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Running in the Past: Hunting

Deer | Rabbit | Antelope | Buffalo


From Indian Running: Native American History and Tradition by Peter Nabokov© 1981 Peter Nabokov

Hunting Deer

Running was just as vital to the quest for food. The Yuki knew that deer instinctively travelled in a wide circle; relayers posted along their path could drive the animals to exhaustion. Pueblo hunters also knew that steady tracking would wear the deer down since it was their nature to graze frequently; kept on the move they soon tired. Navajos requiring unpunctured deer skins for ritual mats would also run down deer, then smother them with corn pollen. Today this is rarely practised and road kills supply Navajo singers with unblemished hides.

On deer hunts some Pueblo runners carried an agate fetish inlaid with turquoise, shaped like a mountain lion and blessed by a priest. The cat's prowess kept deer anxious and moving. Again, if meat was for a ritural, the kill should be bloodless, the animal thrown and smothered. Pre-hunt riturals bound hunters in a symbiotic relationship with their game, whose distinctive traits were almost as desired as their meat. In a way, their teachers became their prey.

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Hunting Rabbit

Pueblo running after rabbits was highly ritualized. Because of their spunk, the Hopi prized black-tailed jackrabbits over cottontails. In winter their hunters descended the mesas before sunrise, searching for tracks in the snow. Good hunters brought back three or four by noon. Better known are the Pueblo communal hunts, ceremonital vestiges of a time when their ancestors had to hunt collectively or starve.

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Hunting Antelope

In the Great Basin these communal drives corralled antelope. Surrounded on the desert, the animals were chased on foot into V-shaped corrals or long fiber nets, where they were killed by clubs or arrows. Such methods go back centuries, in White Dog Cave Ruin in northeastern Arizona archeologists found net woven from nearly five miles of spun hair and milkweed fiber which was probably strung across narrow canyons for mass hunts. The Hopi consider deer and antelope relatives because both double back and shoot out at right angles on the chase. During the Hopi's Snake-Antelope Festival, the participants are goaded to run like antelopes in a ritual race underlain with both fertility and war motifs.

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Hunting Buffalo

After the buffalo hunting Omaha of the central plains acquired horses they retained "buffalo runners," called wado'be, meaning "those who look." From a man named I'shibazhi, who ran for his people during their final hunt, Omaha writer Francis La Flesche heard how the hunt leader, known as the watho, would command some twenty seasoned runners: "Come and secure knowledge of the land for me."

They canvassed the countryside, scanning the sky for crows, singing to them, for crows were their scouts to buffalo. Pinpointing the herd's location, they ran home. Instead of charging in with the news, they signalled from a hilltop by a pantomime known as the waba'ha -- one man running from right to left, the second from left to right, criss-crossing each other. The Sacred Pole and White Buffalo Hide were carried to a greeting spot by the Seven Chiefs; the hide hung over a frame to resemble a reclining buffalo. In a low voice the first runner described the herd's size and location. When a second man verified his report, camp was struck. If the animals were nearby boys began rounding up buffalo ponies for a coordinated attack.

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