The Eastern Band of Cherokee, deprived for centuries of the white-tailed deer that symbolizes their culture, are in the process of getting their icon back.
Though deer are considered almost a pest in many parts, devouring gardens and proliferating, the Cherokee themselves, who have cherished the animal for 10,000 years or more, do not have them on their own lands in what is today western North Carolina.
A new program is taking deer from Morrow Mountain State Park in the Uwharrie Mountains in North Carolina, where their eating habits and numbers threaten plant species, and transplanting them into the Eastern Band’s 5,130-acre natural preserve on Cherokee tribal lands. The plan is to move up to 50 per year over the next three years in hopes of bringing deer in Cherokee territory back near their previous numbers. All are tagged, and 90 percent have been fitted with radio collars, according to the Eastern Band of Cherokee in a media release. This will tell biologists where they go—and don’t go—and how predators affect their numbers and behavior, the tribe said.
“We are tracking these deer and others released earlier to determine their movement patterns, whether they will form family groups, and if they will prosper in the years ahead,” said tribal member Caleb Hickman, the supervisory biologist on the project. “Like the successful elk reintroduction that took place twelve years ago, these deer represent a stock in the future of wildlife on the Qualla Boundary.”
In February, the Eastern Band of Cherokee’s Fisheries and Wildlife Management department released 28 young deer onto the tribal lands. They plan more releases over the next three years, according to the Smoky Mountain News.
“As we learn more about this area and the ecology of deer in this area, we’ll know more about what this area can support,” said Mike LaVoie, program manager for Fisheries and Wildlife, to the Smoky Mountain News.
The Cherokee used to rely on deer for clothing, meat and even glue, which they made from hooves, the newspaper said. The deer represented fleet-footed speed and was revered. Then came European settlers, and the deerskin trade. The animals’ numbers have been dwindling steadily since contact, and today white-tailed deer are almost nonexistent on Eastern Band of Cherokee lands, in a trend that also affected the very underpinnings of the tribe’s society and culture.
"We are a clan-based tribe and one of our clans was a Deer Clan,” Eastern Band of Cherokee Principal Chief Michell Hicks told North Carolina Public Radio station WUNC. “A deer is always known to be fast and aloof, and just understanding that, it's an obvious that they were part of the messengers for the tribe, historically speaking, and so they play a very important historical role for our people and our traditions.”
The deer’s numbers plummeted once settlers and traders arrived.
“When Europeans arrived in Cherokee territory, the tribe dove into the deerskin trade, eventually becoming the largest trader of the many Southeastern tribes engaged in trading,” noted the Smoky Mountain News. “This development was a significant turning point in Cherokee history, introducing its members to a more capitalistic mindset and coinciding with a shift from a matriarchal society to a patriarchal one. Between 1699 and 1715, Southeastern tribes were shipping nearly 54,000 skins annually, and deer were nearly extinct in the Southeast by the time the deerskin trade ended in the 1750s.”
Thus the reintroduction of the deer is not only an environmental move, but also a proclamation of sovereignty.
“In a way, this is an example of self-determination,” said Tyler Howe, of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office, to the Smoky Mountain News. “This is something the tribe is doing on their own. They feel it’s important to them, that cultural commitment to deer.”
The deer represents many things, Howe explained, playing an integral role in culture before contact, and then taking on another significance when the deerskin trade was sparked by the arrival of the Europeans.
“What’s unique about deer in Cherokee history is it’s a symbol of cultural change and also cultural maintenance,” Howe said.