Growing up, I lived in a one-room log cabin on the Pine Ridge Reservation, home to the South Unit of Badlands National Park in South Dakota. I still live near the old homestead. My family was poor, like many members of the Oglala Lakota tribe. There were eight of us kids, and my responsibility was to hunt for food, which members of the tribe are allowed to do in the park.
As you hunt, you bond with the animals. You start to match heartbeats, and when you do that, respect for them and for the land comes naturally. You realize that whatever you do has an impact. When you hunt buffalo, for example, you know that the herd is not just one big group — it is a collection of families. Sometimes they're all together, and sometimes they separate. The old females are the leaders. You don't want to harvest the lead animal, the one that guides them to safety if there's a perceived danger. That one is too important.
For me, it's also important to follow the noble way, to kill an animal cleanly with one shot, so that it just drops straight down. You can't do this until you learn to know the animals.
If you're a spiritual person, as I have been taught to be, you think of the animals as having spirits like we do. There was a time when my younger brother and I shot an antelope. It was a beautiful spring day, and as it fell, the meadowlarks were singing. Suddenly, from a couple hundred yards away, a dust devil rose up and slammed right into us and the antelope — and then just dissipated. My brother said that it was the spirit of the antelope departing. These natural things that happen, I like to think of it as the spirit praying with us, sometimes guiding what we do.
These days, as a hiking or camping guide, I sometimes take tourists into the park so they can make the same spiritual connection I feel. Sheep Mountain Table offers a view of craggy, eroded rocks all around and distant ridges and spires. Cedar Butte, where the bighorn sheep go to breed, is a magical place to me. It's an easy climb. I like to just leave people there awhile to look out at the surrounding hills. They may hear nothing but a coyote and the wind up there. Sometimes they pray. It's amazing to see.
It's not so hard, when you try, to match your heartbeat with that of the land. — As told to Garrett Schaffel
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