new rifle. My fingers found the safety. Crisp and distinct it was, like the subtle sound of a firecracker in a sound proof room.
He was gone in an instant, no time to squeeze off a single shot. I sat there in a state of shock.
My Mom arrived later with a slight smile on her face. She had watched me through her scope as I crawled down from the swaying ladder and had heard the sounds of me rattling. I sat near the campfire that evening after unloading my gun and worked that safety, determined not to make the same mistake again.
I was sold on the rattling horns after that, sometimes so exuberantly that I would return to school the next week with bloodied and beat up knuckles. I overheard someone talking about me one Monday morning, convinced that I had been in one hellava fight over the weekend.