Happy hunting grounds: A somewhat fictionalized version of the hereafter held by somewhat fictionalized American Indians. The standard (and somewhat free) German translation of this phrase is "ewige Jagdgründe", which literally means "eternal hunting grounds".
The earliest known occurrence of the phrase in writing is in the last chapter of novelist James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1826), in which the deceased Indian Uncas is said to have entered the happy hunting grounds. While Cooper's Mohicans are fictional, they may have been loosely based on either or both of two actual and distinct (though related) Algonquin tribes with similar-sounding names: the Mohegans, on one hand, and the Mahicans (or Muhheconnuk), on the other. Both of these tribes came in time to be called "Mohicans", but both are alive and flourishing today. (In fact, the Mohegans, an offshoot of the Pequot, today run a quite successful chain of casinos* near Uncasville, Connecticut. Likewise, the largest surviving group of Mahicans, the so-called Stockbridge Indians, today live mostly on a reservation in Wisconsin, where they run a small casino and bingo hall.) Regardless of what the "real" Mohicans, of either tribe, would think of the idea of happy hunting grounds, given the liberties Cooper clearly took in his depiction of "Mohicans" we should be skeptical of the correspondence between his Mohicans' vision of the hereafter and any such vision ever held by any actual Indians. Accordingly, the German translator of "happy hunting grounds" should not be scolded for rendering "happy" as "eternal" — at least, not on the grounds that he or she has thereby distorted fact in some way.
There are vastly different ideas of the afterlife among the real North American Indians. The Cheyenne believe that the souls of the deceased rise up to the sky and travel along the Milky Way to eventually enter the realm of the Great Spirit. According to the Iroquois, the ghost spirits of the deceased remain as shadows within the community. Navajo mythology does not believe in an afterlife at all; only a malicious spirit — a so-called "chindi" — sometimes remains from the dead, which is why they are to be avoided at all cost. (You had better not even mention the name of a deceased person, or else you might be calling her chindi back to haunt you!) In some tribes of the Great Plains, however, such as the Sioux and Comanches, a green valley awaits the warriors at the end of their lives, one in which there is no sorrow, pain, or hunger, and where their spirits will be free to roam and hunt. This probably comes closest to Cooper's concept of the happy hunting grounds. And with regard to the literal use of the concept of happy hunting grounds, we can at least say this much: the phrase "happy hunting ground" (though in the singular) was used for the English translation of a speech by Many Horses, an Oglala Sioux chief and close friend of Sitting Bull, on the occasion of the Ghost Dance ritual held at Standing Rock in 1890:
"I will follow the white man’s trail. I will make him my friend, but I will not bend my back to his burdens. I will be cunning as a coyote. I will ask him to help me understand his ways, then I will prepare the way for my children. Maybe they will outrun the white man in his own shoes.There are but two ways for us. One leads to hunger and death, the other leads to where the poor white man lives. Beyond is the happy hunting ground where the white man cannot go."
However, because this speech was given 64 years after the first publication of Cooper's novel, we cannot be sure to what extent the speech, or its translation, is already infested by the white man's fiction.
* To make amends for the displacement of the Indians from their real hunting grounds, the ►US grants members of federally-recognized Indian tribes certain liberties such as permits for commercial gambling and reduced tobacco tax.