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Native American Feathers

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Native American Feathers – The feathers of birds entered largely into the industries, decorations, war, and worship of the Indians. All common species lent their plumage on occasion, but there were some that were especially sought: in the Arctic regions, water birds during their annual migrations; the eagle everywhere; wild turkeys in their habitat; ravens and flickers on the N. Pacific coast; woodpeckers, meadow larks, crested quail, mallard ducks, jays, blackbirds, and orioles in California; and in the Pueblo region, eagles, hawks, turkeys, and parrots especially. The prominent species in every area were used.

Not willing to depend on the fortunes of the hunt, the Pueblo and Virginia Indians held eagles and turkeys in captivity until such time as their feathers were wanted. Property right in eagles of certain localities were recognized by the Pueblos. In the Arctic regions parkas were made of bird skins sewed together, the feathers forming an excellent barrier against the cold. To the southward the skins of young waterfowl, while covered with down, were sewed together for robes. The historic tribes of the E. cut bird skins into strips and wove them into blankets in the same way that the western tribes used rabbit skins. In the turkey robes described by Capt. John Smith and other early explorers the pretty feathers of these birds were tied in knots to form a network, out of which beautiful patterned cloaks were wrought. Fans and other accessories of dress were made of wings or feathers by the Iroquois and other tribes. The uses of feathers in decoration were numberless. The Western Eskimo sewed little sprays of down into the seams of garments and bags made of intestinal membranes, and the California Indians decorated their exquisite basketry in the same manner. The quills of small birds, split and dyed, were used for beautiful embroidery and basketry in the same way as porcupine quills. For giving directness to the flight of arrows, feathers were usually split so that the halves could be tied or glued to the shaftment in twos or threes. Among the Eskimo and some of the southwestern Indians the feathers were laid on flat. Among California tribes bird scalps were used as money, being both a standard of value and a medium of exchange. The most striking uses of feathers were in connection with social customs and in symbolism. The masks and the bodies of performers in ceremonies of the N. Pacific coast were copiously adorned with down. Feathers worn by the Plains tribes in the hair in dicated rank by their kind and number, or by the manner of mounting or notching. The decoration of the stem of the calumet (q. v. ) was of feathers, the colors of which depended on the purpose for which the calumet was offered. Whole feathers of eagles were made into war-bonnets, plumes, and long trails for dances and solemnities. In the Pueblo region feathers played an important role in symbolism and worship prayer-sticks, wands, altar decorations, and aspergills were made of them. The downy feather was to the mind of the Indian a kind of bridge between the spirit world and ours. Creation and other myths spring out of feathers.

Feather technique in its highest development belongs to South America, Central America, and Polynesia, but there is continuity in the processes from the c. part of America southward. See Adornment, Art, Clothing, Color symbolism, Eagle, Exchange, Horse, Ornament, Quillwork, Weaving.


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