Throughout Indian lore, birds and feathers are prominent in myth and legend, in ceremony and drama. They are used as symbols in the religious and theatrical paraphernalia of the groups. In earlier days, they provided wearing apparel and were used lavishly in decoration. The Indian, living with few artificial aids, must depend upon nature and his own ingenuity to provide the decorative element.
Birds were believed to possess the universal 'spiritual essences', and hence were rarely killed except as they were needed for food or as a measure to protect the newly sown corn. When feathers were needed for ornamentation, birds were plucked and their denuded bodies were en couraged, with artificial aids, to grow a new covering. The Zuñi plucking rites explain that the eagle's body is to be rubbed with kaolin, a white clay, and chewed corn so that more feathers will grow; the second growth will be very white.
Of the many species of birds which inhabit these mesas and desert regions, certain ones have been predominantly associated with certain clans or moiety groups, or in some way connected with tribal divisions. Eagle, parrot, turkey, wild duck, goose, sandhill crane, crow, chaparral cock, dove, whippoorwill, golden warbler, magpie, hummingbird, and swallow are the names of clans, past and present, which have existed in some of the villages. Such nomenclature appears to be only a name association, although there may be some totemic significance.
Some birds are associated with directions because of the color of their feathers. A prayer plume described by Stevenson allocates the long-tailed chat to the north, the long-crested jay to the west, the macaw to the south, the spurred towhee to the east, the purple martin to the zenith, and the painted bunting to the nadir.
There are bird supernaturals which are impersonated in more or less stylized costumes. Among these are the eagle (pl. 24), red hawk, cock,
turkey, wild duck, kite, crow, quail, mockingbird, and hummingbird. Eastern Pueblo Bird Dances include the eagle (pl. 23), the crow, and the snowbird. These latter dances were done without masks, character illusion being given through costume and action.
—Certain feathers were desired because of their colors (pl. 3). Those of the macaw were most highly valued, and they were also very difficult to procure. "Its feathers are highly prized by the Tewa for ceremonial purposes. They state that the feathers and also live ... [birds] were obtained from Mexico in former times". Runners were sent to the south to bring back many brilliantly colored feathers (pl. 3) of this prized bird in exchange for skins and turquoises. The kachinas are said to "wear macaw feathers because the macaw lives in the south and they want the macaw to bring the rain from the south. They always like to feel the south wind because the south wind brings rain." There were many local birds the feathers of which were highly valued for various reasons: goose, wild duck, owl, jay, oriole, yellow warbler, goldfinch, one or more species of small red birds, and the hummingbird.
—The turkey was domesticated at an early date. The Spaniards found many of these "cocks with great hanging chins," which roamed the country or were kept in large flocks chiefly to supply feathers for garments. Turkey feathers are of some importance in ceremonial life. This is illustrated by a certain rite at Isleta, where the turkey feather as the "oldest one" has a place of preëeminence, being set aside for the chief. Since the turkey is hard to raise, there is a belief at Zuñi that its feathers are a token of mortality and that no dancer should wear them except one who impersonates supernaturals or the dead. At Cochiti turkey feathers are buried on All Souls' Day so that the dead may wear them in their dances.
—"The eagle is symbolic of the sun or sky god." His feathers, together with those of the turkey, are the most widely used. He is the messenger to the supernaturals and soars above the clouds to take prayers
from earth creatures to the Great Ones. The eagle always represents the direction of the zenith, or above; he is the only bird used to indicate the ethereal heights. As we learn from the eagle myth: "The katcinas ... wear these feathers because the eagle is strong and wise and kind. He travels far in all directions and so he will surely bring rain. The eagle feathers must always come first." Both the long, stiff, tail and wing feathers and the downy white breast feathers (pl. 5) are important. The downy feathers belong to the Sun priest; others may use them when rain is very much needed. In this connection they are primarily worn by the kachinas. In certain curing rites the doctors take 'sorceries' from the body of the patient. They hold eagle tail feathers in each hand and by brushing the patient and striking the feathers in one hand against those in the other they throw the evil in each direction: north, south, east, west, zenith, and nadir. Eagle feathers generally enclose the sacred ear of corn; and they are used for leading persons to ceremonial places, for making certain ceremonial gestures, and for dipping medicines or sacred water from ceremonial bowls.
In the Snake Dance of the Hopi, one of the dancers follows the snake carrier and continually brushes the waving rattler with an eagle-feather wand in order to prevent him from striking. The gatherer, or guard, who picks up the wriggling snakes after their dance turn and before they can escape, controls them with eagle plumes. The brushing movement along its back prevents the snake from coiling, which it must do in order to strike. Because of this the Indian declares that the eagle possesses the power to charm the snake by flying above it and gently caressing it with his wings.
Father Dumarest describes the eagle trap used at Cochiti to catch the birds alive. The hunter is concealed in a deep and wide hole which has been covered with brush. A rabbit is placed over the opening for bait. In the bottom of the hole is a bowl filled with water in which the eagle
is mirrored as it circles overhead. The hunter can thus watch its movements, and when the bird swoops down upon its prey he reaches through the brush and makes it captive.
In the western pueblos young eagles are stolen from the nests. At Hopi there are even property rights in eagles, and clan-owned nests are watched so that one small bird can be taken from the brood and the rest left unharmed. Live eagles, and macaws also, are kept in cages on the housetops or in shelters at the side of the village. Even in Coronado's day "there were also tame eagles, which the chiefs esteemed to be something fine."
—The feather of the wild duck is often spoken of as the "looking back" or "turn around" feather. Its iridescence adds beauty to any ornament. Although the wild duck is not significant in myth or religion in all the villages, Hopi, Zuñi, Isleta, San Felipe, and Jemez appear to hold this bird sacred. At Zuñi it is said that the supernaturals assume the form of the duck in order to swim the river to the Sacred Lake, their home.
Crow and owl.
—The crow and the owl are two birds of adverse symbolism. Bad fortune accompanies the "kaa, kaa" of the crow. He is the persistent thief who follows the sower and then himself makes his thieving known. He is often associated with witchcraft, and always with bad luck.[*] Certain Zuñi kachinas wear collars of crow or raven feathers (pl. 5). These frighten the children as well as drive away bad luck. The owl is often symbolic of witches and witchcraft, probably because of its nocturnal habits. We sometimes find bunches of owl feathers used as decoration on kachina masks.
The "summer birds" .—All those which are brightly colored, as, for example, the jay, red hawk, road runner, bluebird, oriole, and hummingbird, often have some special significance. The oriole, or chat, is the bird of the north since yellow is the north color, and the blue jay supplies the priest with feathers which he is entitled to wear in his hair on ceremonial occasions. These small birds are caught in traps of horsehair
and sticks, or on a plant called "crowfoot." They are kept in small cages on the housetops.
Many feathers are connected with special persons or incidents. The downy eagle feather dyed red (pl. 7) is a sign of the priesthood at Zuñi. The sparrow hawk is associated with the Black Eye, a priest-clown group at Isleta, while the Koshare, another group, use the turkey.
To an Indian the downy white feather is very close to life itself. "The feather is the pictorial representation of the breath," and "breath is the symbol of life." There is hardly an act of ritual or drama without the use of feathers, and all feathers for ceremonial use must come from the living bird.
Feathers on the prayer-plume offerings planted at almost all the villages were supposed to "provide clothing for the supernaturals." Just as food, accompanied with a prayer, is sent to the other world when it is cast into the fire or into the river, so these feathers are sent to clothe the Great Ones. At Jemez the erect turkey feathers bound at the back of the prayer stick represent the red-and-blue-bordered white Hopi blanket —a recognition in form and pattern of an actual garment. More often the stipulated arrangement of feathers on the prayer stick is a matter of ritual form and the resulting kachina costumes do not bear a relationship to their supposed origin. At all events, it is true that the kachinas are conspicuous for their beautiful feather ornaments.
Each particular rite or entertainment has its specified method by which feather ornamentation is employed. Sometimes the feathers are painted, in a stylized manner, on the articles or emblems used in the rite; this obviously was taken over from its origin in basket and pottery decoration. We find them also on a tablita form over a mask, and on the cheek of an unmasked dancer.
Aside from the robe so often indicated on the Shalako Kachina doll, feathers are used on ceremonial costumes purely as ornamentation. Single feathers are hung alone or in groups from belts and arm bands (pl. 35)
by buckskin thongs or homespun cotton cord. They are often tied to the corners or centers of kilts and blankets (pl. 7). Headdress and mask ornaments are made of feathers fashioned together in various patterns. Accessories (pl. 30), either worn or carried, are peripherally trimmed with feathers or made of feathers entirely.
The methods of application vary. The quill may be tied on with buckskin, yucca, or cotton cord. Cornhusks may be folded and wrapped tightly around the quill end, making a holder. Buckskin may be used in the same manner. Holes may be bored in gourds, corncobs, or wood, and feathers stuck into them. Down is even applied to horsehair and wool with a syrup made by boiling the juice of the yucca fruit.
When colored feathers are not available, the white ones are stained the desired colors. Downy eagle feathers are dyed red to indicate membership in societies. Furthermore, since feathers naturally lend themselves to varied and graceful forms of ornamentation, it is only the rigid rules prescribed by ritual which prevent artist creators from making endless objects in this medium. As a consequence, new forms are created only when a new character is introduced, and ordinarily the same ornaments differ only as the ability of one craftsman exceeds that of another.
When not in use, sacred feathers are kept carefully packed in special boxes, made of cottonwood, which have ingenious sliding lids held in place by fitted pegs. At Jemez the sacred feathers are laid away wrapped simply in buckskin. Each ornament and feather is renewed and redecorated for every dance series; for many days before a performance the priest works secretly with others within the kivas to get them ready. With this constant renewal of parts and the variability of human craftsmanship, it is small wonder that the forms change despite the fact that the artist has carefully followed a specified plan. In the work of renovation only hand-spun cotton cord can be used, as that has a sacred significance. Cornhusk is used as a firm base upon which feathers can be fastened, or it may be wrapped around the quill to hold the feathers in a rigid position.
There is an interesting headdress in the Buffalo Dance (fig. 25, p. 189). It consists of a white deerskin band about two and one-half inches wide, on the right side of which is fastened a black buffalo horn and on the left a fan of six eagle tail feathers firmly bound with cornhusk and tied in place with a buckskin thong at right angles to the quill ends.
Feathers are used on other parts of costumes. Buckskin shields worn on the back may be edged with feathers or have some special feather treatment at top or bottom. Again, eagle feathers are sewn to deerskin or cornhusk bands which follow the arm contour from neck to wrist to provide the wings of the eagle dancers. Fan-shaped tail ornaments of eagle feathers are also made.
In the ceremonial dances, various articles carried by the dancers are distinguished by the feathers attached to them. The presiding priest carries a special feather wand to indicate his position and the particular office which he is performing.