Native Americans: Our Nation’s Most Eager Hunter-Conservationists

Native Americans: Our Nation’s Most Eager Hunter-Conservationists

No one seems surprised to learn that Native Americans participate significantly more than the rest of U.S. society in archery, fishing, hunting, camping, hiking, trapping and target shooting.

In fact, even those Native Americans who aren’t active outdoors are usually more interested than most people to try those pursuits or learn more about them. That’s especially true if they can learn firsthand from tribal elders or older family members who respect and teach their tribe’s cultural and spiritual bonds with nature and the outdoors.

Those “obvious” facts highlight some key findings in a comprehensive 2022 study of Native Americans’ views of hunting, trapping and target shooting by the Outdoor Stewards of Conservation Foundation Inc. (OSCF). The OSCF conducted the study with a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

But if the above facts about Native Americans are so apparent, why aren’t wildlife agencies, outdoor organizations and manufacturers already targeting the nation’s 574 tribes and 9.7 million Alaskan and American Indian tribal members as potential hunters, trappers and target-shooters? After all, highly respected R3 programs aimed at recruitment, retention and reactivation  have spent the past decade trying to expand the nation’s hunting population. Why not focus on “target-rich” populations closely linked to the outdoors?

Maybe because those “facts” were more assumption than quantifiable fact until the OSCF crafted the study with help from the Little River band of Ottawa Indians and the Eastern band of Cherokee Indians. The team also commissioned Sherwood Enterprises in Connecticut to conduct the comprehensive study, which involved more than 1,350 Native Americans and 1,500 people from the general U.S. population, including both genders and all age groups.

First Study of its Kind
“No one had conducted this kind of research on Native Americans before, even though they’re the continent’s first conservationists,” said Jim Curcuruto, OSCF executive director. “All we had going in were assumptions, but we also knew the only way to conduct a legitimate, comprehensive study was to create partnerships. We assembled a team with vast knowledge of Native American cultures and determined what we needed to learn. With the baseline data this study generated, wildlife agencies and private organizations can now reach Native Americans more effectively. ”

The full report  and a half-hour webinar are available on the OSCF website.

One of the study’s critical findings was that culture and community matter deeply to Native Americans, whose outdoor activities are ingrained in their lifestyle. Native Americans also cite family, friends and tribal leadership as their strongest influences in outdoor activities. In fact, the study found 72 percent of Native Americans feel more connected to their ancestry when out in nature, and 81 percent agree nature is part of their heritage. Most Americans don’t share those feelings, with only 39 percent saying nature connects them with their ancestry, and 50 percent claiming nature as part of their heritage.

One reason many Native Americans feel so connected to nature is that high percentages of their families, friends and colleagues hunt, trap and target-shoot. That’s especially true of hunting, where 49 percent of Native Americans have a parent, uncle, sibling or cousin who actively hunts, while only 32 percent of other Americans have such connections. In general, Native Americans find support among their tribe for outdoor pursuits, while the general U.S. population does not.

In addition, Native Americans generally feel self-confident in their survival skills. When asked if they could survive on their own in the wilderness for a week or more, 55 percent of Native Americans said yes, while only 31 percent of other Americans expressed similar confidence.

Recruiting Success
Curcuruto said data like those suggest hunter-recruitment efforts on Indian reservations would probably be more successful than programs elsewhere. After all, when asked about their outdoor interests, 38 percent of Native Americans had participated in target shooting at some point in life, and 17 percent had done so the previous two years. Further, 41 percent said they had hunted in the past, and 18 percent said they had hunted within the past two years. Likewise, 11 percent had trapped in their lives, and 5 percent had trapped during the previous two years.

And when nonparticipants were asked if they were interested in learning more about hunting, trapping and shooting, 49 percent of Native Americans said yes to target shooting, 45 percent said yes to hunting, and 36 percent said yes to trapping.

“The support system among Native Americans makes outdoor education an easier sell than in most other parts of our society,” Curcuruto said. “And it’s really strong when the influence comes from their family or a tribal elder. Respect is a big factor in their culture.”

For instance, 68 percent of Native Americans said they’re especially influenced by a tribal elder, personal hero or someone they consider a celebrity. In contrast, only 39 percent of the general population is similarly influenced. Likewise, 65 percent of Native Americans said they would participate in hunting, trapping or target shooting if invited by a parent or uncle, while only 45 percent of the general population would be similarly swayed.

North Carolina’s Forrest Parker—a member of the Eastern band of Cherokee Indians and an experienced outfitter with Warrior Professional Hunting—was impressed by the survey’s depth and breadth.

“When I look at the study’s data, I’m jumping for joy as an R3 coordinator,” Parker said. “It shows our Native American culture is already immersed in outdoor activities, and we have fewer barriers between us and those activities than do most people in society. The necessary value systems are already in place and understood by Native Americans. That gives us much more ability to recruit from within our population.”

Trust and Recognition
The study also found Native Americans didn’t distrust state and federal agencies, or their programs, as much as one might assume. Although doubts and skepticism remain, the obstacles aren’t rigid. Chuck Wahr—a tribal member with the Little River band of Ottawa Indians in Michigan, and a former sales and marketing executive at Trijicon—said it’s important to recognize these possible barriers and work with tribal members to address them.

“The survey found huge variations in the way Native Americans view and interact with agencies, but those relationships were actually better than I had assumed,” Wahr said. “The survey should help everyone work together more closely, and find better tools and more funding for hunting, trapping and shooting programs.”

In addition, the study found that outdoors companies hoping to expand “brand recognition” within tribes will likely find ample opportunities. For the most part, tribal members currently show little brand loyalty to specific archery, firearm and ammunition manufacturers. In contrast, Native Americans show tremendous brand awareness and loyalty to Nike shoes and sportswear, particularly its N7 lineup. Nike created that collection in 2009 to “get youths in Native American and Indigenous communities moving.”

Parker attributes that brand-loyalty vacuum to companies not knowing Native Americans’ cultural values. “There’s a void between the tribes and the hunting industry, but it wouldn’t take much to fix it,” he said. “Tribes will usually support and show extreme loyalty to those who support their values. Nike is a great example of it. They’ve built strong brand loyalty with Native Americans across the country with the N7 collection. Wherever you walk on a reservation, you see kids wearing N7 gear.”

Wahr agreed. “There’s a huge opportunity right now for outdoors manufacturers to build brand loyalty with tribes,” he said. “It’s not necessarily easy, because you need to learn what’s important to each individual tribe. But it’s not that hard to find out, either. Bow and firearms manufacturers would do well to work with tribal elders to find respectful market niches to fill.”

The Next Steps
Curcuruto hopes agencies, manufacturers and Native Americans will use information from the study to spark conversations that get them working together.

“I’d hate to see all the time, hard work and results from this survey go to waste,” he said. “The Outdoor Stewards of Conservation Foundation is already paying attention to the survey’s recommendations. Our challenge now is to create actionable programs we can adapt to tribes nationwide. I see great potential for creating some of the most successful R3 programs anyone’s ever seen.”

About the Author
Patrick Durkin of Waupaca, Wisc., is an award-winning outdoor writer and newspaper columnist. A contributor to American Hunter magazine and a contributing editor for the Archery Trade Association, he writes regularly for national hunting magazines, previously serving as an editor of Deer & Deer Hunting, Whitetail Hunting Strategies and National Whitetail Hunter’s Journal. In addition, Durkin has been MeatEater's wildlife research contributor since 2018 and an editor for Inside Archery magazine, an archery industry trade publication, since 2014.

After serving in the U.S. Navy from 1975 through 1980, Durkin earned a journalism degree at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. He married his wife, Penny, in 1980, and they have three daughters and six grandchildren.