Birds and Feathers
Native Americans have a deep connection to and respect for the natural world, and their reverence for nature deeply influences their art. Because of this importance, many Native artists choose to use bird or feather imagery in their art, pottery, or jewelry. Feathers of all birds, and especially eagles, are an iconic design in Native American jewelry and art.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, “Birds are integral to Native American culture – they are connected to the spiritual because of their ability to move throughout the earthly and heavenly (sky) realms…thus their feathers, attached to clothing or other items can impart particular meaning.
Revered in Pueblo culture, the eagle is the guardian of the sky, a messenger to the spirit world and a powerful symbol of strength and protection. Eagle feathers are often attached to masks, rattles, prayer sticks and other objects used in traditional ceremonies. Eagles are particularly revered for their ability to fly so close to the heavens, carrying the prayers of the people to the spirit world.
Pueblo pottery is a familiar form for bird designs, feather designs, and bird imagery.
Each Pueblo community has a specific style of bird representation on their pottery. These images can be seen from archaeological pots that are beautifully stylized to look geometric and abstract, and traditional styles on forms with curves and fluted rims.
Birds and feathers are an extremely important form of expressing thanks, respect, and honor.
Feathers are a part of Pueblo tradition going back thousands of years. They are representative of strength, fertility, death, abundance, and beauty.
Eagles, hummingbirds, turkeys, and parrots are the most prevalent in the dance regalia of Pueblo dancers. The colors and beauty of feathers can be seen in the traditional dance wear of the Pueblos.
Feathers have travelled throughout the continent in the form of trade, decoration, and gifts.
One example of how far feathers travel is the Turtle Dance on the first day of the year at Taos Pueblo. The dancers each have a plume of macaw feathers. Taos Pueblo is the furthest Pueblo in Northern New Mexico. Macaw feathers come from South America and may have come from there through either trade or gift exchange.
The thunderbird is a symbol closely associated with Pueblo culture. Though the history of the design is not clear, it is seen as a symbol of strength, fertility, and abundance. Santo Domingo artists are known for reviving and popularizing the thunderbird design in the early 1900s. When traditional materials were unavailable during the Great Depression, they turned to repurposed and found materials such as car batteries, records, and household plastics to create colorful necklaces with a thunderbird motif. Tourists were captivated by these handmade pieces and today thunderbird jewelry is a celebrated style among Santo Domingo artists and collectors of Native American art.
In some Native American cultures, a hummingbird symbolizes timeless joy and the nectar of life. It's a symbol for accomplishing that which seems impossible and will teach you how to find the miracle of joyful living from your own life circumstances. They are spectacular birds and have a lot to teach a person about self-discovery and healing.
The rain parrot is a popular design motif in Pueblo pottery, particularly that of Acoma Pueblo, representing the Pueblo people’s reverence for rain and water. According to Acoma legend, the birds led people to water, and Pueblo people see them as special creatures who can mediate with the spirit world. Rain parrots are generally represented as a triangular beak with swirling tail feathers, though stylized and contemporary versions are also common.
From eagles to hummingbirds, explore this collection of Native American artwork with bird motifs featuring Acoma rain bird pottery designs, Zuni owl figurines, ducks, cranes, fetishes and more.
Learn and Shop more. Watch Andrew Thomas (Diné) talk about bird symbolism in Native American Art.
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