04/14/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/13/2014 05:59 EDT

First elk hunt in 125 years for Tsleil-Waututh Nation

For the first time in over a century, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation are hunting elk in their traditional territory, and for John Thomas, 27, and Peter Waugh, 29, the hunt has deepened their relationship with the land, and to the practices of their ancestors.

Some of those practices, anyway.

Thomas and Waugh are self-described “modern” hunters. The cousins are outfitted with top-of-the-line rifles and scopes and have learned to butcher deer by watching YouTube videos. Waugh has even taught himself elk calls using an app on his smartphone.

It’s a far cry from how some of their First Nations elders, including Tsleil-Waututh hereditary chief Ernest George, were taught.

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

Thomas, Waugh and Chief George were part of the Tsleil-Waututh’s first elk hunt in Indian River, the band’s traditional territory in North Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet - the first elk hunt in over a century. 

“125 years ago," clarified Thomas, "was the last time an animal of that size was hunted on our lands. And we got the opportunity to be the first group to go up there and do that.”

When they brought the first elk down, Thomas and Waugh were overcome with emotion and they cheered and high-fived in celebration - something Chief George didn’t approve of.

“When we went hunting and got a deer, we thanked our ancestors for helping us, and we treated the animal with respect,” said Chief George.

“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.”

The cousins have done their best to incorporate the teachings of Elders like Chief 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,” said Waugh. “We’ve never been taught by anybody, so we take this information we’ve been given and we try our best. But we’re not going to stop cheering, I don’t think. It’s just something you feel inside, and I can’t stop that.”

The return of the elk

In the late 1800s, elk in the Indian River watershed were hunted out. And, until a recent reintroduction, they had been completely extirpated from mainland B.C.

“Back in the day there used to be elk up there, but then they had the big culling of them, explained Waugh. "They used to walk down Granville Street. They just wiped them right out in the Lower Mainland,” 

The process of returning elk to the Indian River watershed began about ten years ago, when British Columbia’s Ministry of Environment approached the Tsleil-Waututh as part of the Lower Mainland Roosevelt Elk Recovery Project.

In 2006, 20 elk from the Sunshine Coast were barged up to the watershed and released. Thomas was there for the reintroduction.

“It was like thunder,” said Thomas. “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.”

Six years later, the population was deemed strong enough for a limited hunt. Provincial wildlife officials still keep tabs on the elk, and the band manages their hunters. 

In order to ensure the continued health of the herd, only a handful of elk can be hunted each season. The Tsleil-Waututh conduct an annual lottery to determine which band members will get their chance. 

Elk are designated each year by the band as “community elk,” meaning that some, including the first elk shot in 2012, are hunted for community gatherings, and delivered to Elders.

Hunters sharing meat among the community is a practice steeped in Tsleil-Waututh tradition, according to hereditary chief Ernest George.

“They’d always be helping whoever had the least,” he said.

Today, volunteers from the band, including Thomas and Waugh, hunt community elk. Through their Treaty, Lands and Resources Office, Tsleil-Waututh provides equipment and transport to Indian River, which is only accessible by boat.

Chief George’s son, Ernie George, is the director of Treaty, Lands and Resources. 

“The nation doesn’t have a lot of funds,” he explained. “And our leadership decided this is important enough to back it up, and get our young guys up there with our elders to do the hunt. That’s why the first harvest ended up being a community event.”

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. 

“To be able to hunt for our community again, it’s an honour," said Waugh. It’s definitely something good for the community to go back to the old ways. There was a sense of pride, for the community, and for everybody involved,”

Hunting into the future

Camouflaged smartphone cases and high-fives may not have been a part of their Tsleil-Waututh ancestors’ hunting style hundreds of years ago, but Thomas and Waugh are certainly aware of the history of the hunt. And, for them, it’s not just stories passed down over generations. They’re living it. 

While Thomas and Waugh may do things their own way, the importance of the hunt to the Tsleil-Waututh is not lost on them. Through their involvement, they hope to inspire younger band members to get involved. 

“They’re going to inspire some more of that generation to take part,” said Ernie George. “I’m proud of both of them.”

“I’d definitely be interested in passing it on,” said Waugh. "The Tsleil-Waututh tradition of hunting nearly disappeared with the elk, explained Waugh,“ but we’re trying to get it back.”