Use of Feathers in American Indigenous Cultures
Article and Photographs by Jon Friedman
The original article with the same title, published in the March 2017 newsletter, was inspired, in part, by my 2016 visit to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. I traced the origins of feather use back to the earliest records and explained the beginnings of the understanding, importance and widespread use of feathers by indigenous cultures in North America. The practice of including feathers into daily and spiritual life, and the making of musical and war instruments was, and remains, important to tribal cultures throughout the Western Hemisphere and most of the indigenous cultures in the world, as well. To gain a fuller understanding of the overall importance of feathers in the Native American culture, refer to the original article (make link) in the archive on our website – wildbirdsonline.com.
Most indigenous and “primitive” cultures embrace a type of religious or spiritual belief that anthropologists describe as Animism. Practitioners believe that all living entities (humans, animals, insects, plants, etc.) and all natural (non man-made) objects (rocks, mountains, rivers, the earth itself) contain a soul, or spirit. Therefore, deep and meaningful bonds exist between all those entities and the humans who are dependent and respectful of the important, personal and symbiotic relationships that have evolved between all these elements since the beginning of time. Feathers play an instrumental role in many of these essential relationships.
Ear ornaments with red feathers and mussel shells
Birds have been prized forever as essential to tribal life. They provided food, knowledge, raw materials for necessary everyday objects and tools, sacred objects, ornaments, clothing and jewelry, musical instruments, objects of war, etc. Every part of the animal or bird was put to important use. Many game birds provided a major source of protein and nutrition in the diet;
bones were used for needles, tools and other ceremonial objects; skins were incorporated into clothing, pouches; and feathers from nearly all species satisfied a wide variety of practical, personal, ceremonial and ritual uses.
2000 year old Mallard Duck decoy
As religious or spiritual objects, feathers themselves embodied souls and spirits. Understanding this, indigenous cultures treated feathers as treasured objects and as messengers between themselves and their greater spirits. Feathers were both symbolic of the message and considered to be the messenger, as well: Feathers therefore carried more spiritual meaning than nearly any other object.
Macaw breeding pens at Paquimé ruins in northern Chihuahua, Mexico (picture from Wikipedia: Casas Grandes Macaw Pens)
Early cultures avoided hunting birds into extinction. Within our own region, as detailed in Part One, domestic breeding of colorful species of birds was undertaken as a sustainable means of providing the culture’s unending need for feathers. Beginning about two thousand years ago, at Paquimé, in Northern Mexico, not far from the current U.S. border in Chihuahua, large and colorful Macaw parrots (and some species of Amazon parrots) were bred for their feathers and ultimately traded among tribes throughout Central America, Mexico and North America. These large scarlet, bright blue, yellow and emerald green feathers served as a form of sacred currency that was more important than simple currency due to the multitude of meanings and uses they had.
Scarlet Macaw feather headdress
While captive breeding insured a sustainable supply of feathers for a wide variety of uses, the finding of a feather in the natural landscape held an even deeper spiritual meaning. Finding a feather on the ground, or floating on water, was interpreted as receiving a direct communication from the Creator, conveying a significant personal, spiritual message. Such feathers were understood to bestow both symbolic and real power to those fortunate enough to find them. Finding or discovering an airborne feather fluttering to the ground was most significant of all, as it was considered a more direct message from the Creator to the individual.
Rattle with Oriole and Raven feathers
Feathers from the wing, tail or elsewhere from the bird’s body held particular significance in relation to its importance or use. Feathers from particular species would prove preferable to those from another species. Raptor feathers were preferred in the making of hunting arrows. Feathers from colorful birds were preferred in the making of jewelry and other adornments. Owl feathers were used as important features of peace pipes, war staffs and other objects that required inherent wisdom and knowledge. Eagle feathers were preferred as symbols of great power and their use was usually associated with earning the right to wear or use them. All feathers had some special spiritual or personal significance attached to them, and they therefore had great importance to those possessing them.
Calumet staff with Mallard, owl and eagle feathers
Nearly every object in daily life had spiritual significance and meaning and the feathers attached to these objects were not haphazardly chosen. Feathers that adorned musical instruments came from birds that sang most musically – orioles, mockingbirds and robins in particular. Feathers attached to instruments of war (staffs, spears, arrows, bludgeons, shields, etc.) usually came from large predator birds representing great power, strength, courage, leadership and prestige. Masks, dreamcatchers and certain articles of clothing like headdresses, armbands and sashes incorporated the feathers of birds more closely associated with the spirit world. Some feathers, especially the most colorful, were used as adornments in the hair and in ear and nose pieces. Ceremonies and rituals that involved cleansing and smudging, prayers, births and deaths, naming, initiation and coming of age ceremonies, etc., all had particular feathers chosen by the individuals or shamans involved.
Arrow with eagle, owl and hawk feathers
Certain feathers from bird species thought to have particular powers were ground up into powders and ingested or inhaled as actual medicines. Various species were thought to have particular medicinal/healing powers. Almost exclusively shamans within each community administered this practice. Falcon feathers aided soul healing. Turkey feathers represented
fertility. Woodpecker feathers assisted self-discovery. Wren feathers protected the individual soul. See the complete list of meanings of species’ feathers in the original article.
Necklace with Scarlet Macaw and woodpecker feathers
Author’s note: I photographed the images for this article from an exhibition I visited recently at the National Museum of the American Indian. This museum is an extension of the many museums operated by the Smithsonian Institution. It is located at the tip of lower Manhattan, adjacent to Battery Park, in the former Alexander Hamilton United States Custom House. Well worth the visit if you are in NYC, the museum is open every day of the year (except December 25th, Christmas Day) and is always free to the public.