In a few days I leave for a year in the Minnesota Wilderness with six other people, eating only wild food we harvest ourselves and using only human-powered transportation (canoes and snowshoes). Read all the detail here. Sign up for our mailing list to get updates in your inbox (see the Trips & Classes page for the signup form).
I've been reflecting lately about how my 5 weeks at Oceti Sakowin Water Protector Camp this winter were some of the happiest weeks of my recent life. Now those camps are gone, the sacred fires have been put out, and I am home. On a daily basis I feel the intense discomfort of trying to fit myself back into a life founded on the basic structures of colonialism. Everything looks topsy-turvy now: Old goals now are burdened with the uncomfortable stink of privilege, and old complaints sound hollow and entitled against the background of my new understanding of the deepest forms of oppression in this country. I find myself at a crossroads, in limbo, floating between an old comfortable identity and a new perspective that shines light upon that which was invisible and casts new and frightening shadows across everything I used to take for granted.
The question that weighs heavily upon me is: how can I, as a white descendant of European settlers, build a life of integrity that boths supports my health and happiness, and also works to redistribute resources to the indigenous peoples and people of color who were brutalized and exploited to build the wealth of my culture? And how can I do this while living on the land that my soul calls home, here in Vermont, one of the whitest states in the union?
My time at Oceti Sakowin left me convinced that the core of decolonization is in how we treat each other. At that camp I experienced true village life: a community where we depended on each other, greeted each other by name, each contributed what we could and took what we needed to be healthy and strong for the fierce ceremony we were creating together. We asked each other's advice and offered help whenever it was needed.
There is no community without friction. Some really terrible things happened at that camp. Water Protectors were assaulted and abused by the police, and sometimes Water Protectors also assaulted and abused each other. People fell in love and people made enemies. Ancestral trauma and despair seemed to rise up from the very burial grounds under our feet and overwhelm us at times. But trouble is inevitable: the true test of a village is how we confront and heal conflict. This process wasn't perfect at Oceti Sakowin, but the principles of indigenous culture that guided us were potent seeds of re-humanization. Whenever emotions were running strong, someone would light sage or sweetgrass or copal, sending cleansing smoke into the space. Each person was welcome to speak in our meetings without limits, sharing what was in their heart, no matter how long it took. When we had big questions, we took them to the sacred fire or the sweat lodge. We took the time to pray and listen to the spirits and listen to our own hearts. We slowed down. When someone was threatened within the community, there was a process of rallying around them, re-affirming bonds: the person we were supporting would shake the hand and look into the eyes of every person in the space, even if it took a very long time, reaffirming her connection with each one of us.
At Oceti Sakowin, everyone had an equal right to be there. All of us were technically trespassing together by camping there, so each of us had no right at all to be there in the eyes of the government... and each of us had chosen to disregard the oppressive laws and listen instead to the inherent right of humanity to gather at the sacred waters. At Oceti Sakowin, I learned that breaking the law is a path to human liberation. While we sometimes invoked broken treaties that had granted that land to the Lakota people, those treaties are also oppressive agreements signed amidst the grief of genocide, and the deeper sentiment was simply that we all had a right to be there just because we are human animals, little different from the bison and the eagles that would pass by our camp.
And so here I sit, on a ridge of land in Vermont where every inch of soil is privately owned, returned to my culture where everyone is on a tight schedule and seldom has time to sit and burn sage and listen to someone speak their heart. I'm living in my little house, alone with my computer. It takes at least five emails to schedule any actual social contact, and then a half-hour drive (isolated in my own private car) to get there. Everyone is working to be independent: have their own income, their own land, their own car. We each strive to never need anyone's help, and then we wonder why we are so lonely. This is White American culture.
In the short term, I've been coping by traveling a lot, putting myself into road-trip and out-of-town-visit situations where other people can temporarily be persuaded to participate in the intensive togetherness that I miss so much. When I'm home, I call a different friend every night. I go on dates and set up community gatherings. Much of the time I feel like I'm a different species from the people I'm talking to, because our basic assumptions about the world are now so different. Sometimes I'm able to slip back into my previous slumber, to perceive my life from that old familiar place of undisturbed privilege, and this does feel like a relief in a way. But then I wake up at night gasping, clawing at the bedsheets, terrified that I will lose my grasp on the heartbreaking gift that Oceti Sakowin gave me: the lived knowledge that what I have always wanted is possible.
Have you ever tried to cut down a mulberry tree? The stump re-sprouts ten little branches, and the roots send up new runners too, and you inadvertently create a teeming thicket where once there was only one tree. I think that the ashes of our sacred prayer fires will be like that. The people have been forced off that land and the fires have been put out, but the fires in our hearts are still burning brightly, and we carry those embers all over the country and the world as we leave North Dakota. All of us are homesick for a camp that no longer exists, and I say, "Be homesick! Feel that grief, feel that love, and don't give up. If we all live our own homesickness hard enough, if we all refuse to forget, we can build this everywhere! We can spread this way of loving each other and the earth. We can spread the generosity. We can spread the way of relating that affirms each person's inherent value."
So, I'm trying to hold this pain as a gift. When I run up against the pain, it is a compass for me. Each time it floods through me, I sink deeper into the questions of how I can help create this transformation. My work already centers on fostering nature connection and empowerment, so I can add this gift to my teachings in the world. As the ashes of our prayers sting my skin like lye, burning me, branding me, my life becomes a firewalk. Each day I must find the courage to set my foot down on the coals. What will I find on the other side?
I pray for the courage to not forget.
This winter I spent 6 weeks volunteering at the Water Protector camps in North Dakota. I was there for one week in November, which was just enough time for me to realize I had to really get my act together if I was to be an effective white ally. That visit was very difficult in many ways, but I felt myself just on the verge of discovering a new way to see the world, and as I drove out of Oceti Sakowin camp on November 13th, I knew I would be back.
I had observed that what camp needed most was funding for more Native folks to join the camps, and long-term volunteers who could take on real responsibilities. I started a fundraising campaign towards those ends. I was quickly able to crowdfund over $4000, and committed to give half of it to support indigenous people in coming to camp or remaining there. The rest I would use to pay my own expenses for driving back to North Dakota, volunteering for 5 weeks, and covering a few bills back home. My friend Molly was my buddy for the trip. We volunteered at Oceti Sakowin Camp from December 22 to January 26.
When I first returned home, the process of reverse culture shock hit me pretty hard. Now that I've had time to adjust and had many conversations with friends about it, I'm beginning to be able to articulate the ways that my time at Standing Rock changed how I see the world. These new perspectives have become my most prized possessions. Every day I feed and tend them, attempting to keep them strong and vivid.
How to Talk about #NoDAPL: A Native Perspective by Kelly Hayes
The Burning Times Never Ended, a conciousness-raising course on decolonization and capitalism by Rain Crowe
Bringing Race to the Table: Exploring Racism in the Pagan Community. Anthology edited by Crystal Blanton, Taylor Elwood, and Brandy Williams.
I have just returned from five weeks on the ground with Water Protectors at Standing Rock. I know it’s hard to figure out what’s going on or how to help from the outside, but there are several CRUCIAL things you can do. Please take a moment to read the action steps below and implement at least one of them TODAY -- time is running out. Please share this post widely.
*****FIRST ACTION STEP: SUBMIT A COMMENT TO THE ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS*****
While the president and the Department of the Army are pressuring the Army Corps of Engineers to expedite the granting of the easement for DAPL to drill under the Missouri River, the Corps has stated that “The Assistant Secretary for the Army Civil Works will make a decision on the pipeline once a full review and analysis is completed” (Malcolm Frost, Chief of Public Affairs, US Army, on Feb 1, 2017). The most crucial thing YOU CAN DO is to submit a comment for the Army Corps of Engineers to consider when compiling its Environmental Impact Statement. PLEASE DO THIS RIGHT NOW, it is the most direct and impactful thing you can do to help. Here is the info on how to submit a comment, copied from the official Federal Register website:
"You may mail or hand deliver written comments to Mr. Gib Owen, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, 108 Army Pentagon, Washington, DC 20310-0108. Advance arrangements will need to be made to hand deliver comments. Please include your name, return address, and “NOI Comments, Dakota Access Pipeline Crossing” on the first page of your written comments. Comments may also be submitted via email to Mr. Gib Owen, at firstname.lastname@example.org. If emailing comments, please use “NOI Comments, Dakota Access Pipeline Crossing” as the subject of your email."
Here is some sample text for your comment from the Sierra Club:
Thank you for preparing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) route. The fast tracking of DAPL under Nationwide Permit 12 failed to allow for environmental review and critical input from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, local landowners, and the public. This EIS is an important step in the right direction. The Army Corp’s review of the Dakota Access fracked oil pipeline must at least evaluate the following:
- The entire length of the pipeline must be evaluated to include the full scope of the project, not just the Lake Oahe easement.
- The impacts of oil spills and emergency response capabilities along the entire route must be considered, particularly with regard to the impacts on drinking water supplies and biodiversity across the entire route.
- The Corps must consider the cultural impacts along the full length of the pipeline including the effects on Tribal lands, burial grounds, and archaeological sites.
- The Corps must consult with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and evaluate how this pipeline would affect their drinking water, health, culture, and way of life. This pipeline was already routed away from Bismarck to protect the water supply of this majority white, more affluent community. The Army Corps must include environmental justice as part of their evaluation to ensure that low-income communities of color aren't left to bear the risk.
- The Corps must evaluate alternative routes that would avoid Sioux ancestral and treaty lands and other culturally and environmentally significant areas.
*****SECOND ACTION STEP: ORGANIZE AN ACTION WHERE YOU LIVE*****
At this point it is more impactful for you to organize a local prayer action where you live than for you to travel to Standing Rock. To organize a peaceful, non-violent prayer action that is in accordance with the principles laid out by both the Standing Rock elders and Lakota prophecy, follow these steps:
1. Select a highly visible public location for your action. Good locations include in front of a bank that is funding the pipeline, a local office of the Army Corps of Engineers, or high-traffic public areas.
2. Call your friends and invite them to join you.
3. Register your actoin at http://everydayofaction.org/
4. Make signs and banners so that people passing by know why you are gathered.
5. At your action, pray. Pray in your own tradition, pray however you can pray the hardest. (Do not appropriate or mimic Native American prayer traditions unless you are an enrolled member of a tribe). Pray with music, drumming, song, and dance if that calls to you.
6. All actions associated with Standing Rock must be centered in non-violence. If you are threatened or taunted by passers-by or law enforcement, please gently remind them that you are defending clean water for them and their children and grandchildren. You can even ask them to join you in prayer.
*****THIRD ACTION STEP: DIVEST*****
DAPL is funded by nearly all the major banks. Basically, if you bank anywhere other than a local credit union, your money is being used to fund DAPL or other similar environmental disasters across the world. Please move your money to a local credit union. You can review the banks involved with DAPL and post the amount of money you've moved out of them at this website: http://www.defunddapl.org/defund
*****FOURTH ACTION STEP: DONATE*****
If you are able to send money to the Water Protectors on the ground at Standing Rock, I recommend you support the Medic and Healer Council and the Water Protector Legal Defense Fund:
Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has already received 6 million dollars in donations, most of which is being saved for the legal battle with the Federal Government over this pipeline. If the easement for the pipeline is granted, they may need even more funds, but until more unfolds, I would not donate to them right now.
It's not clear to me who is currently administering the Oceti Sakowin Camp paypal fund or whether that money is being distributed fairly in the camps. However, their page does have a very specific list of what items they need:
The most urgent need in this season is always dry firewood. You need a special permit to transport firewood into North Dakota (due to tree pest issues), but I believe the compressed sawdust fuel bricks sold at Lowe's and Menards are legal to send there.
*****FIFTH ACTION STEP: PRAY*****
The Standing Rock elders have been asking for your prayers, above all else, from the start of this movement. Have you actually taken the time to pray for justice on this issue every day? Please do this. It will keep us focused on the change we want to create in the world, in a time when it's all too easy to to get distracted by shock and fear. In the Lakota tradition, prayer is the source of all strength and fortitude. When you ground your actions in prayer, you are doing this work in a good way.
*****ADVICE FOR THOSE CONSIDERING TRAVELING TO STANDING ROCK*****
For most people, it is going to be more helpful for you to stay in your home community, do local activism about DAPL, and send the funds you would have used to travel to North Dakota directly to the Water Protectors (see the fourth action step, above).
If you want to travel to the Water Protector camps, you should know that the leaders of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have asked all Water Protectors at all the camps to leave (and claim they will set up a roadblock to keep people out after Feb 19th). However, many indigenous leaders within the Water Protector camps disagree, and think we still need people on the ground there, perhaps now more than ever.
You should also know that Oceti Sakowin Camp and Rosebud Camp are on a flood plain, and need to be completely cleaned up before the snow melts so that the contents of the camps does not wash into the Missouri River and pollute it. Sacred Stone Camp is still welcoming new people, and is above the flood plain (I did not stay there, so I can't speak to it beyond that). Oceti Sakowin Camp is not turning people away, but you should absolutely have a warm place to sleep lined up before you arrive. You can only sleep in the Medic Warming Tent for one night, and if lots of people start showing up then there will be no room there either.
If you travel to the camps, you and your vehicle should be 100% ready and equipped for extreme cold, deep snow, and high winds. You should bring food for yourself and a way to prepare it, and some bulk food donations for the kitchens (meat, cheese, and green vegetables are especially needed). Have a plan for shelter and bring fuel to contribute (wood, fuel bricks, or propane). Be completely sober and help hold others to that standard. Know that there have been assaults in the camps (including rapes) and do not walk around alone after dark.
Know that there is no longer much organization at Oceti Sakowin camp. There is no daily meeting, no newcomer orientation, no central place to go to get a volunteer job assignment, and no system for finding people warm and secure shelters to stay in. Bring your own tools and be willing to work long hours. Sign up for a Compost Toilet Attendant shift at least once a day, which will help you will start to meet people. Stop in to the Construction Building across from the Medic area, and they may be able to direct you to some cleanup projects.
Know that you are of very limited use if you are not a part of a larger Oyate (group or tribe) within the camp. New folks who don't have an established person or group sponsoring them will have to work hard to earn anyone's trust, gain access to the flow of information in camp, and find out where they can be useful. Don't take it personally if you are given the cold shoulder, since there have been many infiltrators and agitators in camp. Basically, I wouldn't recommend that you travel to the camps unless you know someone there who can find a place for you, or you have such a strong spiritual calling to go that you will do what it takes to make yourself useful (I had both). You should also only go if you can contribute several of the following skillsets: processing firewood, shoveling snow, cleaning up abandoned tents and structures, cooking, dishwashing, street medic skills. Licensed mental health providers, medical professionals, and legal professionals, and solar energy technicians, and people who can haul things away in trucks and trailers are also needed.
EDIT, Feb 1, 1:30pm: I just heard that this morning a new resistance camp, Last Child Warrior Camp, was established on high ground west of Oceti Sakowin Camp. This camp is a strategic place to continue protecting the waters during flood season, founded by a combination of the Oglala Camp, Southwest Camp, and Two Spirit Camp from Oceti Sakowin. Chase Iron Eyes is calling for front-line Water Protectors to come join them at the new camp. If you are self-sufficient, winter-ready, willing to follow indigenous leadership, and ready to face police violence, arrest, and felony charges (almost everyone who gets arrested at Standing Rock gets charged with a felony), consider joining them!
This is the 11th hour. We all need to pull together to win this fight. Please contribute however you can!
With Prayers & Solidarity,
Sources used in this post:
As the founder of an organization that teaches "primitive" or "ancestral" skills such as archery, bow drill firemaking, and sacred hunting, I spend a lot of time thinking about the debt Mountainsong Expeditions owes to the indigenous peoples for preserving these technologies and philosophies. While it's true that all of our ancestors practiced these skills if you go back far enough (regardless of racial identity), modern people learning these skills draw from a huge amount of wisdom that contemporary indigenous communities have shared from their living traditions.
This is one of the many reasons why I feel called to support the indigenous resistance movement in North Dakota. As the United States once again breaks treaties and invades sacred indigenous lands in the name of economic development, all of us who value justice have the opportunity to stand up and express our objection to what is being done. The indigenous water protectors are defending the Missouri River from the pipeline for all who share that watershed, but all of us who benefitted from the colonization of North America also have an opportunity in this moment to defend the treaty-protected, unceded lands of the Standing Rock Sioux from destructive pipeline construction. In reality, we always have opportunities to stand with indigenous people, but right now there is a clear call for support and the tasks are concrete: Bring your body to North Dakota, share information about this issue with your friends, donate winter supplies needed by the camps, or send money to the Standing Rock Sioux.
So, since I have the opportunity to re-arrange my schedule, I'm clearing out the next two weeks to travel to Standing Rock and support the indigenous people there in any way I can: Chopping wood, serving as a Street Medic, doing chores around camp, and telling the world what I witness there. If you can't clear out enough time in your schedule to travel to North Dakota, please consider donating some funds to the Standing Rock Sioux, which will be used to purchase food and supplies for the camps.
More information about supporting Standing Rock:
Donations to support Medics & Healing Tent
How to talk about #NoDAPL: A Native Perspective
Open Letter to White People at Standing Rock
The Mountainsong Expeditions guide to dressing warmly for winter weather (for people going to North Dakota or donating clothing to the camps)
"Follow" my Facebook Profile for updates on my experiences in North Dakota
The following reflection was written by April Judd after attending our All Genders Huntress Intensive about a week ago. Thank you for sharing your words, April -- you capture the archetype of the Huntress so well!
The quiet secrets of nature, passed down by her ancestors, and their ancestors, to the Huntress. Wisdom that lies in the nibbled raspberry bush, the antler rubbed sapling in Fall, the soft bed, nested high in the woods and laid fragrant with summer's pine needles, the pungent smell of urine, hoof prints through snow that lead to the deep, quiet places of the land, where the old Grandmother trees watch the Huntress softly tread.
These secrets are gathered in her feet as she walks the land, climbs mountains, tracks her prey over creeks, moss, stone and root. They are cultivated by her strong hands that tend the wild apples, that master the bow and who’s fingers release the killing arrow. Who’s hands, then, caress the fur as life and blood turn to spirit.
The depths of these secrets are found in her eyes, made soft with purest intention, the passion of deep connection and ancient wisdom. Her back knows the comfort of trees, snuggled in close as she waits, studies, listens, prays. Her back, too, carries the weight of time, of taking life, of carrying her pray home for the harvest.
The Huntress soul calls out in song to the Great Spirit, to the Mother Goddess, to the animals of the forest. She sings a sacred call. One invoking the sacrifice of life for the herd, for the common good, for honor- so that the land and those who inhabit her may thrive.
The Huntress takes these whispered secrets- these gifts- tucked into the map of her heart, carried proud in her shoulders, betrayed only in the cool, bright tear that falls, tender, down her cheek at the honor of being the messenger of this beautiful, sacred world.
How do you build a sense of community and connection with the land you live on?
A few months ago I wrote an article on this topic for Communities Magazine. They've just decided to make this particular piece available to the public at no charge, so I'm delighted to share the link with you:
Offerings to the Land
I hope you enjoy the article! Drop me a note and tell me how you connect to the land.
It’s a Saturday morning in late November, 2010. I’m sitting in a tree stand, holding a long black rifle across my lap and mentally grumbling about my cold toes. I’ve seen two yearling fawns and one gentle doe wander across the field in front of me, but no antlered deer have shown themselves. As I pray for a buck to appear, I wonder if anything will come of this mysterious impulse to hunt. I am completely unaware that in half an hour I’ll take a six-point buck in this field and learn what it really means to claim responsibility for this piece of the circle of life. I don’t yet have the faintest clue how this morning hunt will steer the course of my life towards deep connection, a new passion, and my life’s work.
More Women Are Hunting Than Ever Before
As a new and uncertain huntress, I wasn’t alone. Women are the fastest growing demographic group in the American hunting world: from 2003 to 2013, there was a 43.5% increase in female hunters. Like many of these women, I am a woman hunter with no history of hunting on either side of my family.
Four Reasons Women Hunt
For men, hunting is a part of their cultural heritage, a traditionally male rite of passage. When women learn to hunt, they are transgressing gender roles rather than claiming their place in a recognized tradition. Here are a few common reasons I have heard from my students:
1. Healthy Food: Colleen is in charge of food decisions for her family. She cares if their food is organic, she cares if it is local, and she cares if it is fresh. A little research quickly showed her that the freshest, healthiest, most local meat she can get is hunted meat. As for many of my students, this idea was compelling enough to inspire her to take up hunting.
2. Food Ethics: Like many womn, Melissa cares deeply about how her meat was treated during its life. Like many of my students, she is a former vegan. When harvesting wild meat, Melissa herself is fully responsible for how cleanly the animal dies, and she can minimize its suffering through skillful shot placement. Taking full responsibility for the process of killing her meat allows Melissa to make peace with this necessity.
3. Empowerment: Women also hunt as an act of personal empowerment. Like many of the women I work with, Leonore is inspired by archetypes such as the Greek huntress deity Artemis, the concept of “Women Who Run With The Wolves,” and the powerful and independent Norse goddess of hunting, Skadi. It is interesting to note that in ancient European cultures, the primary deities of the hunt are invariably female, implying that women hunters are part of an ancient trend as well as a modern one. While many women today are content to let these fierce and competent goddess figures inspire their own lives in a metaphorical way, women like Leonore sense that these ancient stories point us toward hunting as a sort of spiritual mystery school through which they can gain courage, conviction, and insight. The initiation of shooting her first buck has truly served that function in Leonore’s life, often in ways I she never anticipated when she took up a rifle for the first time.
4. Connection: Our modern, indoor, computer-tethered lives leave many people hungering for a sense of connection to the land. Marie is one of the women who showed up at my class telling me that she wanted to use hunting as a way to become a part of the land she lives on. What she learned in my class helps her see the land with new eyes. Deer don’t care about property boundaries, and reading the land as a hunter helps us understand how the acres we live on fit into the larger ecosystem. The best hunters observe and scout their hunting grounds in all seasons, which becomes a meditative practice in awareness and connection. Suddenly we have a place in nature again: the naturalist observes, but the huntress participates.
New Values, New Mentors
All of these reasons arise from educated, feminist, spiritual values – not usually the first values most people associate with the traditional camouflage-clad male hunter in America. Therefore, women are creating new spaces in which to learn their hunting skills, where they can openly discuss their values and find supportive community that takes them and their priorities seriously. Programs have sprung up in many states offering a women-only environment for learning shooting sports, hunting, and fishing.
When I teach hunting skills at these events, I talk to many women who are hungry for more in-depth opportunities to learn these skills with and from other women. Contrary to the popular belief that women learn to hunt from their husbands, these women usually tell me they DON’T want to learn these skills from their significant other. When they try to, the whole weight of our culture’s assumptions about hunting competence and gender come to bear on the situation and it usually ends in frustration and resentment. Some of my other students are queer women whose female partners face the same gendered barriers to hunting as they do. My classes also attract transgender women who want to learn hunting in women’s community that affirms their female perspective on the subject.
As more and more women take up hunting, my hope is that they will stay true to the unique values that draw them to this tradition. When one is struggling to be taken seriously as a female hunter, it is all too easy to change one’s behavior and approach to match the dominant cultural paradigm. My hope is that we can create new traditions that will integrate with the old ones over time, creating cultural shifts that will make hunting synonymous with ethical treatment of animals, ecological balance, and empowerment for all genders. Women’s perspectives have an incredible richness to bring to the hunting world.
Mary Murphy is a deer hunter and the founder of Mountainsong Expeditions in Worcester, Vermont. Her mission is to create places where women can learn to hunt in a supportive environment that resonates with their own values and goals. She offers weekend intensives in deer hunting skills, all-women hunting expeditions, and a nine-month hunting skills apprenticeship called The Way of the Huntress. Learn more at www.mountainsongexpeditions.com
This spring I submitted this article to the Rural Trans* Zine, a zine aimed at transgender or gender-nonconforming people living in a rural setting. I haven't heard yet if the zine was ever published, so I thought I'd share the article here:
Hunting Between Genders
November 16th: it’s opening day of rifle season here in Vermont. An hour before dawn, I park my car at the end of a rutted dirt road, beside several rusty pickup trucks: other hunters are already in the woods here. I’m in a remote mountain valley, far beyond cell service. My pre-season scouting indicates that there are many deer living in these woods, and it seems I’m not the only one who figured that out.
I load my rifle, shoulder my pack, and turn on my headlamp. The brown leaves crunch under my boots as I take an old snowmobile trail into the dark pre-dawn woods. Rounding a bend, I see another headlamp up ahead. Instinctively, I take a sharp right and head to a different spot than I had planned on. I hike far enough away from the stranger that I put a few ridges of land between his stray bullets and my blaze orange vest. Hunting is very safe when you do it right, but you never know what another hunter’s standards are going to be.
I watch a glowing sunrise that morning, find fresh deer tracks around some raspberry bushes, take a warm noontime nap, and see the sky blaze pink as the sun sets and the full moon rises. No deer come into my sights, but the meditative time on the land has fed my spirit. A half an hour after sunset is the end of legal shooting hours, so I shoulder my rifle and head back towards the snowmobile trail.
Suddenly I see him: a tall form dressed in camo, also carrying his rifle, headed towards the same trail I am. Having been socialized a woman I’ve absorbed a big dose of Amazon rage against gender-based violence in our society, which overlays my deep fear and paranoia about becoming a victim of these statistics. Suddenly I no longer feel like a trained hunter with every right to be here, but like a scared young woman alone in the woods with a man who has a loaded gun. True, I have a gun too… but that would be an awful choice to make.
He’s already seen me, so it’s too late to duck behind a boulder and let him pass. Instead, I square my shoulders and stride over to him. I’m tall for a female person, wrapped up in bulky layers of warm clothing, with a camo face mask partially obscuring just how hairless my chin and cheeks are. I get Sir’d a lot around town, and its time to call upon that masculinity: a glamour and a cloaking to protect me from whatever baser instincts might arise within this stranger. I pitch my voice lower than usual and greet him with a gruff and firm “Hello.”
His name is Rob, he’s from Montpelier, and he hunts here every year. I tell him my name is Murphy. We walk back to the cars, chatting briefly about the spots we hunted and the deer we never saw, and then part ways. Part of me feels ashamed of being so suspicious of him, since he seems harmless enough once we’re introduced. Any yet another part of me still fears what he might become if he knew I was female – and I’m pretty sure he hasn’t figured it out.
Next summer, my friend Colleen is hiking in those woods and meets Rob for the first time. When he meets her he immediately says, “Oh, you live near here? Do you know Murphy?”
“Murphy? Do you mean Mary Murphy? Yeah, she’s my friend.”
Confusion wrinkles Rob’s brow. “Mary Murphy? Umm… yeah, maybe that’s the same person.”
Rob is not the first to make that mistake, even when I’m not trying to encourage it. As a butch hunter, I almost always get Sir’d at gun stores and hunting stores. Context is a strong gender marker in our society, and the context of hunting is always Male Until Proven Otherwise.
A year after I met Rob, Colleen and I head to a Bowhunting Safety Course in deeply rural Vermont. We live in the “Rainbow Zone” near the capital city, where it’s perfectly safe to be gay, trans, have tattoos all over your face, or chant radical reform slogans in front of the statehouse all day. This training takes us into the Northeast Kingdom, where many barns are still painted with large letters proclaiming their owners’ desire to “Take Back Vermont” – a slogan popular with conservative voters after Vermont became the first state to legalize same sex marriage by popular vote. It seems likely that the residents’ opinions on the matter haven’t changed much in the decade since those letters were drawn, even if the paint is fading now.
I always admire Colleen’s fearlessness and unstoppable assumption of goodwill among the rednecks. Nothing seems to intimidate her. She’s a rugged and beautiful cisgender woman who is partnered with a man, and she seems to be able to charm everybody into liking her and helping her. When travelling into the heart of the Northeast Kingdom, I psyche myself out before we even arrive. Among the gun-toting rough and tumble good-old-boys, I feel very vulnerable. As a butch lesbian who hunts out of a quest for a deeply pagan spiritual intercourse with nature, I’m pretty sure they don’t want me in their gentleman’s club. As a female person among those men, I always feel like I’m under a very thin shield of protection, shielded by violent lust only by a sense of chivalry that is upheld by some of those men and not others. Should the balance veer toward the crude at a moment when I am far from a friendly eye, I know how it could go for me. I stride defiantly into these situations anyway sometimes, internally angry at my own fear and the statistics on which it is based, and not wanting to let it control me. The fear exhausts me, as does the vigilance I keep up, ever watchful and read to run.
Colleen approaches the table in the front of the hunting classroom, and cheerfully gives the man her name. He’s tall and muscled with buzzed blonde hair. He turns to me and asks, “And your name Sir?”
“Murphy,” I reply once again. He scans the list and checks me off, showing only a moment’s hesitation when he reads “Mary” in the first name column.
“You got Sir’d!” Colleen exclaims cheerfully as we return to her seats. She knows how much I enjoy the masculine form of address, especially when it is given spontaneously and not by request. Our friend with the registration list introduces himself as Kevin, ex-military, so no funny business today please and you’d better respect the teachers!
That afternoon Kevin takes me and a small group of archers out to the 3D target range, where we practice shooting animal-shaped foam targets. It’s me, a bunch of local guys, and a woman with a pink compound bow. Kevin tells us about a women’s firearm safety course he’s teaching in a few weeks, in case we know anyone who wants to come… “Well, I guess there’s only one woman here, but let your friends know!” Emboldened by his apparently classifying me as a man despite my first name, I ask for more details and mention that my girlfriend might want to go. He responds with enthusiasm and helps me learn to shoot down a steep ravine at a bear-shaped target at the next stop on our circuit. Am I being fully accepted as a man here? It’s hard to read.
As I’m putting my bow into my Subaru at the end of the day, Kevin comes over looking sheepish. “I wanted to apologize… at the beginning of the day, I called you Sir. I really didn’t mean to, I’m the kind of person who looks at clothes more than faces, I know I need to be more careful. I hope I didn’t insult you!”
I laugh to see him so braced for indignant feminine wrath. “Don’t worry about Kevin. It happens to me all the time and I think it’s kind of funny.” I don’t think he’s ready to hear that I find it deeply affirming of my masculinity, but that should assuage his guilt. He looks relieved to be forgiven.
A month later I show up at a Hunters’ Firearms Safety Course with my petite femme girlfriend in tow, eager to get her hunter’s safety card so she can hunt deer with me during rifle season later in the fall. We make a striking pair, me tall and broad shouldered with a handsome short haircut, her long dark hair falling over a bright red coat, dusky grey nail polish on her slender fingers, and nimble dancer’s legs. I’m not so sure this crowd will appreciate the pairing, however, and her hand on my thigh during the lecture makes it hard not to read us as a couple. During the first break in the class, Kevin comes over to say hello. I introduce Leonore as my girlfriend, bracing myself for an awkward moment, but he greets her with enthusiasm.
“You know, the guys started teasing me as soon as you walked in. They said, ‘Look, that’s Mary, she’s probably still mad at you for calling her Sir!’ I told them you thought it was funny.”
“You can call me ‘Sir’ any time, Kevin!” I respond cheerfully, relieved at his friendly acceptance. We chat about hunting classes, and he proceeds to tell me about a student he had named Dani. “Dani was going through a change… medically. You know, like she had been Daniel and now she was Danielle. I could tell something was up because she had really strong, muscular arms. But we wanted her to feel comfortable in the class and we helped her shoot a rifle for the first time.” The anecdote is apropos of nothing, but I accept it as the olive branch it is intended to be. This straight ex-military guy wants me to know I am welcome there. Emboldened, I ask him about the hunter’s safety instructor classes. “Oh, you should totally come to one! They’ll be next June, it’s really fun. You can come help teach classes with me any time. There’s lots of women in the hunter’s safety classes these days and we don’t have any women instructors. I think that’d be great!”
As he returns to the teaching team Leonore comments, “Wow, you’re one of the bros now. These hunting guys love you.”
“They love me? What do you mean?”
“Yeah! Kevin came all the way over here to talk directly to you and no one else during the break. Clearly they like you. You’ve even got an invitation to teach with them.”
She’s got a point. Here I am, in the middle of conservative rural Vermont, standing on stained carpet in a metal barn with a crucifix mounted to its front, surrounded by guys wearing Budweiser shirts… and it doesn’t seem to be a problem. My fears here are internal, they are the shadows of our larger cultural dysfunction around gender and sexuality that impede my ability to be curious about these people and their beliefs. It seems that in this case I am judging them much more extensively than they are judging me. I’ve got my reasons: memories of hiking the Appalachian Trail alone and having a strange man grope my legs in the middle of the night at shelter, tales of the lesbian couple who were shot seven times by an unseen gunman while kissing in on a mountain trail, the painful judgment of the Fundamentalist Christian protesters who countered the gay marriage marches I took part in when I lived in San Francisco. My fear is an attempt to keep myself safe, not let down my watchfulness when I am out of my home territory. There is power and resilience in my fear… but there is limitation too. Maybe I can let down my guard enough to connect across political lines. Maybe I’ll go to that hunting instructor training next June and feel safe enough to have some conversations around the campfire that will give us all some things to ponder as we go back to our lives in our homogenous communities where all our neighbors think like we do.
Murphy is a butch wilderness guide from Central Vermont who runs Mountainsong Expeditions, a wilderness skills company that offers trips and trainings that are welcoming and empowering to women, queer folks, trans folks, and their allies. She teaches classes in the Sacred Hunt each fall. Murphy’s strongly masculine gender presentation gives her ample opportunity to observe gendered reactions on a daily basis in the small town where lives. She accepts a variety of pronouns and loves to get Sir’d!
In November of 2013 I took a new huntress on her first hunt. A freak snowstorm swept into Vermont that weekend, and temperatures plummeted into the single digits as we slept in our little dome tent. The next day we waded through the snow carrying my .30-.30 rifle, entranced by the fresh tracks that crisscrossed the 80 acre parcel of forest in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. We didn't see any deer that weekend, but I harvested a poem from the experience of watching this woman hunt for the first time:
Hunting in the Northeast Kingdom
She wears the white of fresh snow around her neck
The black of midnight next to her skin
Hart's blood stains her sweater scarlet
Dark eyes sharply scan the snow
Her heart is a .30-.30
Bullets of desire that always hit their mark
She follows the tracks down the ravine
Strong and certain
She claims what is already hers
Twilight falls, the Golden Hour
Blood and hair stain the snow
She feasts upon the bones of winter
Murphy has been writing about connection to nature since she was a teenager. Her work has been published in Communities Magazine and Stepping Into Ourselves: An Anthology on Priestesses. She is a huntress, wilderness guide, Tiny House dweller, and the founder of Mountainsong Expeditions.