History Hunt: Esther Deer

This week’s History Hunt post is unfortunately going to be lighter on details than many of the ones I’ve written lately. While up until now I’ve been fortunate to find a number of information sources for the majority of my History Hunt features, this week was a challenge. There’s very little information out there, and most of what there was needed to be pieced together by researchers–still more proof that celebrating our musicians and composers is extremely important.

Esther Louise Georgette Deer was born around 1891, give or take some months, at Akwesasne (also known as St. Regis Mohawk Reservation) in New York State. Her family was originally from the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory in Québec, Canada.

When Deer was eleven, she joined The Famous Deer Brothers, Champion Indian Trick Riders of the World as a singer and dancer. This group was a travelling theatrical act founded by her father and uncle. She took the stage name Princess White Deer, and with her family, began performing in “Wild West” shows all over the United States. These shows presented a romantic version of the American west from the point of view of the white colonisers and were very popular during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Why would Deer and her family participate in shows that portrayed them as the “bad guys”? It’s a difficult question to answer. During this period in history, there were even more harmful stereotypes about First Nations people than there are today. It’s been suggested that both Deer’s family, and later Deer in her solo career, picked and chose which stereotypes to follow based on which would be most useful and, often, least harmful. By giving white audiences what they wanted, they were able to have a career and make a living, an option that would have only been achieved against tremendous odds if they had tried to break free completely from these stereotypes. It’s also been suggested that Deer may have found humour in her performances and laughed inside at her ignorant audiences!

That said, as historians, none of us have access to the thoughts of Deer and her family, and so these are only guesses made by looking back from a century later. Deer may have had other ideas in mind, and if so, they’re lost to history.

Regardless of their thoughts on their audiences, Deer and her family kept performing their acts. Some of the shows Deer participated in were Colonel Cummins Wild West Show at the Pan-American Exposition (a world’s fair that was part amusement park, part showcase of new technology) in 1901 when she was twenty, and the Texas Jack Wild West Show three years later.

The Deer Family must have been very popular and excellent performers, because in 1904 or 1905, they went on a world tour. They travelled throughout Europe and to South Africa, renaming their act to “The Deer Family Wild West Show.”

After five or six years of travelling with her family, when she was twenty-nine, Deer decided to part ways with them and start a solo career. She continued to travel all across Europe, and it’s rumoured that when she was in Russia in late 1913 or early 1914, a Russian prince fell in love with her and they were married. It’s hard to know if this is completely true, given how little information we have about Deer’s life, but it’s still possible!

When World War I started in 1914, Deer returned home to the United States. There, she used her music and dance talents to support the war effort by performing at war bonds rallies. At that time, the United States government was encouraging its citizens to invest their money in the government so they could afford to go to war, and Deer was one of many performers to help with this fundraising.

Deer also performed in vaudeville, or variety show, acts throughout the 1920s. She was considered “the most successful Mohawk entertainer of her generation” and “one of the most beautiful women in the world” (Galperin), and she gave her shows alongside a large number of famous entertainers of her era–including Harry Houdini!

It seems she had some difficulties in March 1921: I discovered a newspaper clip from the New York Times where Deer applied to have a restraining order against The Pictorial Review for using an image of “an Indian Princess,” possibly without her permission. I wasn’t able to turn up anything else about the story, including whether Deer was successful with her restraining order, but I hope she was.

As an artist in the 1920s, Deer performed a mix of stereotypical First Nations and “modern” (often white) acts, once more balancing what audiences demanded with the success of her career. For example, she created and performed in a production called From Wigwam to White Lights in 1925, and, like her family had done when she was young, she tended to mix clothing from different First Nations to be more appealing to her audiences. They weren’t coming to her shows expecting authenticity, after all. In the process, she used her lively performances to break down the stereotype of the “stoic” First Nations person.

Throughout her life, Deer used her fame to support various First Nations charities, such as the American Indian Defense Association. She even met President Roosevelt in 1937, to invite him and a Canadian delegation to a meeting of the Grand Council of Chiefs of the Six Nations of the Iroquois. She dedicated the community of Lake Mohawk to the Mohawk nation; in thanks, White Deer Plaza in that community was named after her and bears her name to this day.

Deer retired sometime before the start of World War II in 1939, but for the rest of her long life, she continued to work as an activist. I hope to have a chance to read more about Deer and her life someday. If I do, I’ll be sure to share it with all of you!

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
Antimodernism and Artistic Experience: Policing the Boundaries of Modernity, ed. Lynda Lee Jessup
Native Performers in Wild West Shows: From Buffalo Bill to Euro Disney, by Linda Scarangella McNenly
The Modern Girl: Feminine Modernities, the Body, and Commodities in the 1920s, by Jane Nicholas
In Search of Princess White Deer: The Biography of Esther Deer summary on Amazon.com, by Patricia O. Galperin
Cultural Appropriation: More Than Meets the Eye, by Celeste Pedri (Note: mild language in the link.)
Chris Pappan Creates an Edgier, Sexier Ledger Art, by Alex Jacobs (Note: strong language and images that may not be safe for work in the link)
Princess White Deer on Cool Chicks From History
Princess White Deer Gets Court Order. on The New York Times
Esther Louise Georgette Deer at Wikipedia.org
St. Regis Mohawk Reservation on Wikipedia.org
Lake Mohawk, New Jersey on Wikipedia.org
History at The Lake Mohawk Country Club
Pan-American Exposition of 1901 at the University of Buffalo Library
Wild West Shows at Wikipedia.org
Princess White Deer (Esther Louise Georgette Deer) at the National Portrait Gallery (Image Source)

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