Tomorrow’s anthropologists will have files an inch deep and a mile wide when they try cataloging and explaining the traditions and post-kill rituals of today’s North American hunters.
That’s to be expected, given that Canada, the United States, and our hunting traditions are relatively young and prone to trends. Unlike indigenous and Old World hunters who learned and inherited time-worn rituals and unique hunting vocabularies, most immigrants hunting the New World from the 1600s through 1800s were their families’ first hunters. Their Old World forebears neither hunted nor grew up in hunting cultures unless they were royalty or near-royalty who belonged to exclusive clubs long recognized by the crown and government.
The hunting and conservation systems that evolved in North America remain unique on the world stage. The public owns North America’s wildlife, and individuals have relatively open entry to recreational hunting. We also enjoy free access to vast public lands in many states and provinces, and everyone benefits from rules that promote individual freedoms and hunting opportunities. Yes, hunter numbers have declined overall in recent decades, but North Americans who wish to hunt face few entry hurdles compared to most citizens of the world. We can teach ourselves hunting’s basic skills, adopt personal codes of conduct, and craft our own hunting heritage.
In other words, we’re free to make it up as we go. And mostly, we do. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For instance, we don’t dress in knickers and lederhosen each September to dance in circles with big antlers above our heads. No, we Euro-American hunters won’t be mistaken for the Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers of Staffordshire, England. Hunters there have danced annually to a gonging chime since first donning reindeer antlers at the Barthelmy Fair in August 1226. If you do the math, that’s 795 years of gong-pounding, antler-bobbing tradition, roughly 400 years before the Pilgrims stepped onto Plymouth Rock.
But we miss out on some cool traditions, too. We don’t wear hunt-specific uniforms, lay out our quarry in a large rectangle framed by pine boughs, and light ceremonial fires at each corner. And even though some deer camps hold semi-formal post-hunt “courts” where successful hunters share tales and forlorn hunters explain misses, most hunters simply gather informally at buck poles to admire their group’s kills before heading indoors for food, drink, and conversation.
What are Our Rituals? With some admirable exceptions, what passes for U.S. and Canadian hunting rituals can still be less historic than sophomoric, more trivial than cultural, more improvised than practiced, and more personal than global. In fact, after asking my Instagram community for their post-kill rituals or traditions, the fifth most common response was to criticize such practices. To summarize those criticisms: “Anything done today is silly or stolen from cultures we don’t understand. Much of it is stupid, barbaric, and disrespectful vulgarities that adults inflict on kids.”
What riled those folks? At risk of oversimplifying, they didn’t like aspects of the top answers, which involved:
Drinking alcohol with and without toasts or celebrations
“Blooding” a successful hunter’s face, ranging from streaks to full facials
Eating the animal’s raw or cooked heart, liver, or tenderloins
Giving silent or audible thanks, tributes, or prayers, sometimes while kneeling
Hanging a buck’s penis, testicles, and scrotum from a branch near the gut pile
Some critics even expressed discomfort with tradition-bound rites originating in the Old World, such as the “last bite,” i.e., the “letzebissen” or “letzer-bissen” from Germany, Holland, Austria, Switzerland, and other European countries. The critics respect that ritual, but cringe how some Americans simply cut a convenient twig or weed, insert it crosswise in the deer’s mouth, and call it good.
One person who considered that a disrespectful shortcut was the late Valerius Geist of British Columbia, a zoology professor and hunting authority who grew up in Germany and Austria. Geist said Germans break—never cut—a twig from one of five tree species in descending preference from oak, pine, spruce, fir, and alder. Next, with their animal placed on its right side, they pull the broken twig through its mouth from one side to the other, and leave it clamped between its jaws. Then they break another twig and place it on the animal’s chest to signify possession and final honor. They also break off a third twig, wet it in the animal’s fatal wound, and insert it in their hat. If a tracking dog helped find the animal, they also insert a blooded twig in its collar.
In a January 1998 article in Deer & Deer Hunting magazine, Geist said Euro-Americans shouldn’t copy European traditions superficially. “That would be unspeakably phony,” he wrote. “In North American culture, these ceremonies would be meaningless transplants, a cultural clash no matter how ancient and romantic they might appear.”
Geist softened his stance when I interviewed him 18 years later. “Rituals aren’t a bad idea; I see their value,” he said. Still, he suggested concentrating on quick kills, and showing respect and wise use of every animal’s meat, body, and trophy mount. Geist said: “Never sit on an animal you’ve killed, and never desecrate head mounts by placing cigarettes in the mouth, sunglasses over the eyes, hats on the head, or red ornaments on their nose.”
A Deer Woods Anthropologist Professor Marc Boglioli, an anthropologist at Drew University, in Madison, New Jersey, said he’s not surprised by the rarity of well-defined, widely practiced, group-oriented hunting rituals across North America. Boglioli’s 2009 book, “A Matter of Life and Death: Hunting in Contemporary Vermont,” shares his findings and observations from field work that took him into the bars, kitchens, deer woods, hunting camps, and sports shops of Addison County, Vermont.
“The big thing that sticks out to me when comparing Euro-American hunters with hunting cultures globally is the loosely practiced, more general, individual nature of our rituals,” Boglioli told MeatEater. “Our hunting practices are not collective rituals perpetuated by large, culturally defined groups with shared identities. Most Euro-American hunters also don’t invoke or pray to spiritual figures whose powers control a group’s hunting success. We don’t discuss how to get right with the spiritual world to ensure we receive gifts from nature. We don’t lead our daily lives in ways that we believe will bring opportunities for hunting success.”
Boglioli said those types of beliefs trace to cultures far before and beyond the Old World. “Unlike ancient cultures and native American cultures, Euro-Americans typically don’t believe animals have souls, or that animals can be part of our complex, spiritual endeavors,” he said. “Most of us aren’t like John Muir, who said the Sierras were his church; his cathedral. We typically don’t pray to or see sacred significance in a mountain, a river, a butte, or a rock formation. We usually don’t consider a piece of land sacred or significant until something happens there, like a battle; or until we build something on it, like a church or hunting shack.”
Still, Boglioli thinks individual hunters and hunting camps can practice rituals of personal and cultural value, no matter how temporary and restricted they might be historically and culturally.
“In my book I mention a guy who carried his dad’s ashes with him, and sprinkled some at the kill site every time he got a deer,” Boglioli said. “Another guy, if the deer was still alive when he approached, would try to cup his hands around its muzzle to feel and experience its last breath; maybe to help carry on that life. Other people feel it’s important to hunt every fall from the same stump their father or grandfather used. And other people view the entire fall as a ritual, a months-long arc, with the meat—the food—being the culmination. Eating the animal completes the loop. They wouldn’t hunt if not for those meals. Game dinners serve the same purpose for some people. They see it as feeding their community, much like many hunting forebears fed their people.”
Boglioli also cautioned against judging other people’s rituals quickly or harshly. “Context is so important,” he said. “A hunter with a shoulder mount might think he’s showing ultimate respect by hanging it on his dining-room wall, while his visitor sees it as vulgar or show-offy,” Boglioli said. “Maybe the visitor will understand if the hunter explains the mount, and how he thinks about the animal every time he eats. I can also understand why a hunter would be wary of strangers. It’s like a tribal shaman distrusting new-agers who assume they’re welcome to beat a ceremonial drum. You’re treading somewhere sacred. If you don’t show respect and humility, they’ll tell you to get the hell out.”
Modern Complications Meanwhile, seemingly strong hunting traditions can go astray or get lost in North America’s quickly evolving societies and fast-opening generation gaps. For instance, countless hound-hunting clubs folded in the 1900s for lack of open territory to chase deer or bears. More often, hunting friends and families simply drift away from hunting and traditional camps as their elders die, move away, grow feeble, or sell their lands. Their rites and rituals vanish, lose meaning, or get distorted when translated by offspring or newcomers.
Consider the blooding ritual, which varies widely but usually involves a parent or a camp’s senior member taking blood from a hunter’s first kill and streaking the hunter’s face with a blooded finger. The rite traces to the 700s A.D. as a tribute to St. Hubert, the patron saint of hunters, who got right with God after seeing a glowing crucifix hovering between a stag’s antlers.
After St. Hubert died in 727 A.D., hunters thereafter honored his memory at kill sites by laying a knife in the deer’s blood, and then tracing three red crucifixes on the successful hunter’s face; one on the forehead and one on each cheek. The hunter’s companions then offered congratulations and handshakes.
Hunters today still extend congratulatory handshakes, but blooding practices run the gamut. Some fathers coat both hands in blood, chase their screaming son through camp, and laughingly smear the boy’s face, hair, and neck crimson. Others administer the ritual reverently. Joe Hamilton of South Carolina said his group’s camp elder thoughtfully explained the symbolism while applying blood.
“They honored the new hunter for being quiet, patient, and stealthy to defeat the animal’s natural defenses,” Hamilton said. “They applied the first streak down the first-timer’s nose to honor the quarry’s sense of smell. A second streak over the eye honored the quarry’s sight. A final streak over the other eye honored the hunter’s shooting eye and accomplishment.”
Not surprisingly, the most common “ritual” cited in my Instagram poll involved celebratory drinks. But only one respondent said their camp’s celebration included specific or ceremonial toasts with long-practiced procedures. As one wrote: “We drink afterward whether we get a deer or not.”
Three others cited Crown Royal Canadian whiskey, two cited blackberry whiskey, one cited Manhattans, and several cited beer—any beer—as their camp’s favored celebratory post-kill drink. Two said they cherish a great-grandfather’s old whiskey or bourbon bottle, and have kept it brimming in their family’s deer camps since the 1940s. None, however, mentioned Jagermeister liqueur, whose famous logo features St. Hubert’s stag with a glowing crucifix between its antlers.
Next in my poll was blooding, followed closely by eating the animal’s heart, liver, or tenderloins for the evening’s dinner. Several also said they paused before field dressing their kills to offer thanks and appreciation for the meat they were about to harvest. Some knelt, some prayed, and some hugged, but all shook hands with anyone offering congratulations.
Of Hounds and Horns Horn blowing, however, seems reserved for those whose camp or family once hunted deer with hounds. One such hunter is Mr. Raymond Long, 96, of Lottie, Louisiana, who has hunted deer south of Baton Rouge in the Atchafalaya swamps with six generations of friends and family since his camp formed in 1935.
Even though it’s been over 40 years since the Longs ran hounds for deer, Mr. Raymond can’t forget when their hard-working dogs hunted past sunset. “We got a lot of use out of our hunting horns those nights,” he said. “The men sent the boys outside to blow their horns and get those dogs in. The dogs in the kennel would be barking, the horns would be blowing, and the dogs out in the swamp would come running. They knew horns meant food and a warm place to sleep.”
Mr. Raymond offered a quick lesson in interpreting the camp’s horns, which were made from the actual horns of his family’s prize bulls: One horn blast was the look-out call, meaning a deer was coming. Two blows signaled, “message received.” Three blows meant someone killed a deer or needed help, and four blows meant you were lost.
Hamilton gets equally wistful about hunting horns, but thinks nothing captures the depth and allure of Southern deer swamps like an empty gun barrel.
“After killing a deer, the huntmaster from my youth in eastern North Carolina would chuck out his buckshot shells, open the breech, turn the shotgun around, and blow down the barrel like a horn,” Hamilton said. “Hearing that sound reverberating through a hardwoods swamp like a tugboat horn was special. It made the hair on my arms stand up.”
Conclusion Still other rituals are so subtle or commonplace that some new hunters won’t consider them important or ceremonial. That is, until they try leaving camp without writing in the log or posing by the buck pole for a group photo. The camp elder will teach recruits to appreciate those protocols.
Those who want to be invited to camp a second time or welcomed back without penalty will grab a pen and write, and then smile as the camera’s timer blinks its countdown. Good rituals are worth recording. And revering.
Feature image via Captured Creative.