Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Birds soar as spiritual messengers between the Earth and the sky. Revered and reflected by Native American cultures on both petroglyphs and modern ceramics, they flutter across objects both functional and decorative.
Open at Santa Fe’s Museum of Indian Arts and Culture Laboratory of Anthropology, “Birds: Spiritual Messengers of the Skies” showcases about 80 avian-related objects, ranging from pottery to rattles, as well as feathers and bones. The exhibition explores the role of birds in Native American culture in the Southwest.
It all came together because collections manager/curator Diana Sherman grew fascinated by the kinds of birds discovered at archaeological sites around New Mexico. Birds connect the Earth with the sky.
“Feathers are used in rituals and prayers,” Sherman said. “They have them attached to prayer sticks. Different birds have different powers and significance.”
Ancient people carved bird bones into tools, flutes and whistles.
Pottery dominates the show, whether through painted feathers or vessels shaped like birds. The two oldest works date from between 600-900 A.D.
Escavada black-on-white and Gallup black-on-white pottery both stem from what archaeologists call the Chaco-Cibola white ware tradition. Native people produced these vessels within the San Juan Basin and in a wide area that covered the southeastern portion of the Colorado Plateau and northwestern New Mexico from A.D. 550 to 1350.
Feathers grace a Casas Grandes pot dating from A.D. 1300-1450 with four flickers sculpted around the circumference. Casas Grandes is located in the state of Chihuahua in northern Mexico.
“You see a lot of macaw imagery on other pots,” Sherman said. “They were significant because their feathers were so colorful. They traded them from Mexico and they brought in some (live) birds.
“You don’t see eagles on pottery,” Sherman continued. “You see it on rock art. We have large duck-shaped vessels.”
Casas Grandes served as a major trade center for macaws and macaw feathers. The height of occupation occurred from A.D. 1200 to 1450; from here, people traded birds and copper bells throughout the Southwest. The exhibit features a quail perched atop a rattle.
The most important birds included turkeys, macaws and eagles. Turkey feathers serve a practical purpose.
Mary Weahkee (Santa Clara Pueblo/Comanche) learned to make traditional turkey feather blankets using the feathers and homespun yucca cordage. Her work sheds light on how people made these blankets in the past. Weahkee spent about 18 months stitching a full-sized blanket, weaving the feathers into the yucca.
“Every person in the pueblo gets a turkey feather blanket when a child is born,” Sherman said. “If you didn’t have heat, it would be a life-saving item.”
Native Americans also used turkey feathers in ceremonies, along with macaw and eagle feathers.
“The pueblos have been watching their birds for centuries and, during that time, have incorporated these creatures into every aspect of community life,” writes Hamilton Tyler in “Pueblo Birds & Myths.”
“Even such mundane tasks as building a room or planting a field requires the presentation of feathers from particular birds.”
Tribal members attach feathers to prayer sticks used to carry messages to the spirits or as offerings on altars, Tyler writes. The Zunis use feathers from as many as 72 species for prayer sticks and offerings. The birds act as breath or the spiritual component of all things.
Feathers appear in virtually all dance attire at most pueblos. The Navajo, Apache and Plains tribes are renowned for their feather headdresses. In Navajo culture, they symbolize bravery.
As many as 100 species of birds play critical roles in pueblo rituals, ceremonies and folklore. They protect, renew, and call for rain and war, Tyler writes.
The flicker and the sparrowhawk signal the color red and the southern direction. They signify new beginnings. The roadrunner protects from evil, while the eagle is considered sacred because of both its strength and its soaring flight path.
Puebloans used bird bones for both jewelry and food. They carved awls from bone to use as needles. They also carved beads from bones.
Birds play a crucial role in the celebration and preservation of life, keeping down insect populations, pollinating crops and recycling nutrients back into the Earth.
The exhibition originated at the Center for New Mexico Archaeology three years ago.
As many as 100 species of birds play critical roles in pueblo rituals, ceremonies and folklore