The Right to Lawfully Kill


Aug 6, 2020:Driver intentionally strikes, kills six pronghorn near Christmas Valley

I read this headline right before bed, during my routine check of my town’s COVID-19 cases. (We’re over two hundred now, if you’re wondering).

The title of the article caught me, in a different kind of way. The combination of intentionally strikes + kills + Christmas did something to my mind. Sentences and how they’re structured have a way of capturing my attention since completing my MFA in creative writing.

Pam Houston, a trusted mentor and writer, has been known to call sentences like this “glimmers.” We met at the Institute of American Indian Arts three years ago. Last week when we spoke, she tells me to get the fuck out of town while I can.

Six pronghorn antelope were run down with a pickup truck on a Lake County roadway on April 26.

It takes me a second to calculate the timing in my head. It is now August, and the last several months have been an unending run-on of chaos and calamity. I remind myself about April: pandemic, working remotely, finding out my wife is pregnant, and my certainty that by summer this stuff would work itself out. Now, after a three-month delay, this story lands on the front page of the local paper. Alongside it are updates on the Caldwell Fires that scorched the Lava Beds National Monument just south of us in California and a story on the contamination of the clear and clean water in Crater Lake, both important historic and ancestral places to the local Indigenous peoples, the Klamath Tribes.

The Caldwell Fires burned 83,000 acres. The National Park Service calls the national monument the land of turmoil, both geological and historical because of the volcanic eruptions and the Modoc War. Klamath Falls is east of the Cascades; this part of Oregon is high desert, and rain is scarce. My wife and I stay indoors most days, as I work remotely and she is a remote full-time student. We do grocery pickups, wear our masks, and avoid crowds. We were doing that in April; we are doing that now in August. But then these fires, the smoke filled our lungs, the back of our throats dried up and forced us to evacuate.

The driver, [name omitted], 48, of Christmas Valley, told authorities that he did it because he hates pronghorn.

We chose Bend; it’s only a few hours drive, and has fewer COVID-19 cases per capita. My parents called to check in on us before we left town. As my hometown of Hugo, Oklahoma is known as Circus City USA, I make sure to answer their call as a carny: “Step right up, take your pick! Get sick with COVID-19? How about the white supremacists with the assault rifles? Or last, but certainly not least, smoke inhalation from the annual wildfires? Come on, don’t be shy!” We laugh until we don’t.

I’m a diversity, equity, and inclusion professional. A white woman tells me about How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram Kendi. There are these lists and guides circulating that share how professionals and organizations can be antiracist. The local Unitarian congregation is reading White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. Someone brings up Indigenous People’s Day, and asks what speakers to bring in. They offer, “Have y’all heard of Tommy Orange? I’m reading his book There, There.” I tell them he’s my mentor from IAIA. They say nothing.

Pam tells me that she feels she has to use her platform because white people listen to her, looking for what to think about everything going on in this country. I try not to yell when a white person shares a “new” tool or tip they’ve learned. I scratch my head, wondering where their learning and open-mindedness was when the Black, Indigenous, or person of color in their life shared the same thing last week, last month, last year. I speculate, when they do not see or hear me right in front of them, whether I have to wait till I get a slot on NPR for my words to matter.

According to Oregon State Police Fish & Wildlife Division troopers, they discovered a grisly scene of five doe and one buck pronghorn antelope carcasses strewn along Fossil Lake Road near Christmas Valley.

On the phone, Pam congratulates me on the recent decision in the court case, McGirt v. Oklahoma, the one which scared all the white people because the US Supreme Court acknowledged that much of the land in eastern Oklahoma is Indian Country, a large chunk of which is the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, where I am a citizen and grew up. I say, not so fast, that could still get screwed up, nothing is a given anymore. I’d thought the events at the turn of the year were huge at the time. Oklahoma’s governor, against pretty much everyone’s wishes, Republican and Democrat alike, pushed for renegotiating the compacts for Indian gaming and demanded a larger percentage of proceeds, arguing that they were set to expire anyway. The new year came, and the tribes continued operating like normal. Now the governor has paid over 1.5 million dollars in legal fees, is recovering from COVID-19, and we are asserting our sovereignty with the blessing of the US Supreme Court. Imagine that.

The buck’s horns had been removed and taken as a trophy.

The person next door to our hotel room in Bend sounds like my cousin, a Gen Zer talking on the phone to his buddy. We’re staying in one of those rooms where there’s a door between you and the room on the other side of the wall, but neither room is going to unlock their side so it’s safe. It’s late at night; my wife is still doing homework, and we pause to listen. He says he tested positive for COVID-19, that it was just bad allergies for two days. Has antibodies now, and feels like a superhero. “I survived the apocalypse,” he says.

One doe was eviscerated with a knife—her unborn fawn removed and placed on its mother’s carcass. May is fawning season for antelope in Oregon. Any pregnant does would have given birth within a month had they not been killed, according to ODFW.

My therapist keeps being surprised by where I’m calling from, and what’s happening around me. I say the world is on fire. I say I’m seeing things. During all this time spent inside my house my spirit travels back to Choctaw County: the thick air, flat land, and rain. I’m having conversations with my uncles while we plant okra, squash, and corn, and maybe, talking through all this world-altering stuff instead of getting frustrated by what my extended family posts on Facebook. My therapist calls my mental travels “portals.” I tell him I’m learning to not be afraid of the silence.

It’s hard for me to not start any conversation about our country without first mentioning that everything must burn down. Pam tells me if Biden is elected, she will stay for the reconstruction. I’m wondering, she’s wondering: what if? What happens if Donald Trump is reelected? Stays in office, refuses to leave? In 2016, I was surprised that the Christians voted for him. In 2020, I’m surprised there is no empathy in this country. That for all nationalism and patriotism is supposed to be and stand for, we can’t even care enough about each other to wear a piece of fabric to cover our faces during a global pandemic. My wife Sara intervenes in comment sections on Facebook, asking that former classmates in Minnesota wear a mask at least for my mother-in-law’s sake; she has COPD and lives on disability. We just want our baby to meet his grandma. They tell her she’s a sheep.

Troopers received the initial report of the crime through Oregon’s Turn In Poachers Line. The caller reported hearing a man bragging about accelerating his pickup to hit several pronghorns, which were bunched together in the middle of the road. The man said he left the scene to get a hamburger, then returned later to retrieve the buck’s horns.

We make it back to Klamath four days later. I cry in line at the bakery because I miss my dad. I miss my mom. I don’t know when I’ll see any of my family again, or if any of them will be here when our little baby is born. I don’t feel safe in my town, where we’re greeted by white men cleaning their assault rifles outside their houses when we walk our dog down the street. They stare back at us, still waiting, I’m sure, for the busloads of Antifa to show up. A man drives by us holding his hand out of the car’s window to make the “okay” white power gesture. He makes the block and does it again.

We turn the lights off in our house, talk about moving somewhere safe. We talk about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women; we talk about Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind. My mother tells us to just come down there, to Oklahoma, where we left from three years ago, to wait it out. We talk about international options, but as Americans we can’t travel anywhere at the moment. Somewhere safe.

Troopers served a search warrant on [his] residence in late May. They recovered the horns and other evidence linking [him] to the crime, according to OSPFWD Sgt. Lowell Lea. [He] admitted that he accelerated to more than 60 mph to hit the antelope, and confirmed they were bunched together in the road. There was no evidence that he slowed down or tried to stop before striking the animals.

Pam says let’s talk again; it feels cathartic for us. She gives me advice on what to do with my novel manuscript, tells me to give my best to Sara and for us to take care.

[He] said he did it because he hates pronghorn, according to Sgt. Lea. [He] was arrested May 21 and lodged in the Lake County Jail facing multiple charges including aggravated animal abuse, take/possession of antelope, and waste of a game mammal.

“Not all poaching involves the use of a firearm,” Sgt. Lea said. “This is not the first case of people poaching with a vehicle. And poaching takes opportunities away from hunters and others.”

This man that killed the pronghorn was arrested over a month later. Sooner than the killers of Breonna Taylor, one hundred ninety-three days and counting, along with so many that have yet to be brought to justice. Moreover, this is still a crime mostly for what it took away from other hunters—the right to lawfully kill.

I don’t have time to feel or process all the monumental events happening around and to me, to be upset or feel joy. I can only weigh risks and make contingency plans, one after another. My therapist says, “Well, welcome to therapy.” I can only hope, when I’m not trying to make sense of the world around me, that there’s good left to come for all of us, or maybe, at least, rest.

Driving through town, I notice the smoke has cleared and the air is breathable. I drive by the usual suspects: The woman who gives away free bibles is standing next to her parked minivan. In front of the smoke shop, the dancing man holds his KRATOM sign. The Toyota dealership has the hoods up on all the new cars. I wonder if that’s bad, the sun shining down on their motors like that. The heat and the light pressing on something meant to be covered.


Rumpus original art by Jon Peschke.

Wakaya Wells (they/he) is Choctaw and was raised in District 8 of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. They received a BA in Native American Studies at Dartmouth College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts. Wakaya is a Queer Two-Spirit writer, storyteller, and educator. Their work is found at the intersections of identity, mental health, and community. They are currently working to finish their debut novel. More from this author →