26 December 2007

Bird Apparel a Stylish Attire for Native North Americans Since 1500

© 2008 James Ed. Ducey.

An obvious splash of color in the many worlds of people across North America may have also been the material used for a stunning fashion statement in past centuries. The winged ones were prevalent as little songsters, in flocks on land, or as dark skeins moving against the sky. They revealed an infinite variety of sizes and shape ... animal provisions at each of the many places well known to the providers of survival for the tribe. A swan or fat autumn goose would roast well over a day's camp fire. The carcass could provide special things perhaps, a spiritual totem, a small and right-sized water bag, rarely a bird-bone whistle, or just serve to keep the kids warmly dressed during winter's chill.

Explorers of various sorts from across the Atlantic Ocean ventured forth on visits to the new world of America, providing the first descriptions of wild bird material use by local cultures. Sea-faring Vikings saw things and returned with spoken legends of eider birds on the north Atlantic coast, among other things. It was a bit more than 500 years ago for the first account of plumes being worn as decor for the outfits of women on the Bahaman Islands.

Only a few words within the chronicle kept during weeks, months or years reveals a utilitarian and ceremonial variety of uses for different parts of a dead bird. In the exploratory men's writing, when not speaking of gamey grouse or turkeys eaten for dinner, their scrawled inscriptions refer to coats, cloaks, garlands, and a special mantle. Water-shedding skins served well when worn as clothing. Turkey feathers were sewn into a quilted cover for sleeping. Single feathers or wings with color and pattern were an especially important feature for many tribal ceremonies. A feather hat was a distinct bit of grandeur for the rulers ceremonial garb.

Use of bird skins as material for garments reaches a pinnacle in the latter 1770s, with numerous notations from the Pacific Northwest, land of the Eskimos. The Common Eider meant survival for those people.

With an unbeatable style of color and durability, items made from a wild bird are described by writing visitors to Yucatan, New Netherland, New Spain, Carolina, Acadia, Alaska, the Louisiana Territory and elsewhere during the period of exploration in the New World. Most of the known instances of the use of bird material as worn apparel are from the United States of America, but also Canada and Greenland. Panama is also represented.

Various bird material is briefly described, often just the generic term of bird being scribed. Apparent types or species include the parrot, Wild Turkey, Chachalaca, geese, swan, eider, murre, gull, loon, eagle, cormorant and guillemot.

The following summary provides details for bird-motif garments, feather plumes, garlands and other worn objects in history for more than three hundred years. Examples are from oldest to most recent account. The designated placenames typically use the original names given in the chronicles.


Guadeloupe Island, Bahama Islands: women wearing plumes noted; 10 Apr 1496 by members of the Christopher Columbus expedition around the balmy West Indies and Caribbean Sea.

Rio de Grijalva, Yucatan, Mexico: cloak of feathers and its plumes noted in 1518 in account by Las Casas on the expedition of Juan de Grijalva during the discovery of New Spain.

Annunciata, North Carolina: native peoples "dressed in birds' feathers of various colors" noted during Giovanni de Verrazzano voyage in 1524 along the Atlantic coast.

Mouth of Hudson River, New York: garlands of bird feathers, "inhabitants not differing much from the others, being dressed out with the feathers of birds of various colours" by John de Verazzano in 1524.

Colorado River, Bay of California, Arizona, California: "the women goe naked, and weare a great wreath of feathers behind them" and references to certain feathers of parrots. The 1540 exploration by Captain Fernando Alarchon.

[Chief Satouriona]

Chief Satouriona, Fort Caroline at River May, Florida. Drawing on display at Fort Caroline National Memorial.

Fort Caroline at the River May: bird effigy, "At the leave-taking the king gave the captain a plume of egret feathers, dyed red, and a basket ..." During the first voyage of the French to Florida during 1562, under the leadership of Captain Jean Ribault.

Charles-Fort, South Carolina: "being painted and trimmed with rich feathers of divers colours", house hanged about with a tapestry of feathers of diverse colors. During the voyage to establish Fort Caroline and around the River May by Rene Laudonniere in 1564-1565.

San Felipe, New Mexico: especially for sleeping, quilts made of turkey feathers, also feather quilts used in place of cloaks; 2 Feb 1583 in chronicle of Hernan Gallegos during the rediscovery of New Mexico 1580-1594. Includes records from Chamuscado, Antonio Espejo, Castano de Sosa, Morlete, and Leyva de Bonilla and Humana.

Acoma - New Mexico: women wearing Mexican blankets, very elegant with colors, feathers, and other trappings; 6 Mar 1583 account by Antonio Espejo.

Gilbert's Sound, Greenland: "brought their clothes from their backes, which were all made of seale skins and birdes skinnes." By navigator John Davis in 1585.

Pueblo de los Angeles, California: "crownes were made of knit work wrought artificially with feathers of divers colours"; 1597 letter from the pueblo.


Groenland, or Greenland: seal and fowle skins, with the feather side inwards, found in their tents; 1605 James Hall account of Cunningham's Danish expedition.

Georges Harbor, Maine: "other ware the white feathered skins of some fowle, round about their head, iewels in their eares, and bracelets of little white round bone." In James Rosier narrative for Waymouth voyage in 1605.

Itivdlek Fjord, Greenland: "certaine coates of seale and fowle skins, with the feather side inward"; on 12 Jun 1605 by Danish expedition.

Lower Bay, New Jersey: "this day many of the people came aboard, some in mantles of feathers"; 5 Sep 1609 by Henry Hudson, leader of the sailors that discovered Hudson Bay.

Maine, New-England: with rich feathers ladies plume their head; 1625 narrative verse by William Morrell.

Santiago de Guatemale, Guatemala: Bird effigy, feathered banners and headdresses. In summer of 1630 by friar Thomas Gage in the Spanish America.

Bay du Noquet, Wisconsin: "clothed in large garment of Chinese damask, sprinkled with flowers and birds of different colors"; 1634 by Jean Nicolet, exploring the northwest. This is an intriguing notation, since the use of an item of Chinese origin would indicate oceanic trade.

Long Island, New York: "a mantle, a fathom square, of woven turkey feathers or peltries sewed together"; in 1644 from an anonymous author journal of New Netherland.

Manhattan Island, New York: coats made of turkey feathers; 1650 representation report from local officials.

Rendezvous Fort, Minnesota: "they cut some down or swan or other fowl that hath a white feather and cover with it the crown of their head"; Pierre Espirit Radisson narrative in 1662.

Gaspesia, Quebec: "colours ... for representing upon their garments certain figures of wild beasts, birds"; four colours red, white, black and yellow; 1680 by Father Chrestien le Clercq in New Relation.

Isthmus of Darien, Panama: Indians make a sort of apron from back feathers of the chicaly-chicaly, or chachalaca; pelican pouch used to make tobacco pouch by seamen. Surgeon Lionel Wafer in 1681.

Cahaynohoua Nation, Arkansas: sword-blade and calumet adorned with several sorts of feathers; July 1687 in Henri Joutel journal of Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle explorations in New France. Explored the Mississippi River.

Villages des Cenis, Arkansas: "plumes of feathers of several colours, on their heads"; Joutel journal in March 1687; turkey feathers on their heads, noted in Apr 1687.

Cappa Village, Riviere de Ommas, Arkansas: "wearing plumes of several colours, wherewith they adorn their heads"; Joutel journal on 1 Aug 1687.


River of the Pounika, Louisiana: men and women have mantles of turkey feathers; 13 Nov 1700 during Father Gravier voyage.

Village of the Houmas, Louisiana: robe of muskrat skins or turkey feathers; December 1700 during Father Gravier's missionary travels in the Illinois territory.

Port Royal, Acadia, Nova Scotia, Canada: papoose wrapped in skins of swans, and wild geese; in 1700, Sieur de Diereville history of the Indians.

Settlement of Santee, South Carolina: "chief doctor or physician, who was warmly and neatly clad with a match-coat, made of turkies feathers, which makes a pretty shew, seeming it was a garment of the deepest silk shag"; 10 Jan 1701 on a new voyage to Carolina by John Lawson.

Adak Island, Alaska: wear on head a hat decorated with various colors and feathers; 9 Sep 1741 in narratives of the Vitus Bering voyages from Kamchatka.

York Fort, Manitoba, Canada: "caps of woollen cloth ... and at the corner which will be upon the crown of the head a bit of rabbits down sewed on, or a red feather"; also noted, Indians will buy laced hats with a dyed feather stuck up in them; also stick feathers in hair; 1747 in notes by a trading company clerk in the store at the fort.

Lower and Upper Louisiana, U.S.A.: in 1758, several uses of bird items were noted in the translated journal of Le Page du Pratz in this territorial expanse west of the Mississippi and beyond the Platte rivers.

  • Swan feathers used to make diadems for hats,
  • Small feathers weaved into coverings for the women;
  • Young people make tippets made of the skin, with down;
  • Sailors make tobacco purse from dried pelican pouch;
  • Natives make fans of the tail;
  • Four tails joined together make the French an umbrella; and,
  • Women weave feathers in their hair.

New Herrnhuth at Balls River, Greenland: eider-fowl skin - Greenlanders and Europeans make their finest warmest under-garments of eider-fowl skin; under-garments made of willock (murre) skins. In 1767, from English translation for David Crantz history.

Presidio of Santa Fe, New Mexico: Bird effigy, "They adorn their heads with bonnets trimmed with feathers in different ways." In September 1767 for Apache Indians, noted by Don Nicolas de Lafora.

Cape Charles at Cape Charles Harbour, Labrador, Canada: Indians were sucking the fat from eider-duck skins, intended for winter garments. In 1771 by Captain George Cartwright at the northern Atlantic coast of Canada.

Port de la Bodega at Point de Arenas in October 1775, or San Francisco Bay, California, by the second pilot, Don Francisco Antonio Maurelle:

"A vast number of Indians now presented themselves on both points, who passed from one to the other in small canoes made of Fule, where they talked loudly for two hours or more, till at last two of them came along side the ship, and most liberally presented us with plumes of feathers, rosaries of bone, garments of feathers, as also garlands of the same materials, which they wore round their head, and a canister of seeds, which tasted much like walnuts. Our captain gave them in return, bugles, looking glasses, and peices of cloth."

This was during a visit by the schooner Sonora in October 1775. There were also large flocks of pigeons noted, and a parakeet like bird. At an earlier temporary port in mid-June, the small paroquet and parrots were mentioned. The locale was given as 41'7o north, though its loation is not certain on the expediton map.

Button-Mole-Bay, New York: Indian war dance; others decorated with a great quantity of feathers; many in nudity, one had tied a blackbird before him. Letter on 24 Jun 1777 by Thomas Anburey on his travels.

[Man and woman at Unalaska]

Samgoonoodha Harbour, Alaska: "jackets of the men are made of the skins of the Uril and Arjen, the former is a kind of water raven"; the uril is the cormorant, and the arjen the Oldsquaw, the editor interprets. On 28 June, an undergarment was noted as being "made of bird skins dressed with the feathers on and neatly sewn together, the feathered side he wore next to his skin; it was mended and patched." In 1778 during Captain James Cook voyages of discovery.

Island of Nawanalaska, Alaska: "dress consists of a bird-skin frock." On 26 Oct 1778 in the David Samwell journal from the Cook voyages.

Nipigon Bay, Ontario: feathers of birds among tribal items, or "pequim" in Chippeway language; wing of birds: "gwimbitch" is the Chippeway word. In 1778, from the journal of John Long among the Indians.

St. Augustine, Florida: "Around their heads they wore folded headbands about four inches wide in which were stuck three or four feathered plumes." On 8 Dec 1784 by Don Vizente Manuel de Zespedes y Velasco, governor of St. Augustine upon a visit by Indian chiefs from the Lower Creek and Seminole towns. A conference was held at the town plaza.

Northern Lands

Greenland: garments made of the skins of the black-backed gull (great black-backed gull) these and other water-fowl. Natives use skins of the northern diver (loon) for clothing, and Indians about Hudson's Bay adorn their heads with circlets of their feathers. North America: Indians make a most elegant clothing of the feathers, they also make fans of the tails. This information dates to ca. 1785 as given in the Arctic Zoology tome by Thomas Pennant.

Chenega, Prince William Sound area, Alaska: image of mans coat made of eagle skins, with down feathers retained, that were used as rain coats by the Chugach Eskimo; 10 eagle, 15 cormorant or 20 guillemot skins were needed for a coat. The flesh side of the skin was worn next to the body. Three eagle skin Chenega coats from this area are in the Museum fur Volkerkunde at Berlin. From the 1785 era of the James Cook voyage.

Prince William Sound, Alaska: "In warm weather they often wear a most beautiful dress made of a bird's skins with the feathers outward. These dresses are shaped like a shirt, and the finest of them are made from the skins of the breasts of swans." From chronicle of Alexander Walker voyage of 1786 in the Pacific Northwest.

District of Nootka, British Columbia, Canada: cap made of matting ornamented with painted representations of birds and other animals, and fastened with a leather thong; in 1788. At Port Meares, British Columbia: the King, Tianna, presented Captain Douglas two long-feathered cloaks. On 10 Dec 1788, from the John Meares narrative, coming from China to the north-west coast of America.

Lake of the Hills, Saskatchewan, Canada. In preparing for war, the men of the Knisteneaux Indian tribe had a ritual. "The next article is his war-cap, which is decorated with the feathers and plumes of scarce birds, beavers, and eagle's claws, &c. There is also suspended from it a quill or feather for every enemy whom the owner of it has slain in battle. ... Their headdresses are composed of the feathers of the swan, the eagle, and other birds. The teeth, horns and claws of different animals, are also the occasional ornaments of the head and neck. ... appearance of the men, whose faces are painted with more care than those of the women." From the general history of the Fur Trade in central Canada, written by Alexander Mackenzie.

Great Bear River Confluence, Northwest Territories, Canada: cap made of leather 1.5 inches wide embroidered with porcupine quills and stuck round with the claws of bears or wild fowls inverted; 5 Jul 1789 by Sir Alexander Mackenzie on his explorations for the trading company. He was the first person known to have traversed the North American continent.

Kightak Kadiak, Alaska: skins used for dresses, 1790 by Joseph Billings to northern Russia region. Oonalashka, Alaska: men wear a parka of birds' skins, sometimes the feathers outward, and sometimes inward; 5 Jun 1790 by Joseph Billings on another expedition to the northern parts of Russia.

[image Billings]

Spicer Islands, British Columbia: skins given to chief; "it being reckoned an uncommon fineness in their dress to have it together with their hair, strew'd over with the down of birds"; 8 Jul 1795 voyage of Captain Charles Bishop about the Pacific Northwest.

Turtle Lake, Minnesota: the beautiful spotted skins of loons make favorite caps for the natives, the Chippaway. On 27 Apr 1798 in the travel narrative of David Thompson in western North America.

Lewis and Clark Expeditioneers

There is a compelling variety of notes in the lengthy and varied journals for the Lewis and Clark expedition across the Louisiana Territory; going across the Rocky Mountains and to the great bay at the mouth of the Columbia River, and coast of the Pacific Ocean. Then back to St. Louis by river.

  • Calumet Bluff, southern bank of Missouri River, several miles west of the River Jacque, Nebraska: "the Warriers are Verry much deckerated with Paint Porcupin quils & feathers, large leagins & mockersons, all with buffalow roads of Different Colours." Capt. Clark wrote; 30 Aug 1804, while at a camp.
  • Bad Humored Island, upriver from Teton River (cf. Bad River), South Dakota: "...men perticularly, they grease & Black themselves when they dress, make use of Hawks feathers about their heads, cover with a Roab..." Clark wrote on 26 Sep 1804. Drums and whistles provided music, Joseph Whitehouse wrote in his entry for the 27th. Perhaps birds were an inspiration for any whistling songs while showy garb was worn at the social celebration of the autumn for the Teton Sioux. There were 80 dancers whooping at the event, held soon after the great battle when 65 Omaha were killed, and 25 women were taken as prisoners.
  • Lemhi Valley, along East Fork Lewis River; Idaho: Shoshone men sometimes add wings and tails of birds as an adornment in their hair, Capt. Lewis wrote on 21 Aug 1805. The Shoshone were especially fond of the feathers of the tail of the beautiful eagle or calumet bird. These feathers also used to adorn the manes and tails of their horses. Clark noted also how they strung the feathers and ornaments of birds.
  • Rapids of the Snake River, near confluence of the Clearwater River, Idaho: "otter skin about their necks hair Cewed in two parsels hanging forward over their Shoulders, feathers, and different Coloured Pints which they find in their country" Clark wrote; cf. 10 Oct 1805.
  • Mouth of the Lewis River or Kimooenim River, eastern Washington: the people wore "trinkets of shells, small bones and curious feathers" Clark wrote on 17 Oct 1805. In the entry for his journal on this Sunday, Patrick Gass mentioned that the Indians about the camp wore robes, some made of loon-skins.
  • Station Camp, coast of the most eastern extent of Haleys Bay, at mouth of the Columbia River, Washington: "men were a roabe of either the skins of __ a small fured animal, & which is most common, or the Skins of the Sea orter, Loon, Swan, Beaver, Deer, Elk or blankets either red blu, or white" it said in Clark's entry for Thursday, 21 Nov 1805.
  • Fort Clatsop, coastal Oregon: Indians decorate their caps and bonnets with the tail feathers of the calumet eagle; discusses the colours as being black and white which which it is beautifully variegated, Clark wrote. Then it goes on to discuss eagle lore, including its importance to tribes on the northern Plains. The journal entry was for 11 Mar 1806, and also discussed how the feathers decorate sacred pipes, or calumets.
  • Camp Chopunnish, along Koos-koos-kee or Flathead River, about a mile from Commearp Creek, Idaho: golden eagle feathers used for head dresses. On 9 Jun 1806 in journal of John Ordway.

Pike Explores

Falls of Pakagama, Minnesota: feather pillow; "On returning to the lodge of the chief, they found a bed prepared for each of them, of good soft bear skins; in addition to which Mr. Pike was furnished with a large feather pillow." Winter of 1805-1806 on Zebulon Montgomery Pike.

Central Canada

During the winter of 1808-1809, Alexander Henry the younger was at Fort Vermilion on a fork of the Saskatchewan River. In his condensed journal for the period, he noted for the Cree men: "Their cap is commonly a piece of leather or Skin, with the hair on, shaped to suit the head and tied under the chin, the top is usually trimmed or decorated with feathers or some other ornaments." The same tribe used feathers to provide trim for a hoop used in a game. Mentioned among the narrative was the Painted Feather Band of the Blackfeet Indians. For the Slave Indians, Henry noted "Their ornaments are few. Feathers, Quill Work and Human Hair, with Red White and Blue Earth constitute the whole apparatus."


When company man Wilson P. Hunt was going westward in 1811-12 to Astoria near the mouth of the Columbia River, his notes refer to birds in a few, short instances. He did mention three examples of feathers or skins providing an important element to a local Indians' garb.

  • Arickara villages beyond the Great Bend of the Missouri River, South Dakota: "...they wear gay coronets of plumes, particularly those of the swan, but the feathers of the black eagle are considered the most worthy." On 9 Jul 1810.
  • Camp near a water course along the Snake River; southern Idaho: noted for the Chochonis people at three huts, "each has a garment of the skin of bison, rabbit, badger, fox, or wolf, or perhaps of ducks' skins sewn together" as noted 14 Nov 1811.
  • Akaitchis Lodges near the mouth of the Walla Walla River at the Columbia River, southern Washington on 21 Jan 1812: the inhabitants, "... their clothing consists of only a scanty mantle of the skin of bison, deer, rabbit or fox or else of duck. They sometimes add to this a pair of sleeves of wolfskin."


As Edouard de Montule was on shore from the steamboat Vesuvius heading up the Mississippi River, the journal entry noted an important accessory, than was more than adornment. When at Point-Pleasant, in the Missouri-Territory west of Tennessee, an Indians wife was in a shed built in a courtyard. Other items mentioned that were with her included "a bone needle, ... sacks made of hide, fans of turkey feathers for driving off mosquitoes, and other goods," the Frenchman write in his 15th letter. The actual date was 2 Jun 1817.


With the Stephen Long expedition moving up the Missouri River, there was further contact with the locals. On 22 Aug 1819, near the mouth of the Konzas river, Edwin James wrote: "sometimes a tail feather of the war eagle is attached transversely with respect to the head; this feather is white at base, and black at tip;" but the principal ornament was the tail of the common deer.

During a time of meet and greet, a leading Indian was adorned with a bird skin. James wrote for 3 Oct 1819: "This singular decoration is a large cushion, made of the skin of a crow, stuffed with light material and variously ornamented; it has two decorated sticks projecting from it upward, and a pendant one beneath; this apparatus is secured upon the buttocks by a girdle passing round the body."

When some Siouxian indians visited to view the Western Engineer, the steam boat tied at its winter berth, on November 15th, the narrative says of the Teton, Yancton and Sa-hon-ne warriors: "... as visitors they are clothed in their best attire. They decorate their hair with a profusion of feathers of the war eagle, and of a species of owl, which we have not seen. They also suspend in the head dress an entire skin of the paroquet."

In spring along the Missouri River at the cantonment on 27 Apr 1820, Mr. James recalled in his journal a warrior, about twenty-three, "of the finest form, tall, muscular, exceedingly graceful, and of a most prepossessing countenance. His head dress of war eagles' feather, descended in a double series upon his back like wings, to his saddle croup; his shield was highly decorated, and his long lance was ornamented by a plaited casing of red and blue cloth."

These items were more a bird effigy item than a garment, but in the context given were an important piece of apparel.

Northern Indians

In mid-July 1820, when Henry Schoolcraft was moving along with the Cass expedition through central Minnesota, he noted in his journal, that the northern Indians "possess a great fondness for grosteque ornaments of feathers, skins, bones, and claws of animals."

Parry Expedition

North of Nottingham Island, near Queens Cape and Kings Cape, at the western Hudson Strait, when several canoes came to the ships Fury and Hecla. "Many of the jackets of these people, and particularly those of the females, were lined with the skins of birds, having the feathers inside; and they had, also, in the boat several other skins in a prepared state, taken from the throat of the colymbus glacialis, which splendid bird, though we had twice found its skin in possession of the Esquimaux, we had yet not met with ourselves." This was in the 1 Aug 1821 entry of the narrative for the expedition commanded by Captain William E. Parry.

Columbia River

When John Kirk Townsend, a zoologist visiting from the east was boating along the lower Columbia River, he watched and collected birds. The abodes at the time were trading forts of various sorts. In his catalogue of birds found in the Oregon Territory, he mentioned the use of bird skins in the mid-1830s. It was with the entry for the violet-green cormorant, or Phalacrocorax splendens (Townsend) or P. resplendens (Audubon) of the time: "The Indians of the N.W. coast make cloaks of the skins of this bird sewed together." Audubon illustrated the bird in his tome, Birds of America, plate 412, showing a female in winter.

The Osage

The importance of feather items continued to develop among the peoples. The use of bird material in 1840 is shown for the Charcoal Dance at camp of the Osage Indians, south from the Osage River, in the southeast Louisiana Territory. The visitor from France was 25-year-old Victor Tixier, a medical practioner. He mentioned birds often in his notes, first relating details of accessories during the May part of his visit: "Beads, backbones, snake-skins, stuffed birds, and feathers are also used as finery. The use of eagle feathers is limited to those who have stolen at least a horse from the enemy."

This is an August scene.

"The morning was spent hunting. Several unusual species were seen in the neighborhood: northern buzzards, yellow-headed starlings, Arkansas fly-cathers, a crowd of sparrows and warblers. ... I returned to camp; ... the war chief made the rounds of the lodges, exciting the young men.
"At one of the war fires a great heap of charcoal was pulverized and mixed with fat, and the chaudiere de guerre was put on the fire.
"The costumes of the dancers were very picturesque. Some wore deer tails placed on their heads like the crests of ancient helmets; others had their foreheads crowned with a band made of crows' beaks painted in green. They held now a spear, now a calumet, now a stick, sometimes a tomahawk, a fan, or the old fashioned war hatchet. Tufts of swan's down, eagle feathers, buffalo tails, small calabashes filled with pebbles, skins of white wolf and of panther were also parts of their attire with the wings of calumet bird (the bald eagle) which they used as a fan. The bravest warriors carried the corbeau the Head Chief alone held in his hand the well-known baton croche.
"The corbeau is an ornament made with the feathers of the crow; it is tied to an embroidered sash on the back of the wearer. The head and tail of the animal are the two ends of a waving muss of black feathers, attached to a cushion from which project four curved branches provided with porcupine quills and ending in a cluster of little bells. The side of the cushion which touches the body of the dancer is convex, so that when he jerks the branches violently, the feathers wave and the bells tinkle. The brave who has killed and scalped a man in the midst of his companions is the only one entitled to wear the crow during war dances. This ornament is carefully kept in a case of hardened bison skin; it is never worn on expeditions.
"The baton croche a stick bent to a semicircular shape and ornamented with swans down; little bells and eagle feathers hang to the convex part of its curve. It is the ensign of the red warriors, the flag which has to be brought back in perfect condition. The council of braves alone can designate the one who will carry the baton croche during the war expedition, and the one who obtains this distinction is for this reason acknowledged the bravest among the brave. He must be the first to rush to the enemy and show the road to victory to the Osage."
[Charcoal dance of the Osage Indians]

The Charcoal Dance (Medecine du Charbon). Drawn from life by Victor Tixier.

The dance lasted two days and then the war party set forth. There was anothe final mention of feathers: "A warrior of the Little Osage brought a fragment of a scalp stretched on a wooden ring ornamented with swansdown." This was the last notation as Tixier soon left the tribe.


The value of birds as an effigy continued elsewhere on the plains in the following decades. The war headdress made from calumet eagle feathers would become a predominant icon. There are also examples of the importance of birds in tribal lore and mythology. Other chronicles continued to depict in vivid writings, the broad array of significance of the winged ones to the lives of the people.

Bird items were used for a wide variety of Indian wear during the 350 years considered. Although most of the known records are from the U.S.A., the Bahama Islands, Canada, Greenland, Mexico and Panama are also represented. As the extent of travels with chronicles increased, so does the information recorded on habits expressed in garments.

A summary shows the most different examples are the hat, coat, parka, dress, and jacket items from Alaska (8). Other states are:

  • Washington ~ 4
  • Idaho ~ 4, typically as an effigy adornment
  • Louisiana ~ 4, including robes, a mantle, feather crowns and fans
  • New York ~ 4, a mantle, coat and garlands
  • Nebraska ~ 4, adornments used as effigy items
  • Minnesota ~ 3, as a hat, or as ornamentation
  • Maine ~ 2
  • Oregon ~ 2
  • South Carolina ~ 2
  • California ~ 2
  • Arkansas ~ 2
  • South Dakota ~ 2
  • New Mexico ~ 1
  • New Jersey ~ 1
  • Wisconsin ~ 1
  • North Carolina ~ 1
  • Kansas ~ 1
  • Lower Colorado River, along Arizona and California ~ 1
  • Missouri ~ 1

The rich variety presents a wonderful view of tribal awareness of the local habitants, and how they people adapted resources for their benefit in a functional or symbolic manner. The ceremonial diversity was as varied as the imaginations captivated by the shape, size or color - if not all three - aspects of a wild bird.

Ungava Inuit

[Diagram to sew a garment of bird skins]

Diagram of the pattern for sewing skins to create an eider parka. Illustration by Zarah Chun, in Coats of Eider.

Modern-era research shows how Ungava Inuit at the Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay, started using eider ducks in the late 1800s to "meet their basic needs," including "food, medicinal purposes, home, tools and clothing." The skins are also used to make footwear. Wings were trimmed and used as whisk brooms. Feet were used as small containers to carry water. Down collected in small amounts from nests was used to insulate clothing such as parkas, pants, mitts, hats, stockings, slippers and bunting bags.

"Wing feathers had many uses. Secondary wing feathers with pointed shafts were used for toothpicks. Wing feathers wee used to clean out gun barrels and as arrow fletching. They were also jammed into empty rifle cartridges and used by children as projectiles. The secondary wing feathers were peeled off with the skin and used as rags.
"Parts of the eider were also used to create a musical instrument. A secondary wing feather was plucked and the barbs were removed from the lower edge. It was then held loosely in one hand and vibrated next to one's teeth with the other hand. A melodious sound similar to that of a jew's harp was created." (Oakes 1991: 14-16.)

The birds are hunted in late October and November after they have finished molting. Their skin is ideal for clothing since it is thick and strong.

The steps for processing and preparing a skin, and how an item is sewn, are described. Also mentioned is how bags for storing sinew are made from loon skins. Feathers had particular uses.

Jill Oakes. 1991. Coats of Eider. Aboriginal Issues Press. 28 pages.

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