by | Apr 17, 2020 | Articles

Our Santa Fe springtime snowstorm arrived and departed, leaving us with sunny skies, unknown fruit blossom outcomes, and birds! In keeping with springtime thoughts, this week I thought I would concentrate on birds, so I searched our collections database and found 106 different items!

The meaning of birds varies among different Indigenous communities—there is not one set of knowledge and understanding of our aviary friends. Certainly, feathers are used in most cultures in ceremony, healing, and representing status and achievement.  In addition, it is not just “birds” but what birds do and what they look like, their seasonality, flight patterns, and feeding habits.

Birds on Southwest Pueblo pottery, like all pottery painted designs, present prayers for moisture, fertility, and community. Birds fly near the mountain tops where the clouds build and eventually move into the community. They are found along the bosques where there is green growth from rainfall. Feathers carry prayers to the clouds and to ancestors so they might visit the village and bring moisture.



Gladys Paquin (Laguna Pueblo), Jar, 1996. Clay and pigment, 8.5 x 10 in (21.6 x 25.4 cm). Gift of Hugh Zimmer, 2017. NA1517

Gladys helped revive pottery in her village in the 1980s and 1990s. On the body of this pot, mountains wrap around a spiral bird, its beak is painted solid black, its tail articulated with feather symbols.

While we don’t know the name of this Cochiti potter, she has left a wonderful portrait of plants and flowers along the river and irrigation ditches, where a songbird gently lands  She, like Gladys, uses undulating lines to paint water along the shoulder and neck.



Mildred Augonie (Anishinaabe), Box, 1980. Birchbark, porcupine quills, and sweetgrass, 10 in. diameter (25.4 cm). NA0220

The exquisite detail of this work defies that Augonie has used flattened round porcupine quills to provide this stunning portrait of hummingbirds. The whirring movements of the wings are caught in “stop-action,” —a tour de force of observation! Can you help us name the types of hummingbirds?



Bernard Parkey (Odawa), Box, 1992. Birchbark, porcupine quill, sweetgrass, and thread, 8 in. diameter (20.3 cm). NA0223

The blue jay peers over his shoulder at us, wary and ready to take flight. The use of diagonal spacing on white quills creates depth to the sky. The quillwork is built on a birch bark round container. The container is made first and then quills are poked through holes made with an awl.  A sheet of birch bark on the inside of the lid hides the quill ends—and protects us from their sharp ends too.



Unknown (Odawa), Box. Birchbark, porcupine quills, and sweetgrass, 2.5 x 5.5 in. diameter (6.3 x 14 cm). NA0258

A mother robin feeds her noisy and hungry flock! Using only quills and leaving much of the birchbark free, the female artist has provided an evocative scene. The lid edging is sweet grass.



Stan Hill, (Mohawk, 1921-2003), Loon Comb, 1991. Deer antler, 3 x 2.5 in. (7.6 x 6.3 cm). NA1121b

The comb is a tiny, but magnificent, rendition of a loon, with openwork carving of spur-like fronds and overhanging shore foliage echoing the lunette-like handle that encompasses the loon with perfect serenity. It takes a magnifying glass held closely to the comb to sense the delicate etched detailing of leaves, feathers, and even the loon’s bill, which shows how deeply observant Stan was of nature’s finery.

Ted greatly admired Stan Hill’s work calling him the greatest Mohawk artist “whom it was my great good luck to encounter.”



Peter Jemison (Seneca, b. 1945), As the Crow Flies, 1986. Handmade paper and acrylic paint, 15 x 10 x 8 in. (38.1 x 25.4 x 20.3 cm). NA1168

I always wonder how many people walk past this humble re-interpretation of a painted hide drawing. Jemison conceives of these bags as modern parfleches. The designs are a tribute to Caddoan swirls, borrowed from ancestral Moundbuilder cultures, c. 1400-1500. The piece is also a homage to the Apsaalooke (Crow) community. Jemison is one of the great Native intellects of his generation, facilitating great gains in a broader respect for an understanding of Indigenous peoples.



Unknown artist (Maori), Aotearoa Feather Box, c. 1830. Wood, shell, and pigment, 4.25 x 22 x 8 in. (10.8 x 55.9 x 20.3 cm). OC0027

In traditional Maori households, prized possessions were kept in intricately carved storage boxes like these, including feathers. Feather boxes are a great tradition amongst all Indigenous groups—very private and usually away from our non-Native prying eyes.

Bruce Bernstein, PhD
Director of Innovation, Chief Curator


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