- Hunters at the Margin: Native People and Wildlife Conservation in the Northwest Territories
At the trial of three Cree hunters accused of bison poaching in Wood Buffalo National Park in 1926, the chiefs rejected the hunting regulations on the basis of ancestral rights and the assurances they had been given under treaty. According to park officials, "they also claimed the Buffalo were here before the Whitemen [End Page 402] and this was their Country also" (68). Northern administrators, however, claimed the land as their own and set out to reshape it according to their vision of the North—a vision that was less about the preservation of animals in the biological sense and more about designing a settled ranchland where "otherwise worthless moss" could be converted into meat for southern markets (160). The violent effect of this enterprise on hunting societies is detailed in John Sandlos's Hunters at the Margin.
Hunters at the Margin relies in large part on the writings of northern administrators—parks officials, game wardens, and bureaucrats—who described Native people as two-legged wolves and as improvident and compulsive killers of animals. Sandlos pays careful attention to these writings as sources of cultural information, about how a settler society came to know about the land, animals, and indigenous peoples. Stories of wanton killings circulated among biologists and government officials despite the lack of evidence of waste at the local level, because indigenous hunting practices were imagined only in contrast with the "manly chase" (144) of sports hunting and the rational principles of agricultural production. Travel writers and explorers based their estimates of herd sizes on brief forays into the bush and took no account of herd movements or uneven population densities. Nevertheless, accounts of degraded human societies and declining animal populations became the background against which administrators would carry out plans to create parks, domesticate wild animals, and educate Native hunters on the supposed benefits of such developments. These objectives required a disciplining of the land and people that would make both accessible to outside surveillance and intervention.
Sandlos divides his account into three sections, each focusing on a particular species of charismatic megafauna: bison, muskox, and caribou. In each of these sections Sandlos explains how large animals became a symbol of wildlife preservation while at the same time serving as focal points around which the human ecologies of the North could be reshaped to match non-Native commercial interests. Native hunters faced expulsion from ancestral hunting grounds, harassment, and arrest for taking animals in accordance with their own laws and management practices. Wholesale relocations of Inuit villages were attempts to convert Inuit from caribou hunting to fishing and industrial occupations. Hunters at the Margin thus lays bare the underlying coercive effect of what may otherwise appear to be mundane and disparate administrative policies, reports, and recommendations. By listening to the indigenous voices and observing the acts of resistance that are present in the colonial record, Sandlos provides us a way of understanding how wildlife conservation was part of a larger, aggressive program meant to phase out indigenous ways of life.
Sandlos takes great care to underscore the political nature of wildlife conservation. Native hunters and tribal leaders considered conservation policies to [End Page 403] be attacks on their status as distinct, self-determining societies. They therefore objected not just to the details of the regulations but to any seasonal or area restrictions on the hunting of big game—though they did from time to time make compromise agreements, which were subsequently broken by government officials. Sandlos finds that public trials of Native "poachers" were important opportunities for expressing collective dissent against interference with treaty rights to hunt and trap. In some cases communities refused to take treaty payments in protest of illegitimate outside interference with their hunting economies. Through petitions and letters and at meetings, Native communities framed their right to hunt not as a matter of necessity or privilege but as a question of fundamental justice.
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