To Have a Hero, Modern Huntsman, volume 9

To Have a Hero

Wild Food: Justin Lee in his own words

Interview

Photos

Mike Borchard

Read Time

13 minutes

Posted

This series pursues the idea that food is more interesting when it has a story of its own. Even in a world of rapid urban expansion and deliver-to-your-door technologies, it’s still possible to pursue a life where you’re a part of your food story – the old fashioned way. Whether through hunting, fishing or foraging, meals taste better when they are products of your learned skills, or killer instincts. These are the keepers of that flame, reminding us to stay wild.

Archer, father, spearfisher and native Hawaiian, Justin Lee lives a life of adventure tied closely to the land. He has a respect for wildlife that expands far beyond his beloved islands, and through his far-flung travels as an ambassador for a handful of top brands in the outdoor world, he has inspired many with his philosophy and daily way of life. In a modern society of wanton waste and convenient consumer culture, Justin exemplifies personal responsibility and living in balance with nature; he even has a “no fish in the freezer rule”. According to Justin fish should be eaten fresh, and his rule serves to limit the number taken at any one time. 

Being celestial brothers — born on the same day of the same year — we had a chance to catch up on his life and efforts to pass along this way of living through the mentorship of local Hawaiian boys. He also shared his thoughts on why more people in the hunting industry, and the world at large, should respect their food more. He’s right, and we felt that this interview was best presented in Justin’s own words, rather than as answers to questions. We hope you enjoy it. 

— Tyler Sharp

To Have a Hero, Modern Huntsman, volume 9

ON A DEEP CONNECTION TO HIS HAWAIIAN HERITAGE

The way that I was brought up out here and the respect that I have for the land stems from the legend of the first Hawaiian. The story goes: Father Sky, Wākea, and Mother Earth, Papa, had a child, and their first child was the heavens and the earth. The heavens and the earth and Father Sky, Wākea, had a child together, and their child was supposed to be the first Hawaiian, the first man to walk on the islands. When the baby came out, it was so badly deformed that it looked more like a potato than anything, so they buried it. The heavens and the earth cried over this stillborn child, and from those tears, a plant sprouted out. Then the heavens and Father Sky had another baby, and this was the first Hawaiian and they named the child Haloa, meaning “long breath.”

Basically, what it represents is the relationship between man and plant or man and land. They’re brothers. You scratch my back and I scratch yours; you take care of me and I’ll take care of you. That’s how the Hawaiians view their food sources; they view the land out here as a brother, you’re going to take care of it because they’re family.

I was brought up to take care of whatever’s going to put sustenance into me, whatever’s going to take care of me — whether that’s a pig, whether that’s a fish, whether that’s a taro plant, or a mango — because I want to take care of myself. You can’t succeed out here, especially on an island, if you’re only thinking about yourself. You’ve got to take care of everything around you to be able to succeed and thrive.

I think the Hawaiians learned pretty quickly that they needed to have a relationship with their food source. If you mistreat the side of the island you’re on currently, eventually you’re going to work in a circle and get back to your starting point. If you abuse it along the way, when you have to get back to it, because it’s inevitable, you’re not going to be able to live off the land if you took too much from it.

GROWING UP

JL — My hometown is Honokaa, and I love this place. We moved around a little bit when we were younger. I lived in Hilo until I was about five. I had neuroblastoma, and so spent a little bit of time in the hospitals in Oahu. But after I was cancer-free at the age of five, my mom decided that it was time for her to learn a little bit more about medicine so she started her journey to become a nurse. With three boys, she definitely used the wound-doctoring skills on us. My dad, being a steward of the land and the constant teacher, decided to get his master’s degree in biology. So we moved to Fort Collins, Colorado, where he finished grad school and my mom finished nursing school before returning to Hawaii.

Growing up, my best friend Wayne Cipriano and I got into everything. Honokaa is the old plantation town where they raised sugar cane, so we had huge pastures to run through, and that’s exactly what Wayne and I did. I think we shot our first pig together when we were 11. We used to go and shoot the birds, the Reckless and the Francolins, around Honokaa with pellet guns back in the day.

To Have a Hero, Modern Huntsman, volume 9

I swear there was an X in both of our yards where the doves knew not to land because they would get shot, thrown in teriyaki sauce and cooked on the grill. I remember driving through Honokaa and seeing doves in everybody’s yard and being so excited that they were going to be in our yard. Never.

We just grew up, I think, like every little country boy does across the U.S. We went out chasing frogs, catching fish, and that turned into chasing pigs and jumping in the ocean. I really, really hope the same experiences are possible for my two kids. They get to chase pigs with me in the pasture and we go and catch frogs and stuff like that, and I hope I’m just the footsteps that they get to follow and that they enjoy this little town as much as I do.

The greatest thing about the Big Island where I live now is it’s such a young island, so there are a lot of lava rocks all over it. As you’re driving around the island, especially if you’re on the Kona side, it’s all just one big lava rock that looks like the moon. Then you get to the east side of the island where you get the trade winds and you get a lot more rain and dirt. Then you’ve got your rainforest side, Hilo, which is, to me, too wet, too muggy. The northeast side of the island, in my opinion, is the best. You’ve got dirt, so we’ve got pigs rooting around in the dirt, and then we’ve got beautiful waters to jump into.

HEROES & ARCHERY

To Have a Hero, Modern Huntsman, volume 9

JL — I think most boys’ heroes are the same: their dad. In all seriousness, my dad wore a cape. I wanted to be like him. Archery hunting was a huge part of what made him him, and so when I first picked up a bow and started to shoot paper plates, the excitement just rose from there. My dad made it a big celebration. Out of my three brothers, I’m the only one that really does any archery hunting. So when we’d come back from a hunt that I was successful on at a very young age, we’d sit down at the table and my dad would be like, “Justin shot this.” Or he’d brag to his friends about the stalk that he watched me go on. Or he’d laugh with his friends about the misses that I’d make too.

Maybe it’s really bad to say, but being the middle of three boys, everything’s a competition: who could hold their breath the longest, who could get to the corner of the street the fastest, you know? How could I get the attention of my hero? Lucky for me, my brothers didn’t like to archery hunt, so I had a clear path to that goal.


It also helped that my best friend Wayne Cipriano’s dad was a butcher. I think I can clean an animal pretty well, I’ve had my practice over the 28 years that I’ve been archery hunting, but my buddy, Wayne, with his butchery background, is insane. There’s nothing wasted. The sausages that they make, the dishes that they create from pork and peas, all the way up to crispy pork, it’s all very, very much enjoyed. So growing up with my dad being the guiding light and then my best friend standing beside me pushing me to go forward and truly enjoy what we’re catching made for a great equation.

THE IMPORTANCE OF PIGS

JL — For the Hawaiian people and for the Hawaiian culture, I don’t think the importance of the wild pig can be overstated. When they first came to Hawaii, the Hawaiian people revered the pig so much that they made space on the boats for them and even brought food for the pigs so that wherever they landed it ensured that they’d be around. I think that gets ingrained in your core as a local boy out here hunting pigs; your ancestors thought so highly of this animal that they were willing to basically lose a crew member on the canoe to ensure that wherever they went, the pigs could survive and be a food source. So that’s why the pig kind of stands out.

To Have a Hero, Modern Huntsman, volume 9

So the respect for game out here, whether it’s a pig or a sheep or a goat, is more than just the food source, it’s a life source. It’s a part of who we are and it has to be given that respect. I want to be sure that as in my life growing up, my kids will have the opportunity to put pigs in their freezer; so that they can be connected with them the same way I was. The only way to really do that is by respecting it and ensuring that what I take is what I want to eat, finding that balance to ensure that it’s in a sustainable place. Pigs are pretty destructive, so you can’t have too many of them around, but if we can find that balance for the islands to succeed, then we’ll succeed as well.

My best friend caught 296 pigs in one year. I was like, “Holy shit, what the heck are you going to do with 296 pigs?” But what he does is he makes sausages for the community. I don’t think there’s a wedding, a first baby party, a luau, or any big gathering where you’re not going to find his sausages and his dad’s sausages on the food line. It’s such a big part of who we are out here. I’ve gotten to meet a lot of people in the hunting industry, and there are some amazing, amazing people. And then you meet some people that don’t know how to gut an animal, and you’re like, “Wait, wait, wait. I just saw on your Instagram last week that you shot a pig or a deer and you don’t know how to gut it? Where does the connection stop for you then? Is it just a grip and grin, or is it a, ‘I’m there to create food?’” I think that’s the exception, that there’s only a handful of people like that, but like I said, I’ve taken people out here to shoot their first sheep and they just stand there and look at you like, “Okay, now what?” It’s just a smaller version of a deer. I’ve seen your Instagram, you’ve shot a lot of deer. Let’s get at it.

It’s just funny to see that. It’s just something that I never encountered growing up just because in the circles that I ran in, we all clean our own animals. We all gut, we all debone, and we all bring home our food. So I think that was the biggest eyeopener; there’s a lot of people out for whom it’s just the facade that they’re trying to put out there. For me, it’s a way of life. It’s how we were brought up. Still to this day, I really love fileting fish and I really like cleaning animals. Like after I’ve changed the brakes of my car, my hands are all black, and I feel like I did something today. I changed the brakes, my car is safer. It’s the same thing after shooting animals, I get to look at my hands afterward and there’s blood on my hands and I think, yes, okay, I can fully tell you that I shot this animal and now it’s on my table. I think there need to be more people who do it. I think if you’re out there harvesting your own meat and taking animals’ lives, I really think you have to give them respect.

I know that down in Texas they do large cullings of pigs where they’re shooting a few hundred from the helicopter. I get that they’re pretty destructive and they can eat people’s crops and they can do X, Y and Z, but that’s a food source as well. I only hope that they’re using it for something and not just throwing it in a hole. But I’ve heard that a lot of them end up in a hole, and that’s pretty sad.

If you look at the Europeans, they go out and do these drives and they are shooting a large number of pigs. But every pig is given its final meal when they put that last branch in their mouth. It’s a celebrated day, and all of that meat gets turned into meals in restaurants.

I just hope that across the U.S., the animal gets the same respect. I get it’s a pig and it’s a destructive animal, but it’s also a food source that, at the very least, food banks can hopefully get use of. I just hope that there are more people out there respecting what they shoot. It’s crazy how the mainland United States is not more than a few hours away, but the pig is looked at as something so horrible, whereas in my eyes it’s looked at as a blessing.

To Have a Hero, Modern Huntsman, volume 9

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