Deer People: Native American Forest Folk

deerSeveral Native American peoples have legends of a half-deer, half-human being that lives in the forest and is sometimes dangerous to humans. In the Southeast, the Choctaw tell of a mischievous deer man called kashehotapolo. Cherokee folklore has a shapeshifting “deer woman.” These two apparently have little in common except their deer-like attributes and the general part of the world in which they live.

The kashehotapolo love to frighten hunters in the woods but are otherwise more mischievous than malicious.They inhabit the marshes and swampy woodlands. The Choctaw say these beings screech and wail as they dash past lone hunters at lightning speed.

What does a kashehotapolo look like? Reports vary. Some say its true form is an antlered humanoid, although it can take the form of an ordinary deer. Others report the creature has an undersized head. Yet others say he has a shriveled face, the body of a man and the legs and hooves of a deer. This confusion about its appearance is explained by the Choctaw by saying the creature ran so fast that few ever saw it clearly enough to clearly state what it looked like.

In contrast to the Choctaw deer man’s mostly harmless demeanor, the Cherokee “deer woman” is a seductive shapeshifter. They are able to assume the form of a deer, although they may retain some deer characteristics even in human form (most often possessing hooves instead of human feet). Although they can be helpful to women, especially those hoping to conceive children, they are often dangerous to men. Men who are adulterous or promiscuous are their favorite targets. Deer women might lead such men to their deaths or else leave them to pine away from lovesickness.

Deer women are also found in the folklore of the Great Plains. In the Lakota language, they are called Anukite (“double face”) or Sinté Sapela Win (“black-tailed woman”). Plains legends tend to paint them as irredeemably evil. In Cherokee and other eastern folklore, however, they can be helpful to humans, although they are still considered dangerous and unpredictable.