The Revered History of Turkeys From Ancient Indigenous Communities to Thanksgiving Staple

From Sacred Symbol to Thanksgiving Tradition The Revered Legacy of Turkeys among Ancient Indigenous Communities

The Fascinating and Feathered History of Turkeys in Native American Culture

Little, Oglala band leader, three-quarter length studio portrait, seated, wearing a turkey feather headdress and holding various weapons

Turkeys, those magnificent creatures strutting around like fashionistas in their feathered finery, have a rich and surprising history in Native American culture. Before they became the star of the Thanksgiving feast, turkeys played vital spiritual roles in ancient Native American societies. In fact, the feathers of these fine fowl were revered by many tribes.

Legend has it that the Cherokee people discovered the delectable properties of corn thanks to a turkey’s keen eye for tasty kernels. The first man and woman on Earth were growing corn when a clever turkey sauntered by, nibbling on the golden goodness. Upon witnessing this feathered feast, the woman realized that corn was not just a plant but also a vital food source. Talk about a bird with a discerning palate!

Turkeys were not just the unsung heroes of Native American cuisine; they also held esteemed positions in mythology. In Aztec belief, there was Chalchiuhtotolin, the “jade turkey,” who ruled as the god of disease and plague. Talk about a bird with a serious case of power-hunger! Meanwhile, in Hopi lore, a turkey deity named koyona katsina dazzled everyone with its spellbinding dance moves during ceremonial rituals. Who knew turkeys were such skilled dancers?

But the true rise to culinary stardom for turkeys came with the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. These intrepid explorers introduced the birds to Europe after their conquest of Mexico in 1519. Suddenly, turkeys were all the rage, gracing the tables of the fashionable elite. And some of these fine-feathered creatures may have even found themselves on the menu at the historically renowned first Thanksgiving meal in the 17th century. Can you imagine being a turkey with such a claim to fame?

Costumed dancers wearing dance bustles of Tewa sun god made of turkey feathers

Now, let’s talk about the reverence accorded to turkeys in Native American culture. Archaeological discoveries have revealed the profound respect Native Americans held for these birds, treating them as important members of their communities. In 2012, archaeologists discovered a mass turkey grave near an ancient Native American village, and the turkeys were found to have been carefully arranged in a ceremonial burial circle. It seems turkeys had more significance than just being the main course at a feast.

Turkeys’ feathers, in particular, have played a vital spiritual role in Native American culture. As Mary Weahkee, an archaeologist and member of the Santa Clara Pueblo and the Comanche Nation, points out, the white and thunderhead-black feathers hold special meaning. Representing clouds and rain, these feathers were highly prized. They were used by different tribes for various purposes, such as crafting cloaks or adorning headdresses, adding a flair of style to ceremonial attire.

In a fascinating find, an ancient blanket made with an astonishing 11,500 turkey feathers dating back to the early 1200s CE was discovered. This remarkable piece of artistry highlights the cultural significance turkeys had among Native American communities. Bill Lipe, a professor of anthropology at Washington State University, affirms that turkeys and their feathers, along with eagle feathers, remain symbolically and culturally important even today.

Interestingly, turkeys weren’t originally raised for their succulent meat. These birds were one of the few domesticated animals in North America until the arrival of Europeans. Ancient Native Americans fed turkeys corn, a precious crop at the time. Talk about luxury dining for these feathered creatures! But as primary food sources, like deer, began to dwindle around 1050, turkeys took their place on the menu. However, throughout this transition, turkeys never lost their spiritual significance, maintaining an esteemed position in Native American culture.

So, the next time you come across a turkey strutting its stuff, adorned in its dazzling plumage, take a moment to appreciate the significant role these fabulous birds have played in Native American culture. From mythological icons to culinary sensations to symbolically important creatures, turkeys have truly left their mark on the catwalk of Native American history.

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What do you think of the fashionable legacy of turkeys in Native American culture? Have you ever worn feathers as a stylish accessory? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!