How important is hunting to the Swinomish way of life? Chester Cayou Jr., a respected Swinomish tribal hunter, has a quick answer.
Cayou chuckles. “It is our life,” he answers. And it has been since before anyone can remember.
He and other Swinomish hunters are dedicated to preserving that way of life. Once a year, Cayou gathers a group of a dozen or so young hunters from the 800 member tribe to go on a ceremonial journey to Mt. St. Helens or Mt. Rainier, a quest to bring back game for tribal elders and provide to wildlife resources for use in traditional and sacred practices.
The meat gathered will be distributed to tribal elders and local spiritual leaders for use in religious ceremonies. No parts of the animal – not the hooves, the antlers, nor the hide – will be sold or wasted.
“In the wintertime, we use the game for longhouse ceremonies – we pow-wow every night,” said Cayou, stressing that elk meat is a traditional and essential staple food. “A lot of our elders, that’s all they’ll eat – the traditional Indian food that we give them.”
Wildlife resources have always been central to the cultures of the treaty Indian tribes in western Washington. As traditional foods, deer, elk, and other wildlife remain important elements of feasts for funerals, naming ceremonies and potlatches. Hides, hooves, antlers, feathers and other wildlife parts are still used for traditional ceremonial items and regalia. Like salmon and shellfish, the tribes reserved the right to harvest wildlife in treaties with the U.S. government.
Wildlife still provides important nutrition to Indian families on reservations where unemployment can run as high as 80 percent.
If a family cannot provide for themselves, tribal community hunters help. Men like Cayou plan ceremonial hunts. Glen Edwards, a Swinomish tribal council member who also sits on the tribe’s fish and game commission, harvests waterfowl. They hand out game to elders who have grown too infirm to hunt, or to families without a hunter.
Edwards, who taught his own sons traditional hunting techniques and modern safety measures, taught many of the tribe’s youth the same techniques. Now, these young people go on traditional hunts with Edwards and Cayou, donating the wildlife they harvest to Swinomish elders.
“This food is a real treat for people who don’t have hunters in their family, especially elders who grew up on wild game,” said Edwards. “It’s good to see these young kids taking an interest in hunting, and in donating their game.”
Unfortunately, the quality and quantity of the habitat upon which the wildlife resources in western Washington depend for their survival are declining rapidly. Where virgin forests once stood there is now urban sprawl. Deer and elk herds have been squeezed into smaller and smaller areas of degraded and fragmented habitat.
Swinomish hunters now have to plan week-long trips to find game, because harvestable wildlife has disappeared from their traditional hunting grounds. But these trips will continue because a community and a culture depend on it.
This doesn’t mean that the tribes are harvesting lots of elk: far from it.
“We don’t impact the resource like some people think – we just take what we need,” said Edwards. “Last year, we took one elk. That’s hardly anything.”
Western Washington treaty tribal hunters account for only about 1 percent of the total combined deer and elk harvest in the state. According to statistics for 2001-2002, tribal members harvested only 640 deer and 307 elk – about one percent of the total deer and elk take. More deer and elk die as roadkill than are taken by tribal hunters.
Tribal hunters, Edwards says, sometimes unfairly get bad press.
“If a tribal member does something wrong, it gets put in the spotlight, and all the Indian hunters are lumped together with one bad apple,” said Edwards. “Some people talk about Indians commercializing hunting – that doesn’t happen. If one of our hunters tried that, the hunting commission would take away that individual’s hunting rights automatically.”
As a sovereign government, each treaty tribe develops its own hunting regulations and ordinances governing tribal members. Many tribes work with WDFW on their regulations and harvest data.
Tribal hunters must obtain tags for each big game animal they wish to hunt. Unlike the state system of voluntary reporting, tribal members are required to report all harvest. The ratio of tribal enforcement officers to treaty hunters is higher than the ratio of state enforcement officers to non-Indian hunters. If a tribal member is found in violation of tribal regulations, he is cited into tribal court. Penalties can include fines and loss of hunting privileges.
“Hunting was and is a way of life to us,” said Edwards. “It’s important to us to preserve that tradition.”