Native American Ceremonial Birds
The Hopi and the Hummingbird
- The Hopi of what is today the southwestern United States believe the hummingbird is an intermediary between man and the Gods, intervening on behalf of the tribe for rain and the success of the harvest. A number of Hopi ceremonies and rituals include hummingbird imagery, including ceremonial dances with large wooden sculptures of hummingbird characters known as tootsa kachinas. The hummingbird is also included in several Hopi prayers and numerous songs and dances feature mentions of the hummingbird or sounds and movements that imitate the bird.
The Inuit and the Yellow-Billed Loon
- The Inuit, a people inhabiting the frigid arctic landscape of present-day Alaska and northern Canada, include a number of birds in their ritual customs, particularly those associated with dance and song. Shamans performing sacred rituals involving dances, songs and prayers, for instance, often wore caps made out of the feathers of yellow-billed loons. The yellow-billed loon, in fact, is so associated with singing that the Copper Inuit of Northern Canada place a loon's bill into the mouth of a child in order to develop the youth's singing talent.
The Quetzal in Mesoamerica
- The quetzal, a small, brightly colored bird with long tail feathers native to southern Mexico and Central America played a central role in many of the religious beliefs and ceremonial customs of Mesoamerican tribes, including the Aztecs and Mayans. Both the Mayan god Kukulkan and the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl were symbolized by serpents with quetzal feathers and, to this day, Mayan communities in Guatemala, combining ancestral beliefs with Catholic rituals, ceremonially wrap statues of St. Joseph in quetzal feathers on the saint's feast day.
The Cherokee and the Eagle
- The eagle was the great sacred bird for the Cherokee and many other Native American tribes. As such, the eagle was an important part of Cherokee ritual life, appearing especially in ceremonies related to war. In addition, eagle tail feathers -- which could only be obtained by a designated eagle hunter trained in how to ceremonially hunt the animal and perform the appropriate prayers and rituals before and after the hunt -- were used to represent power and authority in the tribe. Only distinguished warriors and medicine men could wear eagle feathers.