She was the myth slipped down through dreamtime. The promise of feast we all knew was coming. The deer who crossed through knots of a curse to find us. She was no slouch, and neither were we, watching.
— from "Deer Dancer" by Joy Harjo
I have always taken issue with the idea that the word “myth” has come to signify falsehood. I don't want to get into a discussion here on the nuances and subtleties of language, but the idea that a culture can be judged simplistic and primitive based upon its myths has always concerned me. After all, what is myth? Creation stories, talk stories, foundations of culture, foundations of language, the basis from which all social and cultural definitions come forth and define a people, a language, a system of belief, a way of knowing, a way of being. To define a culture by its mythmaking, primitivizing its creation stories by calling these stories “myths” automatically, in some circles, connotes falsehood. Therefore, creation stories that are not literal creation stories are myths; therefore, an entire culture's world view is, at its foundation, based upon falsehoods. This is why I prefer to define myth before beginning any essay, any speech on the topic. Because, as is believed in my Native (Cherokee/Creek/Seminole/Choctaw) world view, any way of speaking, be it in speech or in writing, becomes a living, breathing entity that once spoken, cannot be taken back. The word is given life, and takes on a life of its own. This is why we must be careful what we write and speak; we are in a sense recreating the creative process when words take shape and form once spoken. As these words take shape and form once spoken, so have our myths, our creation stories, lived in the telling from generation to generation, taking shape and form as they move from teller to teller, from generation to generation. They take on a life of their own; the myths are the truths of a people whose existence has been spoken and breathed into being for thousands of years.
When I was in my early twenties, I had a chance encounter with living myth. While camping on the south fork of the Eel River in Northern California, I encountered the Deer Woman spirit of my Muskogee/Seminole/Cherokee and Choctaw ancestors, three thousand miles away from our ancestral homelands in the redwood forest. Sitting in the coolness of river water and falling green needles, I heard a sound on the opposite bank of the river. Looking up, I saw a doe step down the bank, come to the river, and begin to drink. Lifting her head, she saw me, and in the stillness of that moment I looked into the eyes of a deer and understood an ancestral memory of migration, removal, linguistic and cultural survival upon the banks of a river that was never meant to be home for my people. At that moment, it became home, and I knew that our spirits were alive and well and had followed us the three thousand miles to where we had migrated west.
The Deer Woman myth is told over and over again in the cultures of the southeastern Indians. Although our origins are different (the Cherokee moving into the southeast from the Iroquois) and our languages are different (Seminole, Choctaw and Muskogee being of the Muskogean language family and Cherokee, Iriquoian), our mythologies are very similar. We are, after all, related culturally and we shared ancestral domestic space; with the passage of stories in an oral culture and the living aspect of these creation stories, the stories are bound to travel, take on a life of their own, become interwoven into daily lives. Indeed, Deer Woman has.
Deer Woman is one of the Little People: among the Cherokee they are called Ani Yunwitsandsdi; among the Choctaw Hutuk Awasa, literally "little men." The function of the Little People is similar to the function of the fairies of Europe; sometimes to the Bogeyman of America. There are stories we were told when we were younger — that the Little People would come from the earth and swallow us up if we weren't good. My husband remembers his mother warning him against jumping into puddles after rains or small bodies of water, and that if he did so, the Little Men would come up and take him away where he would never be seen again. The Little Men, the Little People, keep us in line. Although their roles can be sinister, the Little People are spirits whose function in society is to hold otherworldly knowledge, spiritual and secular knowledge handed down generation to generation. Power must be respected, must be obtained and maintained in traditional, healthy ways. The Little People teach us to do just that: use our power in a good way or else we will be lost.
Deer Woman's specific magic and myth surrounds marriage and courtship rituals. I write of Deer Woman from the Cherokee/Muskogee/Seminole/Choctaw perspective because this is what I know. But other cultures have encounters with Deer Woman or Deer Man. Ella Cara Deloria recorded several traditional Dakota and Lakota narratives which mirrored the Southeastern tribes' Deer Woman stories. The Karuk, according to the Karuk artist and storyteller Lyn Risling, have stories of the Deer Woman in which the spirit is associated with fertility and maturation rituals and prepares young women for marriage. The Southeastern stories are similar in that young people must be instructed in the choosing of a societally-approved mate in order for cultural survival and regeneration. In these stories, a beautiful young woman meets a young man and entrances him into a sexual relationship. The woman is so beautiful that the young man is often swayed by her beauty away from family, home, community. If the young man is so entranced as to not notice the young woman's feet—which in the case of Deer Woman are hooves—then he falls under her spell and stays with her forever, wasting away into depression, despair, prostitution, and ultimately, death.
The Deer Woman spirit teaches us that marriage and family life within the community are important and these relationships cannot be entered into lightly. Her tales are morality narratives: she teaches us that the misuse of sexual power is a transgression that will end in madness and death. The only way to save oneself from the magic of Deer Woman is to look to her feet, see her hooves, and recognize her for what she is. To know the story and act appropiately is to save oneself from a lifetime lived in pain and sorrow; to ignore the story is to continue in the death dance with Deer Woman. Deer Woman instructs us that sexual attraction does not a proper marriage make; it is the societal and cultural responsibility of each tribal member to choose a mate wisely—therefore ensuring tribal survival into the next generation. Both the Karuk stories and the Southeastern stories illustrate this cultural responsibility.
There is a common Southeastern story that teaches us of our origins: that we were born of ancestors who came from the stars and mated with the people born from the earth, from the Mounds that still exist in the southeast today. We are descendant of earth and stars, and being born from the earth and sky we are on a relentless move westward, to the land of sunset. We chase the Sun, who is female and whose power is regenerative and creative. As we move westward, away from our traditional ancestral homelands, removed by force and by will, we are taught that the stories move with us. The spirits do as well, moving with us and following our migrations west. This is where Deer Woman and I met in the coolness of the Eel River; behind the Redwood Curtain in Southern Humboldt County, California. According to Paula Gunn Allen in her collection of stories Grandmothers of the Light (Beacon Press, 1991), Deer Woman is
. . .a supernatural who appears as a human woman and as a doe by turns. She is said to bewitch women and men and eventually cause their descents into death and prostitution.
We see the migration of the spirit, of the woman, along with the people who leave home and reassemble pieces of lives—of language, of culture, or ritual and ceremony—into a new whole in a new world. The creation story is told again, through language, through the continuation of myth, even if it is in a new place.
In Joy Harjo's poem “Deer Dancer” from In Mad Love and War, she describes the woman who becomes and is a deer:
. . .but I imagined her like this, not a stained red dress with tape on her heels but the deer who entered our dream in white dawn, breathed mist into pine trees, her fawn a blessing of meat, the ancestors who never left.
She is a deer who leaves home and comes into a bar “full of misfits,” sending them home on a quest to sober up and, to quote Nat King Cole, “ . . .straighten up and fly right.”
In my own poem, “Deer Hunter,” I see her like this:
I hear her voice
in desert plains
Vast windless prairies
of sand. Rock. Death.
In this desert
they have created
she speaks the price.
Here Deer Woman has followed the migration patterns west to California, where her story is true and alive for those who remember it; and for those who don't but need to re-learn, remember the ancestral knowledge embedded within. A chance encounter with a deer moving down a slope to drink water from a river could be just that: an encounter in the woods with an animal. But I knew differently— trusted the stories and the myths as truth, and I knew what the message was—to recognize Deer Woman for what she is. She still remains, her story still wants to be told, and myth is alive and breaths in the hearts and minds of those who live it.