A Realtree Natives Story
The story of Kamiakin (Kye) Wheeler, Derrick Wheeler and Dustin Whitefoot would make for a classic Hollywood film with incredible twist and turns of adventure and overcoming adversity, discovering what it means to be a man and taking care of ones family and community.
The Yakama Indians have lived in the Washington Yakima Valley, where they hunt, fish and gather today like their ancestors, since time immemorial. The traditions of Yakama people are a proud and sacred heritage that is passed down from generation to generation. This practice is prevalent in the Wheeler family. Delbert Wheeler Sr., the patriarch of the Wheeler family, was a tough man. He was a golden glove boxer, rodeo rider, entrepreneur and a deadly hunter. His love of the outdoors and surviving on your own in the mountains and the traditions of the Yakama people were passed down to his kids, Kamiakin and Derrick.
When it came time for Kye to graduate college, Delbert asked him not to look for a job, that he had a plan for them and for Kye to trust him. Delbert’s plan was to build a business that would provide job opportunities for not only their family but for anyone on the reservation who was seeking employment. The Yakama Nation is made up of more than ten thousand registered members who live on the reservation, and job opportunities are scarce. Delbert went to work to create a variety of business opportunities for the tribe. They started with an old pickup truck loading firewood which would transition into Wheeler Logging. The humble beginnings would allow Delbert to establish Wheeler Trucking, King Mountain Tobacco, Wheeler Cattle Co. and Wheeler Gas stations. Before Delbert passed away in June of 2016 leaving the company in the hands of Kye, Delbert told his sons one day as they were driving down the road, “Look at that. Isn’t that cool seeing Wheeler on almost every other Truck that passes by.” Delbert knew he couldn’t make people work if they didn’t want to, but he could provide his family and his people with the opportunity of employment if they wanted it.
This sense of providing for the community and for the Yakama people was passed down to Kye, Derrick and the other Wheeler siblings in more ways than just the job force. Delbert’s love for his family and his people could only be matched by his love for the outdoors. The countless stories told by Kye and Derrick about their hunting adventures with their dad would make anyone smile and envious of their relationship bound in adventures outdoors. Delbert could track, shoot and skin as good as anyone and he made sure his kids could do the same. Derrick, the third oldest of the Wheeler kids, was born speaking elk.
Growing up watching old Will Primos and Realtree Monster Bulls videos was a common practice for the Wheeler kids. Derrick who spent most of his time in the mountains and woods growing up, was bugling in elk for his dad before he could walk. Derrick took the same teachings he gained from his dad but used his skills as an outdoorsman to help provide for his family and community by catching running salmon, wrangling wild horses that roam the Yakima country sides and providing meat for those who need it by harvesting elk and mule deer in the mountains.
Derrick is arguably the best elk caller around and when you hear him cow call combined with an elk bugle you understand why. He recounts endless stories of growing up and chasing elk with his dad or being featured on Bugle magazine as a kid. Derrick learned the mountains and valleys like the back of his hand. Derrick’s success as a hunter is not by luck or happenstance. He has literally spent thousands of hours outdoors calling in big bulls or running alongside herds. Many times just to watch the majestic animals.
Derrick explained when he fishes, and the salmon are running hard and its been a good day to take a break and allow some of the fish to get by his nets and traps so that the fish can spawn. The same concept he applies to hunting elk, he says you need to let a few walk and let the bulls pass on their genetics and seed so that the next generation of the herd can be born. “Everything comes from this earth and we need to give back to the earth as much as it gives to us so that everything can live in balance and the animals will still be there for the next generation.”
“Historically us as Yakama, we would follow the animals when winter would start. They would see it as them moving camp and their teepees with the animals. Us in the modern era, we do the same. Now days we have our own homes that we go back to at the end of the night, but we still move with the animals in the same way. As the animals move down the hill we move down the hill. As the animals move to their wintering grounds we move with them.”
Dustin Whitefoot, who grew up with Kye and Derrick Wheeler, is a tribal police officer. He explains there are times when some of the poorer tribe members have to make the hard decision of either paying their power bills or buying food. A decision no one should have to make. He continues to explain how it’s up to the tribe to take care of their own and look out for older members, single moms and special needs who have a hard time providing for themselves. Kye, Derrick and Dustin, because they’re hunters, are able to provide for the tribe in many different ways.
As younger members of the tribe they take their duty to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves seriously. This includes traditional duties, such as funeral feast rituals. As part of these, feast certain foods must be provided and eaten. Elk and salmon are key proteins as well as certain berries, that are needed to perform the funeral rituals.
When a member dies their family is responsible for hunting and providing the meat for the funeral. There are a lot of families that do not have the abilities to provide the meat or hunt elk properly, so they turn to tribal members like Kye, Derrick and Dustin to help them harvest the meat necessary for these feasts. If regular hunting regulations and restrictions applied to the Yakama tribe, they would not be able to keep these rituals and traditions alive. The funeral feast is just one of many different traditions that are sacred to the Yakama people that rely on hunting and the outdoors.
Some hunters and non-hunters frown on the shooting of young bulls or even calves as many trophy hunters try and allow bull elk to mature, allowing their horns to reach their full growth potential. While non-hunters might think it’s sad to shoot a young animal.
The truth of the matter is if you are hunting animals for a pure food source and not worried about trophy hunting, the older a bull gets the tougher the meat becomes, especially during the rut where the muscles are stressed, bulked up and run lean. For older members of the Yakama community the meat of older bulls and cows become almost inedible for them. The meat becomes too tough for the fragile older members teeth to chew the meat. Because of this when the brothers hunt for elder members of the community they strategically hunt for younger elk to provide meals for elderly community members.
Kye says he will continue to be in these mountains as long as he lives, and will continue to hunt to protect the Yakama traditions and to provide food to his community. He will continue to hunt and continue their traditional ways and continue to teach the best way they know trying to keep their way of life together as long as they can.
Shop the Story
See something you liked? Shop the story below.
# SHOP THE STORY