Personal Experience: A Deer Tale for Thanksgiving

Some years ago a Lakota elder was visiting Naomi and me in South St. Paul.  To maintain privacy, I’ll call her Erma.  While I was at work, Erma and Naomi went out driving in rural Minnesota.  They came across a roadkill deer, and decided to bring it back to our home to skin it. The plan was to make rattles out of the hide, and to have the deer skinned before I came home. When I came home unexpectedly, the garage door was open and the two women stood up abruptly, as if they were caught with their hands in the cookie jar. The dead deer was partially skinned on the concrete floor. The bloody knives were hidden behind their backs, as if that would somehow prevent me from seeing the deer in our garage. Blood soaked through the newspaper and was staining the floor. Clearly, our single car garage was not set up for skinning deer.

I’d been tipped off by my brother.  Naomi had phoned to ask him which of our kitchen knives would be best for skinning a dead deer (all of our knives lacked sharpness). So, on that fine summer day, I decided to drive the short distance home on my lunch break to check it out. The incongruity of a bloodied carcass only 30 feet from the road did not surprise me. I was ready to have a little fun. The conversation went something like this:

ME: I hope that deer is dead.
NAOMI: Yeah, it’s dead.
ME: That’s good, ’cause it looks like you’re trying to skin it.
NAOMI: Yeah, we’re trying to skin it.
ME: With the knives behind your backs.
NAOMI: Yeah, with those knives.
ME: I don’t really like deer meat, not even ground into sausage.
NAOMI: Oh, we’re not going to eat it, we’re just skinning it for rattles.
ME: What do people think when they drive past?
NAOMI: I don’t think they notice.
ME: It’s a lot easier to hide your knives than that deer.
NAOMI: We’ll be done soon.

I don’t think any of us knew what the laws were for bringing roadkill into the city limits. (Were there laws on the books that were meant to discourage poaching – a false claim that a deer was roadkill?) But I wasn’t worried.  When I got home at the end of my workday, they were done. That left a carcass to dispose of. Naomi and I put the carcass in the trunk of the car, and when it was thoroughly dark, we drove to a nearby park, turned off the lights, waited until we were sure no one was driving past, and chucked the body into a ravine. It felt like we were ditching the body of a dead person. We didn’t stick around. (I returned to the site days later and nothing remained of the carcass.)

The next day Erma said they needed sand to make the rattles, so we drove out to Afton State Park where I knew we could gather sand from a powerful creek.  On the way back, having just left the park, a deer ran into the side of my Mazda Navajo SUV. I wasn’t going very fast, but it ran from a blind spot in the woods.  There was no way of avoiding it.  After the car came to a screeching halt, we all got out and walked over to where the deer was clearly wounded but still breathing.  The neck appeared to be broken.  Naomi gasped, “Jim, do something!  You can’t let it suffer, you’ve got to kill it!”  I imagined how I might possibly twist its neck, and in that moment the deer stopped breathing. I took a moment to commune with the spirit of Deer, a moment of silence we all spontaneously observed.

The irony of the situation – collecting sand for the skin of a previous roadkill – did not escape me, and I felt suddenly responsible for the carcass.  On intuition, I glanced up at a nearby farm and decided to see if anyone was home.  The farmer was an experienced hunter.  I asked if he could make use of the deer, and he said that he could.  Erma wanted to stay and watch as he skinned and prepared it for consumption.  We both felt that he was skilled and respectful.  I can’t properly articulate why that was important to me.

As previously planned, Erma left the next day. It was up to us to prepare the hide so that Naomi could make her rattle. We began by soaking the skin so that we could remove the hair. We also had to scrape the hide so that all of the membrane and meat was completely removed. Otherwise the skin would decompose, which it did anyway, despite our best efforts. The project was tedious, smelly, drew flies, and seemed less and less worthwhile as the days past. We ended up digging a hole and burying the deerskin. Dogs, or some other animal, ate it that very night. In nature, nothing is wasted. (As a footnote, Naomi was able to make a deerskin rattle at our shamanic fall retreat later that year.  The opportunity was serendipitous.)

I’ve been quiet about this next piece of the story, but it’s been over 20 years now and there is no need for silence.  Prior to the “deer events” Erma had made me a generous offer: “I would like to give you my medicine.”  I believe her sweet offer grew out of a healing I had performed on her, as well as a mutual friendship we shared with a Native American of Choctaw descent. If I accepted it probably would have involved moving to the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota for an unspecified period of time. I wasn’t comfortable with the offer. My helping spirits explained that one reading of the “deer events” was that I was to follow my own path.  For me, at that time and circumstance, accepting the offer could lead to a clash of cultures. I was (am) not Lakota.

Finally, my story is related to Thanksgiving because it reminded me how difficult it is to deal with an actual animal in preparation for the feast. Luckily, our ancestors did not have to eat the skin. They could give it directly to their dogs without having to make a mess of it first.  Naomi, who grew up on a farm, explained to me the involved process of preparing poultry for consumption. Those of us that eat poultry should give thanks that someone is doing that for us. The smell alone could take away your appetite, but only if you weren’t really hungry to start with. That’s probably the biggest difference between our ancestors and us. We’re never that hungry. We sometimes forget that many of us in this country have the ability to feast any time of the year. Are we thankful?  I mean it, on our knees with folded hands thankful!

Photo from Jana Lalanne (Blue Crow Dreaming)

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