On a grey, fall afternoon my friends and I are bundled up in warm clothes and wandering the community. We are ten year old boys playing out an ancient tradition our ancestors have acted out on a regular basis and one that is common throughout the world. We are hunting.
We are carrying slingshots made from the branches of small bushes that grow in the community. During the warmer summer months we have taken our time gathering the perfectly Y-shaped pieces of branch to create our slingshots. In the spring and summer, we played in the bush behind the local school and also by the Hudson Bay store. The bush areas were great places to meet our friends, where we would then hide under the thick foliage and spy on people as they walked along the road.
While playing our games we were always on the lookout for the perfect Y-shaped branch to make a slingshot. The piece of wood had to be strong with a thick central shaft for the handle and two smaller branches to which the slings would be fastened.
When someone found the perfect branch it was quickly snapped near its base to preserve the Y-shaped branch. It was important to grab the valuable piece of wood right away before someone else could claim it. I remember finding many of these special branches of wood and transporting them home so that I could transform them into weapons. My parents did allow me to use sharp objects when I was young but I have to admit that from time to time I snuck an axe and knife out to cut out my slingshot.
Even as young boys my friends and I were resourceful and could easily find substitutes for what we needed. The sling could be made out of anything that was rubber, strong and durable. Some of my friends used a series of rubber bands tied end to end, then doubled or tripled over to make a sling. Others cut out old rubber tubes from car, truck or bicycle tires as a sling substitute. I remember one boy who used about a hundred of his sister’s small brightly coloured rubber hair bands to make his sling. I guess he was a little unpopular at home for a while. There were a few lucky boys who actually purchased manufactured tube shaped rubber slings from the Hudson Bay Store.
To finish my project I asked mom for a piece of hide which she cut into an oval shape with two small holes for the rubber slings. To complete my sling, I used thin string to secure the rubber to the Y-shaped handle then to the hide. After some practice and a few adjustments the sling was ready to hurl small stones at unsuspecting targets. As soon as my parents discovered I had created my own slingshot, they were quick to warn me about its dangers and they threatened to take it away if I used it irresponsibly.
By the time we gathered our materials and completed our slingshots it was fall, which was a perfect time for bird hunting. I was never an accurate shot with my sling. The birds seemed to be too small a target to hit. One day I witnessed a friend kill a small bird with his sling and it occurred to me that it seemed a waste. I think I realized early on that this was just not for me. Some of my fellow hunters fed the dead birds to their dogs. Others even tried plucking, cleaning, gutting and cooking them at home to eat. Have you ever tried fried chickadees? Me neither.
It was only later on that I discovered that our playful activity was in fact a method of survival in the recent past. Dad explained that he and his brothers hunted with slingshots as young boys on the banks of the river in search of small birds for food. They used slingshots similar to what we built for play but theirs were much more serious weapons. Dad explained that during times of famine and when ammunition could not be afforded people used this method of hunting to kill all sorts of small game and birds to feed themselves. So, just think of it, back in about 1950 while so many in the south were dining on big meals every day some of my people were having to resort to hunting in the most primitive ways just to stay alive.
Even though my friends and I never really brought anything home, we were happy just to be out in the cool fall air. I really am amazed when I think about my dad’s story of surviving on the land. I realize now why my parents and elders encouraged this activity. It was a skill that had helped them survive during hard times not so long ago. It was a bit of knowledge they were happy to pass down just in case we ever fell on hard times again.