Pigeon shoots are examples of “contested traditions” that invite comparison with other controversial spectacles of killing animals, such as cockfights and dogfights. In the United States during the late twentieth century, mass protests of America’s largest public pigeon shoot occurred in Hegins, Pennsylvania. This article offers a folkloristic perspective on the contested tradition by analyzing how the protest rhetorically served to present tradition as a “problem” in the ethical modernization of society. The clash between animal rights protestors and supporters of the shoot became a moral drama based on a clash of rural and cosmopolitan values in modern America that derives from fundamentally different views of human dominion over the land and its creatures. The interpretation of the event hinges on a semiotic layering that takes into ethnographic consideration the different meanings of symbols for various participants in the event. Compromise became impossible in controversies over pigeon shoots because the sides perceived symbols so differently. For protestors, the shooters represented predatory, phallocentric rapists who promoted violence for its own sake, whereas, for supporters, they symbolized a pioneer and biblical heritage based on human dominion over the bountiful land. For protestors, the process of the ritualized shoot perpetuated cycles of abuse and patriarchy; for protestors, it acted to regenerate the land, confirming the wholesomeness of agrarianism. The pigeons could be symbolized as profane, dirty pests or sacred doves of peace. The widely publicized controversy implied larger questions, and fundamental conflicts in America, about the role of tradition in modernity.
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