Owvtta: The Fall Hunt
An ancient Choctaw story tells of a hunter who, one evening after killing a doe far from his village, made his camp for the night near the spot where the deer fell. He hung up his bow in a nearby tree. Upon waking the next morning, the hunter was astonished when the dead deer arose and invited him to follow her to her home. After a long journey, they entered a hole in the ground, where the hunter was led before the King of all deer. The hunter soon fell asleep. While he slept, the deer placed a deer hide over him, fitted deer hooves to his hands and feet, and attached antlers to his head. Back at home, the hunter’s family became worried by his absence. They searched the woods for him and eventually found his bow hanging in the tree where he had left it. Believing he was dead, they began to sing a mourning song for him. Suddenly, a herd of deer appeared through the woods, one coming closer than the others. Some of the singers caught hold of this deer. When it spoke to them, they realized it was actually the missing hunter. At the insistence of the hunter’s frantic mother, they tore away the deer hide from the hunter’s body, but the deerskin had become part of his own flesh. Separated from it, his blood began to flow, and the hunter/deer died. His grieving family took the body home and buried it (Unknown Choctaw storyteller  in Mould 2004:107).
This is one of my favorite Choctaw stories. Its perspective - that under the skin there's not that much difference between a man and a deer - says a lot about traditional culture. Hunting is one of the most important roles for a traditional Choctaw man to fill, and deer was the most important food animal in the Choctaw homeland for 10,000 years.
When I was a teenager intending to carry on this tradition, I envisioned what my first deer hunt would be like. I would carry a traditional Choctaw longbow and dogwood arrows that I had made. I even knew the type of stone I was going to make the arrow points out of, a blue-grey flint from a place where I used to spend a lot of time on the land back then. In those days, I enjoyed the challenge of stalking deer in the woods. Sometimes I got a little lucky and ended up really close to an animal. I figured that when I had prepared in the right way, I'd take my bow with me on one of my stalking excursions and that would be my first hunt.
Then came a severe case of Lyme disease. After four years of treatment, I finally got over it, but was cautioned never to eat deer meat again due to a possibility of reinfection. I've taken that caution seriously, and that kind of took the air out of my plans to hunt deer. I've made traditional bows and arrows for other people to use on the deer hunt. I've braintanned 130 deer hides from animals that other people harvested. Through these and other outlets, I made peace with never filling that role myself.
This week, things changed in the blink of an eye. The deer population that visits our farm needs occasional thinning for good management. It's not uncommon to run into a dozen or more of these animals on a short evening walk through the pastures. Although majestic, when there are too many deer in too small of a space, bad things happen, including lots of ticks and the potential for Lyme disease. With humans having killed off nearly all of the deer's natural predators in our region, the responsibility of keeping the deer population in a healthy balance falls on humans.
Amy and her Dad hunted deer on the farm last year. For 12 months, she had been looking forward to hunting again with him this year, and to making her first harvest. Unfortunately, healing from an injury prevented her from being able to shoot a rifle during the two weeks of gun season this year. I offered to hunt with her Dad, picked up a couple tags, and suddenly...
In some ways the experience of my first deer hunt was entirely different from how I had once pictured it, and in some ways it was entirely better. Instead of a bow, I carried our 1894-model Winchester 30-30. Instead of stalking by myself, Amy came to share the hunt with me as a spotter, and we began our day sitting in a hunting blind. We were hunting at the same time as her Dad. Meat harvested by either of us would be relished by her parents and shared at Choctaw church gatherings.
After some unproductive time in the blind, Amy and I decided to head out on foot to an opening in the woods where we know the deer like to cross. Some of the old folks used to believe that it wasn't the skill of the hunter that brought in the harvest. It was an animal taking pity on people and choosing to sacrifice itself for them. After we had been standing silently in a patch of willows for a bit, a prime, eating-sized buck stepped into the clearing 120 yards in front of us. My spotter saw him before I did. He presented himself to me twice, and I thought about the ancient belief of a deer sacrificing itself. I made the harvest cleanly, and then thanked this animal in Choctaw. Five minutes later, we heard the bang of another rifle across the draw, as Amy's dad harvested a doe. It's hard to describe how it feels to finally fulfill the role of deer hunter: a combination of sadness and gratitude towards the animal, a sense of joy in providing food for the family and community - probably something a lot like what a billion hunters before me have felt.
Traditionally, a successful Choctaw hunter shared meat with the others in hunting camp as widely as the size of his harvest justified. We can't share meat with readers of this blog, but we can share this harvest in another way. A traditional way of honoring an animal's sacrifice is to use every part of its body. I have worked to make the best use of animals harvested by other people a hundred times before in the past, but this time, it's an animal that sacrificed himself for me. From the intestines, to the hooves, to the tendons, we have processed and preserved the non-food portions of this harvest for use in Choctaw traditional arts. We'll be sharing some of these and showing the finished products made from this deer in a few upcoming posts dedicated to keeping some of these seldom-made traditional arts, arts which honor the deer, from falling asleep.