Plains Folk

Sunday Roast


I contemplate, as I write, the prospect of this week’s Sunday roast: a fat Canada goose, which was cleanly taken, and which will be roasted and served with apple-raisin stuffing, because my grandfather liked it that way. I think, too, about the fall rituals of the field, and about what they mean to me, and to us.


There is help for those who think too much about their hunting rituals—help in the form of a new article in our state journal, North Dakota History. Jonathan Wagner, who is a retired prof from Minot State, has written the piece, entitled, “From Theodore Roosevelt to the Izaak Walton League: A Social History of Hunting in North Dakota, 1880-1950.”


Wagner first invokes some storied hunters of the 19th Century—Theodore Roosevelt, of course, and then Frederic Remington, the artist, who came out with a party of dudes in 1894 to shoot prairie chicken and waterfowl.


After that he gets to the really useful part of the essay, which discusses why people hunt. “Three kinds of hunters appeared in North Dakota in the final decades of the nineteenth century,” writes Wagner: “the dude hunter, the market hunter, and the utilitarian hunter. Each reflected the frontier but in different ways; each would develop or disappear as the society which produced them modernized.”


Roosevelt was a dude hunter, we all know that, but most of are less aware of what a mecca North Dakota was for eastern sport hunters at turn of the 20th Century. The frontier of small grains, smack up against the native grassland, offered ideal conditions for prairie chickens and unprecedented nutrition for waterfowl. Sportsmen from back east chartered railroad cars, some even had their own, and parked them for the hunting season in places like Dawson.


I don’t think I’m a dude hunter, although I’m pretty sure I’ve met some at Scheel’s. The grandfather I mentioned above was a market hunter, who mowed down prairie chickens and upland plover to be served in fancy hotels. Dude hunters hated market hunters, said they ruined the sport, and perhaps they did, but the market hunters were just trying to make a living. When Wagner describes a kid shooting grouse out of a cottonwood tree and selling them in Dickinson, I have no doubt the kid needed the money.


Likewise, I have a lot of sympathy for what Wagner calls utilitarian hunters. The same grandfather I mentioned before fed the family with his 12 gauge. On the other hand, it was utilitarian hunters, shooting for the table, who essentially eradicated deer from the North American plains early in the 20th Century.


As I open the gun safe once again this autumn, I have to think, what sort of hunter am I? Although, like I said, I am not one of those dudes, I nevertheless have adopted much of their code of ethics: the ideal of the fair chase, restraint in the harvest of game, respect for wildlife and nature. And although I am not dependent on game for sustenance, I nevertheless eat what I shoot. I consider the proper preparation and appreciative consumption of game to be matters parcel to respect for the animals.


I guess for me, taking to the field respectfully and dining on game appreciatively are expressions of affinity and affection for the land in which I live. When I say grace over the Sunday roast, I really mean it is a matter of grace, in the full Lutheran definition of the term.


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