Deer Spirits

by Richard L. Dieterle

Deer spirits live in the village of Earthmaker, where they are famous musicians, playing the flute and singing. These spirits can take on a human form to communicate with men. There is a deer mound just northwest of Black River Falls1 where dwells the Great White Doe. At this mound, under her supervision, all the souls of deer who have died enter, and out of it all the souls of deer who are to be reincarnated are born. During the tenth month (the Strawberry Moon), the Great White Doe always remains inside the mound, since this is the time when does conceive.2 Deer, like humans and many other animals, are capable of falling in love.3


The spiritual nature of the deer is bound up with the four cardinal directions and with the winds that emanate from them. This reflects the connection between sound and pervasiveness — the cries of the deer radiate out to the four corners, so their nature is to control air and what air pervades. Also, deer as animals that rely on speed to survive, have unusually well developed lungs, which means that they, more than most species, have a special control of air. If the voice of a deer is heard, the weather will change from good to bad or vice-versa. Thus if a Deer clansman, who has inherited the spiritual nature of deer, were to sing his clan song too loudly or wail in grief, someone might die.4 This same activity can also raise a gale force wind. This is because air and sound, being part of the spiritual constitution of deer, make up both the essence of weather and the essence of human life, the breath (ni). To create too much of this power, which apparently subsists in a finite reservoir, is to draw it away from some other spiritual reservoir, such as a human being; or in nature, a mass of air. Because pervasiveness commands the four quarters, the Deer Clan has some claim to government. It is said too that were it not for the breath that the primordial Deer chief blew upon the simmering embers of the first fire, it would not have lit up at all. Thus they have a share in the sovereignty inherent in the possession of that first fire.5

Another figure associated with cardinal directions is Redhorn. He is also the deity Herokaga, whose eponymous spirit-followers give magical powers to hunters. In his youth he was known as He at whom They Throw the Deer Lungs, since his older brother Kunu once threw them at Redhorn when he refused to fast.6 The deer lungs symbolize the wind and centrality of the deer, the seat of its essence by which it commands the four quarters. Thus the deer are particularly cooperative with Redhorn and the Heroka spirits. Once a man shot at a cave painting of a deer during an initiation ceremony for a neophyte devotee of the Heroka, and from out of the wall a deer fell dead at their feet.7 Deer hunting can sometimes lead a man into mysterious encounters. A young man once shot a deer, but although it was mortally wounded, it kept on running, obliging him to chase after it. It took him out of the way just so that when he packed it back, he found himself walking through an abandoned village where he was destined to rendezvous with the ghost of his departed lover.8 In recent times, Pejka's brother went hunting for a deer that also failed to fall when hit, so that the hunter was obliged to club the animal to death. It was too heavy to carry, but when the man returned with help, the deer had mysteriously disappeared.9 Deer not only have human hunters to contend with, but wolves as well. Wolf Spirits have some control over deer. Once two Wolf Spirits were reborn in the flesh, one as a wolf and the other as a human. As long as the human left the deer liver from his kill for his brother, the human enjoyed bounty beyond limit. However, his wife induced him to keep the deer liver, ever after which he was unable to kill a deer. Only by cooperating with his brother, as humans do with dogs to this day, was he able to kill a deer and regain his strength.10 Humans and wolves are like brothers. In the earliest times, Deer Spirits, because they control the wind, enlisted the North Wind to lure off hunters who came to kill them. The North Wind captured twelve deer slaying brothers and confined them in a snowbound prison, while their parents fell into want. The Deer Spirits appeared and tormented the old couple by dancing around the inside of their lodge, singing spiteful songs. So the old man took oysters and inserted something into them from his private parts and had his wife incubated them between her legs. The next morning, two wolves hatched from the oyster shells. These two gave rise to the race of wolves. The wolf brothers conquered the Deer Spirits and rescued the brothers from the captivity of the North Wind. In those days, all the deer lived together, but the wolf brothers scattered them over the face of the earth, a pattern of distribution to which they hold down to the present day.11 Coyotes, near relatives of wolves, are in some debt to deer. Once Coyote had the tip of his tail bitten off by an animated human corpse. When a deer passed by in response to his calls for help, it took pity on him and gave him the tip of its white tail. So this kind of deer has a short tail, but the coyote has had a tail with a white tip ever since.12

Deer suffered setbacks of other kinds which have had an impact on their present constitution. Once the spirit known as the "Green Man," encountered a deer. He yelled to it, "Younger brother, come here, I need to borrow your heart." When the deer came, Green Man took out its heart and replaced it with one made of dirt. This is why deer hearts today are so dry. It is also why deer are so skittish: — for if the earth were to quake, so would their hearts.13 This may also poke fun at the Deer Clan name, "Shakes the Earth" (Mągiksųcga ?), which was meant to express the power of the cervid founders of the clan. The dry heart is not the only venison organ eaten by the Hocągara. It is said that someone raised on a diet of deer brains will grow taller than others and will be free of disease.14 Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that deer brains were used in tanning leather, which protects it as well as making it more pliable. The liver (p'irá) could also be used for this purpose. The deer, it is said, produce no gall (p'istára hoicąk). Since it is thought that gall is the agent of sleep, it follows that deer are ever wakeful.15

To the Hocągara who depended heavily on being able to hunt deer, the life cycle of this animal was of paramount importance. The regularity of many of these cycles allowed the Hocągara to use the various phases in the lives of deer as parts of a lunar calendar. In October, for instance, the deer begin to paw the earth, so this time is called "the Deer Pawing Moon" (Camąįnąǧowira). In the succeeding month the deer mate, so the moon that falls around November is called "the Deer Mating Moon" (Caikíruxewira). The third of the deer moons is the one in which the antlers fall off the male deer, giving rise to the name "Deer Antler Shedding Moon" (Cahewakšųwira) for the moon that falls around the month of December.

Links: The Redhorn Panel of Picture Cave. An American Star Map, Wolf & Dog Spirits, North Wind, Redhorn, Heroka, Coyote, The Wazija, Earthmaker.

Stories: featuring deer as characters: Deer Clan Origin Myth, A Deer Story, Little Fox and the Ghost, Porcupine and His Brothers, Wolves and Humans, The Green Man, The Resurrection of the Chief's Daughter, Trickster's Tail, Fireman's Brother, cf. The Race for the Chief's Daughter; mentioning deer lungs: The Race for the Chief's Daughter, The Fleetfooted Man, A Man and His Three Dogs; mentioning deer hearts: A Man's Revenge, The Green Man; mentioning Redhorn: The Redhorn Cycle, Redhorn's Sons, The Mission of the Five Sons of Earthmaker, Redhorn's Father, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, Morning Star and His Friend, The Spirit of Gambling, The Green Man, The Hocągara Contest the Giants, cp. The Cosmic Ages of the Hocągara; featuring the Heroka as characters: The Chief of the Heroka, The Red Man, The Oak Tree and the Man Who was Blessed by the Heroka, The Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, Little Human Head, Morning Star and His Friend, The Claw Shooter, Redhorn's Sons, The Origins of the Milky Way; relating to dogs or wolves: The Gray Wolf Origin Myth, A Man and His Three Dogs, White Wolf, Wolves and Humans, The Wolf Clan Origin Myth, The Old Man and His Four Dogs, Worúxega, The Dogs of the Chief's Son, The Dog that became a Panther, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, The Wild Rose, The Man Whose Wife was Captured, The Resurrection of the Chief's Daughter, The Canine Warrior, The Dog Who Saved His Master, The Raccoon Coat, Wojijé, The Big Eater, Why Dogs Sniff One Another, The Healing Blessing, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, Trickster Loses His Meal, Sun and the Big Eater, Redhorn's Sons, Trickster, the Wolf, the Turtle, and the Meadow Lark, Hog's Adventures, Holy One and His Brother, The Messengers of Hare, Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts, Grandmother's Gifts, The Hocąk Migration Myth, Bladder and His Brothers, The Stench-Earth Medicine Origin Myth, The Old Man and the Giants, Rich Man, Boy, and Horse, Kunu's Warpath, Morning Star and His Friend, Black Otter's Warpath, Chief Wave and the Big Drunk; Peace of Mind Regained (?); mentioning coyotes: Wojijé, The Raccoon Coat, Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, Redhorn's Sons, Redhorn Contests the Giants, Trickster and the Eagle; mentioning the Wazija: The Hocąk Migration Myth, Trickster and the Geese, The First Fox and Sauk War, The Hocągara Migrate South, The Cosmic Ages of the Hocągara, Waruǧábᵉra, The Creation of Man.

Themes: someone fires a "blind shot" with an arrow and fells a deer: Morning Star and His Friend, Old Man and Wears White Feather; a deer is killed with a club: White Wolf, Fireman's Brother; dragging a deer to the kill by hand: Morning Star and His Friend (v. 2), The Dipper, How the Thunders Met the Nights; children are given deer tails to eat: The Redman, The Chief of the Heroka, Waruǧábᵉra, The Birth of the Twins, The Two Boys; having the power to control the winds and/or the weather: Deer Clan Origin Myth, Wolf Clan Origin Myth, Bear Clan Origin Myth (vv. 1, 5), Blue Bear, The Gray Wolf Origin Myth, The Chief of the Heroka, East Enters the Medicine Lodge (v. 2), East Shakes the Messenger, South Seizes the Messenger, The Dipper; something is of a (symbolic) pure white color: White Bear, The Journey to Spiritland (v. 4), White Flower, Big Eagle Cave Mystery, The Fleetfooted Man, Thunderbird and White Horse, The Orphan who was Blessed with a Horse, Worúxega, The Two Boys, The Lost Blanket (white spirits), Skunk Origin Myth, He Who Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, White Wolf, A Man and His Three Dogs, The Messengers of Hare, The Brown Squirrel, The Man Who Fell from the Sky, Bladder and His Brothers, White Thunder's Warpath, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth, The Dipper, Great Walker's Medicine (v. 2), Creation of the World (v. 12), Hare Secures the Creation Lodge, The Descent of the Drum, Tobacco Origin Myth (v. 5), The Diving Contest, Otter Comes to the Medicine Rite, The Arrows of the Medicine Rite Men, The Animal Spirit Aids of the Medicine Rite, Grandmother's Gifts, Four Steps of the Cougar, The Completion Song Origin, North Shakes His Gourd, Lifting Up the Bear Heads, Thunder Cloud is Blessed, Peace of Mind Regained.


1 Ken Funmaker, Sr., "Ca Worak, a Deer Story," trs. Edward Lonetree Jr., Chloris Lowe Sr., Bill O’Brien, and Lucille Roberts (Hoocak Academy, ca. 1997), YouTube.

2 Funmaker, "Ca Worak, a Deer Story," YouTube.

3 Walter W. Funmaker, The Bear in Winnebago Culture: A Study in Cosmology and Society (Master Thesis, University of Minnesota: June, 1974 [MnU-M 74-29]) 12-18, 59, 61-66. His informant is Walking Soldier (1900-1977).

4 David Lee Smith, Folklore of the Winnebago Tribe (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997) 9; Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 198.

5 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 198-201.

6 Paul Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles: A Study in Aboriginal Literature (Baltimore: Waverly Press, 1948) 115-118.

7 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 245-246.

8 Paul Radin, The Culture of the Winnebago: As Defined by Themselves, Special Publications of the Bollingen Foundation, #1: 73-119. Informant: Charlie Houghton.

9 John Fireman, Tales of Fireman's Brother, trs. by George Ricehill, in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3892 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) III, #11a, Story 2, p. 74.

10 Paul Radin, "White Wolf," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #10: 1-64.

11 Paul Radin, "Wolves," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook #53: 1-40.

12 Charlie Houghton, Coyote is Invited to a Feast, in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Winnebago III, #9, Freeman #3894 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1909?) 147- 159. A translation of this story is found in Sam Blowsnake (ed. Paul Radin), Crashing Thunder. The Autobiography of an American Indian (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983 [1926]) 44-49.

13 Paul Radin, "The Blue Man," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook 55; Paul Radin, (untitled), Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3858 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Winnebago IV, #5: 4-16.

14 Radin, The Culture of the Winnebago, 73-119.

15 Amelia Susman, Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, August 1, 1938) 1.91.