It begins with a time of vibrant and vivid color that explodes everywhere. Golden yellows, crimson reds, cinnamon browns and jade greens form brilliant kaleidoscopes all around us. This is Ta-kwa-aki – Fall. As it moves on, the missiskie (leaves) fall from the te-quis (trees). As the woods become bare, and the atmosphere takes on a cool briskness that is fresh and alive in sharpness. All of this is accented by the darting scarlet of the cardinal wiskilo’thas (birds). Kesathwa (the sun) flashes on winging nika’s (geese) as they fill the skies with their singing voices. But at its zenith, when all of the color has all shifted to muted grays, blacks and browns, and the harvest is ending, there comes the time of dormancy. This is when the te-quis (trees), at-chi-tamons (chipmunks) and magwas (bears) go to sleep. But while most things are covering up, snuggling tightly for the papoon’wi (winter) ahead, the peshikthe – the deer – are wide awake. And the chech-atonga – the hunters – well, they are, too.
November 15 th is the traditional opening day for Firearms Deer Season in Michigan. It’s followed by a continuance of the archery and black powder deer hunts in December. It’s a time-honored pastime for many a hunter. Many Indian people have used the word chech-aton-ga to describe a deer hunter who possesses above average skills – those of a ‘great hunter’. See, chech-aton-ga can be interpreted as “Hunter that moves like wind through the trees”. Yep, and if you’ve ever watched the movie, “Last of the Mohicans”, then you’ve seen where it comes from. That film opens with a deer hunting scene, set back in the 1757. The hunters are pursuing deer by chasing them on foot through heavy timber. Now, when you consider that a deer can run at speed spurts of up to 36 miles per hour, you might think this is cornier than a theater concession stand. You may wonder how this makes any sense whatsoever. But the great hunter knew enough about their quarry – the deer – to anticipate where it would go, how it would maneuver while trying to evade, and where to cut it off. They knew that it couldn’t maintain this speed for very long before it would have to slow down or stop. While chasing their prey, and watching its actions ahead, they made lightening-like calculations. Ultimately, then, they would wear the deer down, and eventually be able to shoot the animal when it came into view, at a pre-figured location. So, knowing a lot about the deer they were pursuing made success possible in such a manner.
Yes’sir, and taking an animal in this way was the ultimate honor for the Traditional American Indian deer hunter. It was the epitome of a ‘great hunter’ or chech-aton-ga. Of course, this was at a time when the timber was mostly all virgin. The trees of these forests were unbelievably tall, stifling sunlight, and diminishing almost all scrub growth beneath them. So, there was a lot of clear vision for the deer and hunters alike. Things have changed nowadays. But for the Traditional American Indian deer hunter, the sanctity and importance of the hunt has not. Originally, and still today, providing meat and fur for their families was primarily the goal of Indian hunters. The size of the antler meant nothing. Mostly, deer hunting was the job of the men of a village in the olden days. Women sometimes hunted small animals, and, within some nations, they hunted big game, as well. So there was this variance. Hunting methods and tactics, though, were always based on extensive knowledge of the habits and routines of game animals. It included accurate shooting with a bow and arrows. Hunters had different arrows for different kinds of game. Large arrowheads were used for deer, bears, wolves and fox, while smaller ones were used for birds, rabbits, fish and other small animals.
In woodland areas, deer, elk and moose were always hunted with the most dedication, because they carried the largest amount of meat and fur. Bears sometimes came into this scenario, too. Traditional American Indians believed, and still do, that successful hunting always involves proper understanding of the animals they hunted. Hunting ceremonies were usually held prior to the hunt, and hunting totem shields were often made beforehand. The photo attached with this column shows one that I made a number of years ago. The frame is made from bent green maple shoots. The arrow symbolizes the weapon used. The hide is brain-tanned deerskin, attached with sinew. The painted images and other natural additives are all a part of a request to the Great Good Spirit for success in the deer hunt. The wild turkey feathers are symbols of these birds, which represent “meat” in old Indian symbolism. The image of the fox, along with the actual fox tail represents cunning and skill needed in the hunt. The image of the yellow badger paw, and the actual badger claws all around the shield, symbolize tenacious dedication, like that of the badger. Acorns – one of the deer’s favored wild foods – are positioned around the shield in hopes of ample mast crop for them. And finally, the deer itself is depicted with the skull and images, as the quarry; its tracks leading to the downed animal. Finally there is the ancient symbol of a deer hunter – me – in the moonlight.
Paying tribute to the Master of Life and showing proper respect to the spirit of the animal before the hunt – these things are vital for success. Once afield, hunters usually carried magnetisms that symbolized their bond with the game they hunted. Yep, and it was often the case that hunters who had reputations and were considered “chech-aton-ga” were the ones that led deer hunts. These guys would be the Traditional American Indian equivalent to the modern-day Big Game Hunting Guide.
There’s this, too. Contrary to what you may’ve heard, most Traditional American Indians didn’t have ‘animal spirit guides’ – they just didn’t. We respect the wild ones, but they are below us – not equal. And for what it’s worth, that old inaccuracy about the successful Indian hunter thanking the animal for giving itself to him is just plain-old nutty. The deer – unless it’s ‘tetched in the head’ – sure didn’t give itself to the hunter willingly. No, it had tried diligently to get away. This goofy misconception comes from the fact that if the Indian hunter is successful, then he will say a prayer of thanks to “The Great Mystery” – not the dead prey. His whisper will be one of gratitude to God, for placing the deer before him, and for allowing him –a mere two-legged hunter – to have just a smidgeon more smarts and cunning than the deer.
Today many American Indians still hunt deer for subsistence, just as they have for thousands of years. But no matter whom you are, or what your past is, Ta-kwa-aki (Fall) is the time for deer hunting. Outside these days, many things are snuggling tightly for papoon’wi’s (winter’s) long slumber ahead. But the peshikthe – the deer – are wide awake. And the chech-atonga – the hunters – well, they are, too.