A mostly white fawn weaves in and out of the trees, her pearly fleece shimmering, ghostlike. Petite and elegant, she inhabits the historic ramparts and sloping greens of Fort Wadsworth, a 226-acre site on Staten Island’s northeastern shore.
The location—one of the oldest American fortifications, first built by the Dutch in the 17th Century—is known for being the starting point of the New York City Marathon each November. Her appearance, according to some, serves as an inspiration to begin anew a different quest: A project to honor Native Americans that dates back more than a century.
The young deer can be seen grazing and playing at dawn and dusk with its normal-colored twin and their mother in the glow of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge’s lights, just overhead, on land managed by the National Park Service.
Gotham’s greenest borough has been trying to give vasectomies to all the bucks in its growing white-tailed deer population for the past three years in a campaign run by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. The program—which costs over $3.3 million—is the first of its kind in the nation, according to the New York Times. In 2016, more than 90 percent of the sexually active male deer on the island were sterilized via vasectomy, a simple surgery that prevents males from passing sperm to females.
The creature’s coloration is a result of a condition called leucism, which causes a lightening of skin and fur and is found in only one percent of deer. When the white pelt is flecked with the red-brown of normal deer the result is called “piebald.”
This coloration is the result of a recessive trait that can also cause skeletal deformities like short or malformed legs, a curved spine, and irregularly-shaped organs, says Doug Adamo, the National Park Service biologist assigned to Fort Wadsworth. Luckily, the fawn appears to be in great shape, all things considered. “Some piebald deer born with mild conditions can live a normal life and survive well into adulthood,” he says; those with severe deformities do not live long and typically do not reach adulthood.
The fawn seems resilient in other ways, seemingly unbothered by the cacophony of overhead traffic between Staten Island and Brooklyn. The dozen or so members of her herd are a bit skittish but not entirely uncomfortable around humans that frequent the park.
Many Native American tribes consider white animals to carry mystical import, says Margaret Boldeagle, who has Lenape tribe heritage and is a founder of the Red Storm Drum & Dance Troupe on the island. And white deer, especially stags, are mythological stars. King Arthur seeks one that eludes him. Harry Potter summons a silvery white stag to save himself. The Chronicles of Narnia ends when the characters follow a white stag back to their home. And the label of the popular German digestif Jägermeister features a stag with some white fur in an homage to the patron saint of hunters, Saint Hubert, who supposedly converted to Christianity after a mystical encounter with one. The Celts believe it is an emissary from the afterlife, and cultures from Hungary to Scotland to Japan have stories as well.
Killing a white deer is illegal in several states, and where it is not illegal there is a folk tradition that it’s very unlucky to do so. There is a sanctuary for them in Seneca County, New York, where more than 70 of the animals run free. “You have a beauty,” says sanctuary director Dennis Money, of the Staten Island fawn.
Sign of Hope
Much more than a genetic anomaly, some Native Americans see the rare animal as an inspiration for renewed work on what is to them sacred ground. Here, Congress had granted land for building the North American Indian Memorial, which was to include a museum and a statue taller than Lady Liberty. In February 1913, President William Howard Taft and 32 chiefs from around the nation went so far as to gather at this spot and broke ground using a stone axe found near the site, a moment that lives on film in the National Archives. Even Cheyenne leader Two Moons and Red Hawk of the Sioux, who both battled General George Armstrong Custer at the Little Bighorn, were present.
Boldeagle was stunned to see the animal; for her it’s a “sign from the Creator” to continue her mission. “I have been working very hard to revive the memorial and was about to give up until the arrival of the white fawn,” she says.
She named the fawn Naim (after the memorial’s acronym) and held a benefit concert for the effort August 25. Thomas De Lacy, a Native American from Honduras, and a New York City police detective, plans to perform an Eagle Dance for the fawn at Fort Wadsworth during the September Equinox. These rituals honor eagles, which are believed to carry the prayers of the earthbound to heaven, and follow in the tradition of De Lacy’s tribe, a branch of the Mayans known as the Lenca.
“The white fawn is a birth, but it is really a rebirth,” De Lacy says. “The time is now for us all to come together and complete this memorial.”
The memorial, which was being financed by Philadelphia department store scion Rodman Wanamaker, fell apart after the outbreak of World War I. That war was ignited by the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. According to Smithsonian magazine, legend tells that the archduke—an avid hunter—said he felt bad luck would befall him and that he would die young because he had killed a white stag the year before his murder.
Staten Island artist Johnny Lohse, who descends from the Iroquois, says the white fawn is a reminder that a promise was made in 1913 which must be respected. “And the National American Indian Memorial should be a source of pride for not only Native Americans, but all Americans and people worldwide.”
The memorial could serve as a cultural jewel for Staten Island’s north shore, which is booming with nearly $2 billion in private and public investment.
Margaret Boldeagle says that the Native American stone axe that President Taft and the 32 chiefs used in 1913 is still in safekeeping somewhere in the borough.
“I hope to use it to break ground again,” she says.