Native Americans and the Deer

Published on February 22, 2013 by Amy

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The Deer
The Deer

The deer as messenger enlightens or teaches, particularly with regard to hunting and wildlife ethics. Dennis Olson relates a story from the Native American Ojibwe.

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Once upon a time, the deer suddenly vanished from the land of the Anishnabeg. After finally locating the lost deer far to the north, the Anishnabeg fight a fierce battle with crows for control of the animals. Finally during a truce, the Anishnabeg ask the deer chief why all the deer moved north with the crows. The deer chief reveals they came to live with the crows by choice. Men, he said, had “wasted their flesh, spoiled their lands, and desecrated their bones,” bringing dishonor both to deer and to humans. The contrite Anishnabeg promise forevermore to treat the deer with respect–and even today, says Olson, the Anishnabeg honor this promise to the deer as their oldest and most sacred treaty.

Other Native American legends emphasize that deer must only be hunted when their meat is actually needed, and always taken with respect. In a Cherokee tale, Awi Udsi– Little Deer–visits humans in their sleep, warning them not to kill deer wantonly, but only when necessary and when the hunt is preceded with the proper rituals of respect. Likewise, the Wintu tribe believe unless a deer hunt is carried out with forbearance and honor, the deer will “forget” to show up for hunters in the future.

As our society changes, we find ourselves constantly redefining our relationship with wild creatures. Perhaps the lesson of forbearance, respect, and restraint brought by the animal messengers in the old deer legends can serve as a guideline for us as we continue to negotiate that tricky balance with the natural world. Symbol of the chase, of food, of grace and beauty; representing both nature revealed to man and nature run amok, deer have been intricately bound to our existence for eons–and we can look forward to this complex dance between humans and deer for many generations to come.

When Europeans landed on North America’s shores, deer were found in nearly every corner of the continent, from rainforest to the edge of the arctic tundra. There may have been as many as 10 million mule deer and 34 million whitetail when Europeans made contact.

Source: turtletrack Unabridged
Based on the collective work of, © 2014 Native American Encyclopedia.
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