Indigenous cultures understand wildlife as fellow nations whose actions enable or curtail human aspirations.
Jay Cooney and Brandon Harrell
The notion of extending rights beyond humanity is hardly new, and from the beginning the act entangled us in responsibilities. In Becoming Kin, Ojibwe writer Patty Krawec describes the Anishinaabe myth of a flood unleashed upon societies who neglected to care for one another and all Creation. A surviving human, cast adrift, was saved by a muskrat who gave his life to dredge up a pawful of mud. A congregation of animals gathered to use this gift to fashion solid land. Through this cooperative caregiving, humanity was welcomed into a new world, reborn in solidarity among all species.
The stories we tell shape our relationship with the world and the values we hold dear. With colonial invasion, contrasting creation stories swept across North America. These narratives appointed Europeans to planetary dominion and thus were devoid of consent: from the Indigenous nations already present, the Africans enslaved to toil and procreate, and the non-human species who made life possible. All were resources or obstacles requiring no consent, and certainly nothing approaching reciprocity. For wildlife and the people who subsisted on them, the implications were nothing short of apocalyptic.
On the Other Side of the Apocalypse
Between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the bodies of deer, turkeys, bison, pronghorn, black bears, waterfowl, and other wildlife were trafficked in immense quantities along newly built railroads to fuel industrial expansion on the East Coast. Private game markets demanded meat, hides, and feathers, nearly driving now common species to extinction. Recovery was led by hunting groups such as the Boone and Crockett Club, which lobbied against market slaughter and inspired the “North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.” New legislation forbade selling dead wildlife, making them a “public trust resource” acquired democratically through “fair-chase” sport.
While the North American Model put an end to market slaughter, it never confronted the values and stories that lay at the root of that scourge. Wildlife continues to be spoken of as a resource that hunters have the right to harvest and the responsibility to maintain as a harvestable surplus for future use. Redefining hunting as a recreational pursuit further accentuated the conceptual human–nature divide. Heading into the woods became a weekend excursion into the realm of deer or turkeys to prove one’s gallantry, but the forest was not considered somewhere a “civilized” man should stay. Thus, in the settler-colonial sphere, hunting became more about human ego than human ecology.
The North American Model remains the blueprint for modern wildlife management, as well as its financial basis through the sale of hunting licenses and ammunition. Yet, as public values shift toward embracing wildlife as companions rather than commodities, it faces a reckoning. Building on calls for “Indigenizing” the model, could we enact principles that emphasize interdependence and reciprocity? The possibilities are as ancient as they are radical.
The Land Needs People
The beauty of America’s wild places is not the result of a lack of human influence but exists because of an abundant diversity of peoples. From coast to coast, Indigenous cultures were not scattered hand-to-mouth foragers but populous “architects of abundance,” as Diné scholar Lyla June Johnston puts it. They cultivated vast foodscapes, designed in alignment with local ecologies: fruit and nut orchards circling eastern settlements, plains burned to spring new growth and enlarge bison populations, and Pacific coast clam gardens that are being revived today. The outcome was a remarkable convergence of biological and cultural diversity, interwoven through people adopting responsibilities to place.
The beauty of America’s wild places is not the result of a lack of human influence but exists because of an abundant diversity of peoples.
Through more than 60,000 years, according to Cree-Métis archeologist Paulette Steeves, Indigenous cultures learned to tend to the unique character of the bioregions they inhabited. Biocultural relationships emerged, fusing the identities of people and place — a fusion you can witness memorialized in language, song, dance, and ceremony to this day. By nurturing cultural keystone species so that human communities may be nourished in return, Indigenous nations became “People of the Deer,” “People of Wild Rice,” and “Salmon People.” These interactions are not only utilitarian but involve the inclusion of wildlife within extended circles of kinship, community, and shared destiny.
Indigenous ecological knowledge was gained through observation and experimentation.
Indigenous ecological knowledge was not inborn but gained through observation and experimentation. Instructive missteps are apparent in the abandonment of Indigenous cities like Cahokia or Chaco, where sprawling, hierarchical civilizations were rejected in favor of egalitarianism. Through trial and error accumulated over millennia, many Indigenous cultures gained an acute awareness of the dangers posed by notions of human supremacy.
The delusion that the land is better off without people emerged with capitalism. To convert complex ecosystems into simple storehouses of natural resources, capitalism required that place-tending relationships of reciprocity between people and wildlife be uprooted and reorganized according to what historian Bathsheba Demuth calls the “logic of the slaughterhouse.” Here, distance from the source of subsistence allowed animals to become objects to extract rather than relatives to whom we are bound by exchanges of life given and indebted. The slaughterhouse is also cruel to people seeking sustenance. Scarcity was manufactured through colonial destruction of the abundant gifts of nature, the thunderous bison herds or teeming salmon runs once cultivated by biocultural bonds. Diverse human lifeways were then assimilated into reliance on wage labor, where people are no longer cared for through codes of mutual aid but are cast into the desperation of climbing to the top by dominating others. Accordingly, capitalism limits us to profiteering relationships.
“How can you love the deer you choose to kill?” This contradiction is examined in conservationist Steven Rinella’s hunting documentary Stars in the Sky. In one scene, an animal ethics scholar asserts that, “now that we are more enlightened,” hunting is inconsistent with the “burden of morality.” This view carries human supremacy: our rationality entitles us to abstain from the nasty business of predation and ultimately decouple from ecosystems for nature’s own good. It also perpetuates cultural supremacy, implying that hunting is counter to progress; one might say “uncivilized.” Considering the regenerative possibilities illuminated by Indigenous place-based relationships, is our modern age of ecocide and nature deficit disorder truly a wiser, kinder time for wildlife?
Earlier in Stars in the Sky, Rinella recounts how Inuit hunters adorn their homes with bear skulls as a reminder that their daily behavior is spiritually assessed to determine whether animals should die for them in the future. The practice is portrayed as metaphoric or poetic, but what if it were shared as an insight of the people who have known the bears of their place the longest? Recognizing this as an expression of biocultural responsibility reveals that the “burden” of animal ethics is confronted most clearly by Indigenous cultures. As Bathsheba Demuth writes, “To articulate the act of consumption this way is not romantic. It is a political assertion.”
Hunting reflects hard-earned awareness that people are participants in a more-than-human world where other species dictate the terms of survival, social life, and proper moral behavior.
In Floating Coast, Demuth conveys how Yupik worldviews invert the power dynamic often associated with hunting. Rather than exerting dominion, hunting mediates interspecies diplomacy. Myriad Indigenous cultures understand wildlife as fellow nations whose actions enable or curtail human aspirations. Hunting reflects hard-earned awareness that people are participants in a more-than-human world where other species dictate the terms of survival, social life, and proper moral behavior. In the hunt, animals actively choose to engage in interactions with people who uphold obligations to human and ecological communities, thereby ensuring future reciprocity. In Anishinaabe oral tradition, hunters were once abandoned by moose and deer after treating them as mere resources. The nations reconciled when hunters began to equitably distribute meat among their community and cultivate woodland-edge habitat. Honoring such responsibilities continues to uphold what Anishinaabe scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson describes as “a treaty relationship like any other.”
In the settler-colonial context, hunting has always been affiliated with dominion, but do animal rights alternatives truly break the mold? Animal rights are often paternalistic, portraying wildlife as pitifully powerless victims incapable of comprehending or participating in human social affairs. The resulting relationship is one-sided, assuming that humans alone can prescribe morality, rather than attending to how wildlife ask us to inhabit a place as one sentient animal among many. If our responsibility is simply to do no harm, we are alienated from the consumptive ecological existence by which every other species is woven into the web of life. Confining ourselves to grocery stores and vegan diets because plants are considered less complex than animals would reinforce human-assigned hierarchies rather than promote better relations.
Indigenous worldviews show that hunting does not necessitate dominion and honoring animal rights does not require distance.
Indigenous worldviews show that hunting does not necessitate dominion and honoring animal rights does not require distance. American hunters ought to defer to Indigenous voices to bring ethical debates beyond such binary thinking. Yet, it is crucial to not co-opt such relational expertise, nor treat it as purely abstract. What would it mean for settler hunters to show solidarity with Indigenous cultures they often romanticize; to prioritize their political struggles for human responsibility to place?
As the literal slaughter of cattle is now veiled behind the butcher’s counter, so too is the historical slaughter and displacement of Black and Indigenous cultures. The butcher counter hides the blood, the land, the reciprocity required through cultural connection to place, the responsibility to our communities, and the low wages and industrial monopolies. Responsibility was removed from the landscape when First Peoples were corralled, when chains shackled Black wrists, when food became a barcode.
The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone is hailed as a conservation success story. It is usually omitted that Indigenous nations also fulfilled keystone ecological roles in that bioregion. Just as the extirpation of wolves left Yellowstone in disarray, colonialism’s global eviction of place-based societies sparked our planetary biocultural diversity crisis. Modern extinctions cannot be attributed to mere human presence but rather the manufactured absence of regenerative human roles. As long as Indigenous people are displaced from their homelands and those lands are isolated from their people, humans and non-humans will continue to suffer from violence at the hands of colonial systems. As long as capitalist markets of extraction exist, wildlife populations will remain a moving target ever ebbing toward collapse.
Colonialism’s global eviction of place-based societies sparked our planetary biocultural diversity crisis.
No Band-Aid, patch, or quick fix can ever replace the intricate bonds of Indigenous cultures. This is why diverse peoples from across the globe are calling for Land Back — the global movement to decolonize and repeople Indigenous landscapes. By physically campaigning and fighting to get Indigenous lands back into Indigenous hands, the Land Back movement addresses the colonial root of human disconnection from the land and rhetorically combats capitalist frameworks of dominion. From the NDN Collective’s fight to shut down Mount Rushmore in the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota, to the Wet’suwet’en fight for sovereignty in British Columbia, the Land Back movement is a political framework that deeply understands the power of land-based organizing to reconnect our place-based relationships and ultimately achieve true collective liberation.
In Land Back, hunting also finds its most powerful ally against its deepest threat. As in the original colonial apocalypse, privatization continues to target wildlife: crowded on disease-prone game farms, confined within high-fence ranches, or auctioned off through exorbitant landowner hunting tags. The late wildlife biologist Valerius Geist argued that, unless public lands are more intentionally managed, remaining wildlife abundance may be reduced to populations on private parcels. As Kul Wicasa historian Nick Estes asserts, Land Back is fundamentally about “understanding how consumption works,” beyond seeing land as another commodity to hoard. On the ground, Land Back means returning wildlife management into collective stewardship and bioregional governance led by those most intimately acquainted with a place and its needs for reciprocity.
Hunting can root us back in place: bypassing the logic of the slaughterhouse and reconnecting people to the continuous contact with wildlife necessary to understand what they ask of us as fellow nations.
The contemporary revitalization of prescribed burning techniques by land stewards to prevent wildfires and enrich habitat echoes back to the cultivation that made North America’s biocultural diversity possible. As the immense energies poured into industrial agriculture are diverted toward regenerative practices, hunting may yet supplement bioregional food movements. At a localized scale, hunting can root us back in place: bypassing the logic of the slaughterhouse and reconnecting people to the continuous contact with wildlife necessary to understand what they ask of us as fellow nations. We can never all return to hunting, but we must all learn to see through a hunter’s eyes: understanding that collective flourishing is achieved by tending to the places that truly sustain us.
Jay Cooney is a human dimensions researcher currently working where wildlands and city meet in Boulder, Colorado. He is obtaining his master’s degree in Evolution, Ecology, and Behavior at the University at Buffalo. As a hunter and aspiring science communicator, he writes on the deep history and future possibilities of human-wildlife relationships. Follow Jay on jaymcooney.wordpress.com and on Instagram @jaymcooney
Brandon Harrell is an Afro-Genízaro environmentalist and city planner working on climate adaptation and resilience in California. He holds a master’s degree in City Planning from the University of California, Berkeley. He aspires to open a fly-fishing guide school for low-income and no-income folks. Follow his hunting journey on Instagram @decolonizedmeateater