Native American woman finds gratification in work as game warden work and her art

By KEVIN KNAPEK/Montana State News

Being a Game Warden in Montana takes more than just a public oath. It requires long hours and dedication to serving the public on a daily basis.

An example of the sculpture produced by Montana Game Warden Kqyn Kuka
An example of the sculpture produced by Montana Game Warden Kqyn Kuka

Kqyn Kuka (pronounced Quinn Coo-ka) is not the typical Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP) warden, since she is also a Blackfeet Indian.  Her strong willingness to protect the natural resources is greatly appreciated by both Native and non-Native groups.

“I am the only officer the tribe trusts. I have built a great relationship that was not developed before I was stationed there,” Kuka said. She has won the director’s achievement award for the progress she has made with the tribes. Kuka was able to sit at the tribal counselor’s office, and they told her that it was the first time the state and tribe had ever sat at the same table. She truly feels honored that she has been able to develop that trust.

“I feel it is just another agency to work side by side with. I do not see color. I will not damage that foundation of trust. I feel that my culture has only benefitted me in this situation. I enjoy working with and in Indian Country,” Kuka added.

In order to become a game warden you must have a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, agriculture, science, biology, nature resources, parks and recreation or some other specialty related to the work. With any other type of degree, you must have higher levels of biology credit hours. Kuka graduated from the Salish and Kootenai College on the Flathead Indian Reservation with a degree in environmental science fisheries and wildlife.  Her college research project was spent tracking elk calves for two years and studying the predator kill characteristics.

“I tracked 100 elk calves with radio tracking and conducted forensics on the elk calf moralities,” she said.

Her first taste of working for FWP was as a water safety officer.  According to Tom Dickenson, editor of Montana Outdoors, Kqyn’s love for the outdoors, four-year degree and proficiency in written and oral exams finally landed her a full-time position as a game warden in 2007.

“FWP stationed her in her father’s childhood stomping grounds on the south border of the Blackfeet Reservation. An uncle lives in nearby Valier, and the local sheriff is also a relative. She feels right at home,” Dickenson said.

According to Kuka, a game warden is on call 24/7. Certain times of the year the work is prioritized due to the large number of sportsmen out in the field. During hunting season, wardens are constantly working and rarely get a day off during the rifle season. Luckily though, the winter months offer some relief of the hectic schedule, but Kuka is still out in the cold checking trappers and ice fishermen.

The warm, summer months are busy well into the evening, checking boat registrations, life jackets and fishing licenses. She enjoys helping people, landowners and sportsmen who are victims in cases, injuries and/or search and rescue efforts.  As an officer, she feels her duty is to serve the public. “I took an oath to be a public servant,” she said.

Assistant Chief of Enforcement Michael Korn, first met Kuka when she applied to be a warden.

“I believe it was five years ago. I was not acquainted with her before, but I had an acquaintance with her father and some other Native American artists over the years,” he stated. When he heard of Kuka applying, he was pleased to find that she made it on the team. According to Korn, she is very unique, with a strong passion for conservation, who can navigate the cultural differences between Indian and non-Indian people. She is very articulate, bright and has come to have a great understanding of the role of a game warden, beyond just the law enforcement (that in itself is no simple task), landowner relations, working with the public and involvement in educational projects. She understands that she cannot be everywhere, so by developing a deep trust with the public, the community acts as her eyes and ears. Korn also added, “She works well with the public, is dedicated and has been involved in some important cases out of FWP Region 4.”

She says her biggest specialty with her job is the gift to gab. Kuka looks at her job specialties as a toolbox. Each game warden is a special tool, which has the perfect use for a certain task. “It may take two of us or more but as long as we solve the problem. I am a completely different tool than my co-workers. They have skills I don’t and vice versa,” Kuka said. The main goal of the warden is to get the job done. She oftentimes gets more confessions from people because they feel more comfortable admitting their wrong-doings to a woman, (even though they have all been men). “I do not get the same response from women sportsmen,” Kuka added.

The job is often hectic and dangerous, but just like any job, she sees humor now and then.

“I remember two guys fishing the shore of the Missouri River and as the man casted; he landed his Rapala right into his friend’s ear lobe. I pulled up shortly after. The man was in good spirits and didn’t need any help getting the hook out,” Kuka said.

Another story she told was one of a woman leaving a campsite early on a summer Saturday. “I asked why she was leaving when they just got there. The lady had been caught on the bridge of the nose, right between the nostrils, with her son’s fly on the end of his pole. That one looked like it hurt,” Kuka added. She has seen rafters go by wearing nothing but a ‘banana hammock’, because the gentlemen did not like tan lines.

Being a game warden doesn’t stop her from being a full-time mom of two girls. When she isn’t out protecting the wilderness or spending time with family, she keeps herself busy by creating metal sculpture art. She uses a plasma cutter and welder to create two dimensional art. She grew up in Great Falls and is the daughter of nationally well-known American Indian painter King Kuka.

In an interview with Mike Gurnett, FWP videographer, Kuka said, “Artwork became a huge thing for me. I create this image in my head but how you get it out of metal is a lot more difficult. Being a game warden, I can be driving around through the most beautiful country you have ever seen or checking people that are so kind and I instantly think, ‘How can I freeze this moment, and capture the goodness of the day. It takes away from everything that’s going on when I’m working on it.” She often donates her artwork to fundraisers associated with wildlife and Native American causes.

“My dad was an enrolled Blackfeet member. He also taught art in the schools up there. He always encouraged us to do what you want to do. Get your degree in something, but don’t ever forget your artwork and don’t ever forget your roots,” Kuda added.

It is this process of finding a balance in her life that has been the key to her success.

-Edited by Melinda Peirce

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