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In a community that faces challenges in affording food, a diabetes epidemic and loss of culture, the Short Hills hunt has been a small but significant victory. That's why protests about the hunt have been interpreted as an attack on Indigenous culture

Chester Gibson, of the Haudenosaunee Wildlife and Habitat Authority, and co-leader of the Six Nations of the Grand River hunt in Short Hills Provincial Park, speaks to visitors on Dec. 5.

For much of Chester Gibson's adult life, deer hunting outside the boundaries of the Six Nations Reserve was carried out stealthily. He'd be in a car going 30 kilometres per hour and dive out of the passenger seat clutching his crossbow, roll in a ditch and then disappear into the woods. When Mr. Gibson, who is Mohawk, was ready to be picked up, he'd plant a stick at the side of the road to alert his driver. Then he'd lug the deer carcass into the back of the truck as quickly as possible, jump in and take off. If caught, he could be prosecuted.

But this fall, when Mr. Gibson, 51, arrived in the middle of Short Hills Provincial Park for a six-day deer hunt, government parks officers and police greeted him warmly. After he successfully shot two white-tailed deer, ministry biologists who were in the park headed out on ATVs to fetch them and help load them onto Mr. Gibson's truck. It was a serious about-face, brought on by the government's 2013 recognition of an 18th-century treaty that outlined the hunting rights of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, Mr. Gibson's people, in southwestern Ontario.

The problem was driving out of the park. A group of protesters gathered at the entrance every sundown, toting signs that said "Meat is Murder" and "Don't use CULTURAL TRADITION As an excuse for CRUELTY and SPECIESISM and HUMAN SUPREMACY." They yelled "Shame!" recorded license numbers and held up drivers for several minutes before letting them pass.

In a community that faces challenges in affording food, a diabetes epidemic and loss of culture, the Short Hills hunt has been a small but significant victory – an important step toward reconciliation. Hard-won battles for recognition of fishing and hunting rights have been similarly transformative for other Indigenous communities. That's why the protests have been interpreted as an attack on Indigenous culture.

Brian Skye, co-leader of a six-day hunt, and member of the Haudenosaunee Wildlife and Habitat Authority, drives visitors into Short Hills Provincial Park on Dec. 5, 2017.

Still, letters in support of the Haudenosaunee hunters have come in from a range of groups, including the Niagara Anti-Racism Coalition, unions and even some animal-rights organizations. The Hamilton Animal Liberation Team said in a letter the fact that other deer hunts in the region (carried out by mostly white hunters) aren't protested while the one in Short Hills are, "makes it difficult for us to believe that it is not geared by racist ideology."

"It's pretty ironic when you're saying to people, 'get off my land,'" says Celeste Smith, who is Haudenosaunee but lives off-reserve. Nearly every day of the hunt, she gathers with other Indigenous people and allies to counter-protest at the park. "You're telling me what to eat and my grandmother was told what to eat at residential school."

The first Tuesday of December was the last day of the harvest – the community is particular about calling it a harvest, not a hunt. They see the deer as part of the ecosystem just like plants and water, not killed for sport. That day, pairs of camo-clad hunters carrying crossbows walk down hills as the sky turns from grey to pink to black. It's been a slow day: Rain and wind sent the deer into hiding, which meant only 20 hunters came out today, versus the first day's 75.

Reports of a deer shot nearby send a pair of ministry biologists on the trail with an ATV. When they return with a doe, two other biologists hook it to a scale and slit open its mouth to examine its jaw and determine its age.

Brian Skye shows visitors items made from various parts of harvested deer.

There are no restrictions on the number of deer that can be caught, but the community is only given access to Short Hills for six days a year, from sunrise to sunset, and hunters can only use bows.

Brian Skye, a member of the Cayuga Nation, who works with the Haudenosaunee Wildlife and Habitat Authority along with Mr. Gibson, has led workshops on the reserve on how to use a long, curved bow to hit a deer from a 35-yard range. The hunt has allowed a new generation – some as young as 16 – to pick up a tradition they may not have otherwise, he says.

It's also caused a shift in the community's diet. Beef used to be important for community ceremonies and the Haudenosaunee would routinely take a collection to raise the $3,000 needed to buy enough for each of them. The first year they were able to hunt deer marked the first time Mr. Skye recalls not having to buy beef – the freezer was overflowing with venison. It's a moment he was proud to share with his uncle, who had taught him how to hunt.

He says he wishes those picketing outside the park could also understand the significance of the hunt – that it was not about trophy killing, but about carrying on ancestral traditions that had become endangered in the years since European contact.

Protesters from the Animal Alliance of Canada march by the barricade outside Short Hills Provincial Park on Dec. 4, 2017, where members of the Six Nations of the Grand River were harvesting deer in the closed park.

On the second-last day of the hunt, ministry officers found nails on the trail leading to Short Hills, seemingly left there to puncture the tires of entering vehicles. The hunters have taken note of other acts of vandalism too. A spokesperson for the Ontario Provincial Police also confirmed they are investigating a crime that took place at the park during the last two days of the hunt but withheld details.

Meanwhile, since the fall of 2013, Liz White of Animal Alliance of Canada has stood at the entrance to the park with a dozen or more other protesters, both to speak out against the harvest and to keep a log of hunters and carcases.

Ms. White says her opposition to the hunt is aimed at the ministry allowing hunting in the park, not with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.

When asked about the vandalism in and around the park, Ms. White says, "That's not what we do."

Deyowidro’t, a first-time hunter, says she was called a ‘lady killer’ (a derogatory term for a woman who kills animals) when she drove in to the park on one day of the hunt.

"I think there have to be parcels of land somewhere in Ontario where we leave populations alone and watch the ecological processes so we understand how animals and plants and the environments interact with each other," she says.

Mr. Skye sees it differently. The deer hunt not only provides meat and hides, but it also brings balance to the ecosystem, he says. In Short Hills, the population is well above the carrying capacity of 50 deer – in 2016, it was about 400, according to the province's Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

Dawn Bazely, a York University biologist who has studied white-tailed deer populations since the early nineties, says the deer have done serious damage to the ground cover and trees. The deer aren't endangered, but the spike in their population has endangered many plant species.

Deyowidro't, a first-time hunter, says she was called a "lady killer" (a derogatory term for a woman who kills animals) when she drove in to the park on one day of the hunt. She says she brought her daughter the next day and was faced with jeers of, "Oh, she brought her kid! She brought her kid!"

Deyowidro’t begins to pack up after an unsuccessful deer harvest in Short Hills Provincial Park on Dec. 5, 2017.

Nutrition is the biggest motivating factor for her: As a registered dietician on the reserve, she knows the value of so-called country foods for her people. In recent years, she has worked with a team of researchers involved with the First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study to track contaminants in the food consumed by people who live on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve. The research team also surveyed thousands of Indigenous adults across Canada, including 1,429 in Ontario. In that region, they found that 49 per cent were obese and 30 per cent had diabetes.

Consuming a diet of lean deer and moose meat was associated with better health outcomes, the study reported. Three-quarters of those surveyed said they wanted to eat more traditional food and listed lack of a hunter as a barrier. The Haudenosaunee have given those without a hunter in the family a chance to reap the benefits of the Short Hills hunt.

On the first weekend, the meat was divided between the six longhouses – one for each of the six nations that make up the Haudenosaunee Confederacy – to use in their ceremonies. The second weekend, meat was offered to elders and the hunters were able to take the rest home. On the final two days, if each hunter had already filled his or her freezer, the surplus was divided between the longhouses.

"Large hunts like this gives time and space for people to get out on the land, to have their families together, to pass on tradition and skill and knowledge and to work collectively," Deyowidro't says. "It's not a shameful thing to be going out to get your own food."