Why I Hunt

On the Navajo Nation, a latecomer to hunting learns lessons about leadership, food sovereignty and conservation ethics

  • By Kami Elsisie
  • Conservation
  • Dec 30, 2023

Kami Elsisie hunts quail with her German shorthaired pointer in Bosque, New Mexico. (Photo by Benjamin May-Day)

THE PHONE RANG from a number I didn’t recognize. When I answered, the New Mexico Game and Fish officer on the other end explained my name had been drawn in a lottery for a Persian ibex nanny or immature buck off the Florida Mountains in southern New Mexico. When applying for hunting tags in our state, we can sign up for a population-management hunt, and if hunters don’t reach established quotas during the regular season, names are picked at random for later hunts. This practice helps keep animals healthy and avoids overpopulation of an introduced species.

My excitement was building, as was my anxiety. This would be my first big-game draw ever.

I didn’t grow up hunting. I’m what you call an adult-onset hunter. Born and raised in Wyoming to a white mother and a Navajo father, I was always in the outdoors in one manner or another. But it wasn’t until I moved back to New Mexico about 10 years ago, at age 32, that I was introduced to hunting by a close friend of mine, Russell Brown, who was also learning the ropes. From my first experiences with waterfowl in New Mexico and pheasant in Wyoming, I was obsessed.

I dove in headfirst: reading blogs, listening to podcasts, watching Netflix series and YouTube, subscribing to magazines and joining conservation organizations. Hell, I even got a part-time job at Sportsman’s Warehouse in an attempt to gain more exposure to my newfound love.

Since then, my involvement has grown. I’m in a leadership role for Artemis, the National Wildlife Federation’s network of sportswomen; a board member for the group Hunters of Color; a mentor for Impact Outdoors; an advisor and mentor for Redemption Bird Dogs and a volunteer hunting instructor for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.

I don’t take the opportunity to harvest animals for granted. Instead, I’ve made it a family tradition. Like me, my father and uncles didn’t grow up hunting big game, but they did harvest prairie dogs, rabbits and ground squirrels for survival. They also herded sheep as part of their livelihood, and they’re very good at tracking, locating water, reading the landscape and finding food—knowledge I’d previously outsourced to apps but now am learning from them.

When it came to big game, however, I became my father’s mentor. For the past five years, he, my uncles and I have applied for hunts on the Navajo Nation, which covers 27,413 square miles in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. We’ve been lucky enough for someone to draw almost every year, and we all go out together to hunt and harvest.

Together we’re creating lasting memories, and I’m learning more about our Navajo culture and traditions, including how we use certain parts of animals we harvest for ceremonies and daily living. Everything is coming full circle: the hunt, the harvest, my culture and beliefs.

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An image of Kami Elsisie wearing traditional Navajo clothing.

An enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, Kami Elsisie has hunted on Tribal land with her father and uncles for the past five years.

Outside of my own heritage, hunting plays a critical role in wildlife conservation, particularly in terms of population and resource management. While it might seem counterintuitive, responsible hunting—through approaches like population-management hunts—can help prevent species that have experienced a decline in natural predators from exceeding available resources.

If deer and turkey populations, for example, go unchecked, they can increase rapidly and exceed the carrying capacity of their environments. This can lead to overgrazing of crops, gardens and natural vegetation; habitat degradation; increased competition for limited food, water and land; heightened risk of disease transmission; negative impacts on other species that rely on the same resources; and conflicts between humans and wildlife.

Hunting also generates revenue for conservation efforts. The sale of hunting licenses, fees and taxes on equipment and ammunition contributes to the protection and restoration of wildlife species and habitats, supporting the long-term viability of ecosystems, as well as hunting education, mentorship programs and so much more.

Meanwhile, regulations including hunting seasons, bag limits and harvest quotas ensure that hunting remains sustainable. Collaboration between hunters, wildlife management agencies and conservation groups integrates responsible hunting into a comprehensive conservation strategy. This is important to me and part of why I’m involved in so many conservation organizations.

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An image of Kami Elsisie with a hunted white-tailed deer.

In addition to population-management hunts in New Mexico with her family, Elsisie has hunted for game such as white-tailed deer in Wyoming and elsewhere.

The day of my ibex hunt started around 2 a.m. with a drive to the foot of the Florida Mountains. Armed with the basics—headlamps, rifle, ammo, kill kit, binoculars, water and snacks—Russell, another friend and I hiked single file up the two-track in total darkness. After an hour or so, we made it to a great spot to “glass”: a rock flat and large enough that we could all lie prone and take out our binoculars. As the sun peeked up in the east, we realized we were at the edge of a vast and steep canyon. One wrong move, and someone could fall 1,000 feet before hitting the ground.

Through our binoculars, we could make out movement on the opposite side of the canyon. If you’ve never seen an ibex, they’re about the size of a medium to large dog, tan in color. They blend into their surroundings perfectly and move particularly fast, so spotting them is no joke. But once I saw one, I started to see them all over, maybe 30 or 40 total.

As each minute passed, I knew shooting hour was inching closer. I needed to calm my nerves, steady my breathing and focus on the task at hand. I located what I hoped was a female, standing alone and broadside on a large rock, 313 yards across the canyon. I placed my crosshairs on her shoulder and slowly pulled the trigger.

Russell yelled out, “She got her!” As I tried to refocus in the scope, I realized I was shaking so hard that I needed to lay the rifle down: my first case of buck fever. I hoped it was a clean and quick kill, and it was. The shot placement was perfect, straight through the heart. I was speechless.

Sometimes I feel like I’m the only Navajo woman who hunts. Navajo culture still largely sees women hunting as taboo, but with the blessing of my family and elders, I was granted permission. And I think society at large mostly sees hunting as a male-dominated pastime: a group of men in the woods, hooting, hollering and drinking beer, a deer slung across the hood of a truck like a scene out of “The Deer Hunter.” For a very long time, there were no women or people of color in films or books about hunting.

But with the advent of social media, more voices are telling their hunting stories, their conservation stories, their overall love of nature. By using our platforms, we are creating room for everyone to feel welcome and accepted. I’ve been a podcast guest, a panelist, a volunteer hunting instructor and a contestant on an episode of “Naked and Afraid.” I’ve hunted in Idaho, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona and Georgia for elk, deer, ibex, oryx, turkey, antelope, Barbary sheep, waterfowl and upland game birds. I get to educate others about my culture, food sovereignty, wildlife and habitat conservation, and our connection to the land we occupy. This is the driving force behind why I hunt and harvest. I hope making hunting more inclusive leads to an influx of new hunters who keep the practice alive.

I’ve been changed forever, and so has hunting.

NWF priority


Although women represent the fastest growing segment of the U.S. sporting community, they typically hadn’t held leadership roles—until Artemis. Launched by the National Wildlife Federation in 2017, the nationwide network supports all manner of skill-sharing related to hunting, fishing and conservation, from troubleshooting a broken outboard motor to contacting elected representatives in support of clean water policies. Anyone 18 or older who identifies as a woman or as nonbinary is welcome, and program manager Carlee Koutnik emphasizes the group’s focus on safety and inclusivity. “We place sportswomen from all walks of life at the forefront of a conversation that speaks to the emotional complexities of hunting and fishing,” she says. Read more about “Artemis Podcast” then find your nearest Artemis ambassador.

Kami Elsisie is a rapid-response paramedic in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Read more about her.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

Letting Go of Lead »
Wild Harvest Nurtures Conservation »
Women in Hunting and Fishing: Artemis »

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