When John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, hunting entered the national conversation in a way it hasn’t since 2006, when Dick Cheney shot a donor instead of a quail. Palin, in fashioning herself as a leader for Joe Six-Pack America, has emphasized her prowess as a sportswoman. Her office has released photos of her with a dead moose, a dead caribou, and several dead salmon. She was recently spotted in Pennsylvania carrying a tote bag with the logo “Real Women Hunt Moose.” One bowhunting company was so excited (or shameless) that it introduced a new model called the Sarah-Cuda in honor of the governor. Love the pink camo.
While Palin and Cheney are both hard-nosed Republicans, they represent different aspects of the hunting tradition. Cheney, who favors canned hunts on private game reserves, shoots his beasts in the manner of aristocrats. Palin, gutting moose in her neighbor’s basement, is an heir to the “potlatch” hunters of the Colonial era, who wanted meat for the cabin table. When Palin was running for governor in 2006, she told USA Today, “We hunt as much as we can, and I’m proud to say our freezer is full of wild game we harvested here in Alaska.” And if you look twice at the reasons why Palin hunts, they resemble an ideal cherished by city-dwelling, New York Times-reading folks. Sarah Palin is a locavore, harvesting meat from her local “foodshed.”
She’s also, of course, trying to harvest votes. Hunting has been a useful political symbol since Teddy Roosevelt. When Field & Stream posted Palin’s hunting and fishing photos on its Web site, high-fives broke out among the assembled commenters. “You don’t find people in Washington who would be seen with their hands on a bloody caribou,” one wrote, while another dreamed, “Maybe if elected there’s hope she will convert the White House pool into a trout pond?” Naturally, there were a few malcontents in the mix, suggesting that the photographed caribou had in fact been “gut shot” in ignominious style (i.e., the animal wasn’t killed cleanly with a precision shot to the heart, lungs, or head). An anonymous commenter came to her defense:
For all you lefty city-slickers out there who are fixating on the blood back in the animals abdomen, that wound was from field dressing the caribou, the process whereby one incises the abdomen to remove the entrails and cool off the carcass quickly. Animals that are gut shot rarely leave a visible blood trail, as major blood vessels are not common in the entrails. So go back to sipping your lattes and gazing at pictures of your Ivy-league messiah. For you, meat comes from a grocery store. Please keep it that way, as we don’t want you to handle firearms.
Time to add “buying meat from a grocery store” to the list of liberal sins. Yet we can thank this commenter for capturing one aspect of the cultural politics of hunting in 2008. Hunters hunt for many reasons—family tradition, love of the outdoors, friendship, the challenge of stalking big game—but the sport has always had a “frontier” appeal. I’m a hunter, a self-reliant individual living off the land; here, have some of my venison jerky.
Invoking the frontier theme, the major hunting organizations, such as the Boone and Crockett Club and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, all pay tribute to the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt championed hunting as a way to reinforce America’s pioneer values, at a time (the 1890s) when the real frontier was closing. “The virility, clear-sighted common sense and resourcefulness of the American people is due to the fact that we have been a nation of hunters and frequenters of the forest, plains, and waters” is a typical T.R. exhortation. Roosevelt established the still-flickering idea that hunting teaches self-reliance and love of country.
Perhaps it’s this patriotic element of hunting that makes hunting advocates fear for the country when they see their sport in decline. In surveys done by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife service, the overall number of hunters has fallen from a peak of 19.1 million in 1975 to 12.5 million in 2006. Why? Historian Daniel Justin Herman, in his essay “The Hunter’s Aim,” floats the theory that the middle-class businessmen who went duck and deer hunting in great numbers in the 1950s found a new natural arena to display their manliness, courtesy, and deadly aim: the golf course. If you read around on hunting sites, the anecdotal blame falls on suburbanization, single-parent households, and restrictive gun laws—but the real bile is saved for video games. Chad Love, of Field & Stream, echoed the sentiments of his fellow hunters in a recent blog post, when he recalled his boyhood “back before the dawning of the ‘Stoned on Electronic Entertainment Age.’ ” His remark was greeted with this typical Amen: “We don’t let our kids play outside, yet wonder why they are fat, full of allergies and lazy.”
The decreasing number of hunters has only intensified the sport’s hold on those who still do hunt. As Herman explained: “Hunting has become a counterculture among rural, blue-collar people. It’s something that offends the snobs, the white-collar middle-class that has become so soft and opposed to the cruelty of animals.” (For a glimpse of the extreme edge of this counterculture, watch an Exploding Varmints video on YouTube.) Herman also notes that the patriotic strain of hunting persists in the contemporary vogue for all-things camouflage. “Camo does double duty,” he says, “I’m a hunter, and I’m ready to be a soldier when the call demands.”
The outsider status of Sarah Palin-style meat hunting (as opposed to the insider status of Cheney-style hunting) harkens back to the olde days. Herman describes how the Founding Fathers were mostly not hunters, as hunting at the time was deemed “too Indian.” It was an insult to call someone a “buckskinner.” In addition, early Americans justified the taking of land from Native Americans on the premise that the Indians were hunters who were just passing through—not farmers like the white settlers. It was after the Civil War, as America began to industrialize, that hunting became popular as an aristocratic sport pursued by gentlemen, i.e., “sportsmen,” while subsistence hunters found game where they could. Roosevelt built his political career around the gun but also started the conservation movement that set aside land on which average Americans could practice the invigorating, country-affirming act of hunting. Gilded Age women followed their manly men into the forests, as hunting was one way for the “new woman” to exhibit her burgeoning sense of independence.
Like most kids who grow up to be hunters, Sarah Palin was taught by her father—a hunting parent is the key factor in whether a child takes up the sport. Palin’s dad, Chuck Heath, is a frontier-style, self-reliant pothunter. He recently bragged to the British Sun, “We raised our family to be able to support ourselves—90 per cent of our meat and fish we get ourselves.” His comments are also in tune with our disastrous financial moment. Gun sales have been up this fall, and Tony Aeschliman of the Shooting Sports Association speculated that lack of work gives rural people more time to hunt and more incentive to “put a deer in the freezer.” And by the deer carcass is where the shooters and the foodies meet. This week, the leading locavore, Michael Pollan, in an essay titled “Farmer in Chief,” advised the next president, “You should support hunting as a particularly sustainable way to eat meat—meat grown without any fossil fuels whatsoever.”
In these divided times, I would love to propose a red state/blue state détente—you guys shoot the deer; we’ll cook the venison in a lovely reduction sauce—but game markets didn’t work so well in the past. A central tenet of preserving wildlife is that we must remove the economic value from an animal. Otherwise, extensive poaching and habitat destruction follow. So bringing back game markets on a massive scale wouldn’t quite work, although Hunters for the Hungry is a worthy idea, and it’s only slightly crazy to imagine city dwellers having “community supported hunters” in the manner of “community supported agriculture.” There’s also the whole moral question of whether hunting is a humane way to treat animals that I will gladly sidestep. Still, animal lovers, latte sippers, and muzzleloaders, please hold your fire for a moment and consider what we have in common: We may disagree about big, federal government, but we’re starting to share an idea about small, local food.