The steep, pink rock wall of Frijoles Canyon at Bandelier National Monument, strewn with small caves that were originally the cliff houses of the Anasazi, the ancestors of the Pueblo Indians, may have been provocative enough if it hadn’t been quiet and devoid of activity. However, a Canyon Wren sung when the New Mexico sunshine started to fill the top of the pink wall in early May. Though I didn’t realise it at the time, the small brown bird and its old surroundings were going to pique my interest in ways that only mythological legends could describe.
From somewhere near the top of the cliff, the Canyon Wren screamed out a loud whinny that sped down the scale. The melody suddenly boomed out behind me, piercing the air over the ruins of a ceremonial kiva. The melody jumped up the canyon, then down, reverberating and becoming difficult to locate. Finally, the wren emerged on a rock, turned around, fluttered its tail, flashed a rufous flank, and then a second bird—a Rock Wren—began to sing.
The second wren was equally as loud and pulsing as the first, sounded more urgent, was simpler to locate, but more difficult to follow. It initially lighted up a rock, then a Juniper tree. It shot down, disappeared through a crack in the canyon wall, and resurfaced above the ruins path in a zigzagging flight. It lighted next to a tiny hole in the wall, raising its head and chattering. It descended, snagged an insect, exploded into one hole, then burst out the other. All in a flash, zinging about like an atom.
A Broad-tailed Hummingbird was probing my crimson T-shirt with a ferocious burr. I couldn’t help but chuckle. The hummingbird seemed brave, the Canyon Wren sang everywhere at once, and the Rock Wren flitted about like it was insane.
Meanwhile, a funnel of Turkey Vultures circled the canyon rim, and the sun started to wash the tops of the pines and cottonwoods down Frijoles Creek. A swarm of little yellow birds flew over the greenery. Lesser Goldfinches, Yellow Warblers, MacGillivary’s, Wilson’s, Nashville, Townsend’s, Grace’s, Audubon’s, Western Kingbirds, Ash-throated Flycatchers, empids to learn about!
The cliff homes glistened in the desert heat by mid-morning, and the songbirds fell silent. A Common Raven’s leisurely croak crooned down from a ledge high above the caverns, inviting a question. The Anasazi must have seen the same birds six hundred years ago, but what did the winged animals represent to them?
Pueblo Birds and Myths by Hamilton Tyler, which was on display at a museum in neighbouring Santa Fe, supplied at least a hazy solution. The Pueblo legends, like many mythology, investigate cosmic implications of the human world, but I’d never read such a strong love of birds before. Tyler, the son of an ornithologist, told me about Pueblo stories about practically every bird I saw at Bandelier.
In one narrative, a town crier summons the voice of a Canyon Wren so that his news might spread across his hamlet at once. In another, a war chief prays for the ability to create an echo like the Canyon Wren so that he might seem to be in several locations at once. In another, two twins encounter a Canyon Wren at the cliff’s foot, and the wren teaches them an echo so that the twins might be at the peak and bottom of a mountain at the same time and see the “god of all directions.”
According to Tyler, the Rock Wren’s wild movements are represented in its Zuni name, Z’lisho, which means “crazy.” Witches use the bird’s feathers to cast charms on their victims’ clothes, and in general, people avoid touching the species for fear of catching its madness.
The Turkey Vulture, also known as Old Man Buzzard, is regarded as the bird of purification. When a community is plagued by bad spirits that produce a protracted drought, Buzzard’s practise of cleaning up the remnants of the deceased after a hunt implies that he also understands how to purify the village. A small hero makes a rain-inducing gift and heads out to present it to Buzzard. He goes through a rainbow on his route and takes on the colours around his neck. Hummingbird is the bright-throated hero. Buzzard informs him that the offering necessitates the use of tobacco, which produces clouds of smoke that summon clouds of rain. In the southwest, Hummingbird typically feeds on the tubular flowers of the wild tobacco plant, making it easy for him to locate the essential offering. So rain falls once again on his village.
Hummingbird’s bill gives the first sewing needle at the beginning of time. When the brilliance of the Sun Father dims in the winter, he is summoned. Sun Father is found to be feeble since a witch discharged a strange thing into his body. The hummingbird sticks his beak into the Sun and sucks the poison out. Sun Father warms up again and rewards the Hummingbird by enabling the bird to suck nectar from summer blooms indefinitely.
The plants blossomed and developed as the first humans of the planet planted the first seeds of corn, but the maize is too bitter to digest. Raven uses his formidable beak to peck the kernels, making them edible. Raven, on the other hand, is as black as a thunder cloud. He like maize so much that he will take it, thus he is regarded with suspicion. He has a penchant for filling empty areas with scary noises. When there is no one anticipating a war in a community, he comes in soaring circles, crying, “Ka, ka, enemies are coming to destroy your people!”
Songbirds like kingbirds and warblers are lauded. Hard Beings Woman, an earth goddess, seeks to prepare a present for Sun Father at the beginning of the universe. She scrapes the scales of her cuticles on the feathers and bones of winter birds, then drapes a towel over the mound. Sun Father starts a fire on the east side of the fabric, chirps and whistles begin, and new, brightly coloured birds appear. Each spring, their bright plumage attracts the sun’s warmth and scatters pollen on the ground. Summer birds chirp cheerfully to keep people happy as they labour in the hot sun. The melodious, golden birds, however, disappear in the winter. They are maintained at a safe distance, trapped in a crystal cage that can only be unlocked by Sun Father.
Pueblo Birds and Myths was my first introduction to Native American bird legends, and it was as exciting as witnessing my first wood warbler. I had to see more of this amazing stuff! As I went through various Indian mythology, I was happy to discover that birds play important parts in tales about the origin of the world.
The Cheyenne tale of creation was discovered in American Indian Mythology by Alice Marriott and Carol K. Rachlin. The Cheyenne previously resided in the Great Lakes area, so it’s not strange that the Creator is surrounded by an unending expanse of water at the beginning of time. The Creator creates dawn, followed by fish and ducks. A Snow Goose moans at not being able to swim eternally like a fish. “Then fly,” the Creator says, and the ducks do, winging their way in all directions, looking for a place to land.
A loon, a mallard, and a snow goose fly until they are barely specks in the sky, yet they still cannot locate land. Then a coot comes paddling by, drops its head in the water, and notices a murky material at the lake’s bottom. The coot dives down and reappears, its beak open and a ball of muck rolling off its tongue. To construct the planet, the Creator expands the mud and lays it on top of Grandmother Turtle. As a reward, the coot’s meat is tainted with mud, causing hunters to disregard “mudhens” until today.
The earliest people in the Hopi creation tale dwell underground in the low, grey light. Harold Courlander says in The Fourth Word of the Hopis that when they plant maize, it does not grow properly, and when they create pots to hold water, the pots shatter. Hummingbird arrives and gives a fire drill with his lightning-quick bill. People then built fires to heat their fields and bake their pots. When footsteps are heard at the top of the sky, a clay swallow is created and brought to life via singing. Swallow soars upward, circling higher and higher till he sees a gap in the sky. Stronger flyers, Dove and Hawk, soar through the opening and view a new world.
Catbird, a chattier bird, journeys to the above realm to speak with the spirit that owns it. Catbird obtains permission for people to visit the above world, and Chipmunk plants a bamboo seed that grows all the way to the new world’s entryway.
A garrulous Mockingbird hovers about the passengers as they climb the bamboo, yelling, “Be cautious! Be careful!” Mockingbird shares his skill of imitation and knowledge of migration with the humans as they enter the new world. Mockingbird teaches each individual a new language, resulting in the formation of several tribes. Mockingbird directs tribes in the right path once the sun rises in the new world.
The earliest people are likewise in the dark in Morris Opler’s Myths and Tales of the Jicarilla Apache Indians. Even when the sun emerges, it swiftly disappears owing to an eclipse. A Wild Turkey, on the other hand, strides forward to recollect the light. He struts east, south, west, and north, and then four sand mounds are built, each one a different colour representing a cardinal direction.
Previously, these hues were created using bird feathers. The white in the east comes from one eagle’s whitetail, while the glitter in the north comes from another’s spotted tail. The yellow in the west comes from a Western Tanager, while the blue in the south comes from a jay. The taller and bigger the mounds grow, the more Turkey struts and gobbles. The mounds combine to form a single, lofty mountain until the sun is seen again.
After the Jicarilla begin to live in their new, bright world, a man loses everything and is forced to flee his community. He fells a spruce tree, and woodpeckers peck an opening in the trunk and subsequently hollow out the interior. The gambler crawls into the trunk, and the Green-backed Swallow, most likely the violet-green swallow, muddies the entrance. The gambler and his pet Turkey drift down a river until they are halted by a whirlpool. The two start a new bank, and the gambler is starving. Turkey grows maize seeds he has carried within himself, and agriculture starts.
Specific features of birds are often used to save the day in Indian legends. The Water Ouzel dives into swift-running creeks in western North America to feed on insect life; consequently, when a Redhead vanishes into a lake in Kutenai territory, British Columbia, it is the ouzel that dives into the nearby streams, summoning the fish to the council.
A snipe is despatched around the edge of the lake, calling fish, in Ella Clark’s Indian Legends from the Northern Rockies. When fish report seeing a monster retreating into a river, the warlike pounding of woodpeckers becomes critical. Sapsucker waits for Beaver to create a dam and compel the monster to emerge from the water, ready to stab the creature with his bill. Sapsucker, on the other hand, is too animated. The creature chuckles at him, bursting through the dam as he calls out fearfully. The Red-Headed Woodpecker pursues, and his bill stroke is bold and sure. He pecks open the monster’s belly, and Redhead leaps out.
Magpie “goes everywhere and sees everything,” according to Frances Fraser’s The Bear Who Stole the Chinook. She is a “dreadful gossip,” so when the Blackfoot people face a harsh winter, it is she who spreads the news that a bear has taken the moderating breeze that blows from the west coat.
To investigate, a feathery and hairy team heads to Bear’s cave. Owl pokes his head into the cave, and Bear smacks him with a flaming stick, which causes Owl’s eyes to bulge to this day. Weasel spots a chinook in an inflated elkskin bag, and a lad blasts smoke from a pipe, putting Bear to sleep. Coyote pulls the sack out of the cave but is unable to cut the thongs with his teeth. Prairie Chicken asks quietly whether he may try. Who understands more about air sacs than he who can inflate them from his neck’s sides? Prairie Chicken picks at the thongs until they loosen, and the boy gives permission. The warm breeze returns, and the snow starts to melt.
The Bald Eagle soars quite high and has strange sky skills. He is the well-known Thunderbird when he is enormous. He possesses wings twice as large as war canoes and a gigantic, hooked beak, according to Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest. Lightning flashes down on the Quillayute, the Lapush Indians’ territory as he opens and closes his eyes. When hunters go too close to his cave, he rolls forth ice boulders, causing avalanches in the Olympic Mountains. Thunderbird, like other supernatural entities, can both give and take life. When massive hailstones fall and the Quillayute is forced to evacuate the food-rich beach, he captures a Killer Whale and places it on a prairie for starving people to eat.
Thunderbird’s favourite daughter in Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains is Blue Jay, who is privy to secrets across the northwest forests and plains. The Salish of Montana had a rite known as the Blue Jay ceremonial until the 1930s. Participants cleansed themselves in preparation for visions and wisdom.
In one scenario, Blue Jay comes upon a land shelf that rises and falls constantly, causing the ground to shake. She flies under the shelf, and the sides of her head are flattened, as seen in the Steller’s Jay, a popular begging bird in Rocky Mountain campsites.
Another myth has buffalo hunters who are stranded in a blinding blizzard and seek refuge behind a spruce tree. The hunters hug the earth and start singing death ballads. A stinging scolding emanates from the tree. “Stamp your feet!” exclaims Blue Jay. “Punch holes in your buffalo skins with sharp bones and stitch them together!”
The tipi rescues the hunters, and Blue Jay then joins the Salish on their fall buffalo hunts. Blue Jay lives at camp with the ladies who smoke meat and feasts on buffalo berries sweetened by frost. Suet is given to the bird because it amuses everyone with its distinctive vocalisations, barking like a dog and whinnying like a horse.
Blue Jay flies to another tribe’s buffalo camp, getting closer and closer to the ladies cooking pemmican. As Blue Jay takes leftovers, she overhears discussion of an impending assault on the Salish camp. Blue Jay arrives at night, uncertain of what to say to her folks. She discovers Owl, who hides the warning behind a medicine man’s dream.
Other birds carry a different message to the trickster Coyote, the roaming Indian hero. Coyote encounters Red-headed Woodpecker, a bird that seems to wear a fire on his head, in Dee Brown’s Folktales of the Native American. Coyote throws a bundle of flaming straw on his own head to impress the woodpecker, then goes roaring down the river to dowse himself.
Another day, Coyote observes a bluebird bathing in a gorgeous blue lake and emerging with stunning blue feathers. Coyote leaps into the water, delighted with the colour, and emerges blue as well. He goes about, always checking to see who is noticing his new hue. He stumbles, rolls in the dirt, and is now dust-colored.
A kingfisher dives into an open pool of water in a chilly river and flies up with a delicious-looking fish, which Coyote also observes. Coyote falls into the water and emerges cold and wet, his ambition severely harmed by his attempt to exercise the abilities of a flying creature.
A mockingbird sung nonstop near my tent on a moonlit night in Monument Valley, Utah, keeping me up far until midnight. I decided to challenge him to a game of wits. Every bird he imitated, I accurately identified. There was robin scree, Pyrrhuloxia’s rich note, Steller’s jay squawk, oriole piping, and screams from Gambel’s Quail and Red-tailed Hawk. But then my midnight friend delivered about eight difficult songs in quick succession, and I was completely perplexed and soundly defeated.
After all, I was only a human, not Mockingbird, the keeper of languages. But I remembered that he was also a giver, and I accepted him as a mentor as a writer. He appeared to be saying that as long as I had a bird in my heart, I may attempt to sing any song I choose.
The wren in Bandelier Canyon had previously shown me how an echo can revive a soul, so I’ve shared these tales with you.
Richie Swanson is a writer from Winona, Minnesota. He recently won the national PeaceWriting Award for an unpublished novel, The Trouble With Becoming an Aunt.