Published on August 18, 2014 by Amy
Animals have special significance for many Native American tribes. There is, however, no single Native American tradition centering around white deer because indigenous culture is not monolithic. Native American culture encompasses numerous tribes, religions and belief systems. Interestingly, there is significant overlap in these cultures regarding the sacred nature of a white deer and several American Indian tribes have traditions associated with the animal.
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The Yurok, an American Indian tribe based primarily in California, practice a white deerskin dance. The tribe’s website points out that the dance is called, “u pyue-wes” in their native tongue. Dancers participating in this dance carry rods with a stuffed deer attached, wear elaborate deerskin clothing and create necklaces made of dentalia. Dentalia is a commonly used American Indian term that refers to parts of teeth and tusks. The white deer dance is designed to cause continued prosperity in the natural world.
The Zuni are a tribe of indigenous people who live mostly in the southwestern United States. Many tourists are familiar with Zuni fetishes, small carvings of animals used in religious rituals and commerce. These fetishes frequently feature white deer. The Zuni Deer Dance is a traditional religious ritual purported to help cure illness within the tribe. Some members of the tribe may wear or otherwise use the parts of white deer.
The Legend of the Ghost of White Deer is a folk story of the Chickasaw people. In the story, a young woman sends her lover to get the skin of a white deer. The Chickasaw believed that white animals were especially sacred, and the woman promised to marry the man if he returned with the deer skin. He never returned, but the woman frequently saw the ghost of a white deer with an arrow in its heart by the campfire. White deer are still considered precious and sacred by some Chickasaw.
A popular Seneca legend centers around Mona-sha-sha, a woman who feared that her husband had stopped loving her. She left her husband with their baby and died. Upon discovering that she was missing, the husband noticed a white deer and fawn. He understood this to be a sign that his wife and child had entered the spirit world, and he killed himself. People see white deer every few years in Letchworth Park, an area that was once heavily populated by the Seneca. Some believe that this deer is the ghost of Mona-sha-sha.