It’s been four days. Four. A sacred number to the people who showed me one of the most transformative experiences of my life only four days ago, so it’s appropriate that I now begin to process the profundity of the experience I shared with Mason Mashon, Meghann O’Brien, Jordan (Mogley) Demeulemeester, and my underEXPOSED colleagues late last week.
I have always wanted to hunt. Having competed as a marksman in my teenage years, shooting at targets with .22s or .303s is nothing new to me. I had always wondered about the purpose of such training. I learned to shoot on a .22 Lee Enfield rifle; a World War II veteran was my coach. This was a man who learned that to shoot is to kill, but in the many years since my shooting days first began, I never knew what it felt like to take a life.
Spending time with Kokum and Mogley up north last week, I had just that experience. Kokum (Cree for “grandmother”) is an astonishingly expert shot. Her grandfather taught her everything she knows, and she displayed the prowess of a refined bushman in one single shot. The young moose she shot from 450 yards away fell instantly before my eyes only a split second after my ears registered the gunfire.
Running up the hillside to her kill, it was as though my mind stopped consciously processing what was happening around me. I was so thoroughly present to the beauty and cultural significance of hunting to put meat on a community’s table that I could only take direction from Kokum as she instructed me in helping her hold the moose’s limbs for her while she skinned and quartered the beast.
I watched in awe as Kokum extracted the moose’s insides. The exposed rib cage gave birth to a warm, black liver before my eyes; two kidneys large as mammoth potatoes were soon to follow. Like a doctor passing triplets off to a nurse, Kokum gave me the organs and instructed me to clean them in the snow, an order to which I lovingly obliged.
The organs steamed in my hands as I wiped snow over their slippery surfaces. I could feel the life still pulsating against my fingertips. The moose’s mother still loomed nearby, and Mogley’s SKS sat close at hand, just in case the cow came at us with all the rage of a mother whose baby was murdered before her eyes. Kokum made a tobacco offering and gave thanks in a beautifully solemn Cree prayer, and the six of us began our task of hauling the young moose down the thigh-deep, snow-covered hillside. How ironic that the very hind leg I dragged behind me would have been long and lithe enough, only hours before, to glide through that snow without effort, yet now my stumpy legs were weighed down by the reality of what had just happened: We took a life, and I had the blood on my hands to prove it.
The thing is, I didn’t feel guilty. Yes, I felt empathy and sadness for the mother of the calf, but the transformative intensity of taking a life (when done for the right reasons) can be paralleled only by things as uniquely beautiful as giving birth, falling in love, or connecting with the divine creator. Death is a reality, and engaging it in such a culturally significant and ethical way was an experience I will never forget.
And speaking of connecting with the divine, after killing the moose (and after my footnote-worthy mention of the fact that I shot, strangled, and skinned a prairie chicken all on my own), I had the chance to do just that. Mason, Meghann, the underEXPOSED crew and I went to a traditional sweat lodge thanks to Mogley’s connection with a beautiful soul: a local Medicine Man named Richard.
Admittedly, I was scared to sit in a dark tent that was so hot that participants were required to remove all jewelry before entering, because the searing heat of that metal could burn sweaters’ skin. And only moments into the first of four sessions, I wanted out. But then the realization hit me: I chose this. Not just the sweat, but everything in my reality today. Being involved with underEXPOSED; putting myself in the most dangerous and uncomfortable positions (i.e.: in the backcountry with no training or confidence in myself or others); everything. Everything I know and experience in my life is here because of a choice I made, in one way or another, to have it there.
With that epiphany, I stopped hiding behind the protective towel I brought into the sweat lodge with me. I started breathing through my nose and embracing the heat that swirled and stung my sinuses. I became fully present to, and accepting of, my life, and I stopped fighting myself for possibly the first time since shooting this TV show (and likely long before that).
There is a real power that comes with surrender, whether it’s to a higher power or to the self. Or maybe that’s the catch: There is a higher power already in my self, as there is, I believe, in every one of us: People, moose, birds, rocks, and trees. We are all connected, and we all share the same divine essence and potential.
My gift through the cultural segment of this episode was the realization that life is so much bigger that I ever knew. I feel like a person with horrible vision who has been given glasses for the first time: Clarity abounds in everything I’ve done in the past four days, and it’s all because of the connection I felt to nature and the divine as experienced through traditional hunting and cultural practices. I pray to the grandfather I am able to carry this new awareness through my daily life and future experiences.