Discuss the ways Native American women are presented in two myths.
Within the Native American culture, the role of the women has always been a specifically designated one which seems them performing certain roles and jobs. In the two stories presented here, The Deer Woman and The Yellow Woman, women are presented as fulfilling the role of ‘the other’ with their association with significantly supernatural occurrences: in the former, the reader is presented with a woman who can shape-shift and who presents herself differently to various people; in the latter, the reader is presented with a woman who is swept away by a mysterious stranger who does not function properly within mainstream society. The major comparative point between the two is that whilst they are told from different perspectives, they are both about the behaviour of women, albeit opposing behaviours. Traditionally, in Native American culture, it is the men who are portrayed as being strong, fearless warriors and so, by contrast, the women are always far weaker and more maternal and domestic in their behaviour. However, the presentation of women in these two stories contravenes with tradition and instead, it presents them as being interesting and strange.
The Deer Woman is a traditional myth which tells the tale of a woman who can shape-shift. In Native American culture, the deer is a prominent symbol of many different things dependent on how it is drawn. For example, a deer standing on all four legs (the most traditional presentation of any creature) symbolises that you are too sensitive (Rogers 32) – a trait which is, more traditionally, associated with women. Therefore, the author’s choice to name the story as such, was probably not a coincidence. As a traditional myth, its retelling often differs from person to person and her appearance often changes. For example, in some renditions, she is presented as an old or young woman whereas in others, she is a creature whose upper body is that of a woman whilst the lower half belongs to a female deer (Berk). However, in every version of the story, the female character is presented as being a temptress – a strange, alluring woman who tempts a man away from the celebrations and into a secluded field where she encourages him only to turn into a deer, before trampling him to death and leaving him to die alone. In this story, the woman is presented as being like a siren from Greek mythology: she attracts his attention with her dance and presents herself as having a strange un-earthly grace which causes her to be alluring to the man, unable to resist the temptation of such a beautiful woman. She is, however, dangerous and this idea is one which contradicts the traditional image of the dutiful and domestic female Native American. Because of this, it is clear that the myth implies that this creature is not a woman in the proper sense, but rather a female creature who wants hurt men.
The female association with the supernatural is not totally unheard of and again, in Native American culture, there is the tale of The Yellow Woman, which depicts a young woman being lured away by a male figure this time, known as Silva. Although it is unclear as to whether he is of a supernatural origin, he is quite other-worldly in his mannerisms and as such, it is easy for the reader to infer that he may not be of this world as such. In this story, the woman, who is also the narrative, wakes up to find herself alone with a sleeping man. She wanders off to try to find the rest of her tribe and after following her footsteps from previous day, she finds her horse but not her home and so goes back to the sleeping man to find out more. The suggestion is that the sleeping man, Silva, is magical in some way as he twists her words and presents her with the idea that she had previously agreed to accompany him elsewhere. In this story, the woman is presented as being quite weak as she allows herself to be taken away from her friends and family for a significant proportion of time, by a strange man who she does not appear to trust or feel comfortable with. Quite traditionally, The Yellow Woman is a Native American story which addresses the idea of ‘liminality’ which is the psychological or, sometimes, metaphorical state of being between two worlds – such as when the individual is nearly asleep but still consciously awake. In this story, the woman is presented as being susceptible to the man’s advances as he is neither in this world nor the next – a state which she is lured into with him, before returning with children sometime later. In this instance, the presentation of the woman has quite negative connotations as she is not strong enough to resist Silva but equally, it is unclear whether is resistible or not, due to his supernatural qualities.
The traditional presentation of women in Native American literature is either as weak and domestic individuals or as the complete opposite: as supernatural, dangerous beings. There does not seem to be much middle ground and here, when comparing these two myths, it is clearly displayed too. In The Deer Woman, the reader is presented with a dangerous and supernatural woman who lures away and attacks a man, whereas in The Yellow Woman, quite the opposite happens and it is a woman who is lured away by a supernatural man. In both instances, women play prominent roles as both protagonist and antagonist which fit neatly with the traditional roles assigned to women throughout literature as well as Native American mythology, as a whole. It is clear from both of these stories that the Native American frequently associated women with the supernatural and in The Deer Woman particularly, the story draws heavily on symbolism to present the sensitive, delicate and graceful creature as a killer: a thinly-veiled metaphor for women who are seen as being weak and submissive but who, in truth, have the beating heart of a lion within their chest. This juxtaposition is again demonstrated in The Yellow Woman when she initially tries to find her way back home and resists Silva’s attempts to take away but who eventually gives in to him, only to find her way back to the tribe eventually. In either story, it is clear that the supernatural plays a significant role in each and that the presentation of women is heavily focused on their associations with this world and ‘the other’ as an alternative to the mainstream.
“Oklahoma’s Deer Woman.” Ghouli.org. Tonya Hacker. February 2006. Web. 25 October 2011.
“Where the White Stag Runs.” Endicott-Studio.com. Ari Berk. N.d. Web. 25 October 2011.
Rogers, Barb. Mystic Glyphs: an oracle based on Native American symbols. Boston: Red Wheel/Weiser, 2003. Print.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. The Yellow Woman. New Jersey, Rutgers The State University Press, 1993. Print.