Hunter with Toboggan. James D. Duncan, circa 1847.
This is a very special time of the year for me as it is for many people. As November deepens Autumn’s chill, the palette of color that is October gives way to more and more bare trees, forest floors covered in another layer of fallen leaves. The ‘lull’ that comes after Halloween, homecomings, and harvest festivals is a pause for many people before the uptick in activity that starts the week of Thanksgiving and lasts through Christmas and the New Year.
But that lull doesn’t exist for everyone. For many people, like the family I grew up in, it is a time for one of North America’s great traditions: hunting. The second half of November is deer season in Michigan and in our family this meant a period that was (and is) in its way, part of the Fall holidays. Thanksgiving is a day that is set aside to express our appreciation for the blessings of freedom and a bountiful harvest. That harvest, for hunters, includes the game that they are able to provide for their families.
It is true that most hunters today are not subsistence hunters, nor is there a great need for subsistence hunting in North America today, although I do know people who depend on hunting to supply their meat throughout the winter. But for many people hunting is a past time, a way to provide a few unusual meals for the family. It is a skill, practiced with a gun or bow and arrow. It is a sense of independence from, if nothing else, the meat counter at the local grocery store. It provides free range and organic food that tastes good.
These are all good reasons and rationales to hunt. But hunting goes much deeper than this for many people. Hunting is also tradition. In a time and place where traditional life is increasingly marginalized, and access to things like hunting is limited by pressures on time, the number of people who hunt is ever smaller. I experienced this myself when I went off to college in 1987. My father had recently passed away and my life was focused on something completely different. Yet I was reminded of my roots during my first semester at school, around October, when during a telephone call, my mother asked if I would be coming home for deer season. That conversation still echoes in my memory.
Brothers Mark and John with Dad (right) and his childhood friend Louie. Circa 1970.
In my French Canadian/French Métis family, hunting was part of the rhythm of our life. In our family it meant my father’s cousins and a close childhood friend coming ‘Up North’ from their homes near Detroit and Kalamazoo. It meant a special tradition in our family: lunch during deer season was always tourtière, French Canadian meat pie. This hearty fare is most associated with Christmas and the New Year, but in our family it was always a welcome dish for mid-November’s hunters. Served with mom’s homemade bread and butter pickles, it remains for me emblematic of the hunting tradition.
Hunting is a special part of French Canadian and French Métis (descendants of intermarried Frenchmen and Indian women) cultures. People from many cultures and ethnic groups hunt. It’s a widespread activity that people enjoy regardless of their background. Yet for French Canadians and Métis, it is deeply rooted in our historical experience. The early exploration and settlement of the Great Lakes and Midwest was animated in great part by the voyageur and coureur des bois: the trappers whose mercantile activities in the fur trade laid the foundations of the French Canadian and Métis cultures that came down to us today.
Chasseur dans le blizzard by Cornelius Krieghoff.
Over time, the association of French Canadians and Métis with hunting has been expressed in art, politics, and popular culture. The art of Cornelius Kreighoff is emblematic of the depictions of 19th century French Canadian hunters. The 19th century uprisings in Canada included a group whose name, Frères chasseurs (Brother Hunters) obviously drew on the legacy of the trapping and hunting traditions among the French speakers of the time. Late 19th/early 20th century depictions of the Muskrat French in the Detroit River region show French Canadian culture as synonymous with hunting and fishing. An outdoors club at the University of Michigan, The Society of Les Voyageurs, was explicitly inspired by the voyaguers and coureur des bois. A recent skit, “Steph Paquette part à la chasse”, by the Franco-Ontarian comedian underscores how hunting remains an important facet of traditional life.
Out for a walk with Dad and my sister on a warm Fall Day, circa 1980.
I can’t claim to have been or to be a great hunter myself. My memories of the tradition from my youth are of how it brought family and friends together – how it brought the community together. It was learning hunter’s safety with my classmates. It was walking with Dad in the woods. It was Mom’s tourtière. It was going out on a fall day hunting grouse with a friend, Charlie, and his Dad who also came from a French Canadian heritage. It was mass on Saturday night with a congregation full of hunters wearing red plaid. And yes, it was the thrill we all had when Dad or one of my 6 brothers brought home a deer.
Brother and Son, circa 1990
Emanating from both our French Canadian voyageur and Illinois indigenous roots, our family heritage includes a proud tradition of hunting, which instilled in all of us from an early age a profound appreciation for nature and its gifts. It is remains to me, to brothers, nephews, nieces, and cousins to carry it on if they choose. It remains a lifestyle enjoyed by many people who identify as French Canadian and French Métis, to pass on as they choose. It is a tradition that comes to us not from simply being an American or Canadian with access to guns, open land, and the money to buy a license. It’s deeper than that, and deserves to keep its place in the legacy cultures of French North America.