Editor’s note: This post contains spoilers for “Reservation Dogs” Season 3, Episode 3: “Deer Lady.”
“Reservation Dogs” has always interwoven spirituality, drama, and humor. The latest episode of Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s FX comedy is one of the show’s best and most powerful yet, honing in on the trauma and folklore behind one character: Deer Lady (Kaniehtiio Horn). Season 3, Episode 3: “Deer Lady,” written by Harjo and directed by Danis Goulet brings Horn back as the eponymous spirit — this time with a chilling backstory.
Deer Lady might be a story above all, but this episode ties her into very real, terrifying events. Flashbacks to an unspecified time and place depict the horrors of Native boarding schools — a real American practice that was implemented for 150 years and ultimately took hundreds of lives. Children were ripped away from their parents and communities, forced to cut their hair and shed their tribal languages. The abuse in the name of assimilation was implemented through “systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies,” according to a 2022 report from the Department of the Interior.
“Deer Lady” depicts a young girl — ostensibly young Deer Lady herself — traveling to one such school. When she speaks in her native tongue, asking about food in the dining hall, a nun pushes her face into her food (Native boarding schools were operated by the government, but also by independent churches without federal funding). At night, a young boy tells her “No one leaves. Unless you go the cemetery.” Children are routinely taken from their beds and beaten.
The Federal Indian boarding school system dates back at least to 1819, including over 400 schools across 37 states and territories (closer to 500 including those not federally funded), including Alaska and Hawaii — and ran until the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Department of the Interior found marked and unmarked graves at various school sites as part of its investigation, intended to ultimately address intergenerational trauma and influence current federal policies that could reinvigorate Native communities. “The consequences of federal Indian boarding school policies—including the intergenerational trauma caused by the family separation and cultural eradication inflicted upon generations of children as young as 4 years old — are heartbreaking and undeniable,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in the report.
Horn’s Deer Lady first appeared in Season 1, Episode 5, throughout young Big’s (Bodhi Okuma Linton) childhood. He fearfully asks her if she kills boys, and she clarifies: “I kill bad men. But you’re not bad. You’re good, so you ain’t got nothing to worry about.” In this episode, when asked if she killed a man, she replies: “I killed a human wolf.”
To the same end, Bear can’t help feeling fearful when he sees her hooved feet beneath the diner table. He asks if she’s going to kill him; she asks if he’s a good man. Deer Lady stories vary between indigenous tribes, but also based on the person telling or hearing them; she is a protector of women and children, but unafraid to shed blood — which makes her a fearsome enemy to anyone who would harm the helpless.
The ending doesn’t clearly lay out whether the Deer Lady we know is the little girl in the flashback or the deer she meets in the forest — or if those are mutually exclusive. In some stories, Deer Lady or Deer Woman takes the form of an actual deer, while other tribes believe in her hybrid form (some stories also position Deer Lady as a punisher of disobedient children, an interpretation this episode turns on its head). Maybe she took on deer form to help the little girl, or perhaps girl and deer became one and led to the woman now helping Bear make his way home. It doesn’t really matter, certainly not as much as the morality she imparts; that anyone who condoned and conducted the routine abuse of children and erasure of their identity is a bad person — a wolf in human form.
New episodes of “Reservation Dogs” premiere Wednesdays on Hulu.