The targets at First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park on Labor Day weekend looked unusual. The bulls-eyes were situated over images of snarling saber-tooth tigers and trumpeting wooly mammoths. Tourists stood poised for the kill, darts placed delicately in the spurs of atlatls.
The 23rd annual Montana Mammoth Hunt amounted to a trickle of visitors and three representatives from the World Atlatl Association. But there was an element of frustration at work that's been absent from the event in years past. This spring, the Montana Legislature considered a bill to legalize spear hunting. And, as atlatl enthusiast Troy Helmick says, numerous politicians made "a farce" of the entire deal. "This isn't a spear," Helmick says. "It's called a dart."
Politicians cracked wise about the proposal throughout the session. The atlatl became the butt of most of the jokes. Helmick and his cohorts at the Mammoth Hunt believe the bill's critics poked fun at a sport that didn't deserve it. After all, the advent of the atlatl raised man's hunting ability far above the more primitive spear and paved the way for the bow and arrow. It's been in use in parts of the world for as long as 26,000 years, Helmick says, "long before Schweitzer started smart-mouthing the legislature." (Schweitzer had referred to the bill—not atlatls specifically—as "kooky.")
The turnout at this year's Mammoth Hunt was too small to accommodate the professional competitions that local atlatl throwers have hosted in the past; still, the sport, already popular in Europe, is gaining interest in the U.S. And the clusters of onlookers marveled at the precision with which World Atlatl Association members Bob Kitch and Jim Ray threw their five-foot-long darts. Ray, with his thick white beard and sun-crisped complexion, looked particularly fitting.
"I don't hunt," Ray says, "but if I did, this is one of the weapons I'd use."
Also on Ray's list? The bow and arrow and the black powder rifle.
Helmick, Kitch and Ray agree that it would be possible to down big game in Montana with one of their darts—not that they would, necessarily, if they could. It would be a hell of a lot more effective than a spear, Helmick adds.
But their most immediate concern wasn't the legality of using ancient equipment to bring home the brisket. One tourist found the atlatl tough to master; his darts kept falling far short of the target or hitting it broadside. Ray gave him a few pointers: hold your arm higher, throw from farther back. The saber-toothed tiger remained stationary, waiting for the perfect shot.