Preserving Tradition and Native Bird Populations: The Feather Distribution Project


Note: 7be place names in the first section of this article are modern. Archaeologists do not know the ancient name of the town we now call Pueblo Bonito ("beautiful town" in Spanish). We do not know the ancient names for what we call Chaco Canyon and New Mexico. We do not know the names by which the ancient inhabitants of these places referred to themselves. We usually refer to them as Anasazi. But Anasazi is a Navajo term meaning "ancient ones" or "ancient enemies, " and the Navajo had not yet arrived in the Southwest from their homeland in interior northwestern North America at the time when the first part of this account takes place. Indeed, the Navajo did not migrate into the Southwest for another 400+ years. Finally, archaeologists do not know the term the ancient inhabitants of Chaco Canyon used to refer to the winter solstice, or if they named or numbered the years.

What we do know is that they built Pueblo Bonito and about 10 other large pueblos in and adjacent to Chaco Canyon plus hundreds of smaller villages and hamlets in the canyon and its immediate environs. Ibey also built several dozen more large towns in the surrounding area. We do know that they worshiped the sun and used its apparent movements along the horizon to create a solar calendar by which they planned and implemented the religious, economic, and political activities that structured their lives. And we know that they kept and used macaws and parrots for ritual activities. Tbe remains of more than 400 macaws have been found at archaeological sites in the American Southwest; objects with macaw feathers still presened have also been found; and macaws and parrots are the most common animals depicted in murals discovered at Pottery Mound, New Mexico, Awatovi, Arizona, and at


other ancient toums and villages.

We know from Pueblo oral histories and myths that birds have been important to these peoples .from the distant past to the present. The Hopi, of northeastern Arizona recount how birds helped lead them from the Underworld into this, the Fourth World.

Archaeological excavations also confirm the importance of birds in ancient Pueblo life. The Pueblos domesticated turkeys from wild turkeys perhaps 1,500 years ago. Turkey burials in which the (now) skeletal remains are adorned with jewelry and other grave goods attest to the importance of the turkey, as do the remnants of turkey feather robes and numerous artifacts made from turkey bones.

Most birds - eagles, hawks, ducks, and a wide variety of others - were obtained locally, but the majority of macaws and parrots were imported (The Military Macaw [Ara militaris} and the Thick-billed Parrot [Rbyncbopsitta pachyrhyncha}, however, were indigenous in what is now southern Arizona and northern Mexico. Curiously, they were less utilized than more distant species).

Casas Grandes in Chihuahua, Mexico, a large, urban site that was destroyed in the 15th century, was a major breeding and distribution center for Scarlet Macaws (Ara macao). Blue-

and-Gold Macaws (Ara ararauna) were also present at Anasazi sites. The skeleton of at least one Lilac-crowned Amazon Parrot (Amazonafinscbi) has been excavated in the Southwest and might be the most distant import. In summary, birds and theirfeathers were critical resources for Pueblo life, especiallyfor religious ceremonies, and they still are today.


Winter Solstice,

Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, NM Shortly before daybreak, the old


man, wrapped in a turkey feather robe, stands in the small, second story room in the southeastern section of the village and gazes out through the diagonal window in the wall. He is the Sun Priest, and he waits patiently for Father Sun to climb above the horizon. Sun Father's appearance today marks the winter solstice sunrise and signals the start of the New Year as Sun Father begins his journey back toward the north and the warmth of summer. The year has no number, but this solstice sunrise occurs about 500 years before an Italian man known as Columbus, in service to the Spanish royal court, discovers the continent on which the Sun Priest's village stands. Sunrise today takes place more than 550 years before the first Spaniards enter this part of Nueva Espana (New Spain) that they will refer to as Nuevo Mejico (New Mexico). By our calendar, the year is sometime between A.O. 950 and 1000, and the date is December 21st.

Father Sun arrives in a flash followed by a burst of brilliant light. He has kept his promise and returned to start the New Year. His son, the Sun Priest, is pleased. He recites his prayers of welcome, pulls his robe tightly around himself for warmth, and then turns to begin a short walk to the north section of Pueblo Bonito. Here he enters a room where several Scarlet Macaws perch. Sun Father needs to be welcomed and thanked properly in ceremonies from now until the summer solstice in June, and the beautiful red feathers of the Scarlet Macaw are needed for this purpose. The long tail feathers are especially prized.