For native people, CWD threatens traditions

To Gary Johnson, hunting isn't only about sustenance. To kill a deer is to live in harmony and balance with the earth. To hunt is to be Anishinabe. "There's a cycle to life, and we are part of that cycle. The deer is part of that cycle ... and if...

To Gary Johnson, hunting isn't only about sustenance. To kill a deer is to live in harmony and balance with the earth. To hunt is to be Anishinabe.

"There's a cycle to life, and we are part of that cycle. The deer is part of that cycle ... and if that part of the cycle is damaged, then we too are damaged," Johnson said.

This fall, chronic wasting disease (CWD) threatens to damage the cycle of the hunt and threaten a traditional way of life for many American Indians in the Northland.

"This is not just about hunting and eating," said Johnson, an assistant professor of the First Nations studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. "This is also about being who we are."

Wisconsin tribe members hunt off-reservation from the day after Labor Day through Dec. 31, a right awarded in federal court. American Indian leaders say if this right was endangered for any reason, the result would be immeasurable.


"We eat rice, we eat sugar bush, we hunt deer," Johnson said as he treaded through the woods behind his Foxboro home in October. "We do those things to survive, but it's also a way to express who we are as people."

CWD threatens to change all that. The disease, a brain disorder that kills deer and elk, first surfaced in Wisconsin in February, when three deer samples from the year before tested positive in the Mount Horeb area. In Minnesota, the disease showed up in an elk near Aitkin this fall.

Now, the Departments of Natural Resources in Minnesota and Wisconsin are involved in a testing effort to gather thousands of samples from hunters. So far, 40 wild deer have tested positive in south central Wisconsin, creating questions for hunters across the state.

"It's because of the unknown nature that Indian people are concerned," says Jonathan Gilbert, with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, who has collected about 50 samples from tribal hunters. "They've been practicing this for many, many years."

Gilbert works with Wisconsin tribes to implement their off-reservation treaty rights. He says because native people use every part of the deer, CWD has become a major issue of concern.

"They use so much of the deer -- the hide for culture and outfits during ceremonies, for tanning, the meat for feasts," he said. "The whole animal itself is wrapped up in their culture."

The DNR has advised hunters to be cautious when field dressing a deer and to avoid direct contact with the organs where the disease is found: the spinal cord, brain, lymph nodes and spleen. While the warning offers common sense protection for many hunters, it creates a conflict for American Indians, who use deer brains to tan their deer hides.

"When it comes to brain tanning, a traditional pursuit that tribal members do a lot, you're getting your hands right in the brain," Gilbert said. "If there was a concern, the concern would be heightened because you're actually touching a part of the tissue that has this disease."


Kathleen Wiggins, a member of the Bad River tribe in northern Wisconsin, has been tanning hides the traditional way for years. She boils the brains until they're soft and then rubs the solution into the deer hide. It's a craft taught to her by Chippewa uncles and grandparents.

"This is the way our ancestors did it. It's a good way," Wiggins said. "It's a good way. It's strong when it's done. It's waterproof and beautiful. It's just a good way to do it."

But this age-old tradition, which can take up to four weeks, has been changed by CWD. Instead of immediately using the brains from a harvested deer, Higgins first must have the brains tested.

"It's worth it," she said. "But I'd rather not. I wish we didn't have to do that."

Wiggins says the testing process can keep her waiting for months, forcing her to freeze the hides until the brain test results come back.

But she says this disease will not prevent her from being who she is -- an American Indian woman determined to do things the old way, the right way.

"My son told me, 'Don't stop. Just keep going.' But it would take a very big epidemic to get me to stop," she said.

For Northland native people, to tan or hunt is to be Chippewa or Anishinabe. Without these traditions, part of their culture also falls victim to a disease that presents so many unanswered questions.


"To really be Anishinabe, you have to do things the old way," Johnson says. "It's when you do those things you reconnect back with the generations, and you really realize what it means to be Indian."

Royal Dá is a reporter for News 6, a news partner with Murphy McGinnis Newspapers.

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