An Elder Describes the Old Way of Tracking

By | June 3, 2013

A few years ago I presented a course on feather reading at a traditional skills gathering. At the same gathering, a colleague offered a workshop where the participants would attempt to follow the trail that he created by walking through the landscape just before the workshop.  The trail began on a sandy beach, where his tracks were easy to pick up and follow, and it got progressively more difficult as it meandered up through sedges, woods, and wetlands. At the end of the trail, he left a note so that people would know they had succeeded in following the trail to the end.

Participants were given tracking sticks, which were calibrated to the length of the instructor’s stride.  When his trail seemed to disappear in the forest litter, they could use the stick to project where the next track should appear, thereby increasing the likelihood of finding it and staying on trail.

The gathering was held on the Bad River Ojibwe Indian Reservation on the south shore of Lake Superior.  Tribal elder Joe Rose came by to check in on the tracking workshop, and he thought the tracking stick trailing technique was rather quaint. He described how he and his cousins would go Deer hunting with his uncle when they were kids: they would fan out and get the Deer moving, and then his uncle would check out the trails they made to pick the Deer he wanted.

Joe said the Deer would often take off on a well-worn trail.  Even though there were a lot of other tracks on the trail, his uncle was able to follow the Dear he chose. “We kids would have to run to keep up with him,” said Joe. When a Deer cut off the trail, this uncle—without slowing down—somehow knew whether or not it was the one he had chosen.

How did he do it without stopping to study track and gait?  Joe didn’t say. To explain it, he would have had to get us to understand the culture of his people.  There were no tracking workshops when he grew up—no explanation for why the animals did what they did.  He and his cousins learned by experience and the example of the hunters. The kids spent time with the animals and listened to their ancestral memories. They came to know the land and the vegetation and the weather. Like you and I not needing to nose-trail someone through town to find her when we already know her routines, likes, and dislikes, they didn’t have much need for tracking sticks, field guides, and analytical techniques.

I sometimes wonder if Joe and other traditional trackers are merely amused by our obsession with study and detail, or if their sighs are more a sign of resignation at the passing of the old ways.

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