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An Alaska hunter gives thanks for the gift of game

  • Author: Christine Cunningham
    | Alaska hunting & outdoors
  • Updated: November 20, 2018
  • Published November 20, 2018

Cheyenne, a nine-year-old chocolate lab, swims in cold water. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

At the sound of the shot, Cheyenne jumped into the water. She didn’t wait to see if a duck fell from the air or landed. The shot can be a clean miss, yet she will swim out to retrieve.

I want to think that her reaction is based on a high opinion of my shooting abilities, but that isn’t it.

Instead, it’s pure excitement and drive. That’s my dog, I thought, as I watched her swim. Every time she retrieved, a bird flashed through my mind in the conceptual way that thoughts occur independently of words or images.

Somehow, the image of her as a tiny pup pulling at the bill of a duck twice her size is mixed up in all of the memories of all the times she did something that made me proud. Once, I asked Steve to hold her back while I crawled up on a pond of mallards a few hundred yards away. As I made my way through the wet grass, she was all of a sudden by my side. She had gotten loose and was now crawling with me. Side by side we stalked together until we were in range of the birds.

She can walk the steps of a bush plane with ease and smell ducks underwater. She has never hesitated to jump out of a boat after a bird and she knows how to get back aboard. As she gets older, she is more vocal, but even as a pup she whined and grunted if there were birds in the air.

All of this came to mind as she made her way to the dead duck floating on the water.

Years before Cheyenne came into my life, Steve and I were hunting geese, and I shot one goose of a mated pair. As we walked out to recover the downed bird, its partner flew over and just out of range. It made a honk more wounded and lonesome than anything I had ever heard. Its head moved side to side as it searched for its mate, and I felt a sense of horror.

The goose was out of range, and yet it returned many times in search of its mate. I could not sleep that night. The next day I called a friend who was a biologist specializing in waterfowl. “Do geese really mate for life?” I asked him and then told my story.

He was kind in his response. “You didn’t ruin its life,” he assured me. “Maybe its year.”

He said the goose would likely find another mate. Perhaps he could tell I needed to hear more, and so he gave me his thoughts on the subject.

“There are no value judgments in nature,” he said. He then went on to describe all of the various values he had encountered in friends who hunted. Many would not shoot the female of a species due to its greater productivity, and some would only shoot at the lead bird in a “v” formation. Some did not shoot ducks on the water, and some would not hunt over decoys or use a duck call. They did not want to “trick” the bird.

Some hunters criticize the high-five after shooting an animal and feel the taking of life should be solemn. They debate the words we use to describe a successful hunt – take, kill and harvest. Each comes with a different thought process.

People come to values on their own, was his point. That year, I learned to shoot doubles but was no longer comfortable shooting at a mated pair. Over the years, my relationship with animals has given me food, and food for thought. My methods and words have changed to match what I’ve learned.

Hunting has a long history, and the beliefs of indigenous people can provide insight into the words and actions of hunters. Subsistence hunters hunt to survive, but their values are not limited to subsistence hunting. They are valid for today’s hunter if he or she wishes to integrate them. For example, the way of seeing nature as personified brings animals into the social world of the hunter.

I remember reading about how certain actions are taboo for Athabascans living on the Koyukuk – pointing at an animal, saying its name while hunting, boasting about a hunt. Upon first reading, I viewed the ideas as a metaphor – animals are like humans rather than they are humans of another kind.

It wasn’t until I read Marcel Mauss’ “The Gift” that I came to understand the concept of the potlatch in archaic societies. In these cultures, a gift came with an obligation to return it. A more difficult idea expressed in the book is how the gift itself carried a spirit of its own and a desire to return to its place of origin.

Where animals are considered part of human relations, the hunter has a spiritual debt when he or she accepts the gift of game. How is this debt repaid? In these societies, it was through the performance of certain rituals and practices.

Many people may be uncomfortable with the idea that animals think or have personalities. Especially if we are eating them. But I like the idea of the animal as a gift willingly given, even if my upbringing and social world does not include specific rituals of reciprocity. The thought that I am in debt helps me to be mindful of my duty to wildlife, a public resource.

Cheyenne is excited after retrieving a goldeneye hen last weekend. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

Cheyenne emerged from the freezing water with the goldeneye hen in her mouth. She ran a circle around me, as she has always done when she retrieves, before letting me have the bird. I think of it as her celebration dance. Her tail wagged and the three of us – Steve, Cheyenne and I – were all happy and grateful.

Suddenly, I paused. I had shot a hen. I knew it was a hen when I shot. Shooting hens is something some do not consider sporting, and I’d once pledged to shoot drakes only. But this was the only bird we had a chance to take home that day. Instead of saying sorry, I thought about the gift of the animal.

“Thank you,” I said.

Christine Cunningham of Kenai is a lifetime Alaskan and avid hunter. Contact her at

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