Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Featherwork of the Indians of Canada



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



The feathers of birds entered largely into the industries, decorations war and worship of the Indians. All common species lent their plumage on occasion, but there were some that were especially sought in the Arctic regions, water birds during their annual migrations; the eagle everywhere; wild turkeys in their habitat; ravens and flickers on the N. Pacific coast; woodpeckers, meadow larks, crested quail, mallard ducks, jays, blackbirds, and orioles in California; and in the Pueblo region, eagles, hawks, turkeys, and parrots especially. The prominent species in every area were used.


Fans and other accessories of dress were made of wings or feathers by the Iroquois and other tribes. The uses of feathers in decoration were numberless. The Western [Inuit] sewed little sprays of down into the seams of garments and bags made of intestinal membranes, and the California Indians decorated their exquisite basketry in the same manner. The quills of small birds, split and dyed, were used for beautiful embroidery and basketry in the same way as porcupine quills. For giving directness to the flight of arrows feathers were usually split so that the halves could be tied or glued to the shaftment in twos or threes. Among the [Inuit] and some of the southwestern Indians the feathers were laid on flat. Among California tribes bird scalps were used as money, being both a standard of value and a medium of exchange. The most striking uses of feathers were in connection with social customs and symbolism. The masks and the bodies of performers in ceremonies of the N. Pacific coast were copiously adorned with down. Feathers worn by the Plains tribes in the hair indicated rank by their kind and number, or by the manner of mounting or notching. The decoration of the stem of the calumet was of feathers, the colours of which depended on the purpose for which the calumet was offered. Whole feathers of eagles were made into war-bonnets, plumes and long trails for dances and solemnities. In the Pueblo region feathers played an important rôle in symbolism and worship - prayer-sticks, wands, altar decorations, and aspergills were made of them. The downy feather was to the mind of the Indian a kind of bridge between the spirit world and ours. Creation and other myths spring out of feathers.


Feather technic in its highest development belongs to South America, Central America, and Polynesia, but there is continuity in the processes from the N. part of America southward.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 163-164.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College