Hunters in James Smith Cree Nation stocking up on wild game to prepare for COVID-19 pandemic

When Tanya Sanderson heard the news that COVID-19 had hit Saskatchewan, she knew she had to act fast to help her people.

She put out a call on Facebook to her fellow members of James Smith Cree Nation, located in northern Saskatchewan. She wanted to raise $400 to buy bullets for hunters.

"We ended up raising $530," Sanderson said. "And after that more donations came rolling in."

She and her husband bought 11 boxes of shells and distributed them to hunters 10 at a time.

"We just ask that they donate what they kill to those families that ask." 

Supplied by Tanya Sanderson

Sanderson said there are still more bullets left and she encourages those that need them to get in touch with her. 

"I told them to message me and they'll be left on the back step because we're trying to practice social distancing, especially with my job," said Sanderson, who is a medical transporter for the community. "I don't want anyone coming around my place because I'm around the sick, and the hospitals a lot of the time."  

Supplied by Tanya Sanderson

Sanderson said her goal is simple. 

"I know for me and my husband we both work, and for a lot of the people here are not fortunate to have jobs and it's a struggle. And I could see that this was going to be a big pandemic, something that we never faced before," she said. 

"I hope that it will feed a lot of families that are not as fortunate, and to remind the communities to look after each other - because were going to need each other right now."

Supplied by Tanya Sanderson

Sanderson said that she and her husband made a list of families that wanted wild meat. About 40 families have signed up. So far eight families, or roughly 20 to 25 people, have received meat. 

"Our main priority are for those on social assistance because we are in a position where we don't need it, but others do."

Asked about the hunting efforts in his community, James Smith Cree Nation Chief Wally Burns said safety is key. He said hunters must make sure the animals don't have chronic wasting disease and that they are butchered and packaged properly.

"We have got to make sure that everything is to a T, making sure that its vacuum sealed, and wait for the day when this whole thing hits our community and we already have people that are identified. They know where to drop it off and when to drop it off," Burns said.

Hunting, a lifeline for Indigenous families

In the quiet forest, Richard Brittain Jr. has been putting tobacco down on the ground each and every time he and his cousins go hunting. They take their time smoking their last cigarette and say a prayer.

"We put tobacco down in respect to Mother Earth — the animals, the four-legged — to the grandmothers and grandfathers that left us this way of life, and we ask them to be there to protect us, to protect us as we hunt and gather each day," Brittain said.

Supplied by Richard Brittain Jr.

During the past few weeks Brittain and his cousins have been stockpiling wild meat not just for their family, but for their whole home community of James Smith Cree Nation.

"We have donated about 600 pounds of meat to our community hall. They're saving it just in case the pandemic gets worse. If problems come to where our people have to get relocated and have to come home, then we have food."

He said that the wild game that they bring back connects them to the land and the animals.

"It helps us fight sickness. It goes into our DNA, the bloodlines of who we are as Indigenous people," he said. 

"When us First Nations people consume and eat that wild meat, we're also extracting and consuming that medicine that the animals have gathered and they ate."

Supplied by Richard Brittain Jr.

Brittain said he is proud to see how everyone has come together to prep and process the meat that they bring back. 

"It's a lot of meat - and it's a lot of footwork," he laughs. He said that he does not hunt for his community for money or recognition, but that being a hunter definitely separates them from their community in a way. 

"We're the ones to take care of our people. We're the ones that take care of our trap," he said. 

"We're the ones that take care of our elders, our chiefs, our councils. We help them. We're helpers - the helpers of our people."