How the Deer Won His Antlers

By on December 1, 2014

How the Deer Won His Antlers

Native American Cherokee Legends Passed Down Through Time

The Little Deer, Awi Usdi

Back when the world was young, the humans and the animal people could speak to each other. At first they lived in peace. The humans hunted the animals only when they needed food or skins to make clothing. Then the humans discovered the bow and arrow. With this weapon they could kill many animals quickly and with great ease. They began to kill animals when they did not need them for food or clothing. It seemed as if all the animals in the world would soon be exterminated. So the various animals met in council.

When the bears came together and talked about what the humans were doing, they decided they would have to fight back. “How can we do that?” said one of the bear warriors. “The humans will shoot us with their arrows before we come close to them.”

Old Bear, their chief, agreed. “That is true. We must learn how to use the same weapons they use.”

Then the bears made a very strong bow and fashioned arrows for it. But whenever they tried to use the bow, their long claws got in the way. “I will cut off my claws,” said one of the bear warriors. He did so and then he was able to use the bow and arrow. His aim was good and he hit the mark every time.

“That is good,” said Old Bear. “Now can you climb this tree?” The bear without claws tried to climb the tree, but he failed. Old Bear shook his head. “This will not do. Without our claws we cannot climb trees. Without our claws we will not be able to hunt or dig for food. We must give up this idea of using the same weapons the humans use.”

So the bears gave up their idea of fighting back against the humans with weapons. One by one each of the animal groups met. One by one they came to no conclusion. It seemed there was no way to fight back. But the last group to meet was the deer.

Awi Usdi, Little Deer, was their leader. When all were gathered together, he spoke. “I see what we must do,” he said. “We cannot stop the humans from hunting animals. That is the way it was meant to be. However, the humans are not doing things in the right way. If they do not respect us and hunt us only when there is real need, they may kill us all. I shall go now and tell the hunters what they must do.

Whenever they wish to kill a deer, they must prepare in a ceremonial way. They must ask me for permission to kill one of us. Then, after they kill a deer, they must show respect to its spirit and ask for pardon. If the hunters do not do this, then I shall track them down. With my magic I will make their limbs crippled. Then they will no longer be able to walk or shoot a bow and arrow.”

Then Awi Usdi, Little Deer, did as he said. He went at night and whispered into the ears of the hunters, telling them what they must do. The next morning, when they awoke, some of the hunters thought they had been dreaming and they were not sure that the dream was a true one.

How The Deer Got His Horns

In the beginning the Deer had no horns, but his head was smooth just like a doe’s. He was a great runner and the Rabbit was a great jumper, and the animals were all curious to know which could go farther in the same time. They talked about it a good deal, and at last arranged a match between the two, and made a nice large pair of antlers for a prize to the winner. They were to start together from one side of a thicket and go through it, then turn and come back, and the one who came out first was to get the horns.

On the day fixed all the animals were there, with the antlers put down on the ground at the edge of the thicket to mark the starting point. While everybody was admiring the horns the Rabbit said: “I don’t know this part of the country, I want to take a look through the bushes where I am to run.” They thought that all right, so the Rabbit went into the thicket, but he was gone so long that at last the animals suspected he must be up to one of his tricks. They sent a messenger to look for him, and away in the middle of the thicket he found the Rabbit gnawing down the bushes and pulling them away until he had a road cleared nearly to the other side.

The messenger turned around quietly and came back and told the other animals. When the Rabbit came out at last, they accused him of cheating, but he denied it until they went into the thicket and found the cleared road. They agreed that such a trickster had no right to enter the race at all, so they gave the horns to the Deer, who was admitted to be the best runner, and he has worn them ever since. They told the Rabbit that as he was so fond of cutting down bushes he might do that for a living hereafter, and so he does to this day.

Why The Deer’s Teeth Are Blunt

The Rabbit felt sore because the Deer had won the horns, and resolved to get even. One day soon after the race he stretched a large grapevine across the trail and gnawed it nearly in two in the middle. Then he went back a piece, took a good run, and jumped up at the vine. He kept on running and jumping up at the vine until the Deer came along and asked him what he was doing?

“Don’t you see?” says the Rabbit. “I’m so strong that I can bite through that grapevine at one jump.” The Deer could hardly believe this, and wanted to see it done. So the Rabbit ran back, made a tremendous spring, and bit through the vine where he had gnawed it before. The Deer, when he saw that, said, “Well, I can do it if you can.” So the Rabbit stretched a larger grapevine across the trail, but without gnawing it in the middle.

Deer ran back as he had seen the Rabbit do, made a spring, and struck the grapevine right in the center, but it only flew back and threw him over on his head. He tried again and again, until he was all bruised and bleeding. “Let me see your teeth,” at last said the Rabbit. So the Deer showed him his teeth, which were long like a wolf’s teeth, but not very sharp.

“No wonder you can’t do it,” says the Rabbit, “your teeth are too blunt to bite anything. Let me sharpen them for you like mine. My teeth are so sharp that I can cut through a stick just like a knife.” And he showed him a black locust twig, of which rabbits gnaw the young shoots, which he had shaved off as well as a knife could do it, in regular rabbit fashion. The Deer thought that’s just the thing. So the Rabbit got a hard stone with rough edges and filed and filed away at the Deer’s teeth until they were worn down almost to the gums.

“It hurts,” said the Deer, but the Rabbit said it always hurt a little when they begin to get sharp, so the Deer kept quiet. “Now try it,” at last said the Rabbit. So the Deer tried again, but this time he could not bite at all.

“Now you’ve paid for your horns,” said the Rabbit, as he jumped away through the bushes. Ever since then the Deer’s teeth are so blunt that he cannot chew anything but grass and leaves.

What Became of The Rabbit

The Deer was very angry at the Rabbit for filing his teeth and determined to be revenged, but he kept still and pretended to be friendly until the Rabbit was off his guard. Then one day, as they were going along together talking, he challenged the Rabbit to jump against him. Now the Rabbit is a great jumper, as every one knows, so he agreed at once.

There was a small stream beside the path, as there generally is in that country, and the Deer said, “Let’s see if you can jump across this branch of the stream. We’ll go back a piece, and then when I say Kû!, we’ll both run and jump over the stream.”

“All right,” said the Rabbit. So they went back to get a good start, and when the Deer gave the word Kû! they both ran for the stream. The Rabbit made one jump and easily landed on the other side. But the Deer had stopped on the bank, and when the Rabbit looked back the Deer had conjured the stream so that it was a large river. The Rabbit was never able to get back again and is still on the other side. The rabbit that we know is only a little thing that came afterwards.
Source: Myths of the Cherokee, by James Mooney. From Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology 1897-98.

Deer paintings by Ande Cook. Ande Cook is an artist and illustrator living in Blue Ridge GA.
Visit www.andecookstudio.com to view more of her work.