Meet the contemporary hunter-gatherers who live off the land in the American west

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Adrain Chesser

  • Photographer Adrain Chesser has spent nearly a decade following various group of modern hunter-gatherers.
  • The groups live primarily in the Great Basin, located at the intersection of Nevada, Utah, Oregon, and California.
  • They say they migrate and change their eating habits according to the seasons, but still maintain Facebook pages, blogs, and other connections with modern society.

In 2007, photographer Adrain Chesser went toa traditional Native American ceremony called the Naraya when he was having a tough time in the wake of his mother’s death.

While there, Chesser became acquainted with Finisia Medrano and J.P. Hartsong, who both lived as hunter-gatherers in the Great Basin, a part of the United States encompassing parts of Nevada, Utah, Oregon, and California.

“When I heard they were living this wild and free existence, my head exploded,” Chesser told me.

Chesser moved to Seattle so he could regularly visit the duo, who had begun to gather a group of people who were also committed to living a free existence in the wild. Before long, Chesser had spent six years following and documenting them and similar groups. Chesser says the experience changed his life.

With the help of Native American ritualist Timothy White Eagle, Chesser collected the work into a book called “The Return.” Chesser shared a number of the photos with us here, and you can see the rest in the book or at his website.


J.P. Hartsong, Finisia Madrano, and their group live nomadically and travel according to the seasons.

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Adrain Chesser

The group, which calls itself Coyote Camp, travels along a centuries-old Native American route known as “The Hoop” (for its circular nature) that passes through Idaho, Nevada, California, and Oregon.

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Adrain Chesser

Coyote Camp travels in accordance with the harvest times for edible plants indigenous to the areas. They harvest roots such as breadroot, camas root, and bitterroot in the spring and summer; berries in the late summer; and acorns in autumn.

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Adrain Chesser

Coyote Camp is led by Finisia Medrano (pictured), a transgender woman, who was taught by elders of the Shoshone Tribe in the Great Basin how to live in harmony with the land.

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Adrain Chesser

While most members of the Coyote Camp come and go as they please, J.P. Hartsong (pictured) is one of the more permanent fixtures of the group.

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Adrain Chesser

The members of Coyote Camp travel either by horseback or covered wagon.

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Adrain Chesser

The group lives by a collection of tenets to ensure they live in harmony with the Earth. “It’s a symbiotic relationship with the earth,” Chesser explains.

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Adrain Chesser

One of the main tenets is to “give more than you take” from the land. For example, the group only harvests when the ground is ready for new seeds to be planted. When they dig up the plants, they plant seeds at the same time.

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Adrain Chesser

The land where the group lives includes National Park land, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, and private property that ranchers let them stay on. This shot is in the Virgin Mountains, a mountain range managed by BLM.

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Adrain Chesser

Occasionally, they have run-ins with police or park rangers who ask them to leave. When that happens, the group avoids conflicts and simply moves on.

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Adrain Chesser

During his travels, Chesser met another group of hunter-gatherers by the name of Moira and Ray.

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Adrain Chesser

Moira and Ray own pack goats, which provide milk, meat, and company. They often meet up with Coyote Camp during harvest season to share the work and the bounty.

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Adrain Chesser

While Coyote Camp lives off the land, they are not isolationists, according to Chesser. Many have Facebook pages or maintain blogs.

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Adrain Chesser

Even though each person attempts to hold to the tenets, they often purchase goods from the mainstream world, due to addictions to alcohol or tobacco. “It causes them distress. It’s in such conflict to how they are trying to live,” Chesser says.

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Adrain Chesser

Life in the Great Basin can be hard, but the members of Coyote Camp are not there out of necessity, according to Chesser. “They chose this lifestyle because they wanted to live more in balance with the Earth than modern living,” he says.

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Adrain Chesser