Use of Feathers in American Indigenous Cultures
Article and photographs by Jon Friedman
This article describes, in limited fashion, the importance of birds and their feathers to the many North American indigenous tribes found throughout the continent. Birds, being unique and free-flying animals, represented and symbolized many things to the many tribes. Obviously, their ability to fly represented freedom. Particular species of birds were of special significance for individual tribes and clans. Feathers of birds became symbols of all the attributes attached to those birds and were believed to be messengers between the Creator and the People, both back and forth. This brief overview provides some insights into why and how feathers are an important, ubiquitous, and revered aspect and symbol found throughout their material and sacred cultures.
Headdress featuring Scarlet Macaw Feathers
Amazon Parrot Feathers Headdress
The use of feathers in animistic indigenous and aboriginal cultures dates as far back as humans can trace their existence on this planet. Animism is the oldest known type of belief system in the world and is closely tied to the spiritual practices that different societies around the world practiced. Even today, it is still practiced in a variety of forms in many traditional societies. Simply put, animism is a world-view according to which all things – animals, plants, rivers, weather systems, even spoken words, buildings and other structures as well as certain artifacts – are experienced as animate and alive. It is sometimes described as a “religious”, or more accurately spiritual, belief that various objects, places, creatures and other livings forms possess distinctive spiritual qualities.
Religion or Spirituality
Various indigenous cultures and tribal societies each have different mythologies and rituals that help define the type of animism they practice. Most of these societies do not have a word to describe this practice and belief; the term itself is an anthropological construct. It is commonly accepted that animism refers to an ancestral mode of experience common to indigenous peoples around the world. Some claim that animism is an actual religion, but the overwhelming prevailing view recognizes that distinct differences between religion and spirituality exist, eliminating this now non-controversial issue.
Animism encompasses the beliefs that all material objects and phenomena have a life force; that there is no real distinction between the spiritual, physical or material world; and that the soul or spirit exists not only in humans but in all living entities, including plants, and geologic features such as rocks, mountains, plains, rivers and other natural phenomena, including thunder, wind, rain, and shadows. Such beliefs mean the practitioners attribute souls, or spirits, to nearly every object in their lives and world; and that all things, particularly all living things, have a soul, are alive and possess inherent virtue, power and wisdom.
Crow and Raven Feather Headdress
Feathers as Messengers
Feathers can be understood to be important to the spirituality of those who use, revere, and value them as natural “bridges” to the spiritual world of their ancestors and/or a means of “communication” between themselves, the Creator and their spiritual world. Feathers embody the spiritual ideal that all natural things in the universe have souls or spirits that are alive and possess an inherent virtue, power and wisdom – unique to each entity. Simply put, feathers are believed to be messengers between the Creator and the people.
Feathers as Symbols
Birds in general, and certain species in particular, signify important meanings and relationships with those who know them. The feather of any bird symbolizes that species of bird and its relationship to the society or tribe that understands it and honors it as important, even essential, to living a complete life. Feathers signify personal honor and connect the owner/wearer with the Creator and the bird species that the feather came from as well as the symbology that represents that species of bird.
Ceremonial Mask with Parrot Feathers
Captive Breeding of Birds for Supply of Sustainable Feathers
Feathers have been collected for use in a wide variety of applications. Hunting birds provided food, as well as feathers and bones that could be adapted for a variety of uses. Many societies came to realize long ago that hunting birds would deplete their supply of the feathers that were most important to them. Therefore, the captive breeding of birds long ago became an accepted and sustainable method of attaining some of the most desirable feathers. Close to home, an example of this captive breeding of specific species can be found in Northern Mexico and the American Southwest. Anthropologists and archaeologists realized that the pre-Columbian society in Pacame, near the Mata Ortiz pottery community in northern Chihuahua, just west of Nuevo Casas Grandes, was an advanced community for its time and place. Communal apartment-type buildings with fresh running water for all to use was certainly a phenomena in the parched, dry desert just an hour’s drive from the U.S. border. It was also discovered that this was the source for all the large, brilliantly colored non-local Macaw feathers that were used as trade items with indigenous tribes in both Northern Mexico and the American Southwest. It seems that the residents of Pacame, and the village itself, became an indispensable asset to many communities
both north and south of that location. It seems that the breeding of macaws there took prominence in the survival, growth and prosperity of the culture there and lasted centuries until the great drought drove most of the ancient peoples to relocate, sometime around 1200. The ruins of Pacame are open to the public and can be visited as an educational and tourist site operated by the Mexican government. Most visitors going to Mata Ortiz to purchase pottery have stopped along the way, at Pacame, to learn about this important aspect of history and early captive breeding of macaws for the sacred feather trade.
Robe and Headdress made with Amazon and Macaw Feathers
In addition to hunting and captive breeding, feathers were often found in various, and sometimes unexpected ways. When a feather was found, Native Americans believed it carried all the energy of the living bird. Feathers could simply come loose from a bird flying overhead and slowly drift to the ground. They were sometimes found stuck in trees and other vegetation. They could be washed ashore in rivers, lakes and oceans. However feathers could be found in nature, they were always appreciated, revered, highly valued and thought to be gifts from the Creator. Feathers may arrive via unexpected means, but always had an assigned purpose and meaning.
Understanding Feather Use in Headdresses
As gifts from the Creator, feathers became symbolically important and represented a host of meanings to those who used them. Their meaning conveyed majesty, truth, courage, strength, and bravery. Modern American mainstream society is mostly familiar with Native American use of feathers in grandiose headgear, primarily war bonnets and headdresses. This stereotypical image was ubiquitous when American television series and western movies depicted nearly all Native American tribes wearing feathers in this manner. However, these types of headdresses were worn almost exclusively by the chiefs and war shamans of the Great Plains tribes. These large and impressive headdresses usually featured masses of feathers, sometimes trailing down the wearer’s back, nearly to the ground. Each feather represented victories in battle, and even the exact number of enemies killed, much like the notches carved into the handles of guns used by western gunslingers. For this reason, the larger the headdress, and the greater number of feathers used visually signaled the ferocity, bravery, courage, strength and success of war shamans/chiefs. This type of headgear was always assembled by the chief himself or by his trusted next-in-command warriors. Women were not allowed to fashion these most symbolic articles of importance to male power.
The choice of which species of bird feathers to be used was dictated by several possible factors. Feathers from certain species, such as eagles, other raptors, and in some tribes, owls, were especially prized by chiefs and war shamans. Those species represented similar qualities that the
chiefs admired and respected, were spiritually important to their clans, were large and impressive in size and featured certain patterns of colors that were meaningful to individuals or tribes.
Particular Uses of Feathers
The type of feather was also an important consideration in choosing which feathers to use. Tail feathers were held in the highest regard, likely due to their perfect symmetry, preserved shape, distinctive markings and origination from a single point on the body of the bird. Sinew and animal gut were used as the primary material to fasten the feather to the headdresses. Other parts of animals were incorporated into the overall design, including hair and fur as well as bones. Some chiefs wanted their war bonnets to instill a sense of fear in their opponents. Some nations, such as the various Apache tribes, also added medicine bags made from the scrotums of slain enemies and necklaces made from the mummified fingers of the defeated to add to the overall effect of shocking and intimidating their battle enemies.
Sacred Use of Feathers
Shamans, or medicine men, used feathers to great effect in performing various ceremonies, and they attached feathers to such ritual items as medicine bags, wooden shafts and wands, woven materials such as prayer rugs or shawls, and other types of specialized ceremonial clothing.
Omaha Feather Wand
Symbols of Power
Feathers were also used as an integral component in a warrior’s clothing and implements of war. Spears and arrows featured feathers for practical and spiritual purposes. Similarly, feathers were used in the construction of battle clubs and tomahawks. While various tribes preferred feathers from certain bird species, especially prized were feathers from eagles, crows, ravens, hawks and other raptors and cranes. These feathers held a certain reverence and respect for the warriors who used and identified with them. So, particular feathers were used for specific purposes throughout the nation. In some cases, feathers of local birds with restricted ranges were also used to identify tribes and their home locations.
Feathers Used in Everyday and Spiritual Life
In some cases, in some locations, certain species held special significance and choosing feathers from those birds might have had more than a single unique reason for their use. In all cases, feathers were considered messengers from and to the Creator, so their use was very highly prized and honorable. Feathers always held a special significance in other types of ceremonies and rituals, besides battles and war. Feathers were commonly used in puberty ceremonies, weddings and death rituals. Colorful clothing, jewelry and other adornments also featured the use of particular feathers.
Gourd Rattle with Feathers
While it may appear that the use of feathers in everyday life and objects is decorative and ornamental, and it does serve those purposes, most of the everyday objects that have feathers adorning them are used with spiritual concerns in mind. Much of the clothing used in everyday life and in ceremonial/ritual use does have objects attached or incorporated into it for specific spiritual purposes. Prayers often take the form of dance, and dancers’ clothing, both male and female, child and adult, have feathers, beads, hand-worked metal items, and natural objects such as minerals, stones, plant parts, animal parts and the like as integral parts of the whole.
Feathers, as well as many of the types of materials previously mentioned, can be found in headbands, earrings, necklaces, nosepieces, bracelets, dresses, shirts, shawls, pants, moccasins and the like. Often feathers are independently and directly tied into hair singly or in groupings.
Arapaho Ghost Dance Necklace
Other Important Uses of Feathers
The musical instruments used in ceremonies and rituals, such as flutes, drums and drumsticks, and rattles have feathers attached. In some cases, dancers wear masks that have feathers. Peace pipes traditionally have feathers. Other spiritual items may also contain feathers and often a single feather or an array of feathers, such as a complete wing or tail, would be used. Dreamcatchers utilize feathers to good purpose in enabling the dreamer to communicate with the Creator during dreaming. Feathers are essential items for smudging rituals. Feathers are used to “smudge”, directing the cleansing or purifying smoke of burning tobacco, cedar, sage, or sweet grass. Feathers of brightly colored birds, like blue jays and cardinals, were used as actual medicine, and as such, can be considered spiritual medicine or they can be ground into powder and incorporated into a medicinal ointment or salve. In certain ceremonies, important spiritual instruments and owl feathers have special significance and are generally limited in use as magic talisman on talking sticks. The use of owl feathers, especially the all-white feathers from Snowy and Barn Owls, are used to prevent deception from entering the sacred circles. Owl feather also symbolized, in some tribes, death or prophecy. Prayer feathers are often tied around the foreheads of deceased tribal members during death rituals. Sometimes, mummified small songbirds, in their entirety, were used instead of individual feathers.
Headdress of Small Songbirds
Different tribes had slightly different interpretations of the symbolic meanings of particular feathers, based on the bird that feather came from. Overall, there was more agreement than disagreement about the meaning and symbology of the feathers. All feathers were revered as connecting the owner to the Creator and becoming the conduit for carrying messages to and from the Creator. The feather, as a powerful visual symbol, was used extensively on a wide variety of objects. Tattoos and war paint featured the feather symbol. Additionally, the feather symbol was extensively used on objects such as tepees, totem poles, musical instruments, weapons, clothing, and particular feathers may be used to denote items that belonged to particular individuals.
Ghost Dance Whistle
Meanings of Feathers by Species
The meaning of birds and their feathers are of great significance, as they are believed to possess supernatural powers that embody, attach and influence a person empowering them with important traits, attributes and characteristics of the bird. The following partial list of birds describes the meanings of their feathers, providing information of the significance of each bird together with its symbolic importance.
· Bluebird: A feather from a bluebird symbolized happiness and fulfilment.
· Crow: A feather from a crow symbolizes balance, release from past beliefs, skill and cunning.
· Dove: A feather from a dove symbolizes love, gentleness and kindness.
· Eagle: A feather from an eagle symbolizes great strength, courage, leadership and prestige. The Bald Eagle and the Golden Eagle were considered sacred birds.
· Falcon: A feather from a falcon symbolizes soul healing, speed and movement.
· Hawk: A feather from a hawk symbolizes guardianship, strength and far-sightedness.
· Heron/Crane: A feather from a heron or crane symbolizes patience, grace and confidence.
· Hummingbird: A feather from a hummingbird symbolizes love, beauty and intelligence. Hummingbirds are considered Spirit Messengers and Stoppers of Time.
· Kingfisher: A feather from a kingfisher symbolizes luck, patience, speed and agility.
· Owl: A feather from an owl symbolizes wisdom, the ability to see things normally, a creature of the night – swift and silent.
· Raven: A feather from a raven symbolizes creation and knowledge – the Bringer of the Light.
· Swallow: A feather from a swallow symbolizes peace and love.
· Turkey: A feather from a turkey symbolizes abundance, pride and fertility.
· Woodpecker: A feather from a woodpecker symbolizes self-discovery.
· Wren: A feather from a wren symbolizes protection.
(Author’s note: The accompanying photographs were taken at an exhibit of Native American culture at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 2016.)