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Intolerance in the Woods by Don Meredith © 2005
(first published in the January 2005 Alberta Outdoorsmen

"Because they're afraid to go into the woods filled with white men carrying guns," the black biologist answered.

The statement stunned the small group of wildlife professionals. We were one of several "break-out sessions" at the first Governor's Symposium on North America's Hunting Heritage, held at Bozeman, Montana in July of 1992. The symposium was convened to discuss how to counter the steadily dropping number of hunters in North America. Our group's assignment from the plenary session was to discuss ways to get people, who normally don't hunt, interested in taking it up. In other words, how do we entice people—who are not ageing white men—to jump over the barriers and become licence purchasing hunters? Only one woman and one black person were in our group of about a dozen people. So, many of the questions fell upon them.

Although the biologist's answer to the question, "Why don't more black people hunt?" was at first shocking, it was also understood by all. To me, it was a revelation that some people would fear hunters in the woods, not because they might accidentally get shot (which was a common enough fear), but because they might be murdered as a result of the color of their skin. Then I remembered the stories about the Ku Klux Klan and the racial prejudice that had only recently begun to lose its grip in the southern United States, and I began to understand how such a fear might be real to a black person.

The biologist went on to say that some black people did hunt, but they usually did so in groups, and mostly for birds and other small game. He knew only a handful of black big game hunters. I thought back on my life and confirmed to myself that I had never known a black hunter.

I hadn't thought about that incident in a long time until this November 22 when Internet news sources buzzed with a story about five deer hunters who were shot and killed the previous day in Wisconsin. Apparently, a group of hunters confronted another hunter who was occupying a tree stand without permission on private land. An argument ensued, shots were fired, and four men and a woman were dead and three others wounded by the time the police arrived on the scene. All were apparently shot by the man in the tree stand. Some of those shot were coming to the aid of their comrades. The alleged shooter was arrested in the woods later that day. One of the wounded died the following day to bring the total number of dead to six.

That was the rough story as originally reported. Of course, as news reporters dug deeper, more information appeared in the following days. It turned out the person charged with the crimes, Soua Vang, was a Hmong-American (Hmong—a cultural group of people from China and southeast Asia who speak the same language). Vang claimed in a statement to police that the white hunters who confronted him cursed him with racial epithets, even as he descended the tree. He further claimed they threatened to kill him as he walked away. On turning back, he saw one of the hunters pointing a rifle at him. He dropped to the ground as the hunter fired. The bullet hit the ground and Vang returned two shots with his rifle, hitting the man who first shot. Vang had no explanation for why the other victims were shot.

On the other hand, one of the survivors of the shooting claimed in a police statement that Vang shot first. The survivor did not mention any racial slurs.

It turns out there is much tension in Wisconsin's nine-day, state-wide deer season. Hunters plan their hunts for weeks in advance, some taking all nine days off work to make an annual holiday out of this special time. Some book stays on private land where they have exclusive access to deer hunting territory. Others take their chances on state and county land. Many Hmong-Americans hunt deer in Wisconsin. Over the years, they have had confrontations with white hunters on both government and private land. So, perhaps there is some truth to what Vang said about the altercation at the tree stand.

Of course, there is no justification for shooting at or killing anyone, and this crime is especially horrific. We may never know who shot first. But the fact that someone knowingly shot at another human being should give us all pause to consider what is really important in life. As a result of this tragedy, many extended families have been torn asunder. The Wisconsin communities where the white hunters lived are angry. Members of the Hmong-American community in Minnesota where Vang lived are fearful that revenge will be taken out on them. Many who hunt stated they now fear going into the woods. And so the tragedy spreads.

Although the people interviewed by reporters at the Wisconsin funerals stated they did not blame the Hmong community but only the individual, the results will be the same. People who belong to visible minorities will think twice about taking up an activity that takes them into the woods "filled with white men carrying guns." Other white men and women will think twice about being associated with an activity that may brand them racist. And ageing white guys will continue to dominate the ever shrinking hunting community.

Think such a tragedy can't happen here? Is American society that much different from us? Our history of racial intolerance is definitely different. We did not fight a civil war over racial issues (among others in the U.S.) or wage major wars against the original inhabitants of this country. But we can be just as intolerant as our neighbors when it suits us.

An example is what has occurred recently on the Alberta Outdoorsmen Internet message board with regard to the Métis hunting issue (addressed in previous issues of Outdoorsmen). Internet message boards are handy places for people to discuss current issues. They are attractive because people can remain anonymous while expressing an opinion that might otherwise get them into trouble with family, friends or colleagues. However, that anonymity can be both good and bad. At its worst, it allows some individuals to express racist views and indeed hatred of groups of people. As many of you know, I am one of the volunteer moderators of that discussion board, and we sometimes have a difficult job sorting out and deleting posts that express racial intolerance. Métis/aboriginal hunting is a "hot-button" issue that has brought out the worst in some people. If I had been a person checking out the Outdoorsmen message board for information about how to get started in hunting, I might have had second thoughts after reading some of the posts we deleted.

The problem with racial intolerance is that it condones the dehumanization of other groups of people. As a result, someone with a warped since of values and justice might precipitate an event like the one that occurred in Wisconsin. I, for one, hope our Canadian woods are never feared for the people that walk in them. But then I'm an ageing white guy who likes to carry a gun while walking in the woods.


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Check-out Don's adventure novels:

Grizzly One
The Search
for Grizzly One
Dog Runner
Dog Runner