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Navajo Traditions: The Deer Hunter

By Nolan Notah, October 18, 2002

A loud BANG filled the forest and echoed across the Zuni Mountains. It was the sound of a rifle shot. The echo filled the quiet air, sending a signal for all animals to seek cover. October means hunting season. In the distant peaks we could hear gun shots echoing, as we have for generations.

Hunting season is a joyful time; it’s the time when we fill our tag and harvest venison. Some people shamelessly shoot deer just for the antlers, leaving the meat. Others, like us, butcher the animal in the traditional Navajo way. Nothing is wasted. Our grandfather taught us how to hunt respectfully. He learned from his father and grandfather and so forth back in time.

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Nathaniel Notah (holding deer), a helper, Antoinette Notah, & Tom Henio (in orange hat)

Grandfather, Tom Henio, took us on hunting trips, starting when we were young. My dad, Thomas Notah, and brother, Nathaniel, were with us. Around the campfire Grandfather told us to revere every living creature in Mother Nature. Everything has its place and every animal has its legends. Grandfather especially taught us about the deer: its habits, its tendencies. He told us to respect the deer. Hunting is a sacred act with strict do’s and don’t’s. For example, we are instructed not to cut our hair during hunting season and we need to stay focused on hunting. If our mind wanders to fishing or other matters, our trip might not be successful. He also told us to sit down while we eat. Standing up while eating could spook the deer, so we always sit for meals.

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Nolan has rifle practice

We practice shooting year around, getting target practice with our rifles and our bows and arrows as often as we can. The day of the hunt is always prayerful. We bless the day and ask for a good outcome. We are not always successful, but my grandfather’s lessons were most important on the days we had patience and shot the deer.

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Bow & Arrow Practice

Right when we kill a deer, we gather pine branches and make a bed for the deer. The pine needle bed lifts the dead deer off the ground and offers his spirit respect. It also keeps the hide and meat clean from dirt and other debris. We face the head of the deer towards home, which protects it. Once in position on its bed, we start gutting the deer. We carefully cut out the stomach and the intestines. We unwind the intestines and place them on the tree branches and bushes off the ground. By doing so, we are sharing our kill with other predators, such as bears and coyotes. Then we cut out the liver and place it in a bag full of flour to take home and eat.

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After the deer has been gutted, we haul the carcass to our home, where we hang it out to dry in a tree away from domestic animals. In Navajo tradition, deer meat can only be fed to animals which hunt food for themselves: dogs and cats don’t count. The venison ages and dries while it hangs on the trees for about three days. After that time, we take the meat down and skin it.

We gather pine needles again and place it on the ground for the skinning process. With the meat on the needles, we begin to skin the meat from the hide, which takes about an hour, depending on how good we are at that skill. A well-skinned hide should have everything still in tact, including the deer’s head and the tail.

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Nolan pulling the hide from the deer

With the skin separated, we cover the meat with the hide and the antlers. We cut the meat off the main body of the deer and place the pieces on the hide. We want the meat to be dust free. While we are dressing the deer we follow the Navajo traditions, say prayers, and work quickly and quietly to be respectful of the deer, the land, and nature. Nothing should be wasted.

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Thomas & Irene Notah

After all the meat is cut from the skeleton and sliced into chunks, it is placed in the hide and we take it inside. Then the venison is prepped for cooking or placed in a freezer for eating later in the winter.

We always give away deer meat to our relatives and friends, and they do the same for us. Last year we tagged three deer and I gave some venison to my math teacher. He said he used to hunt but can’t move around very well any more. He appreciated the gift and said he missed deer meat so much.

Hide of the deer

Our family is the outdoor type; deer hunting is in our blood. We respect the deer, and hunting is in balance with our actions. I shot my first deer at age 13. After killing it, and ceremonially cleaning and cooking the deer, I felt like a different person. It was an important rite of passage for me. The day before I was a child, now I am a man.

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Nolan Notah with his first deer

As I write this story of the Deer Hunter, my grandfather, Tom Henio, has passed. He was a deer hunter for over 80 years. He loved to use a long-range rifle and, whether tracking deer by foot or on horseback, he was almost always successful. He shot his last buck near Wheatfield, AZ, when he was 88 years old. He died at the age of 92.

We hold the Navajo traditions of our forefathers in the front of our minds. We follow their teachings and show respect for Mother Nature. I am proud to keep these oral traditions alive and will be happy to pass them along to my children and grandchildren, when the time comes.