Native American Legends
The foster child of the Deer
A Zuni Legend
Once, long, long ago, at Háwikuh, there lived a maiden most
beautiful. In her earlier years her father, who was a great priest,
had devoted her to sacred things, and kept her always in the house
secure from the gaze of all men, and thus she grew.
She was so beautiful that when the Sun looked down along one of
the straight beams of his own light, if one of those beams chanced
to pass through a chink in the roof, the sky-hole, or the windows
of the upper part of the maiden's room, he beheld her and wondered
at her rare beauty, unable to compare it with anything he saw in
his great journeys round about the worlds.
Thus, as the maiden grew apace and became a young woman, the Sun
loved her exceedingly, and as time went on he became so enamored
of her that he descended to earth and entered on one of his own
beams of light into her apartment, so that suddenly, while she was
sitting one noon-day weaving pretty baskets, there stood before
her a glorious youth, gloriously dressed.
It was the Sun-father. He looked upon her gently and lovingly;
she looked upon him not fearfully: and so it came about that she
loved him and he loved her, and he won her to be his wife. And many
were the days in which he visited her and dwelt with her for a space
at noon-time; but as she was alone mostly, or as she kept sitting
weaving her trays when any one of the family entered her apartment,
no one suspected this.
Now, as she knew that she had been devoted to sacred things, and
that if she explained how it was that she was a mother she would
not be believed, she was greatly exercised in mind and heart. She
therefore decided that when her child was born she would put it
away from her.
When the time came, the child one night was born. She carefully
wrapped the little baby boy in some soft cotton-wool, and in the
middle of the night stole out softly over the roof-tops, and, silently
descending, laid the child on the sheltered side of a heap of refuse
near the little stream that flows by Háwikuh, in the valley
below. Then, mourning as a mother will mourn for her offspring,
she returned to her room and lay herself down, poor thing, to rest.
As daylight was breaking in the east, and the hills and the valleys
were coming forth one after another from the shadows of night, a
Deer with her two little brightly-speckled fawns descended from
the hills to the south across the valley, with ears and eyes alert,
and stopped at the stream to drink.
While drinking they were startled by an infant's cry, and, looking
up, they saw dust and cotton-wool and other things flying about
in the air, almost as if a little whirlwind were blowing on the
site of the refuse-heap where the child had been laid. It was the
child, who, waking and finding itself alone, hungry, and cold, was
crying and throwing its little hands about.
"Bless my delight!" cried the Deer to her fawns. I have
this day found a waif, a child, and though it be human it shall
be mine; for, see, my children, I love you so much that surely I
could love another."
Thereupon she approached the little infant, and breathed her warm
breath upon it and caressed it until it became quiet, and then after
wrapping about it the cotton-wool, she gently lifted it on her broad
horns, and, turning, carried it steadily away toward the south,
followed on either side by her children, who kept crying out "Neh!
neh!" in their delight.
The home of this old Deer and her little ones, where all her children
had been born for years, was south of Háwikuh, in the valley
that turns off among the ledges of rocks near the little spring
called Póshaan. There, in the shelter of a clump of piñon
and cedar trees, was a soft and warm retreat, winter and summer,
and this was the lair of the Deer and her young.
The Deer was no less delighted than surprised next morning to find
that the infant had grown apace, for she had suckled it with her
own milk, and that before the declining of the sun it was already
creeping about. And greater was her surprise and delight, as day
succeeded day, to find that the child grew even more swiftly than
grow the children of the Deer. Behold! on the evening of the fourth
day it was running about and playing with its foster brother and
sister. Nor was it slow of foot, even as compared with those little
Behold! yet greater cause for wonder, on the eighth day it was
a youth fair to look upon-looking upon itself and seeing that it
had no clothing, and wondering why it was not clothed, like its
brother and sister, in soft warm hair with pretty spots upon it.
As time went on, this little foster-child of the Deer (it must
always be remembered that it was the offspring of the Sun-father
himself), in playing with his brother and sister, and in his running
about, grew wondrously strong, and even swifter of foot than the
Deer themselves, and learned the language of the Deer and all their
When he had become perfected in all that a Deer should know, the
Deer- mother led him forth into the wilds and made him acquainted
with the great herd to which she belonged. They were exceedingly
happy with this addition to their number; much they loved him, and
so sagacious was the youth that he soon became the leader of the
Deer of the Háwikuh country.
When these Deer and the Antelopes were out on the mesas ranging
to and fro, there at their head ran the swift youth. The soles of
his feet became as hard as the hoofs of the Deer, the skin of his
person strong and dark, the hair of his head long and waving and
as soft as the hair on the sides of the Deer themselves.
It chanced one morning, late that summer, that the uncle of the
maiden who had cast away her child went out hunting, and he took
his way southward past Póshaan, the lair of the Deer-mother
and her foster-child. As he traversed the borders of the great mesas
that lie beyond, he saw a vast herd of Deer gathered, as people
gather in council. They were quiet and seemed to be listening intently
to some one in their midst.
The hunter stole along carefully on hands and knees, twisting himself
among the bushes until he came nearer; and what was his wonder when
he beheld, in the midst of the Deer, a splendid youth, broad of
shoulder, tall and strong of limb, sitting nude and graceful on
the ground, and the old Deer and the young seemed to be paying attention
to what he was saying.
The hunter rubbed his eyes and looked again; and again he looked,
shading his eyes with his hands. Then he elevated himself to peer
yet more closely, and the sharp eyes of the youth discovered him.
With a shout he lifted himself to his feet and sped away like the
wind, followed by the whole herd, their hoofs thundering, and soon
they were all out of sight.
The hunter dropped his bow and stood there musing; then picking
it up, he turned himself about and ran toward Háwikuh as
fast as he could. When he arrived he related to the father of the
girl what he had seen. The old priest summoned his hunters and warriors
and bade the uncle repeat the story. Many there were who said: "You
have seen an apparition, and of evil omen to your family, alas!
"No," said he, "I looked, and again I looked, and
yet again, and again, and I avow to you that what I saw was as plain
and as mortal as the Deer themselves."
Convinced at last, the council decided to form a grand hunt, and
word was given from the housetops that on the fourth day from that
day a hunt should be undertaken--that the southern mesa should be
surrounded, and that the people should gather in from all sides
and encompass the herd there, in order that this wonderful youth
should not escape being seen, or possibly captured.
Now, when the Deer had gone to a safe distance they slackened their
pace and called to their leader not to fear. And the old foster-mother
of the youth for the first time related to him, as she had related
to them long ago, that he was the child of mortals, telling how
she had found him.
The youth sat with his head bowed, thinking of these things. Then
he raised his head proudly, and said: "What though I be the
child of mortals, they have not loved me: they have cast me from
their midst, therefore will I be faithful to thee alone."
But the old Deer-mother said to him: "Hush, my child! Thou
art but a mortal, and though thou might'st live on the roots of
the trees and the bushes and plants that mature in autumn, yet surely
in the winter time thou could'st not live, for my supply of milk
will be withholden, and the fruits and the nuts will all be gone."
And the older members of that large herd gathered round and repeated
what she had been saying. And they said: "We are aware that
we shall be hunted now, as is the invariable custom when our herd
has been discovered, on the fourth day from the day on which we
were first seen. Amongst the people who come there will be, no doubt,
those who will seek you; and you must not endeavor to escape.
Even we ourselves are accustomed to give up our lives to the brave
hunters among this people, for many of them are sacred of thought,
sacred of heart, and make due sacrifices unto us, that our lives
in other form may be spared unceasingly."
A splendid Deer rose from the midst of the herd, and, coming forward,
laid his cheek on the cheek of the boy, and said: "Yet we love
you, but we must now part from you. And, in order that you may be
like unto other mortals, only exceeding them, accompany me to the
Land of the Souls of Men, where sit in council the Gods of the Sacred
Dance and Drama, the Gods of the Spirit World."
To all this the youth, being convinced, agreed. And on that same
day the Deer who had spoken set forward, the swift youth running
by his side, toward the Lake of the Dead. On and on they sped, and
as night was falling they came to the borders of that lake, and
the lights were shining over its middle and the Gardens of the Sacred
Dance. And the old Drama-woman and the old Drama- man were walking
on its shores, back and forth, calling across to each other.
As the Deer neared the shore of the lake, he turned and said to
his companion: "Step in boldly with me. Ladders of rushes will
rise to receive you, and down underneath the waters into the great
Halls of the Dead and of the Sacred Dance we will be borne gently
Then they stepped into the lake. Brighter and lighter it grew.
Great ladders of rushes and flags lifted themselves from the water,
and upon them the Deer and his companion were borne downward into
halls of splendor, lighted by many lights and fires.
And in the largest chamber the gods were sitting in council silently.
Páutiwa, the Sun-priest of the Sacred Drama (Kâkâ),
Shúlawitsi (the God of Fire), with his torch of ever-living
flame, and many others were there; and when the strangers arrived
they greeted and were greeted, and were given a place in the light
of the central fire.
And in through the doors of the west and the north and the east
and the south filed long rows of sacred dancers, those who had passed
through the Lake of the Dead, clad in cotton mantles, white as the
daylight, finely embroidered, decked with many a treasure shell
and turquoise stone. These performed their sacred rites, to the
delight of the gods and the wonder of the Deer and his foster-brother.
And when the dancers had retired, Páutiwa, the Sun-priest
of the Sacred Dance, arose, and said: "What would'st thou?"-though
he knew full well beforehand. "What would'st thou, oh, Deer
of the forest mesas, with thy companion, thy foster-brother; for
not thinking of nothing would one visit the home of the Kâkâ."
Then the Deer lifted his head and told his story.
"It is well," said the gods.
"Appear, my faithful one," said Páutiwa to Shúlawitsi.
And Shúlawitsi appeared and waved his flame around the youth,
so that he became convinced of his mortal origin and of his dependence
upon food prepared by fire. Then the gods who speak the speech of
men gathered around and breathed upon the youth, and touched to
his lips moisture from their own mouths, and touched the portals
of his ears with oil from their own ears, and thus was the youth
made acquainted with both the speech and the understanding of the
speech of mortal man.
Then the gods called out, and there were brought before them fine
garments of white cotton embroidered in many colors, rare necklaces
of sacred shell with many turquoises and coral-like stones and shells
strung in their midst, and all that the most beautifully clad of
our ancients could have glorified their appearance with. Such things
they brought forth, and, making them into a bundle, laid them at
the feet of the youth.
Then they said: "Oh, youth, oh, brother and father, since
thou art the child of the Sun, who is the father of us all, go forth
with thy foster-brother to thy last meeting-place with him and with
his people; and when on the day after the morrow hunters shall gather
from around thy country, some of ye, oh, Deer," said he, turning
to the Deer, "'yield thyselves up that ye may die as must thy
kind ever continue to die, for the sake of this thy brother."
"I will lead them," simply replied the Deer.
And Páutiwa continued: "Here full soon wilt thou be
gathered in our midst, or with the winds and the mists of the air
at night-time wilt sport, ever-living. Go ye forth, then, carrying
this bundle, and, as ye best know how, prepare this our father and
child for his reception among men. And, O son and father,"
continued the priest-god, turning to the youth, "Fear not!
Happy wilt thou be in the days to come, and treasured among men.
Hence thy birth. Return with the Deer and do as thou art told to
do. Thy uncle, leading his priest-youths, will be foremost in the
hunt. He will pursue thee and thy foster-mother. Lead him far away;
and when thou hast so led him, cease running and turn and wait,
and peacefully go home whither he guides thee."
The sounds of the Sacred Dance came in from the outer apartments,
and the youth and the Deer, taking their bundle, departed. More
quickly than they had come they sped away; and on the morning when
the hunters of Háwikuh were setting forth, the Deer gathered
themselves in a vast herd on the southern mesa, and they circled
about the youth and instructed him how to unloose the bundle he
Then closer and closer came the Deer to the youth and bade him
stand in his nakedness, and they ran swiftly about him, breathing
fierce, moist breaths until hot steam enveloped him and bathed him
from head to foot, so that he was purified, and his skin was softened,
and his hair hung down in a smooth yet waving mass at the back of
Then the youth put on the costume, one article after another, he
having seen them worn by the Gods of the Sacred Dance, and by the
dancers; and into his hair at the back, under the band which he
placed round his temples, he thrust the glowing feathers of the
macaw which had been given him. Then, seeing that there was still
one article left,--a little string of conical shells,--he asked
what that was for; and the Deer told him to tie it about his knee.
The Deer gathered around him once more, and the old chief said:
"Who among ye are willing to die?" And, as if it were
a festive occasion to which they were going, many a fine Deer bounded
forth, striving for the place of those who were to die, until a
large number were gathered, fearless and ready. Then the Deer began
Soon there was an alarm. In the north and the west and the south
and the east there was cause for alarm. And the Deer began to scatter,
and then to assemble and scatter again. At last the hunters with
drawn bows came running in, and soon their arrows were flying in
the midst of those who were devoted, and Deer after Deer fell, pierced
to the heart or other vital part.
At last but few were left,--amongst them the kind old Deer-mother
and her two children; and, taking the lead, the glorious youth,
although encumbered by his new dress, sped forth with them. They
ran and ran, the fleetest of the tribe of Háwikuh pursuing
them; but all save the uncle and his brave sons were soon left far
behind. The youth's foster-brother was soon slain, and the youth,
growing angry, turned about; then bethinking himself of the words
of the gods, he sped away again. So his foster-sister, too, was
killed; but he kept on, his old mother alone running behind him.
At last the uncle and his sons overtook the old mother, and they
merely caught her and turned her away, saying: "Faithful to
the last she has been to this youth." Then they renewed the
chase for the youth; and he at last, pretending weariness, faced
about and stood like a stag at bay. As soon as they approached,
he dropped his arms and lowered his head. Then he said: "Oh,
my uncle" (for the gods had told who would find him)--"
Oh, my uncle, what wouldst thou? Thou hast killed my brothers and
sisters; what wouldst thou with me?
The old man stopped and gazed at the youth in wonder and admiration
of his fine appearance and beautiful apparel. Then he said: "Why
dost thou call me uncle?"
"Because, verily," replied the youth, "thou art
my uncle, and thy niece, my maiden-mother, gave birth to me and
cast me away upon a dust-heap; and then my noble Deer found me and
nourished me and cherished me."
The uncle and his sons gazed still with wonder. Then they thought
they saw in the youth's clear eyes and his soft, oval face a likeness
to the mother, and they said: "Verily, this which he says is
true." Then they turned about and took him by the hands gently
and led him toward Háwikuh, while one of them sped forward
to test the truth of his utterances.
When the messenger arrived at Háwikuh he took his way straight
to the house of the priest, and told him what he had heard. The
priest in anger summoned the maiden.
"Oh, my child," said he, "hast thou done this thing
which we are told thou hast done?" And he related what he had
"Nay, no such thing have I done," said she.
"Yea, but thou hast, oh, unnatural mother! And who was the
father?" demanded the old priest with great severity.
Then the maiden, thinking of her Sun-lover, bowed her head in her
lap and rocked herself to and fro, and cried sorely. And then she
said: "Yea, it is true; so true that I feared thy Wrath, oh,
my father! I feared thy shame, oh, my mother! and what could I do?"
Then she told of her lover, the Sun,--with tears she told it, and
she cried out: "Bring back my child that I may nurse him and
love but him alone, and see him the father of children!"
By this time the hunters arrived, some bringing game, but others
bringing in their midst this wondrous youth, on whom each man and
maiden in Háwikuh gazed with delight and admiration.
They took him to the home of his priest-grandfather; and as though
he knew the way he entered the apartment of his mother, and she,
rising and opening wide her arms, threw herself on his breast and
cried and cried. And he laid his hand on her head, and said: "Oh,
mother, weep not, for I have come to thee, and I will cherish thee.
So was the foster-child of the Deer restored to his mother and
Wondrously wise in the ways of the Deer and their language was
he--so much so that, seeing them, he understood them. This youth
made little ado of hunting, for he knew that he could pay those
rites and attentions to the Deer that were most acceptable, and
made them glad of death at the hand of the hunter. And ere long,
so great was his knowledge and success, and his preciousness in
the eyes of the Master of Life, that by his will and his arm alone
the tribe of Háwikuh was fed and was clad in buckskins.
A rare and beautiful maiden he married, and most happy was he with
It was his custom to go forth early in the morning, when the Deer
came down to drink or stretch themselves and walk abroad and crop
the grass; and, taking his bow and quiver of arrows, he would go
to a distant mesa, and, calling the Deer around him, and following
them as swiftly as they ran, he would strike them down in great
numbers, and, returning, say to his people: "Go and bring in
my game, giving me only parts of what I have slain and taking the
So you can readily see how he and his people became the greatest
people of Háwikuh. Nor is it marvelous that the sorcerers
of that tribe should have grown envious of his prosperity, and sought
to diminish it in many ways, wherein they failed.
At last one night the Master of Sorcerers in secret places raised
his voice and cried "Weh-h-h-h! Weh-h-h-h-h-h!" And round
about him presently gathered all the sorcerers of the place, and
they entered into a deep cavern, large and lighted by green, glowing
fires, and there, staring at each other, they devised means to destroy
this splendid youth, the child of the Sun.
One of their number stood forth and said: "I will destroy
him in his own vocation. He is a hunter, and the Coyote loves well
to follow the hunter." His words were received with acclamation,
and the youth who had offered himself sped forth in the night to
prepare, by incantation and with his infernal appliances, a disguise
On the next morning, when the youth went forth to hunt, an old
Coyote sneaked behind him after he reached the mesas, and, following
stealthily, waited his throwing down of the Deer; and when the youth
had called and killed a number of Deer and sat down to rest on a
fallen tree, the Coyote sneaked into sight. The youth, looking at
him, merely thought: "He seeks the blood of my slain Deer,"
and he went on with his prayers and sacrifices to the dead of the
Deer. But soon, stiffening his limbs, the Coyote swiftly scudded
across the open, and, with a puff from his mouth and nostrils like
a sneeze toward the youth, threw himself against him and arose a
man,--the same man who had offered his services in the council of
the wizards--while the poor youth, falling over, ran away, a human
being still in heart and mind, but in form a coyote.
Off to the southward he wandered, his tail dragging in the dust;
and growing hungry he had naught to eat; and cold on the sides of
the mesas he passed the night, and on the following morning wandered
still, until at last, very hungry, he was fain even to nip the blades
of grass and eat the berries of the juniper. Thus he became ill
and worn; and one night as he was seeking a warm place to lay him
down and die, he saw a little red light glowing from the top of
a hillock. Toward this light he took his way, and when he came near
he saw that it was shining up through the sky hole of someone's
house. He peered over the edge and saw an old Badger with his grizzly
wife, sitting before a fire, not in the form of a badger but in
the form of a little man, his badger-skin hanging beside him.
Then the youth raid to himself I will cast myself down into their
house, thus showing them my miserable condition." And as he
tried to step down the ladder, he fell, teng, on the floor before
The Badgers were disgusted. They grabbed the Coyote, and hauling
him up the ladder, threw him into the plain, where, toonoo, he fell
far away and swooned from loss of breath. When he recovered his
thoughts he again turned toward the glowing sky-hole, and, crawling
feebly back, threw himself down into the room again. Again he was
thrown out, but this time the Badger said: "It is marvelously
strange that this Coyote, the miserable fellow, should insist on
coming back, and coming back."
"I have heard," said the little old Badger-woman, "that
our glorious beloved youth of Háwikuh was changed some time
ago into a Coyote. It may be he. Let us see when he comes again
if it be he. For the love of mercy, let us see!"
Ere long the youth again tried to clamber down the ladder, and
fell with a thud on the floor before them. A long time he lay there
senseless, but at last opened his eyes and looked about. The Badgers
eagerly asked if he were the same who had been changed into a Coyote,
or condemned to inhabit the form of one. The youth could only move
his head in acquiescence.
Then the Badgers hastily gathered an emetic and set it to boil,
and when ready they poured the fluid down the throat of the seeming
Coyote, and tenderly held him and pitied him. Then they laid him
before the fire to warm him. Then the old Badger, looking about
in some of his burrows, found a sacred rock crystal, and heating
it to glowing heat in the fire, he seared the palms of the youth's
hands, the soles of his feet, and the crown of his head, repeating
incantations as he performed this last operation, whereupon the
skin burst and fell off, and the youth, haggard and lean, lay before
them. They nourished him as best they could, and, when well recovered,
sent him home to join his people again and render them happy. Clad
in his own fine garments, happy of countenance and handsome as before,
and, according to his regular custom, bearing a Deer on his back,
returned the youth to his people, and there he lived most happily.
As I have said, this was in the days of the ancients, and it is
because this youth lived so long with the Deer and became acquainted
with their every way and their every word, and taught all that he
knew to his children and to others whom he took into his friendship,
that we have today a class of menthe Sacred Hunters of our tribe
,-- who surpassingly understand the ways and the language of the
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