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Revived elk hunt deepens a new generation's connection with tradition

Smartphone apps and top-of-the-line rifles and scopes are among the modern touches to this traditional hunt.

The sound of an elk herd charging out of a trailer into the wilderness just north of Vancouver, an area that they hadn't inhabited for more than a century, is a pounding a young aboriginal hunter will never forget.

"It was like thunder," said John Thomas, 27, of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. "All the cows rushing out of that trailer, and off down the road they went. I'll remember that for the rest of my life."

The 18 elk cows and two bulls from the Sunshine Coast were barged up Indian Arm in 2006 and were released into the Indian River watershed, as part of an effort to reintroduce a population that had been hunted out of existence by the late 1800s. The area is about 20 kilometres northeast of downtown Vancouver, but is accessible only by boat.

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By 2012, the herd was healthy enough to allow the Tsleil-Waututh Nation to hunt them – the first elk hunt in their traditional territory in more than a century.

Mr. Thomas and his hunting partner, Peter Waugh, 29, say the hunt has deepened their relationship with the land, and connected them to the practices of their ancestors, including the sharing of the meat at community gatherings. The first elk was hunted in 2012 and each year, only a handful of elk can be killed to ensure the continued health of the herd. This season, the band will shoot five. Mr. Thomas and Mr. Waugh, who won the right in a lottery, have bagged Mr. Waugh's elk and are still on the hunt for Mr. Thomas's.

The cousins have done their best to incorporate the teachings of elders such as the community's hereditary chief, Ernest George, into their hunting practices. After each kill – elk or deer – they bury the animal's innards, give a tobacco offering and say a prayer of thanks.

"We try our best to do it traditionally," Mr. Waugh said. "We've never been taught by anybody, so we take this information we've been given and we try our best."

But the pair also describe themselves as "modern" hunters. They are outfitted with top-of-the-line rifles and scopes and have learned to butcher deer by watching YouTube videos. Mr. Waugh has even taught himself elk calls using an app on his smartphone.

A generational gap was obvious when the first elk was killed.

When they brought the first elk down, Mr. Thomas and Mr. Waugh were overcome with emotion and they cheered and high-fived in celebration, to the chagrin of Mr. George: "When we went hunting and got a deer, we thanked our ancestors for helping us, and we treated the animal with respect. It's this modern-day stuff, that jumping up and cheering. You know, it's just their way of expressing. But that was not the way we were taught."

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Provincial wildlife officials still keep tabs on the elk, and the band manages its hunters.

Elk are designated each year by the band as "community elk," meaning that some are hunted for community gatherings, and delivered to elders. Hunters sharing meat with the community is a long held Tsleil-Waututh tradition, Mr. George noted.

Returning elk to Indian River has become a point of pride in the Tsleil-Waututh's small urban reserve, home to fewer than 300 people. The hunters who brought down the first elk were honoured in a ceremony, and the elk's head is mounted on the wall of the community centre.

Camouflaged smartphone cases and high fives may not have been a part of their Tsleil-Waututh ancestors' hunting style hundreds of years ago, but Mr. Thomas and Mr. Waugh say they are taking their role in preserving the Tsleil-Waututh's practices seriously.

Mr. Waugh noted the tradition of hunting nearly disappeared with the elk.

"But we're trying to get it back."

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