The Indian Uses of Deer

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Native Americans, like the people of all hunter-gatherer cultures, made complete use of their environment. Nothing was wasted. From fresh berries in season to quills carefully taken from porcupines, the Indians harvested nature. In the swamplands, grasslands and forested areas of North America, the plentiful deer were hunted all year round. For both spiritual and practical reasons, nearly every part of a freshly killed deer was used.

1 Meat

Fresh deer meat, or venison, was boiled in skin pouches with hot stones dropped in the water, baked in clay pots or cooked on spits over an open fire. The heart was traditionally eaten first. The leftover meat was cut into strips, salted and dried. Some Indians tribes made pemmican by pounding dried venison into powder and mixing it with melted fat and berries.

2 Hide

Deer hides were left on racks to dry, resulting in rawhide. The Indians used rawhide for laces, bindings, parfleches, or pouches, snowshoe webbing and drum heads. Hides were also tanned, usually by a process of stretching the hide on a rack, scraping it and rubbing deer brains on it to cure it. The result was a very soft, white and supple skin called buckskin. Buckskin was made into clothing, belts, moccasins, pouches and tent coverings.

3 Bones and Antlers

Deer bones and antlers were made into a variety of tools, weapons and ceremonial items. The top part of the skull was made into spoons, while leg bones were formed into knife handles. Bone slivers were made into fine sewing needles and awls. Archaeologists have found deer antlers sheathed in copper, which may have been worn ceremoniously by tribal shamans. The antlers were also made into buttons, beads and carved sculptures.

4 Sinews

The Indians dried and shredded deer sinews to make fine, strong strings, which were used for bow strings, tool binding and sewing thread. As binding, the sinew strings attached arrow and spear heads to shafts. Using bone needles or awls to punch holes, the Indians sewed everything from clothing to tents.

Brian Burhoe has been writing professionally since 1971. His stories have appeared in "World of If Magazine," "Fantastic Stories" and "Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year." He cooks in Atlantic Coast restaurants and he is a graduate of the Holland College Culinary Course and holds a Canadian Culinary Federation chef's certificate.