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Frank Waters: The Man Who Killed the Deer

This novel really should be better known, as it is a first-class novel about Native Americans, both as individuals and about their culture. Martiniano is a Pueblo Indian who has shown some intelligence and has therefore been educated in an away-school, i.e. a white man’s school. When he returns to his village, he no longer fits in with the tribe, for which community and not the individual prevails above all. He continues to have trouble with the tribal elders, by whom he is frequently punished. He marries outside the tribe – an Arapahoe named Flowers Playing – and tries, with only limited success, to establish a life for the two of them.

The novel tells Martiniano’s story but it also gives a detailed, vivid and unromantic picture of the Pueblo and related cultures. This tribe has lost its”church”, the Dawn Lake, which is now on national forest land. Indeed, the tribe has lost much of its land as Mexicans and whites have both settled on it. Though they have no legal claim, they have been on the land for so many years, and paid taxes on the land, that they clearly cannot be dispossessed. As a result, the tribe has tried unsuccessfully to push for the land to be returned to them.

Martiniano’s story coincides with the tribe’s claim, as a result of two acts he commits, which bring him into trouble. The first act is, of course, the killing of a deer. As he was delayed in his threshing as he does not have access to the tribal threshing machine, his deer hunting in the National Forest is delayed. When he does go hunting it is out of season and he is stopped by the forest rangers and gets into a fight with them, which leaves him the worse off. He is fined $150 – he does not have a dollar to his name – but the only sympathetic white, the local trader, pays it for him. However, this opens the whole question of what is the tribal land. The second incident occurs when he finds his hut occupied by a Mexican sheepherder and throws him out. In the struggle the Mexican is injured. While Martiniano is in trouble, it raises the whole question of the rights of the Mexicans to what the tribe considers its land.

Congress finally comes through and the tribe gets its land back and Martiniano attains some sort of peace – with his wife (they had had problems), with the spirit of the deer he had killed (which both bothered him and helped him) and, most importantly with the flow of life. In the meantime, Waters tells a beautiful story, sympathetic to the Indians without romanticising them, and with a message which probably would still apply today.

Publishing history

First published 1942 by Farrar and Rinehart