Environment
3:27 pm
Wed January 8, 2014

Sacred Animal, White-tailed Deer, Heads To New Home On Cherokee Lands

White-tailed deer are sacred to many Native Americans
Credit NH Public Television/Nature Works
Phoebe Judge discusses the deer return with Principal Chief Michell Hicks, of the Eastern Band of Cherokee

Starting this month a group of white tailed deer will be transported from Morrow Mountain State Park onto 56,000 acres of reservation lands of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

It's a project sponsored by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and the Cherokee Fisheries and Wildlife Management Program.

The move will help augment the reservation's population of deer which has been declining over the years.

Michell Hicks is the Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee. He says that the move is necessary, not only for the environmental  benefits a healthy deer population brings to a natural environment, but also because of the important role deer play in Cherokee cultural traditions.  "We are a clan-based tribe and one of our clans was a Deer Clan. A deer is always known to be fast and aloof, and just understanding that, it's an obvious that they were part of the messengers for the tribe, historically speaking, and so they play a very important historical role for our people and our traditions.

One online site documents the importance of the white-tailed deer in the day-to-day lives of many Cherokees:

Cherokees utilized virtually all parts of the deer, which comprised as much as half the meat in their diet. Payment for tribal obligations could be made in deerskins. Women and men made deer sinews into string and made entrails into bow strings and thread. They worked antler and bone into tools, musical instruments, and beads. Women boiled antlers and hooves for glue and converted small bones into needles and awls. They tanned hides with deer brains, then fashioned the leather into clothing or bedding, moccasins or hairpieces, bags or belts. For dances they fastened rattles on "white-drest deerskin" tied onto their legs.

During special ceremonies and at annual celebrations, the priest sat on one deerskin, which was painted or chalked white, and rested his feet on another. To assemble a general council, the "beloved man" raised over the town house a deerskin painted white with red spots.

Ceremonial feasts always included ritual sacrifice of deer tongue. The priest 'cuts 4 other pieces and throws one north the other south the other east and the other west. After the ritual offering, he passed the remainder of meat "through the flame of the fire and then (gave) it to the women to dress for the priest and all others that pleases to eat of it.

Michell Hicks, Principal Chief, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
Credit UNC Asheville

Past, Present, Future

Michell Hicks knows the history of the white-tailed deer. But he's also interested in the present. "One of the most exciting things, especially for children, is to see a wild animal out in its own environment."

And Hicks  notes that he's seen how such a wildlife re-location can be successful. He points to a similar program, with elk.  "The program started about twelve years ago. Now it's very common to go out any morning or evening and see an elk here in the Cherokee area, pretty much at any time. And so the same thing we hope will happen to white-tailed deer."

Between 25 and 50 deer will be relocated in each of the next three years. Officials say that they will select primarily females in small family groups. Initial collections will begin this month. Biologists will use darts to tranquilize the animals, and will track them after re-location by tag and radio collar.