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Keeping the ancients warm: Ancestral Puebloans created turkey feather blankets

Archaeologist and anthropologist Mary Weahkee with the New Mexico State Cultural Affairs Office poses with the turkey feather blanket she made using 17,000 feathers. This could be the first such replica of an Ancestral Puebloan blanket created in the last 800 years. Weahkee made all the yucca fiber cordage and then inserted each single feather.

I love seeing turkeys in ponderosa woods, moving slowly uphill like priests absorbed in morning prayers.

At twilight, they are dark shapes seeking acorns and insects, always leaving their distinctive three-toed tracks. Ancestral Puebloans had a special relationship with turkeys, too, because it was turkey feather blankets, with loft like our modern insulated jackets, that kept the Ancient Ones warm on winter nights.

Research shows that not only did Ancestral Puebloans domesticate wild turkeys, but Native American women painstakingly crafted turkey feather blankets for the same reason we sleep under puffy quilts in winter and wear lightweight puffy jackets. New Mexican cultural anthropologist Mary Weahkee, who is Santa Clara Pueblo/Comanche, recently replicated one of the first turkey feather blankets crafted in the last 800 years. She spent hours making cord from narrow leaf yucca fibers and then skillfully wove soft, short, wet feathers into the tight cordage. Her 3-by-4-foot cloak or mini-blanket took 300 feet of cordage and 17,000 turkey feathers.

What a labor of love, and what a way to honor the ancestors! As we study the past, in the present our respect for Ancestral Puebloans who lived in our Four Corners canyon country only grows. Research reveals that turkeys had special purposes in Ancestral Puebloan villages and that every family would have made their own blankets. Blanket-making was not a specialized trade.

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There is so much to learn about turkeys and how they were imbedded in Puebloan life for centuries. Weahkee says that for her ancestors, turkeys were the “main herd animals,” and indeed, Ancestral Puebloans had only two domesticated animals – dogs and turkeys. In the upland areas of the Southwest, turkeys were bred over several thousand square miles and for 1,600 years.

An original prehistoric turkey feather blanket from the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum in Blanding, Utah, shows wear but is remarkably intact. Centuries ago, women in the Southwest made their own blankets. Apparently, it was not a specialized trade.

Turkeys were kept for ritual uses and turkey carcasses and bones have been found formally interred themselves and also lain to rest atop deceased Ancient Ones. Turkey burials have been found at Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Mesa Verde National Park, different sites across Bears Ears National Monument and at Champagne Spring in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. The earliest evidence of turkey keeping, of turkey husbandry, seems to come from Cedar Mesa within the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument. Ancestral Puebloans grew and harvested corn and fed part of their crops to turkeys, which may have been confined but also stayed close to villages and water sources.

During the Basketmaker II period, or 1200 B.C. to 50 A.D., as more turkeys became domesticated, the shift began from blankets made of furry strips of rabbit hide to turkey feather blankets, using the downy portion of the small feathers, not the larger wing feathers. Though I love the traditional turkey dinner at Thanksgiving – for centuries, Ancestral Puebloans did not eat turkeys. Instead, they sustainably harvested turkey feathers with a single bird able to yield 600 feathers annually.

In her very popular YouTube video sponsored by the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, Weahkee explains that turkeys are the only bird from which feathers can be taken without causing the bird to bleed. It molts twice a year, and a flock of turkeys can produce a sizable number of feathers. The birds live up to 10 years and can produce numerous soft, downy feathers each year.

A close-up photo of the woven cordage of an ancient turkey feather blanket shows the tiny remnants of the feather quills as a lighter color.

Weahkee marvels at her ancestors’ ingenious blankets: “Inventing a blanket that thermally insulates the body by creating pockets of non-moving air thus traps in heat and prevents heat loss. This is not a new technology because the ancestors used the technology during harsh winters, in the terrain they lived in.

“If you wrap the feathers around cordage making the down stand up, you create a structure that maintains air pockets that capture heat. Modern down and other synthetic insulated jackets do the same thing.”

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Other researchers are also focusing on the use of turkeys and their feathers.

“As Ancestral Pueblo farming populations flourished, many thousands of feather blankets would likely have been in circulation at any one time,” said Shannon Tushingham with Washington State University. “It is likely that every member of an Ancestral Pueblo community, from infants to adults, possessed one.”

Recently, she worked with the dean of Bears Ears archaeology, William Lipe with WSU, to study cordage left from a turkey feather blanket now housed at the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum on the eastern side of Bears Ears.

“When the blanket we analyzed for our study was made, we think in the early 1200s (A.D.), the birds that supplied the feathers were likely treated as individuals important to the household and would have been buried complete,” Lipe said. “This reverence for turkeys and their feathers is still evident today in Pueblo dances and rituals. They are right up there with eagle feathers as being symbolically and culturally important.”

Researchers study cordage from a turkey feather blanket at Edge of the Cedars Museum. From left are William Lipe, Chuck LaRue and museum director Chris Hanson.

Their research, published in the December 2020 issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, reveals the blanket they studied at the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum used 11,500 feathers from four to 10 turkeys, and they hypothesize that all the feathers came from live birds.

As a former museum director, I can attest to the fact that ancient feathered artifacts are some of the hardest cultural items to find and preserve because insects love to munch on feathers. All too often, what remains is just the cordage they were attached to, and it is that cordage, looking like a complicated fish net, which has been on display at the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum. Now because of the new research, which included contributions by Eric Blinman, Laurie Webster, Charles T. LaRue, Aimee Oliver-Bozeman and Jonathan Till, we know much more.

From the vast collections of the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum in Blanding, Utah, the remains of a turkey feather cloak or blanket look like a carefully woven fishnet. Over centuries, the feathers have been lost to insects and time, but the cordage remains.

The authors say: “Once a blanket was made, it likely would have lasted for a number of years. A household of five or six persons would probably not have had to produce a new adult-size blanket very frequently.”

As wild game populations diminished, by about 1050 A.D., turkeys became a food source for Ancestral Puebloans.

“Previous research by Lipe and his colleagues has shown that turkeys were domesticated in southeast Utah by about 100 A.D., yet it took almost a thousand years before people began eating them as a regular source of food,” said textile expert Laurie Webster. “From the beginning, these birds appear to have been revered for their feathers.”

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The ritual value of their feathers continues today for use attached to prayer, or paho, sticks, as fans for dancers and for other purposes. When the Spanish arrived in the Southwest, Francisco Vazquez de Coronado observed Puebloan feather cloaks. Maybe that astute observer of human nature Benjamin Franklin was right when he recommended that the wild turkey become our national bird.

Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and a professor of history at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu.