Ecology and Identity
Ecology and Identity in the Northwoods Finnish American Poaching Techniques and Narratives
On Christmas Eve 2001, I attended a holiday party with some friends of mine in the Lake Superior region of the American Upper Midwest. Ill call them the Koskinens.’ Like many Finish American families of the region, the Koskinens sometimes discretely poached dee Koskinens invited a neighbor, Harry, to join them. Harry was a coarse Polish American, recently retired, who spent most of his time boasting, lying, and poaching. The last time I saw Harry, he asked me if I had fishing luck on the opening weekend for walleye. He griped how this would be the last time he started fishing in May. Last year, he said, he had the bottom of his freezer already lined with walleye before the season opened. When a few Koskinens started talking about their good ice-fishing luck earlier that day, Harry blurted out that he was still fishing when he was at the party.
He had illegally left tip-ups unattended, which he’d check only a couple times a day, sometimes having to wind up hundreds of feet of line with the tip-up’s tiny hand crank if a hooked fish swam off across the lake. As people began exchanging gifts, Harry stood near the television, watching a gunfight in the movie Romancing the Stone, sizing up the draw times of the different cast members, muttering loudly to himself, “Pretty good draw on that fella.” Tom Koskinen had bought as gifts for his brothers million- candlepower spotlights, commonly used for illegally shining deer at night. With tongue in cheek, Tom explained their many practical legal uses, like watching tip-ups at night from inside a house. Harry piped up that he had one too, except it was two million candlepower and he’d used it just last week when he was hunting by the state border. When Tom Koskinen asked him if there was an early T-Zone deer hunt there this year, Harry blurted, “What or fish. That night, the In the Lake Superior region, hunting, fishing, and gathering have always held a deeper significance than mere recreation. Hunting and fishing are in- extricable from the region’s constructed histories, economies, and ethnici- ties. Deeply integrated into regional life, these practices serve as functional economic resources that distinguish the region from the more productive agricultural lands that lie farther south.
Though fewer people need to hunt and fish to avoid starvation today than in the early to mid-twentieth century, these traditions have continued partly because of a belief in self-reliance and in the sustainable utilization of forests and waters. In other words, for many longtime inhabitants of the region, it makes more sense to pick your own blueberries than to buy them in the store. These traditional lifeways are not simply done for fun; rather, they are treated and discussed as work, and for many people they represent a valuable subsidy to the terribly low incomes and high unemployment which still plague the region. Fueled by lo- cal poverty and recreational-based ecological management, the small-scale poaching of deer and fish has always been relatively common in this region. Though poaching is neither ethnically nor regionally distinct, within the Finnish American community it has become something of an ethnic symbol. Finnish Americans have long been regarded as some of the region’s most notorious poachers, and many popular Finnish American writers, such as Lauri Anderson and Joseph Damrell, have used poachers as protagonists in their short stories and novels. There are as many types of poachers as there are reasons for poaching from Robin Hood to ivory poachers, from wolf-shooting ranchers in the American West to traditional Sámi fishermen on the Deatnu River whose indigenous rights were stripped to promote tourism. However just or un- just the lawbreaking, poaching is nearly certain to be a form of political dis- sent and resistance against dominant ecological management. This dissent is manifested in various forms. Harry’s poaching is boisterous, public, and self-serving, as his antisocial boldness affirms his lofty station in an individu- alistic world. Part outlaw, part frontiersman, Harry’s poaching is bound to his sizing-up of movie gunslingers. Both establish agency through antisocial behavior. The Koskinens’ poaching, on the other hand, barely surfaces in this Christmas Eve episode.
Not only does Tom Koskinen try at great length to conceal the principal use of the spotlights, but that day’s “good fishing luck” also brought in considerably more northern pike than the legal limit for that day. Unlike Harry, who calls as much attention as possible to his illegal ac- tivities, the Koskinens rarely speak openly about doing anything illegal, and many of the Koskinens’ poaching exploits sound exactly like their hunting or fishing counterparts. Poaching in Finland was already a well-established tradition by the mid- nineteenth century, during the beginning of the first large emigrations from Finland. The legal aspects of hunting and fishing rights became even more important in the nineteenth century, fueled by a drastic population increase (390,000 in 1720, 863,300 in 1810, 1,768,800 in 1870) as well as the increase in landlessness and sharecropping following the wars and famines of the early eighteenth century (Talve 18, 25).’ Under the Swedish model of fishing rights, employed in Finland since the Middle Ages, landowners were given the right to fish in communal fishing waters yet forced the landless to pay fees equal to half their catch (Talve 79) Following the steep decrease of landownership in Finland, which had fallen from 81 percent in 1754 to 35.5 percent in 1901 (Talve 26), the steep fees for fishing contributed to the poaching culture. In Richard Dorson’s Bloodstoppers and Bearwalkers, Finnish immigrant Frank Valin mentions poaching in Swedish-dominated Ostrobothnia, remarking, “The lakes were full of fish but we could not fish in them; neither could we hunt game, except by stealth, for the land was owned by our ‘betters.’ Is it a wonder that we left Finland to anecdote of stock character Jussi the Workman, who clashes with his master who refuses to allow him fishing rights because “fishing is the sport of the gentry” (Dorson 130).’
Finally allowed to fish for bream, Jussi plays the sim- pleton and tricks his master by paying his fee in fish heads and tails. The rapid gentrification of hunting and fishing rights in southern and western Finland deviates dramatically from the tradition of community-based ownership, a reality that is evident in Valin’s commentary on emigration and reflects the mentality which many Finnish immigrants brought to North America The Lake Superior region, however, was subject to exploitative resource management during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The rapid clear cutting of the region’s vast forests contributed to the decimation of native fauna, leaving many species extinct, displaced, or struggling to sur- vive. It also affected many of the residents who deeply relied on the woods and waters for food through the 1960s. Even after the ecology began to re- cover, locals faced a new set of challenges as the region’s tourist economny be- gan to emerge. Finnish American dialect singer “Hap” Puotinen laments the mismanagement of the wilds in his “Home, Oh How Strange (The U.P. that Used to Be),” a parody of the idealism of “Home on the Range.” After noting that the woods are too quiet, and that many animals have died off, Puotinen assesses blame:
“Nau vhere vas ta teers tat ve kaarit for ‘ears, / Anta pirtsiis tat flooing ta koops? /Tey pin manets so vell tey vas aal kaanu hell.” (“Now where were the deer that we carried for years/And the birdies that flew the coops?/They been managed so well, they was all going to hell.”) (Puotinen 4). The push in the latter half of the twentieth century to transform the Lake Superior region into a tourist economy has brought about strain and com- petition over fishing resources as “downstaters” are encouraged to go “up north” to fish. The ability to legally sustain a mixed economy-or an economy in which traditional, sustainable lifeways significantly supplement a prin- cipal occupation-is jeopardized when tourism drives land-use policy and conservation efforts. Unlike Finland’s regional approach to fishing rights, all the waters in the Lake Superior region are managed by states, and they clearly reflect the state’s immediate interests in promoting different kinds of revenue-generating tourism, like trophy fishing, which is sustained by im- posing harsh bag limits and extremely minimum-size requirements on spe- cific waterways.
Such state control, Puotinen alleges, manages the game to hell, destroying local ecology for the profit of some faceless few. Concealed among the fish lining the bottom of Harry’s freezer and the rhetorical reticence of poaching in the Koskinens’ public narrative is a com- plex system of political resistance to these dominant recreational ecological values. The discourse shaped around this political issue is not simply two- sided, it is seldom direct, and it remains inextricable from learned behavior patterns which date back generations. Like many poachers, the Koskinens have their own strict harvest ethics. They believe deeply in taking only what one needs, and for them wasting fish or game is considered deeply shame- ful. They are also perpetually vigilant for signs of overharvest. This “good poacher” tradition is, in fact, an international phenomenon. Upper Peninsula memoirist Cully Gage frequently writes about poacher Lafe Bodine, who had a reputation for delivering poached deer to the hungry (22). In his Confes- sions of a Poacher, nineteenth-century English poacher John Watson insists, “The successful ‘moucher’ must be an inborn naturalist-must have much in common with the creatures of the fields and woods around him” (8).10 Yet if a poacher is a sort of naturalist, what then is a hunter?
The Koskinens’ poaching tradition can perhaps be best understood by looking at the concept they reject, that of hunting as recreation and a fascinating treatise on recreational hunting, Beyond Fair Chase: The Ethic and Tradition of Hunting, Montana biologist and hunter-conservationist Jim Posewitz offers ethical and moral instruction for sport hunting: sport. In Fundamental to ethical hunting is the idea of fair chase. This con- cept addresses the balance between the hunter and the hunted. It is a balance that allows hunters to occasionally succeed while animals generally avoid being taken. This would be a simple concept if it were a single hunter pursuing an animal in massive wild country…. When the hunter with spear in hand stalked wildlife in the pri- mal forest, the pursuit was well within the bounds of fair chase. (57-58) As Posewitz conjures the primeval hunter, he reminds readers that sport is largely contingent not only on recreation but on re-creating the ritual staging of human prehistory. Such staging is entirely ordinary in many Western hunting traditions, and the increased primeval symbolism of the hunt often corresponds with decreased importance for the daily role of hunting, fishing, and gathering in regional folklife. In his book Forests:
The Shadow of Civiliza- tion, Robert Pogue Harrison explores the English tradition of the royal hunt, a heavily symbolic hunt which followed the regal assertion of forest own- ership and the closing of the forests to peasant hunting. “The hunt ritual- izes and reaffirms the king’s ancient nature as civilizer and conqueror of the land, … [which reenacts] in a purely symbolic way, the historical conquest of the wilderness,” Harrison writes (74).” Despite this symbolic return to our perceived primeval roots, both royal and sporting hunt ritualize our dis- tinctiveness from these imagined ancestors. Harrison stresses that the king is not simply a hunter; rather, he is the bringer of social order, a creator of civilization, through subversion of the vast and undifferentiated amalgam of wildness and wilderness. Likewise, Posewitz’s emphasis on fair chase re- minds us that in spite of the technology that distinguishes human from beast, the greatest distinction is our own ethical prowess in an uncertain modern world.
The benevolence of the hunter who chooses the “fair chase” rather than the indiscriminate slaughter is a contrast Posewitz suggests our ances- tors could not fathom. A ritualized re-creation of civilization’s birth, this hunting embodies the belief that civilized people no longer need to hunt for food, thus reinforcing the human-beast dichotomy by returning its sym- bolic moment of genesis, the subversion of wilderness. Though Posewitz speaks accurately of the hunter-conservationist ethic, this transformation from necessity to sport hunting relies upona strong sense of the wilderness-civilization dichotomy. Whether a continuation of long- standing Finnish communal ownership of forest and waters or a result of the Social circumstance of living in close proximity to forests, the Koskinens, like many Finnish Americans, downplay the importance of this dichotomy. Like others in the region, the Koskinens sometimes hunt from the home. Tom Koskinen describes one such technique: This is what my brother and I would do when we were younger. We’d put a hay bale right outside of my bedroom window. Now my window was directly above a window in our basement. We’d take out the glass from the basement window and replace it with a translucent plastic. This would have been December, during bow-hunting season. The deer would move in to feed on the hay just after dark. Now I’d be up in my dark bedroom, and my brother would be down in the basement with a bow. I’d shine a flashlight out the window, onto the deer. He couldn’t see the deer because the plastic was translucent, but he could sce the bright illumination of the flashlight. So I’d point the flashlight towards where he should shoot, and he’d shoot at the beam. Then the next morning, we’d go out and track. 13 Hunting from the home is an important symbol for Finnish Americans that suggests how the ecological world might be constructed-without borders between these two supposedly diametrically opposing regions, domicile and wilderness. Finnish American writer Lauri Anderson picks up this theme in his Heikki Heikkinen collection (27-28).”
Anderson describes Heikki, an eighty-year-old Finnish American, hunting from his kitchen while sipping coffee in the early morning. Anderson points out, though, that Heikki did not always hunt from the home: Heikki used to be a real hunter-every bit as daring as Frank Buck or Ernest Hemingway. When he was younger, he would dump the deer bait in his back field. Then he’d wait in a blind constructed from an old picnic table. He’d even wear the appropriate orange jacket and an orange hat with ear lappers. (28) Comically, Heikki’s wilderness experience is defined most explicitly in terms of the civilized world: picnic tables, back fields, and orange ear lappers. But while Anderson supposedly mocks Heikki’s ignorance of what it means to be a “real hunter,” he actually suggests that Heikki has never accepted the civilization-wilderness dichotomy at all, satirizing those who place faith in its credence. In regions where a mixed economy remains active or within historical memory, deviations from Posewitz’s model of sport are perhaps inevitable.
Whereas Posewitz asserts that the “ethical hunter never chases or harasses wildlife with a machine” (61), Tom Koskinen clearly violates these ethics: Here’s something I learned from my dad. Partridge like to hang by the sides of the road, and if you spot one when you’re driving, you try to straddle the car over the top of the bird. It’s just high enough to nick the bird’s head, killing it instantly, and that way you don’t damage any of the meat. The only problem is if it flushes straight over the car. Then you’ll hit it dead on, and you’ll have an awful mess. You’ve got to be moving pretty fast too, maybe thirty miles an hour, so this doesn’t really work on old logging roads. A few times I’ve driven across the state hunting the whole way. The limitations Posewitz would place on technology prove highly prob- lematic under scrutiny. How does one draw a line between Koskinen’s car hunting and fish finders, outboard engines, magnifying scopes, or ATVS? All are regular components of many sportsmen’s gear and all are undoubtedly part of the “chase.” While I suspect that Posewitz remains relatively uncon- cerned with these latter sporting tools, I trust he would turn a wicked eye to- ward Koskinen’s practice. Upon closer inspection, however, the subtleties of Koskinen’s practice, his concern about a clean kill and a painless technique, seem to run counter to the supposed barbarism of poaching. Why, then, does Koskinen’s practice endure such stigmatization? The eating of road kill is a popular topic of jest and ridicule, as well as the subject for Buck Peterson’s popular The Original Road Kill Cookbook. Though many find the idea of eating car-killed animals revolting, others see little difference between a shot animal and one killed following a collision. The Koskinens have eaten road kill, including the fresh road kill of others.
The origin of this intense stigmatization is less related to bacteria than to the powerful economic distinction made between those who eat road kill and those who do not. Had the partridge been killed “sportingly,” it would be a delicacy. Disgust and revolt emanate from the need to eat unsportingly killed animals, a practice apparently below the noble mind of the sportsman for whom the fallen partridge represents not a vulgar food source but human mastery over the wilderness. Proudly engaging in a stigmatized behavior, Koskinen sees through the illusion of sport, dismissing its reductive claims about technology and fair chase while exposing its elitist attitudes toward nonsporting hunters. For the poacher, cleverness and innovation are central components to survival. Though most poaching occurs without incident, many poachers understand their own ritualized role as the “prey” of the warden. The sport between poachers and wardens is very real and cannot be dismissed as mere rhetorical play. If sport means little to a poacher’s hunting, it figures centrally as they place themselves in vulnerable positions while competing publicly with wardens. Though the Koskinens maintain clean reputations and know the woods and waters well enough to avoid wardens, they are well versed in concealment methods.
Tom Koskinen describes one such strategy: “Another trick poachers use for fishing is when they catch too many fish, they’ll hook a stringer onto their anchor and lower the first stringer to the bottom of the lake with their anchor and then they can put another stringer on there.”1 A warden’s own ingenuity is the key to catching these poachers, and by pretending to have nothing to hide, the poacher can escape the reputation he or she might otherwise establish through suspicious behavior. The poached fish on the anchor are present, not detachable from the boat, linking emblem- atically the fate of the fish to the fate of the fishermen, leaving the warden engaged in a contest of wits with the poachers based on an immediate knowl- edge of the local environment Without this sporting element, without the game of the chase, the rela- tionship between poachers and wardens can change in nature entirely. Tom Koskinen’s son, Mike, tells a story of his grandfather, Tom Koskinen’s fa- ther, an occasional poacher who also worked for the Department of Natural Resources: Oh, and don’t forget the story about the old-timer who showed up on opening morning when Grandpa was manning a registration station.
The deer’s eyes were all sunken in and it had severe rigor mortis. The body cavity looked all dried up. “Just shot him this morning?” asked Grandpa? “You bet, first thing” was the reply Grandpa nodded and registered the deer.20 The old-timer’s inept poaching does not fool the registrar, but he is still al- lowed to poach without consequence. Without the illusion of sport, the reg- istrar has no will to fine the old-timer. His poaching attempt was so pathetic and ill conceived that nothing can be gained by prevailing in a pairing of wits. In this episode, the absence of fair chase causes a breakdown in the prescriptive relationship between warden and poacher, a relationship which by nature is less legal than it is ecologically schematic. Poachers equally participate in the sport between themselves and war- dens. The hiding of illegal game in plain sight serves as both security to divert suspicion, as well as a self-satisfying means by which an individual poacher can assert greater authority over the ecological landscape than a warden. When the poacher knows the land and regional ecology better, the poacher fools the warden, whose formal education and training are subordinated by local know-how.
The poacher therefore creates a sense of agency and en- titlement to poaching-thereby affirming his own notion of nonsporting hunting-through his ecological deftness, his inborn naturalistic prowess. Koskinen thus describes another technique: This is what some ice fishermen do, when they catch fish they don’t want to have a warden see, maybe a walleye after season or if you pull up more fish than your limit. This was done when people were using ice chisels to break through the ice. They’d chisel into the ice a little reservoir hole, maybe a foot or two in diameter, without breaking into water. Then, they’d chisel a real small hole completely through the ice, just a couple inches in diameter. The reservoir fills completely with water, and you put your illegal fish in there. Then the top will freeze up, and you can cover it with snow. The fish will stay fresh too, that way, and not freeze up. Because of the region’s plentiful snows, hiding the catch when ice fishing is usually not difficult. However, this technique is especially useful when someone is fishing for extended periods of time on waters that are heav- ily patrolled by wardens. To rebuild the necessary ice takes time, and the poacher still must remove and transport the catch without being caught. Yet this technique perhaps serves less of a practical function than it does a so- ciological one. Here Koskinen offers a red herring, noting that the fish will stay fresh and not freeze up, instead of offering an explanation that explains the elaborate holding structure. Though it is practical not to have one’s fish freeze through, snow insulates adequately on all but the longest or coldest of days. The creation of this tank is symbolic, a demonstration of a supe- rior knowledge of the immediate ecology, steering poaching from its solely pragmatic roots and establishing a tangible naturalistic The agency generated by the cleverness of such a structure far outweighs its practical aspects. “Form-a-buck,” a practice used by a pair of Koskinen’s brothers during the 1980s, not only exhibits the aesthetics of hiding an illegal deer in plain sight, but it also demonstrates the unwillingness to comply with laws based on values that tightly regulate gendered kills. Originally used to increase the deer population, the recovery of the deer herd left many questioning the con- tinuation of buck-only laws. Koskinen takes credit for thinking up the fol- lowing technique, but he insisted he has never tried it: hing aesthetic. They called it “form-a-buck.” Form-a-buck recipe: 1. Cut off the horns of a spike or small fork. 2. Drill 4 inch hole into the base of each antler. 3. Use toilet anchor bolts or double-ended screw. Thread one end into the horn. 4. When a doe needs to be converted into a buck, use a nail and hammer to puncture the skull and screw the horn onto the head. This was used by a couple of my brothers in the U.P. They hada couple sets of antlers. They were in their 40s, old enough to know better! The methodology in creating bucks is subtle yet demonstrates a refined set of skills about how deer are gazed at and handled by registrars, neighbors, and strangers. The late November cold freezes the screws firmly in place, so that the antlers would not pivot if they were handled gently. Unlike similar tech- niques I’ve heard about in Minnesota which use larger antlers, Koskinen’s antler choice attracts less scrutiny than a larger set, which would be more closely admired; likewise, a smaller antler provides significantly less torque on the screw if the antlers were to be manhandled. Registered and conscien- tiously hung high on a buck pole, these deer proudly maintain a poacher’s best work within the public domain, secretly celebrating open defiance of the law.
This silent public persona recalls the Koskinen’s Christmas Eve epi- sode; it is the silence which marks communities, codifying insider-outsider dichotomies which divide and define an ethnically transmitted discourse about ecology and people’s place within it. Though the Koskinens participate in one poaching tradition among many that coexist and interact within a poaching community, they utilize poaching as an activity which defines them ideologically, economically, politically, and historically from the sportsman. This conflict is one of cultural clashes, one in which the wealthy and powerful in a late-capitalist economy control eco- logical and economic management policies of regions in which they do not reside. For many in the Finnish American community, poaching is a continu- ation of nineteenth-century tradition, rooted in a complex of individualism, poverty, and traditional reliance upon the local forests and waters for food. The tradition of mixed economy differs from that of the ways, most centrally their incorporation of the notion of sport. While both poacher and sportsman incorporate the concept of sport into their hunting and fishing and use the notion of sport to justify the fairness of their actions, only the sports man is competing with the animals; the poacher’s game is entirely different.